In my office at home, I have a giant storage bin full of colourful journals. The journals themselves tell a superficial story, painting a picture of the ages and stages of my life over the years. Hardcover floral prints and patterns popular in the 90s characterize my youth, energy and sense of whimsy. Foolscap in discarded folders was all my meagre budget could afford for a time. Gifts from friends and family over the years are varied in colour and pattern, and in more recent years, a slightly larger format, lined Moleskin fits the bill.
Looking at the stack gives you a glimpse into the girl who’s scrawled a life’s worth of stories, reflections and prayers into those pages in messy, slanted script.
Twenty-three years and counting.
I thought they were important, those journals. I’ve kept them tucked away thinking that maybe, at some point, they’ll provide the impetus or starting point for a memoir. That my story might end up being something that God uses to help and encourage others going through something similar. That He had given me a story and someday I would write it.
And though I’ve revisited that stack of journals on occasion over the years, my story remains mostly tucked within those pages.
Twenty-three years ago, my story was that of a young woman who had been rejected by her husband, a mother to two young daughters suddenly facing a divorce. It was not a story I would have chosen for myself. It was not a story I wanted. But isn’t that the way with God? We don’t get to choose the story he writes for us.
What we do know is this: we do get to choose what we do with the story we’re given. We get to choose how we walk the road we find ourselves on. In short, whatever story he gives us is always an invitation to dive deeper into relationship with him as he walks us through it.
When faced with the rejection and betrayal of the man who had promised to love me ‘til death do us part’ just six years earlier, God picked me up and put a pen in my hand and saved my life word by word, page after page, prayer upon prayer.
Journaling became the avenue by which I learned to process life, talk to God and listen to Him.
Taking in the information and events swirling around me and reflecting on them, turning them over and around in my head and then laying them down on the page. Journaling became a kind of offering: the pouring out of a million thoughts and emotions at the feet of the Father who promised to be my husband in the absence of my husband. (Isaiah 54:5)
I have to be honest though, when I read those early journals now, I physically cringe. Rather than inspiring me to recount those times autobiographically, everything in me wants to burn the pages. And I’d like to slap the silly girl who spent the majority of the early months and years lamenting—in a tone that is nothing short of simpering—for the loss of her marriage. Bemoaning her sad, rejected, broken heart and feeling infinitely sorry for herself. Pleading desperately for God to answer her prayers in the way she had determined would be best.
Which, of course, He didn’t.
The divorce papers eventually came anyways.
In her memoir, ‘Hourglass: time, memory, marriage’, author Dani Shapiro pens a similar—comforting—sentiment about her journals.
“The journals—I understood at once—were dangerous. If I read further, I might never write the memoir. I had no sympathy for the girl I once was. She was boy-crazy, insipid, ridiculous. I was certain she didn’t deserve a book. I didn’t want to capture her voice. I packed the whole lot of them back in the box, taped it shut, hauled it down to my car. I pushed her as far away from me as possible.” (p.100)
I didn’t haul my storage bin to my car, but I certainly put the lid on tight and ignored it for many years. Lifting the top just enough at one corner to shove the next completed journal in, but never enough to allow any memories out.
What has occurred to me in recent years, as I’ve made stutter steps on my memoir—starting and stopping and stumbling over the words—is that perhaps God didn’t bring me to journaling in order to provide me with content.
Maybe he brought me to journaling in order to provide me with Him: to simply remind me of His presence and His provision at a time when that was what I needed most in life.
Maybe instead of me writing the story of my rejection, separation and subsequent divorce—as I initially thought it would be—perhaps God was writing the story of my salvation through the gift of simply writing down the words.
More than being a daily diary entry, I realize now that my journals are a love letter from God to me. If I can manage to wade beyond all the day-to-day drivel of that frantic and desperate 27-year-old girl, I can actually see the way God wooed me deeper into relationship with Him at a time when I had lost the only relationship I thought mattered.
It occurs to me now, all these years later, that maybe the point all along was never about the words. Maybe it was always about the process.
The Spiritual Discipline of Journalling
In the twenty-three years since I began journaling, it has become a spiritual discipline for me—a bodily habit that engages my heart and mind with God. For me, it is my first-thing-in-the morning meeting with God to set the tone for my day and check my spiritual pulse. It’s interactive: I bring to him the things on my heart and in my mind. And I spend time in the Word, listening to what he has to say to me in return.
These days, my journals are less a play-by-play of my life’s events—although there is still a bit of that; kind of a highlights reel, mostly to help me remember people and situations, both of which tend to move through our lives in different seasons. Primarily though, my journals contain heartfelt prayers: both the cry of my heart and intercession for others. Their pages are peppered with scripture and occasionally the writings of other people that strike me as profound or relevant and speak to me.
My journals are still the means by which I process the things swirling around me. Turning them over and around in my head and laying them down on the page, an offering to the loving God who promises to never leave or forsake us, no matter what we’re facing. (Deuteronomy 31:6)
Because, let’s face it, life happens.
My separation and subsequent divorce was certainly a major event and story theme in my life, but it is by no means the beginning and end of what God has done in and for me since then. God continues to weave the tapestry of my life with surprising threads, colours and fabrics. Story after story, chapter by chapter; He knows it all.
“You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” ~Psalm 139:16
And throughout every up and down and twist and turn of the road He has me on, the spiritual discipline of journaling has helped to keep me grounded when life threatens to open up and swallow me whole.
Cries from the heart.
For me, there is no better example of this discipline than the Psalms. Though many of the psalms were written as hymns, they effectively capture the innermost thoughts and prayers of King David and their other writers. Many of which still resonate with seekers today.
I can just imagine David with his quill and parchment, trying to make sense of the events of his life. Pouring out his heart to God on the page: wrestling with deepest sorrow, restless anxiety, fear for his very life. Posing the hard questions about suffering and injustice, crying out to God or shouting joy before Him. The psalms offer no magical formulas to make troubles go away, but they always circle back around to the faithfulness and character of God.
When David was penning the psalms, I’m sure he wasn’t considering the spiritual disciplines of putting his heart to the page. But it is clearly evident that God met him on that page and time and time again. And he’ll meet you there too.
Here are three suggestions to help get you started on your own journaling journey.
You don’t need to be a writer to keep a journal. Journaling requires no expensive classes or lessons. All you need is a notebook and a pen and the willingness to dedicate some daily, consistent time to it. Whatever time of day suits you best. However much time you have to give.
1. Start with God’s words.
Scripture is a great place to start. I especially love the psalms because they beautifully echo the sentiments of the human condition. You can choose randomly or start with Psalm 1 and work your way through the book. Ask God to speak to you through His Word as you write out the chapter (or specific verses of a long chapter). Re-read what you’ve written and spend some time penning a reflection.
One of my favourites passages is found in Psalm 5.
“Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning O LORD, you hear my voice. In the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”
2. Start with someone else’s words.
There is no shortage of ministries with websites and apps that offer daily encouragement and reflections on scripture, usually—though not exclusively—for free. Pick one or two and subscribe to receive them directly to your inbox. If you can visit your inbox without getting sucked into the rest of your email, it can be a great way to turn your mind toward God for a time first thing in the morning.
If a message resonates with me, I’ll often jot down the scriptures provided and a few notes and quotes along with a paragraph or two explaining why. Believe it or not, someday down the road, you won’t remember what you were thinking or feeling or struggling with at that time in your life and you’ll need some context.
Suggestions for women: www.proverbs31.org; www.incourage.me
Suggestions for everyone: www.faithgateway.com; www.jesuscalling.com Apps: First5; Pocket Fuel Daily Devotionals (small membership fee applies)
3. Start with your own words.
Staring at a blank page, pen in hand, can be daunting. We put so much pressure on ourselves to come up with the right words and weave them into beautiful sentences. Consider this your invitation to take the pressure off. Your words don’t have to be articulate and poetic. Your handwriting doesn’t need to be perfectly slanted and evenly spaced. Scripture tells us that when we don’t know what to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groans mere words cannot express (Romans 8:26-27).
Your journal is just that. Yours. Just start writing. Don’t worry if it doesn’t read like a bestseller. That isn’t the point. The point is that you’re creating an opportunity to go deeper with God. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” Maybe He’s closer than you think?