Spiritual Journaling Using Scripture as your Guide
Podcast Audio: Last week I gave you a brief introduction to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your Guide. (If you haven’t read that yet, I suggest you start there.) I […]
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Podcast Audio: Last week I gave you a brief introduction to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your Guide. (If you haven’t read that yet, I suggest you start there.) I […]
Last week I gave you a brief introduction to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your Guide. (If you haven’t read that yet, I suggest you start there.) I said that the system I’m teaching isn’t the only way to meet with God, but it is one way that has worked for me and I want to pass on to you.
What I’m going to be teaching today is how to have a conversation with God every day. Not a one-way prayer, but a conversation. I’m not talking about a type of mysticism where we hear special revelations from God, but a system where we bring our sins and needs, cares and concerns, desires and fears, before God, and then listen to Him as He talks to us from scripture.
This isn’t a free-flowing, off the top of your head, whatever you feel like saying, prayer – it’s a conversation. It’s not us trying to shoe-horn God’s Word to say whatever we want it to say either. It’s us speaking our heart to God, and then opening ourselves to hearing what God wants to say to us.
Last week I introduced the concept by looking at some practical tools to get us started. The majority of our time was spent talking about why there are so many kinds of bibles and which one would be best to use, so this week I want to look at the rest of the story. First, why journaling is important, second, how to set up your Bible to get a balanced scriptural diet, and then third, I want to share the technique of using scripture to guide to what you are going to say to God and then listening to what He wants to say to you. Ready?
So let’s start with the question, “Why Journaling?”
Let me start with the assumption that you have agreed with the last 5 sermons. You agree that God’s voice is available and that you want to hear it. You agree that your heart is hard, twisted and deceptive and you need God to give you a new one and then explain how it works. You agree that God’s Word is more important than your daily bread and that without connecting to Him in a meaningful way, you will spiritually starve. You agree that the Bible is like our umbilical cord to Jesus, the way that God has given us to connect to Him. You agree that the Bible has supernatural power, and that God uses the reading of it to reveal our souls and make us more like Jesus.
You agree that you’ve struggled with forgetting that being a Christian means being in relationship with a real person named Jesus Christ, and that you’ve sometimes slipped into perfectionism (trying to “do your devos right”) or carelessness (where you shortcut your time with God). And you agree that you want to connect with God in a consistent, meaningful way, and are open to trying something different to see if that helps you grow closer to Him.
So, beginning there, the question is this: Why can’t I just say it in my head? Why do I need to write it down? What’s so important about writing my prayers?
Let me start with this. You don’t have to write your prayers, but I encourage you to try it. I said that this is my system and that you should try it, and then adapt it. If you find it helpful, then keep it. If not, then try something else. There’s nothing in scripture that says that writing out your prayers is more holy, or more effective, than speaking them aloud or in your mind. However, I believe there are some benefits to journaling your prayers. (I really appreciated Stephen Eyre’s section on journaling in his book “Drawing close to God: the essentials of a dynamic quiet time”)
First, Christians are people of The Book. We love the Bible. For centuries people have used Scripture as a key text in their spiritual, moral, family, governmental, and educational lives. For a lot of people in the world, as missionaries translate the bible into more and more languages, the Bible is the first book they ever read. As we’ve said before, we believe God gave us the Bible and that His written word has power.
Therefore, reading and writing have always been an important part of Christianity. God introduced us to Himself by asking prophets to write down what He was saying. Throughout the years Christians have written more and more books to help believers grow closer to God. And, although in our journaling we are not going to be writing scripture, and perhaps no one will ever read our journal, humanity’s relationship with God has been indelibly tied to the written word.
Second, writing things down helps us process what is going on inside. You’ve probably experienced trying to pray and having a log-jam of thoughts and emotions all come crowing to the front. Or, sitting down to pray and realizing you have absolutely nothing to say. You know you should. It’s not like your life is perfect and you know everything – but you don’t know what to say.
Having to form sentences and choose words – and then write them down – helps our brains to process the complex thoughts and emotions that are rolling around our hearts and minds. It might be hard to start writing sometimes, but as you start, you’ll find that more thoughts start to come. Maybe you start with a question or a request. It doesn’t matter how you start writing because what you are doing is beginning a conversation with God. He’ll take you where He wants you to go. You’re obedience to sitting down, concentrating and opening His Word gets the ball rolling and gets you set to both speak and listen.
My journal entries more often or not start with either the words “Good Day, Lord.” Or “Bad Day, Lord.” And it starts to flow from there.
Third, writing out prayers makes them feel more concrete to us. Our prayers are always heard by God, but sometimes our prayers feel like they float away into the ether – they don’t feel very solid. Sometimes after we’ve said amen, we don’t remember what we’ve just said, we’re not really sure what to expect an answer to, and we can’t remember what God had been saying. Certainly, if you were to ask a week later what our heartfelt conversation with God was about, we wouldn’t remember hardly any of it.
However, once you start to write out our prayers you are able to see a record of what you’ve been thinking, feeling and experiencing with God. You’ll be able to look at a transcript of your conversations with Him, see patterns in your prayers over a period of time, and be able to see how God is answering prayers in specific ways. You’ll see that when you ask questions, someone is answering those questions. You can look back, even after a year, and see how God has given you new perspectives, new understanding, and changed you into a different person. You may not have even realized it, but God had been doing some really good work in and through us, incrementally, in small steps – and when you are consistent in meeting Him every day, and writing down your conversations, you can see His work in a tangible way.
Let me give you an example from my own journal of what I mean. This is an actual entry in my Journal from April 22nd this year. This is how it started:
“I don’t feel very good, Lord. Not sure what’s wrong. Too much uncertainty of good and near certainty of bad, I suppose. That and changing my diet, the spiritual attack of Holy Week, my constant distractions, and all the rest… I’m not angry, just… I don’t know. So, God, I just need a rest in you. I’ll take what you give me, but I just need a rest in you for a bit.”
You can see that I didn’t really know what to write, or where to start, or what I was feeling – I just knew I needed God. Then I got into my Bible reading. I’ll explain my Bible Reading System in a moment, but let me first show you what God did so you can see some of the fruit. Remember, this isn’t me choosing my favourite verses or searching through my concordance for certain words. This is just me reading whatever came next in my plan.
First I came to the book of Philemon. It’s only a chapter long, so I read the whole thing. And verses 6 and 20 jumped off the page. Verse 6 says, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” And verse 20 ends with the words, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”
Here’s what I wrote:
“That’s what I need, Lord. And you remind me that being active in sharing my faith will give me an understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. God help me share my faith and please refresh my heart.”
I then turned to Luke 18:33-43 which tells the story of the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus. I wrote this: “Lord, in the same way as the beggar, I have no idea how you can do it, but I need your help. God, changing things isn’t much fun and I’m already facing resentment for it. God help my attitude. Help me be a better husband, father and Christian.”
Then I read Isaiah 40 which starts, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God…” and ends with:
“Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
I didn’t go looking for these passages. They were just next in line in my reading plan. I wrote in response:
“God, I’m weary, give me strength. I’m weak (so weak, Lord), give me power. I’ve stumbled and fallen and I don’t know where to walk, renew my strength. Help me to live in your promises.”
Then I opened to the next bookmark which was at Psalm 146 and says,
“Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord.”
And I wrote:
“God, you are hearing me, I know. Another reminder of your goodness to the weak. I fear, that when I close this book I will go back to sadness, but for now I’m so thankful for your words of hope.”
And then I read 1 Chronicles 17 which has the prayer of David where he says,
“Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men. What more can David say to you for honoring your servant? For you know your servant, Lord. For the sake of your servant and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made known all these great promises…. You, my God, have revealed to your servant that you will build a house for him. So your servant has found courage to pray to you. You, Lord, are God! You have promised these good things to your servant. Now you have been pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Lord, have blessed it, and it will be blessed forever.”
I simply wrote:
“God, you bless and protect your people out of your love and generosity. I trust your love and generosity today. God, help me live in it.”
I remember feeling then, and still feel, so very overwhelmed by how specifically God was speaking to me. Gently reminding me of his love, showing me how to find strength, and then closing by reminding me of this promise that my salvation and blessing is secure because He is God. He has promised me great things and though it is sometimes hard – just like David’s life was blessed, but hard – I am one of His children.
I don’t tell you this to show off or make myself seem super spiritual, but to show you that Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as Your Guide has deeply affected me, and it is my great prayer that passing it along to you will help you as well.
I needed to hear from God so badly that day. And God was there, just as He always is. And I can look back over and over to read that promise, and it is just as precious to me today as it was the day when I had that conversation with God.
This all comes from scripture, so what I want to do now is explain to you a way that you can set up your Bibles in a way that I call “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet.”
Let me start with a picture: A friend calls you up sounds pretty desperate to have a conversation with you. You suggest that they come over to your place, or go out to a coffee shop where it’s quiet, so you can talk. A short time later, you’re together and they say to you, “I really appreciate your friendship, and I value your advice. You know me better than anyone, and I have a few problems right now that I want to run past you.”
You take a sip of your coffee and look at your friend, concerned and full of love for them, and say, “Ok, sure… what’s on your mind?”
And as they begin, they reach into their back pocket and say, “Well… before we start, I’ve got a few recipe cards here that I’ve written some of my very favourite things you’ve ever said to me. They are so powerful, easy to remember, and really wonderful to hear. So, I’m going to tell you everything, but when you answer me, it would be great if you’d only answer by reading from these cards, ok?”
That doesn’t give you a lot to work with, does it? But that’s what we do with God when we choose only a small pile of verses to read or live our life only reading certain parts of the Bible.
I love memory verses and we all have our favourite passages of scripture. Some people even have a life-verse that they hang onto and is special to them. But, to hear from God in a balanced way, we need to be reading the whole book, not just our own favourite parts. In order to have a conversation with someone, we need to let them speak to us freely, not assuming what they are going to say and then giving them a multiple-choice answer sheet to pick from.
So what we need, to make sure we are reading the whole Bible, is reading plan. There are lots and lots out there. Some go through the Bible in a year, others in 90 days, others in 3 years. Some take you through the Bible from cover to cover, others jump around, others go through it chronologically.
I don’t think it matters which one you use as long as you remember that a bible reading plan is guide, not a rulebook. Stick to the plan as much as you can, but if you find yourself getting behind, don’t stress out, just keep going. Remember, you’re not in a race to get to the end, but having a conversation with God.
I’m sure you would find it frustrating to talk to someone who kept telling you to hurry up and talk faster so you can get to the end. And you wouldn’t want your friend to feel the need to talk to you for 17 straight hours because they forgot to call you last week. Just go at the same rate and you’ll either catch up, or you won’t. Getting to the end isn’t the point anyway.
So here’s my method for setting up your “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet”.
This plan is setup to be done 6 days out of the week and requires putting bookmarks in five different sections of the Bible. When you get to the end of a section you just put the bookmark back at the beginning and start over.
Bookmark 1 goes into the Stories of the Old Testament, also called the “Law and History” by some people. It starts at the beginning of the book of Genesis and goes to the end of the book of Esther. That’s 436 chapters, and if you read it 6 days out the year you’ll get through the whole thing in about a year and a couple months.
Bookmark 2 goes into the Poetry of the Old Testament, also called the “Wisdom and Worship” books. It starts at the beginning of Job and goes to the end of Song of Songs. That’s 243 chapters, and if you read it for 6 days a week, you’ll get through it in around 9 months.
Bookmark 3 goes in the Prophecy of the Old Testament, also called the “Major and Minor Prophets”. It starts at the beginning of Isaiah and ends in Malachi. That’s 250 chapters and if you read it 6 days per week, you’ll get through the whole thing in around 9 months.
Bookmark 4 goes at the beginning of the New Testament in a section about Jesus and His Church, also called “The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.” It starts at the beginning of Matthew and ends in Acts. It’s 117 chapters and if you read it for 6 days per week you’ll have read it almost three times in a year.
The last Bookmark, number 5, goes in the Letters of the New Testament, also called “Theology and Eschatology”. It starts in the book of Romans and goes to end of the book of Revelation. It’s 143 Chapters and if you read it for 6 days out of the week, you’ll have read it more than twice after a year.
Doing this has a couple advantages:
First, it will keep you from getting bored. Maybe it’s just me, but reading 4 chapters of Leviticus in a day – and knowing that that’s where I’ll be for the next month – and only looking forward to the book of Numbers – isn’t much fun.
That’s why I set it up this way. So when your slogging your way through Leviticus, you only have to read one chapter and you know that you’ll be getting to a story in Kings and the Gospel, and you’ll be able to read a Psalm. When the Prophecies get confusing and you’re not getting much out of the Psalms that week, something in the Letters will be a spark for you. Not every chapter of every reading will be mind-blowing. Sometimes it’s about just reading and seeing the big picture of the story of the Bible.
Second, you’ll be amazed how the themes and history of scripture come together. You’ll read things in the Old Testament that will make passages in the New Testament make so much more sense. The names of Jesus, or some of Paul’s illustrations for the church, will come alive as you see that theme in Genesis, and the Psalms and Prophets. Stories you read in the History books will make all those weird prophecies start to make sense. The stories you read about the life of David will bring so much more meaning to the Psalms he wrote.
So, now that you have your bookmarks in the right place, your Bible is open, your pencil is in hand, and your Composition Book is sitting in front of you, what do you do? Here’s the technique and it takes me about half an hour to finish – sometimes more sometimes less. And this is where the importance of the margins I talked about earlier comes in.
1. Write the date and the day of the week on the top corner of the page. Why? Because when you look back on it, you’ll be able to get a lot more out of it if you can see when you did it. You’ll see things like “Oh, that was close to my birthday and I didn’t even notice how much it was bothering me.” or “I seem to get tempted in the same way on the same day of the week.” or “I can’t believe how much the winter affects my attitude. I’m such a different person in the springtime.” or “God was really preparing me for the Easter season, or for that tough thing that was coming in my life. Even months before I can see him getting me ready.”
2. Write what’s going on in your heart at the top of the page. God is there and He’s listening. You are going to talk to Him, He will talk to you and you will listen. This is where you start the conversation. The rest of the journaling may not go where you expect it to because maybe God has something different for you, but many times you’ll find that God meets you exactly where you are at and gives you what you need. And it all starts here.
So just start writing, as we talked about before. You don’t have to be eloquent, but you do need to be honest. Write from the top of your head and just begin. What is your most pressing concern, need, fear, praise, hope, desire… start there. What question do you need an answer to? What series of questions are bugging you? It can be a short sentence or two, or a whole paragraph. Sometimes mine takes more than a page because there’s a lot on my mind, but as you saw in my example, sometimes it’s only a jumble of thoughts and feelings in a short couple sentences.
3. Read the first bookmark and talk to God about it. Sometimes I start from the Old Testament and go to the New, other times I start with the New Testament and go to the Old. It doesn’t really matter. You’ll be amazed how whatever you’ve just read connects to the paragraph you just wrote off the top of your head. Or, you’ll see something else and God will start to build a new idea in your mind.
You’ll begin to realize that he’s answering the question or concern you just raised in a way that you would have never seen before, and that is far more than coincidence.
Now remember as you read, that it’s not a race. There will be times that you’ll read a chapter from beginning to end and that’s good. Other times you’ll want to continue the story and you’ll read a couple. Sometimes it’s a list of names, so you skim them over for a few chapters. By the way, when you get to those lists of names, don’t go too fast or you’ll miss some good stuff. Look for descriptive phrases like “he was a mighty man” or “they cried out to God and trusted him” or “they broke faith with the God of their fathers.” They are little nuggets that speak volumes about these names, and that God can use to speak to our own hearts.
Sometimes (and this happens to me in the Gospels a lot) you read only a couple of verses and they hit you like a two-pound hammer, and that’s more than enough for the day. That’s ok. Just leave your bookmark there and come back tomorrow!
Once you’ve read your section for the day – whatever the length – write down what you see there.
Write it down as a prayer to God.
And as you’re writing, that’s a good time to highlight the specific passage that God spoke to you through. Maybe you don’t have one for each chapter, and that’s ok. But there will be sometimes that God really speaks through a specific verse or section. Highlight it, make a note next to it, circle it. Interact with the text and your journal as you are having a conversation with God.
You’ve probably had conversations with people who like to draw things out, right? They grab a napkin or a piece of paper or they set-up the salt-shakers and spoons to explain what they’re talking about. That’s what I’m talking about. God is there talking to you. Highlight the text, circle the word that jumps out. Draw a line under the sentence and then draw a big line across the page to the verse it connects to, and a star next to it. It doesn’t have to have any more rhyme or reason than that it is your interaction with your Bible as you are interacting with God.
4. Work your way through the bookmarks. Then move to the next bookmark and do the same thing. Watch for themes as God starts weaving His message out for you. Listen for God’s voice to speak to you. Don’t try to shoehorn meanings in there, just take what is naturally in the text, and write down what you are hearing God say. Have a conversation with God. You speak, He speaks, You reflect and speak, He speaks some more…
5. Look back through your conversation. When you get to the end, take a moment to read what you just wrote and look over the highlights in your Bible. See the conversation as a whole and realize that God was speaking to you. I’ve even taken to circling some of the things that connect together and have drawn a line from point to point as God spoke.
6. Optional: Write a Title for the day. At the very top of the page, if your time with God was especially meaningful that day, and it’s something you just know you’re going to want to look back on later – either to remind yourself or share with someone else (because sometimes God gives you a message for someone else and it’s way easier to give the message if you’re reading it!) – then write a title on the top of the page. It doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve written things like “this is how to pray” or “the dangers of sin” or “God wants humility” either as a title, or right in my bible.
7. Pray through your prayer list. The last thing you do, before you’re done, is to pray for others. In the little margin, on the left side of the page is a perfect little section to keep the names of people you’re praying for. Start with your immediate family and work outwards to your friends, church, neighbourhood, country and the world. Write down each name. Then, when you come back the next day, you’ll have a list to start with and to add to.
So there’s the system. If you have any questions or comments, please leave it in the comments section below or contact me personally.
A journal is such a valuable tool to help me think through Scripture. Routine is helpful, too, but I have to switch routines from time to time. Variety is a valuable tool as well. This is a different approach than others I have tried or heard about. Next time I’m ready to switch things up, maybe I will give this a try! Thanks for sharing your process.
I totally agree. If you do, please let me know how it goes!