Good Soil exists to cultivate a deeper, more connected lives in Christ. The first Psalm envisions spiritual maturity as a green tree planted by a stream, with its roots drawing on the hidden resources of living water. Whether in drought or storm, the tree thrives, because it’s planted in good soil.
The question for our lives in Christ is this: What’s the soil that will nourish and sustain us day in and day out, season after season, and from one decade to another?
Just as plants, trees, and flowers require diversity in their soil, we will bear fruit when planted in soil rich in multiple nutrients. These nutrients are classically termed spiritual disciplines, and I would add interpersonal dynamics—belonging to a church, spiritual friendships, and service.
In all my readings on spiritual disciplines, though, there’s one underrated discipline that I would even venture to say—although I’m trying hard not to “over-promise” anything, see the last issue
—has been life-changing for me.
Since the summer before my senior year of college, I have been journaling every morning. (If you were hoping for a more extraordinary spiritual practice, I’m sorry to disappoint.)
Over the last fourteen years, I’ve read a chapter or two of Scripture and written out my thoughts, then written out my prayers, and in the process, I’ve filled probably close to 100 Moleskine journals. At this point, I can’t imagine not writing out Scriptures and prayers each morning, and I feel like my day hasn’t really begun until I’ve gotten my “journaling time” in.
Here’s why I think it’s so important—for those of you who only read things in list form, you can think of this as “four benefits of journaling.”
1. Journaling grounds us in the real, tangible, and physical.
I tend to think that anything we can do to bring physicality to our spiritual lives will create lasting value. We can make the mistake of thinking our spirituality is invisible, and of course, we worship an unseen God. But enacting the faith in a physical, embodied way has been the way of the Church for thousands of years. Praying on our knees, lifting our hands in worship, laying hands on another in prayer—these things bring a needed physicality to the faith.
2. Journaling focuses our thoughts and prayers.
If you’re like me, distraction is one of the constant challenges in study and prayer. If you asked me to pray for ten minutes, and I closed my eyes and prayed, I would probably get distracted about one thousand times. But if I’m writing out my prayers, I probably only get distracted about one hundred times per ten minutes. Progress.
A Word About Process
I am a creature of habit, and journaling is a much-needed rhythm for my sanity. Some days, it seems like the only thing I can control.
When: I like to write in the morning, but not within minutes of waking up. I need coffee, and three to five days each week, I’m on my bike by 5:10am. So I’m usually journaling/praying just before my workday or at another point in the mid-morning when I can take a break.
Where: Although my favorite place is our living room couch, I might also sit in my home office or sit in a coffeeshop and journal before or between meetings. I only listen to music if I’m in public. (Is it just me, or does Starbucks sound like a Gap these days? I don’t know whether to dance, buy jeans, or sit and read.)
What: Journaling is also an important way for me to connect what I’m reading with what I’m praying. I start with the Scriptures, write out several verses word-for-word, and then move from the Word into prayer—almost always I’m spending time in the Psalms while I’m journaling, so it’s easy to take a psalm and put it into my own words. Also, I’m all-in on Moleskine journals, writing only on one side of each page. Better journals exist for sure, but if I’m going through six to ten per year, economy matters. (Now back to the benefits!)
3. Journaling pours out what’s within.
Psalm 62:8 invites us, “Pour out your hearts to God.” What a powerful image: Like water, we pour out our anxious thoughts toward God, who gladly receives them and is not overwhelmed. There are three things I’m writing out when I’m journaling—my reflections on Scripture, my prayers, and my anxious thoughts. Without question, writing out my anxious thoughts is an essential and therapeutic aspect of pouring out my heart to God daily.
In The Artist’s Way, which I’ve already described in Good Soil as one of my favorite books on creativity, Julia Cameron requires her students/readers to do “morning pages.” Prior to writing poetry or working on the next article, she demands (really) that we start by writing out three full pages, by hand, as in a pen and sheets of paper. She admits it is “an apparently pointless process.” What do we write?
“Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included… Worrying about the job, the laundry, the funny knock in the car, the weird look in your lover’s eye—this stuff eddies through our subconscious and muddies our days. Get it on the page.”
If this process helps us settle our hearts before writing, then absolutely writing out our anxious thoughts longform—and offering them as prayers to the Father—will become a life-giving habit. I tend to write out all the junk in my mind and then, in the spirit of Psalm 31:5, write “Into your hands I commit all this.”
4. Journaling clears the way for contemplative prayer.
I’m sure spiritual gurus will say, “Journaling is just a method; it’s not even really a spiritual discipline.” Fine. They may also say, “The point of prayer is to not need anything but God.” In books on contemplative prayer, there’s often a sense that all other spiritual disciplines are junior varsity, and that may well be true. But I personally cannot enter into deep meditative prayer—simply being in the presence of God, without words or pages, to listen and respond—without first studying, praying, and pouring out.
Especially for those of us who have grown up in the TV age, and especially for those who grew up in the smartphone age, we will need to reprogram our minds to focus on God’s presence, and journaling will help us get there. When I’m in my fifties and sixties, perhaps I won’t need journaling to fully engage in God’s presence, but until then, my busy mind and active body need to slow down and focus through the physical-spiritual act of writing.
5. Journaling can keep a record of prayers.
This one is a bonus. It’s optional. I keep my journals but very rarely go back to them. You may want to throw yours in a bonfire when it’s done. Up to you. But I do think there’s value in being able to go back to, say, the month we made a major life-change many years ago, and find out how I was processing it and praying through it.
I hope this is helpful and encourages you to add (if you haven’t already) this ingredient into your good soil.