The Purpose-Driven Journal: No, But Really

Deep within the human spirit is this niggling thought that maybe someday you might die, and when you do someone will care enough to wonder how you lived. Keeping a journal or a diary is a natural result. But if you don’t journal it doesn’t mean you’re any less human; it just means you’re missing a really good opportunity to become more human, and in the process, maybe deepen the very things that make you you, and–well–valuable.Tweet: But if you don’t journal it doesn’t mean you’re any less human; it just means you’re missing a really good opportunity to become more human.{Tweet This}

Define the Concept

Journaling is a distinct discipline and should be kept separate from note-taking, a commonplace book, and a travel log. It’s not primarily academic, nor is it just wrote exercise to record the facts. It’s also not purely a narcissistic endeavor–unless you’re a narcissistic person. Joan Didion defines true journaling as writing for your future self.[1]

Journaling is for you.

Write down whatever the blazes you want to, just make sure you have good reason to do so. Very few times in the Christian life do we get the advice to let go and follow your heart, but this is one. I think journaling is misunderstood because people misunderstand themselves. They mistake their lack of desire with a self-sufficiency.

Journaling has always existed in human history, whether in written or oral form, and if you say you don’t journal you’re lying to yourself. You do. You write your journal every time you come home from work and exchange stories with your spouse about your day. Journaling is talking, just like that, but with the intent of working out problems, recording important thoughts, and getting clear of what is blocking you up. When all you do is talk about you problems, you curb the impulse on discussion when you could be huddled up in corner with a pen and paper, thinking them through, solving them, getting free of them–truly.

The purpose of this post is to just look at four different purposes for journaling.

1. The Spiritual Growth Tool

Getting rid of problems–and by that I mean doing the right thing even when it hurts–is our spiritual discipline and duty. Being a peacemaker means identifying your anger and conquering it, standing over it like a big, bagged bear. Forgiving an ungrateful, backbiting, lily-livered neighbor means owning the fact that you’d prefer to hold a grudge (that yes, you’re that kind of a person) than to forgive them and let it all go.

The first step to every spiritual victory is identifying the cause of evil and coming to terms with it and what it says about you. Our sins paint bleak pictures of us. That’s why we hide them behind façades. But façades can’t be sanctified, only selves can. If you hide your self away behind your pretty façade you will never grow. Your self will stagnate in its grumpy oppression of anger and grudges.

When you sit down with a pen and paper you are forcing yourself to be honest, otherwise you quickly get bored and give up. Honesty is the only thing strong enough to keep you writing. This is where journaling serves us as Christians incredibly well. Think about James 1:19–27, especially James 1:21.

Before you can receive the word you have to put aside wickedness and filthiness. But what if he is stuffed in the closet, safely tucked away by the evil façade-self? Journaling, in brutal honesty, draws him out.

James goes on to demand that readers of God’s Word actually do something with it (James 1:22). He says the Word is a mirror. Perfect honesty. It kills our selves, and so we walk away from it, convincing ourselves of our own goodness, of our innate perfection, of how, but so even if I am mad I have good reason, etc etc etc. But the man who “remains in its occupation,” is the man who is blessed in his doing (blessed to actually be able to do what the Word tells him to do; blessed in obedience; blessed with the crown of life [James 1:27]).

Journaling helps you be a better disciple of Jesus.[2]

2. The Mental Refresh

We talk to wind down, to share life, to scratch the itch deep within us that we aren’t alone, that we are loved, and that we matter. If you are a knowledge worker, or if you use your brain much at all, you will immediately identify when I say that journaling is God’s gift to our puny brains. When paired with meditation, this type of journaling can be really rejuvenating.

This type of journaling is no different from the Spiritual Growth habit, but it just deals with intellectual problems you have to solve. Simple enough.

3. The Intellectual Project Manager

Every one of us is working on a project or two, every day, sometimes more. Ever wonder if you’ve made progress? Do you ever wish you could rewind a few months and see the old you in the old project and get some encouragement and vision for how to go on? Project journaling is specific to things you are trying to get done, whether at school or work. I keep a project journal for each big project and journal each week answering these three questions:

  1. What did you accomplish this week?
  2. What big challenges are you facing?
  3. What are your plans for the next week?[3]

Journaling can push you to learn at levels you never imagined. It makes you have something to say. It makes you decide whether or not your day was productive. It makes you analyze and discern good from bad–and your grumpy self hates that.

Josh Waitzkin, world chess champion, says that people are usually dominated by external noise and thus their reactions. We are distracted to death and live reactionary life-styles. He tries to get people to where they are taking in good solid thoughts and then journaling about it. He recommends people learn, think, then journal. Before you go to sleep, take in a really rich bit of truth and do what Hemingway did: put it out of mind and sleep on it, then wake up and journal and write. You’ll explode with insight. Then do micro bursts of this throughout the day, taking in material before workouts, thinking during, writing after.[4]

4. The Memoirs of Someone Really Important

One day, someone will actually care about what you did today because they will care about what you did with your life. Since our lives consist of what we do with our time, every day, journaling helps you find a legacy and stick to it. Of course you will benefit in the moment because you are forced to develop a life-goal and make decision as to how today got you any closer, but also your loved ones will benefit in the future from your hard-earned wisdom. They may even aspire to the same level of honesty and integrity as shown on that messily-scribbled page in that falling-apart book you call a journal.

  1. From Joan Didion’s essay On Keeping a Notebook (PDF)(1966), in her book of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. For a summary of this essay, see Maria Popova’s article.  ↩

  2. For more see Journaling as a Pathway to Joy, and the sequel, Five Ways to Flourish in Journaling, from David Mathis at Desiring God; and 5 Reasons You Should Journal from Barnabas Piper.  ↩

  3. Source.  ↩

  4. Josh Waitzkin is the author of The Art of Learning and was interviewed by Tim Ferriss here.  ↩