Breathing Space in the Spiritual Journey

By Jan Johnson

I felt the pressure building as I griped at my son for breaking his lunch box. A few days before, my husband, Greg, had been laid off for the third time, and every time something broke or wore out I felt my tightly bound panic cut loose. I needed to quiet myself before I heaped more shaming, unfeeling words on my family. I felt drawn toward my bedroom, so I finished preparing lunch and slipped on to my bed—not to sleep, but to pull out an untidy spiral notebook and spread my grief before God.

God, I’m angry that Greg was laid off—he was the second top salesman! I’m angry that I don’t make more money. I’m angry that we live simply and spend money wisely, but we can’t afford to buy frozen pizza. Now, without Greg’s paycheck, I feel a gun in my back forcing me to make money magically appear. I know I need to trust you more, but I don’t like the way circumstances are forcing me into it.

Within the rhythm of our relationship with God, there are times when prayer and meditation seem too ethereal, but the concrete act of gripping a pen works well. It’s as if whatever is churning in us flows through the arm, cascades through the fingers into the pen, and splashes onto the page. There it is for God and me to look at.

In that quiet space, we develop a conversation with God in which we offer our self-absorbed ideas and then allow them to become swallowed up in the goals God is cultivating in us. We confess the faults and mistakes that we find so difficult to admit elsewhere. We record flashes of insight and treasured moments of encountering God.

More Than a Chronicle of Events

The spiritual discipline of journaling moves beyond and behind mere descriptions of life’s events, providing a place to ponder the pattern our lives are weaving. If a journal answers just one question, it is: What is God doing in my life?

Some of the Psalms David wrote seem to have functioned as David’s journal. When the Philistines seized David, he described these events in a typical journaling pattern. He began by stating what happened: “Men hotly pursue me” (Psalm 56:1). He then recorded his feelings of fear: “When I am afraid” (v. 3). He expressed his desires to God: “On no account let them escape” (v. 7). Concluding with what may have been David’s way of being accountable to God, he revealed what he planned to do: “I will present my thank offerings to you” (v. 12).

David’s rigorous honesty reveals that journaling is a place to pour out our anguish, think the unthinkable, and presume to know what’s best. In the safe haven of being able to make such outlandish statements, we stumble across our true motives, feelings, and desires.

This biblical pattern of reflection gives us permission to ask God questions, to try out new choices, and to be less than perfect. A journal becomes the arm of God embracing us and allowing us to look safely at feelings that overwhelm us as well as situations that don’t make sense.

Hearing God’s Voice

Sometimes we don’t know what to think. Writing about our confusion may give us a new way of seeing. This experience is familiar to author Madeleine L’Engle:

Not long ago someone I love said something which wounded me grievously, and I was desolate that this person could possibly have made such a comment to me.

So, in great pain, I crawled to my journal and wrote it all out in a great burst of self-pity. And when I had set it down, when I had it before me, I saw that something I myself had said had called forth the words which had hurt me so. It had, in fact, been my own fault. But I would never have seen it if I had not written it out.1

These Spirit-directed moments of insight occur in journaling partly because we have relinquished our confusion to the page in front of us. That relaxed attitude sets the stage for us to hear God’s voice. After writing about what’s troubling us, we can move on to other topics only to find ourselves scribbling new insights and drawing arrows up to that sentence full of troubles. In those scribbled corrections, God speaks to us.

We may leave our journal filled with unanswered questions—What’s my next step? Can I do it? Will I do it? This prepares us to hear fragments of answers when they emerge in the encouragement of a friend or the confrontation of a coworker. In the meantime, we’ve learned to listen and rest even though life is full of ferment.

Recording Our Spiritual Journey

In the spiritual life there are moments too choice to be forgotten: prayers that are answered incredibly; insights that help us deal with certain kinds of people; goals and dreams that remind us of who we are and where we are going; moments when God’s grace seems to peek through the clouds; those occasional miracles that no one would believe.

Recording these moments of progress affirms who we are and how God is using us. We don’t want to talk ad nauseam about them to our friends, but we do need to celebrate these attitudes for which we’ve fought so hard. God, the only audience for our journal, is no doubt celebrating too.

Insights gained in meditation beg to be written down. We may imagine ourselves as part of the story and assume the identity of one of the characters. We ask ourselves, How do I feel about Christ? About what Christ said to me? About what he did?

An example comes from my journal entry after meditating on the story in Mark 10:

If I had stood in the rich, young ruler’s place, God, what would you have asked me to give up? What is it that is so important that it affects every decision? I’m afraid to think of what it could be. But I see that you have looked at me and loved me before you’ve demanded this of me. This makes it a little easier. Show me, God, what I’m so attached to.

A Relaxed Approach to Journaling

I didn’t journal for many years because it sounded like too much work, but when crises erupted that I could not manage, I dug out an old notebook and began journaling. I established only one rule—it was private. When we write knowing that no one will read our words, we don’t worry about grammar or penmanship. With no audience to impress, we can be completely honest. Many people find it helpful to journal in one special place, such as a favorite chair or a spot in the backyard.

Although some people journal every day, I journal as needed, be it weekly, biweekly, or monthly. I apply the same principle to it that Christ did to the Sabbath: people weren’t created for their journals; journaling was created for people (see Mark 2:27). Seek God about possible journaling habits. Another person’s approach may not provide the rest and reflection you need. Whatever the pattern, keep alert for moments when you can’t not journal. When you feel the urge to confess, grieve, rejoice, or surrender, act on it. Pouring this response before God helps you find your center in God.

Reflecting on Our Reflections

Rereading our journals can amplify God’s voice as we note trends about how God has been working in our lives. The earliest pages of my journal are filled with thoughts of being unloved and undervalued. I begged for reassurance. Gradually those statements decreased and I began to affirm that I am loved and valued by God even in my most disgusting moments. I am finally absorbing a truth that has eluded me for so many years.

My journal itself has become one of the many symbols, the many proofs, that I cannot chase God away. This prodigal child can question God, rail at her enemies, or languish in self-pity and still she’s welcome to return to the journal. After weeks of absence from my journal, I am not greeted with guilt. As soon as my pen touches the page, loving communication is flowing in both directions. Perhaps this is what is meant by entering God’s rest (Hebrews 4:11).

________

1Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980), 137.

Jan Johnson is a speaker, spiritual director, and the author of Enjoying the Presence of God and Spiritual Disciplines Bible Study Series: Reflection & Confession, which includes a Bible study about journaling. Her Web site is www.janjohnson.org.

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