It hit me when I least expected it. While undergoing an extensive church building project, I discovered an eight-page handwritten letter from my wife, Judi. She pleaded, “I feel like you’re married to the church. The children and I get the leftovers. Something has to change.” I knew it had—because early in ministry, I sensed that my zeal for church was ignoring boundaries—even God was getting the leftovers.
Have you ever felt drained by the stresses of ministry? While you realize the need for meaningful quiet time with God, you never seem to be able to fit it in. According to a recent study by the Barna Group, half of all pastors wrestle with finding time for their own spiritual development.1 I would like to recommend a method of Bible study called biblical journaling that can keep your spiritual device (soul) fully charged and enable you to communicate with God on a deeper level.
How to get started
Biblical journaling is a spiritual diary. With it, you record your daily encounters with God in His Word. Here’s how it works: First, download a Bible app with a notetaking feature such as Logos,2 or create a new document file in your preferred word processor and label it “My Bible Journal.” You can also buy a physical journal in which to write your conversations with God.3 Pick a book of the Bible that will be especially meaningful during this particular season of your life. Then begin reading, verse by verse. Each day, record the verse(s) under consideration at the top left margin of the page and the current date at the top right margin (see figure 1).
Once you get started, you should employ the following three steps for daily biblical journaling.
Apply your head in discovery
Ask God for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit to understand His Word.4 Carefully look at the historical, grammatical, and literary context of the passage. What issues does it address? What is the main thought, principle, insight, or homiletical point that God sought to get across to the original audience? (See the top half of figure 2.) This process helps you determine the author’s original intent (exegesis) instead of imposing your own interpretation onto the text (eisegesis). You can look up key or difficult words in a Bible dictionary or lexicon and use a Bible commentary for helpful insights.5
For instance, John 3:16 is probably the most well-known passage of all time. Yet, it took on new meaning for me seven years into my ministry when I received the letter from Judi. That next morning I just “happened” to be journaling on John 3:16 in my verse-by-verse study through the Gospel of John: “ ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ ” (ESV). As I pondered the passage, the key insight that hit me was “True love is active.” God did not just lean over the armrest of His celestial throne and yell to humanity, “Hey, I love you down there.” Rather, He so loved the world that He did something about it: He gave his only Son to die on Calvary’s cross. As God spoke to me through this passage, I recorded my insights in my journal.
Apply your heart in application
Once you understand what the text is saying, ask, “Lord, what are You trying to say to me through this passage?” Take the key principle that you pulled from the verse and apply it to your own life. (See the bottom half of figure 2.) Romans 15:4 reveals, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (NKJV). God did not inspire the writing of the Bible just for men and women in antiquity. He has something specific He wants to say to us today (see 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17).
Ellen White adds this poignant insight: “We should carefully study the Bible, asking God for the aid of the Holy Spirit, that we may understand His word. We should take one verse, and concentrate the mind on the task of ascertaining the thought which God has put in that verse for us. We should dwell upon the thought until it becomes our own, and we know ‘what saith the Lord.’ ”6
That quotation revolutionized my own reading of God’s Word. I used to see how “far” I could read during my devotional reading, but I was being urged to slow down and see how “deep” I could read. I was being nudged to take one verse and meditate on it until I could discern what God has put in that verse for me.
For me, that means mining. Two basic types of mining exist: (1) strip-mining, in which the machinery eats a broad swath across the surface of the earth, and (2) deep-shaft mining, in which miners drill straight down into the heart of the earth. Reading through the Bible in one year to grasp its breadth may have its place, but this recommendation involves deep-shaft mining to discern Scripture’s depth and its relevance to your own life.
So ask, What does this passage reveal about who God is and what He’s like? How does it relate to my hurts, needs, struggles, and challenges? As you reflect, God will whisper through His Word. Record your insights in your journal. As God reveals Himself to you, do not be afraid to pour out your joys, fears, needs, and concerns to Him.7
To help you get started, you may want to divide your journal page into two parts. At the top, write, “God speaks to me.” Halfway down, put, “I speak to God.” (See figure 1.) Remember that as you open your journal and begin to write, you are in direct conversation with God. “The Bible is God’s voice speaking to us, just as surely as if we could hear it with our ears.”8
One cautionary note: keep the focus on God’s Word. As you “individually hear Him speaking to the heart”9 through His “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11, 12), remember that God’s voice will never contradict His Word. Let Scripture be your safeguard against counterfeit forms of spiritual enlightenment and experience.10
Apply your hand in response action
Now that you have heard God’s voice, carry out His commands. Only as we act on God’s Word will it take on real meaning in our lives (see John 2:5; James 1:22, 23; Rev. 1:3). In the case of John 3:16, I shared my discovery with Judi and asked for her forgiveness and input on a new action plan. I scheduled daily “daddy and couple time,” as well as a monthly date night. I saw that God desires His written Word to become the living Word that will transform lives (see John 17:17; Eph. 5:26).
Benefits of biblical journaling
When I began my first pastoral assignment in the Gulf States Conference in January 1986, I felt overwhelmed. It drove me to God’s Word for encouragement and strength. I bought a spiral notebook and began logging insights into my journal. That launched a 34-year adventure in biblical journaling with 25,000 logged pages.
Here are some of the benefits of biblical journaling that I have discovered through the years:
- Journaling facilitates heart-to-heart communion with God. Thousands of times, He has whispered to me through His Word, and I have poured out my heart to Him in exchange. I have learned to trust Him more deeply through such transparent interchange.
- Journaling fuels spiritual growth. God uses His Word to encourage and exhort (2 Tim. 3:16) as well as to heal (Ps. 107:20) and break (Jer. 23:29; Heb. 4:12, 13). The process of biblical journaling stretches me to become more like Him.
- Journaling focuses the attention so that the mind will not wander. I used to have difficulty concentrating while reading the Bible, but it’s hard for the mind to wander while you actively write your conversations with God.
- Journaling forms a permanent record of God’s leading. I can browse back through the past 34 years of journaling and see God’s distinct hand in my life. It then encourages me to trust Him in my present circumstances as well.
- Journaling feeds witnessing, ministry, and preaching. Many have asked whether I conduct my personal devotions (biblical journaling) and my sermon preparation together or separately. It works best for me to separate the two because I want to stay focused on what God is saying to me and not to my congregation. However, after I have journaled on Ezekiel or Ephesians, for example, I will then preach a sermon series on those books with the bulk of my exegesis, illustrations, and application already completed. Also, I am frequently able to share a thought with someone that I gleaned from my morning journaling (see Isa. 50:4). That keeps my witness and ministry fresh and alive.
- Journaling fosters rich communication skills. I am naturally an introvert and initially ran from God’s calling to the ministry because I felt inadequate as a speaker. But years of pouring out my true thoughts, feelings, and needs to God in journaling have made me a better communicator with people.
As I contemplated God’s basic message in John 3:16, “true love is active,” I penned the following in my journal: “Lord, I really love my wife and children with all my heart, but this morning it hit me that I’m not expressing it in a tangible, active way. Please help me to love my family in a new way so they can grasp it!” Journaling can keep your spiritual device fully charged. It is a valuable tool for communicating with God at the deepest level. Try it! It may become the most meaningful experience of your life.
- The State of Pastors study (April 15, 2020) was conducted to find out how pastors and their congregations were faring in their mental, emotional, and spiritual health during the coronavirus pandemic. Fifty-one percent of the pastors reported that it has been easy (23 percent very, 28 percent somewhat) to find time for personal spiritual development, while another 49 percent have found it difficult (10 percent very, 39 percent somewhat). For context, the results are similar to other seasons of ministry. A 2016 study conducted in partnership with Pepperdine University, The State of Pastors, showed similar results. Forty-seven percent found it difficult (40 percent somewhat, 7 percent very) to find time for their spiritual growth. Barna Group, “The Mental and Emotional Health of Pastors and Their Congregants Amid COVID-19,” Barna, State of the Church 2020, April 15, 2020, https://www.barna.com/research/mental-emotional-health-among-pastors/.
- Logos is a premium Bible study tool with an excellent note-taking feature (http://www.logos.com). For a free Bible app with a great “notes” feature, consider something like YouVersion.
- While the electronic journal is better for convenience, storage, retrieval, search, and sharing capabilities, I still prefer the handwritten journal because it seems more personal and impactful. Use whatever method that works best for you.
- Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. God wants to show us deep and hidden treasures in His Word, but without the aid of the Holy Spirit, we will miss those gems (1 Cor. 2:9–14).
- You can use BibleHub.com as a free resource or invest in an online source such as Logos. The Logos 8 Seventh-day Adventist Gold edition contains more than 1,640 resources, including The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 390; emphasis added.
- Psalm 62:8 invites, “Pour out your heart before Him” (ESV). Also, “Keep your wants, your joys, your sorrows, your cares, and your fears before God. You cannot burden Him; you cannot weary Him. . . . Take to Him everything that perplexes the mind. Nothing is too great for Him to bear, for He holds up worlds.” Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), 100.
- Ellen G. White, My Life Today (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), 283.
- The complete statement is: “We must individually hear Him speaking to the heart. When every other voice is hushed, and in quietness we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God.” White, Desire of Ages, 363.
- An example of counterfeit spirituality is New Age/Eastern spirituality that emphasizes a “god within”—a “spark of divine” inherent in each soul. Hence, to find truth, one only needs to look within to the “inner light” (in a pantheistic sense) rather than to the ultimate source of authority, God’s Word (Ps. 119:105; John 17:17).