Why Keeping a Journal Makes You a Better Minister
By DAN S. BATY
The despondent couple sat in my living room for counseling. Obviously overwhelmed by the deep problems in their marriage, they listened respectfully as I began sharing biblical principles that would mend their crumbling relationship. But after a moment or two, I knew something was terribly wrong. I could sense that though I had their eyes and ears, their hearts were miles away. Unless something changed, helping them would be a fruitless quest.
I suspected their response-or lack thereof-was due to an assumption that I was about to propose a pat solution to their morass of difficulty. They had watched as my radiant wife brought in tea and cookies for us, and had seen my children gleefully playing throughout the house. They were probably thinking: “He doesn’t understand. He’s happily married and has lovely kids. But we’re having catastrophic problems.”
To really help them, I had to earn their trust. So I pulled out one of my old journals and opened it to a detailed entry about one of the frays my wife and I had experienced. I read what happened, how I honestly felt about it and how I had come to grips with it. When I finished, I looked up to find the couple staring at me incredulously.
“I want to share with you the principles that transformed my marriage from what you have just heard to what you now see,” I told them.
The slight smiles that crossed their faces told me I had correctly assessed their former skepticism. But after hearing my journal entry, they knew I really did understand. For the next nine weeks, they tame faithfully to my home to receive spiritual “lumber” to reinforce the crumbled frame of their marriage. In return for giving them my heart, they gave me their confidence and I was able to help them.
That’s the persuasive power of “heart exposure.”
Heart exposure is the process of revealing to others, in a timely and appropriate manner, our true feelings about the issues of our lives. Unfortunately, many Christian leaders simply don’t realize the awesome power that exists in true heart exposure.
According to 2 Corinthians 5:1 1, pastors and church leaders are in the business of persuading people to obey Jesus Christ. Whether we are counseling, delivering a sermon or speaking at an international conference, communication that produces sustained obedience to Christ only takes place when hearts have been affected. And hearts are affected most when the speaker exposes his or her own.
The ministry of Ezra was one of heart exposure. Ezra 7: 10 offers a divine prescription for persuasive communication, no matter how large or small the context: “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel”(NKLIV).
The sequence of Ezra’s approach to the Scriptures is critical to persuasive communication. First, he studied the Law, not only to understand it, but to practice it. And I’m convinced he then taught what he had learned as he attempted-successfully and unsuccessfully-to obey. Many times speakers go directly from studying to teaching and neglect to reveal what I call the process of practicing. The fact is, we do not just open the Bible and start obeying it; a process is involved. Rarely do Christians fail to obey because they lack understanding of the truth. In most cases, they simply haven’t learned how to win the emotional battles that accompany attempts to apply the truth.
What distinguishes leaders from the rest of their flock is not the absence of evil desires, but the manner in which they deal with them. Yet many in leadership fail to admit that they even have evil desires. When they do admit it, many times they do so in such a cautious manner that the effect is inconsequential. They don’t fully disclose their own process of practicing-and are therefore of little practical help to their hearers.
DEVELOPING HEART EXPOSURE
I have found that in order to practice such heart exposure, three steps are critical. First, I have to get in touch with my emotions. I need to know how I really feel about the Scriptures I read, my relationships with people and the daily ‘matters of my life. Second, I need to disclose that information to God and discuss it fully and honestly with Him. I must experience the security of His love, forgiveness and acceptance before I can stand confident and vulnerable before an audience. And third. I need to take the risk to divulge these precious jewels, as appropriate, to others.
My journal has been the most effective and practical device I’ve used in developing heart exposure. I have kept one for more than 14 years, and there is hardly a message or talk I give without in some way referring to it.
More than a chronicle of my daily actions, my journal vividly depicts the process of my becoming more like Christ. It describes the specific circumstances that are my personal battlefields. In it are revealed my most private emotions and my truest self. And as I have shared these treasures first with the Lord and then with other people, it has made me a much more influential communicator. In my experience, the most persuasive messages I have ever given have included graphic descriptions of my battles with the desires of the flesh.
Recently, for example, I spoke on the topic “Taming Temptation.” I read the following entry from my journal to the congregation:
“A walk around my neighborhood this morning revealed a need for me to be more content and thankful. There were no new lessons, just reminders of
“The deck on the spacious two-story home to my left did not mean that the family who lived there had finally satisfied their cravings for more. The perfectly manicured lawn was no indication of greater happiness. The white curtains uniformly tied back in each window didn’t mean that the family had no major worries of their own. As the late Gilda Radner once put it, ‘There’s always something.’
“The Scriptures instruct us not to set our hope on the uncertainty of riches (see I Tim. 6:17]. Further, the Lord Jesus warns that even when one has an abundance, his life does not consist of his possessions [see Luke 12:15]. I know these things; I have taught them. Why don’t I believe them today?
“Then I prayed for a greater portion of the Lord, and I remembered that money can’t buy contentment. What’s more, without contentment, money can never buy enough. I asked the Lord to help me to be more thankful for the many things He’s given me that I didn’t deserve-and for protecting me from so many of the consequences I did deserve. I remembered that though we may not have the latest clothing, we do have clothing. We don’t have two cars, but we have one that works. We may not have the biggest home, but neither do we live in the streets.
“It’s fine to ask God for more; He is generous. But when the asking is accompanied by envy, a sullen spirit or a restless heart, there is a need for greater gratitude. I recognized this need in my heart and took it before the Lord this morning for repair.”
That entry is an example of heart exposure and one in which I illustrated my process of practicing contentment. I didn’t merely explain what envy is (study), nor did I simply tell my hearers to pray about it (teach). I showed them how I dealt with the spiritual and emotional struggle to conquer it. The people not only heard what they ought to do, but they saw their pastor as a human who felt what they felt. Then I taught. And they were as responsive to the rest of the message as was that troubled couple who sat in my home that night. They knew I understood.
RULES FOR JOURNALING
Heart exposure is a challenge. It constrains us to be an example of what we read in the Scripture–and to be honest when we aren’t. Fortunately, a journal can help you develop heart exposure if you follow these simple rules:
1. Meet the Lord at your heart. The Lord looks at the heart (I Sam. 16:7); He delights in truth in the innermost being (Ps. 51:6); and He wants us to pour out our hearts to Him (Ps. 62:8). Why? Because what we are in our hearts is our truest selves. Regularly ask the Lord to search your heart (Ps. 139:23) and reveal to you its true contents. Record these revelations honestly and without censorship in your journal. Writing it out builds a deeper level of vulnerability and intimacy with the Lord. As we see how much God loves us-despite what is in our hearts-we will love Him more (see Luke 7:45-47), and we will become much more comfortable sharing our truest selves with others.
2. Attach real situations to impressive verses. When we are moved by a particular passage of Scripture, it is usually because it has addressed some specific real-life circumstance. If, for example, you are impressed by a passage on God’s peace, there is probably a corresponding situation that is producing distress in your life. Make it your goal to describe the specific situation that makes the passage relevant to you.
In the example from my journal, I mentioned that I had been impressed by God with the need to be thankful and content. But I went on to describe the specific thing that was causing me to be envious (i.e. my neighbor’s fancy house). It was the longing to own a house like that for myself that made the verses about contentment stand out to me. When a scripture impresses your heart, describe the specific circumstance that brought the passage to life.
3. Record your daily experiences and attach your honest emotions to them. Record specific incidents that happen to you during the day-a phone call, a comment, an observation whle driving, a conversation, a memory, etc. Anything is fair game for your journal. Just make sure you specifically describe the accompanying emotions in the entry. It doesn’t have to be a long, involved process. For example: “Hannah (my 8-year-old daughter) can yo-yo. I taught her how to do it. I feel a sense of fondness for her because we have so much in common.” That’s a simple, non-threatening example.
Here’s another one: “Julie (my wife) was asleep when I came home from the Bible study tonight. I feel rejected, disappointed and a little angry because I specifically asked her if we could spend some time together tonight.” Yes, this is riskier. But you must practice recording positive and negative emotions. This may not be easy, but doing so will greatly enhance your authenticity and communication.
EFFECTIVE JOURNALING TECHNIQUES
Hebrews 4:14-16 tells us that though Jesus was a great High Priest, He was tempted in all things as we are and can therefore sympathize with us. Understanding this “human” quality in Jesus causes us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace.”
In the same way, as people gain glimpses into our humanness, they too will draw near to us. Effective journaling can be an aid to sympathetic communication.
There are many journaling techniques that can be used to develop heart exposure. Three that have been effective for me are listed below.
Encourage you to modify them, investigate others and even create your own.. Feel free to experiment-but by all means, find what works for you. Don’t worry about doing it “right.” What’s right is what works. Ask yourself: Is it helping me to be more vulnerable?
As you explore these techniques, be on guard against the ever-present tendency to merely recount the “facts” rather than describing your honest feelings. It is much easier to report than it is to disclose. With the former there is no risk, but with the latter comes an uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability. That feeling is the trademark of honest communication.
You should also use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. “You” statements depersonalize what we say or write and indicate an uneasiness about assuming ownership for what we feel. Here is an example of a “you” statement followed by a revision that uses an “I” statement: “You know, you feel hurt when people don’t appreciate what you do for them.” Revision: “I feel hurt because Karen didn’t seem to appreciate the gift I gave her for her birthday.” Notice how much more vulnerable that latter statement makes the writer. Remember, vulnerability is at the core of heart exposure.
These following brief exercises are designed to help you reveal your heart, first to the Lord and then to others, through three basic techniques. Their effectiveness will largely depend on how much of yourself you choose to invest in them, and how deeply you desire to affect hearts through more authentic communication.
1. Action Phrases: Take a few moments to prayerfully meditate on the “action phrase” of the following verse: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (I Cor. 1: I0, NIV, italics mine).
*Recall a specific situation when you had difficulty following this action. What were your specific feelings as you attempted to follow this action?
*Can you describe the process by which you traveled from fear to faith (or disobedience to obedience) in this area?
*Try selecting and underlining the “action phrases” of verses of your own choosing. You will find that this simple technique can effectively expose your heart.
2. Heart Lists: Heart lists allow you to quickly describe significant heart-impacting events from your daily experience by placing them under a specific heading. To practice this technique, compile a list from one or two of the items below:
*Things that happened today that made me thankful. *Things that happened today that made me anxious.
*Things that happened today that made me angry. *Temptations I experienced today.
*Encouraging comments I received today.
Obviously the number and types of headings can be extensive. The purpose of this method is to place you in touch with your “heart issues” and allow you to honestly write them down.
3. Self-Portrait: The self-portrait technique allows you to “step outside of yourself” and objectively observe your actions and reactions. Ask yourself:
*If I could have followed myself around today as another person and seen all my actions and heard all, my words (and thoughts), what would I have liked?
*What would I have disliked?
*What would I have changed?
*What might I have done more (or less) of?
4. Record the proper scriptural response and your feelings about it. When you have described a particular experience, try writing down God’s perspective of the matter and how you feel about His viewpoint. This doesn’t mean that you have to resolve your struggle at this time. It merely illustrates the goal of it. In my “envy” entry, I referenced several passages of Scripture, but I also admitted that at the time I didn’t believe them. One can see that I was aware not only of where I was spiritually, but also where I needed to be. In between, the struggle for obedience is described. That’s the process of practicing that our audience desperately needs to see.
5. Practice sharing these disclosures with others. Don’t force it, but try sharing a few of these private disclosures with your spouse and/or some of your closest friends. You may find it challenging or even frightening to talk about how you really feel. But it is necessary for developing greater authenticity. When you share your heart with others, they will feel honored and trusted and will in turn entrust their hearts to you.
In order to be true examples to our flocks, the objective in all our communication should be to make our lives our texts. God wants us to speak the truth in love-and that means being authentic. The journal can help unlock the doors that conceal our truest selves from others. Then we will not only be able to speak to their ears, but we will affect their hearts and lives.
The above material was published in the July/August issue of Ministries Today, pgs.64-70. This material is copyrighted and may be used for research and study purposes only.