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How to Keep a Prayer Journal Private (and other FAQs about prayer journaling)

We had our first real family Halloween this year, and it felt like a movie – those kinds of long-dreamed-of family events always do. With the houses decked out and parents huddled around driveway fire pits while their costumed children scurried around, hauling their loot. The fall leaves crunched underfoot as Jordan made his first foray into the world of trick-or-treating. He might have been the only un-costumed child; I’m not sure – there were so many children out and about. He flat-out refused to wear one, so the closest we got was a tiny-sized Seahawks jersey beneath a warm, puffy coat. But nobody else seemed to notice as he gingerly approached the next neighborhood door, pumpkin-pail in hand, accepting the candy and waving goodbye. When the pail got too heavy, he simply stopped walking and put it down mid-sidewalk. The sea of excited children parted around him until one of us scooped him up, blowing on his frozen-cold hands and carrying him along to the next house. He jumped at an unexpected come-to-life, larger-than-life spider (that I’m pretty sure made its way into his dreams around 1am last night). He stood in awe of the ghosts light-dancing on a garage door, and he sing-songed “oweeeeen” all the way home. Saying Happy Halloween with a grin on his face while we put on his pajamas, and as he brushed his teeth, and up until the last minute that he was tucked into his bed and, with it, the evening suddenly only tucked away in our memory.

I’m in the middle of a writing series on prayer journaling that I’ve been surprised to find myself struggling through. Because it’s something for which there isn’t any real formula. Sure, you can create some structure and find prayer-prompts and organize it all in a certain way. But my way of prayer journaling is more of a stream of consciousness kind of writing. There are mornings when I record some verses that I’m reading as a prayer (like today and Psalm 138). Other mornings, I write the notes from digging-deeper on my own. There are the days where I’m asking God the tough questions, getting out the feelings, writing the words, acknowledging the pain. And then there are the moments when I write a narrative of something that happened (like the words above) – details that I want to remember and will otherwise be forgotten if I don’t write them down. Those kinds of narrative-journalings are more like worship for me. They spill out of a heart full of thankfulness to God, who hand-crafted those moments for me to experience.

If you’ve never done it before, the idea of prayer journaling can sound a lot like a live Q&A with God. You write your question or record a prayer, and then wait for His answer. But I’ve learned over my almost 20-years of it that a prayer journal isn’t about whether or not God answers per se (although it provides the avenue for tracking those prayer-answers). Instead, it’s about forming and shaping our hearts. It’s about pouring the foundation of faith and pushing those faith-roots down deep. It’s about learning how to recognize the voice of God in your life. And being diligent in practicing the discipline of prayer that Jesus Himself modeled.

I put out a call for questions about prayer journaling recently, and have pulled together the top results in this post for you. But overwhelmingly, one question was asked over and over again:

How do you keep a prayer journal private?

I talked a little bit about this in this morning’s letter to my subscribers – how I understand the concern with keeping your most vulnerable thoughts under lock and key. I told a story about my blood running cold the time that I saw Josh reading my only-meant-for-God words in the weeks before we really started dating. Not because I was afraid of what he would see, but because he was suddenly squarely inside of an intimacy boundary I had not otherwise invited him into.

Over the years, as I’ve settled into a prayer-journaling routine, I haven’t worried about my journal finding itself in someone else’s hands. Or of other eyes reading my privately-written words. And as I thought about why that is, I realized: I’ve been less concerned about hashing out the faults of other people and more concerned with examining my own heart. And I don’t say that in a prideful way. I say that because these prayer journals are my legacy. I intend to leave them behind for my grandchildren to read and their children after them. I know that someday, long after I’m gone, my written prayers will be read. And it’s shaped how I pray. In a sense, it’s held me accountable. Sure, I pray through scenarios involving other people. But I approach it first in the sense of examining my own heart. And then, I pray that God would pursue them and give us both the proper perspective in the path for moving forward.

When I want to lash out, I verbalize it under my breath to Him first. And then, once the overflow of anger has been released, I can get to the good part. Because the second I try to write out those kinds of details, Paul’s first-Corinthian-words start pounding in my heart:

love keeps no record of being wronged

1 Corinthians 13:5, NLT

If you’re first starting out, of course – writing out these kinds of vulnerabilities is a little bit terrifying. If you’re nervous about keeping your prayer journal private, here are a couple of tips:

  • Have a spiral notebook on-hand alongside your journal to get the ugly out that you would rather have burned before letting anyone else read it. Then, turn to your prayer journal to hash out the rest with God. (And burn those pages in your winter-burn pile!)
  • Take your journal everywhere with you until you are comfortable leaving it at home. Bonus: this also allows you to sneak in impromptu quiet times on-the-go!
  • Find a hiding spot near your daily quiet time perch, and only get your prayer journal out when you’re ready to write in it.
  • Don’t advertise the fact that you are starting a prayer journal. If nobody knows that it exists, they won’t be tempted to look for it.
  • Don’t feel like just because you are prayer journaling that you have to keep your journal forever. I have thrown away my fair share of journals from my college days that I would rather nobody else read. Just tear out the pages (if there are any) that you’d like to keep and tuck them into a future journal.

Now that we’ve tackled the prayer-journaling-privacy issue let’s get to the other FAQs that you guys sent in!

What are your thoughts on prayer journaling the old fashioned, written way vs. digitally? My soul-prayer, you might’ve seen it, is to leave a powerful legacy of written manifold mercy for the generations to follow. My prayer journals are a tangible legacy I can leave for the generations to follow – my own version of Joshua’s chapter-four rocks-of-remembrance. Also, I read an article one time a couple of years ago that described our current generation with camera phones and constant life-documentation. We are the most photographed generation of all time – it’s even estimated that more photos have been taken in the last ten years than all the prior years combined. But the stomach-twisting truth? Another ten years from now? We won’t have anything to show for it because photographs aren’t printed anymore. Hard drives crash, phones drown in toilets, photos aren’t backed up, technology changes and digital files are lost. So journaling digitally runs the risk of technology failing. (Never mind the fact that you are more apt to remember things that you physically write down!) If I don’t have my prayer journal with me and I need write something, I’ll find a scrap of paper to scribble on so I can tuck it into the pages when I get home. Or, I use the notepad app on my phone, then transcribe it into my prayer journal later.

How do you connect the ask with the answer? Or, if you read something that applies to a past prayer, how do you connect the two entries? A lot of times, as I come across a particular word or verse in my morning Scripture-digging, the Spirit of God will tickle my brain with a “remember when you wrote that prayer?” And I’ll go hunting for the words, sometimes flipping back weeks in my journal.

I mentioned before how the prayer-journaling journey is more of an on-going conversation with God than a stinted Q&A. Sometimes, yes, there are quick and direct answers to prayer – like the time I had a nose piercing. It was a physical leftover reminder of a previous high school relationship – an on-the-whim decision I had made with my ex-boyfriend. I was working for a coffee shop at the time that didn’t allow for facial piercings. After a shift one afternoon, I was walking to the bathroom to put it back in. As I walked, I thought, “why do I even have this anymore?” And I quickly prayed: God, if You want me to let this last piece of that old Jane go, I pray that this nose ring slips out of my finger and goes down the drain. I stood in front of the sink to twist the l-shaped piece of jewelry back into its place, and it happened: it slipped right out of my fingers and right down the drain. That was the last piece of the old Jane, I felt His Spirit whisper. And I grabbed my journal and wrote out the entire crazy scenario in that “I can’t believe that just happened” kind of way that I never wanted to forget.

But in those longer, on-going conversations with God when His response might come long after the ask, I will write the date in the margin, and scribble over it bold, pointing me back to the ask and forward to the reply. If it’s particularly jaw-dropping, I’ll even write a note in the margin of my Bible next to the verse God used to speak saying “see prayer journal from 7/1/19”.

Do you keep observational journaling separate from prayer journaling? Yes. Early in my Bible-reading days as I was learning the art of the quiet time and practicing the SOAP method (as described in my book, Mercy Like Morning) I recorded my observational notes on notebook paper. I do the same today with my Search the Scriptures notes (see this post). And then, when I feel the lines start to blur between straight observation and heart-prayer, I turn to my prayer journal. I’ll usually summarize what I’ve been reading and what was triggered in my heart before pouring out prayer onto the pages.

How do you start prayer journaling? Great question!! I’ll answer this one in my next post – stay tuned!

Have you ever done a prayer journal for a specific person (for example, a spouse or children)? I haven’t, but I love the idea of having a prayer journal dedicated solely to someone you love!

How do you organize your prayer journal? As I mentioned, I don’t really have any real organization in my prayer journal. It’s definitely more of a stream-of-consciousness, daily recording of my quiet times, and prayer life. But there are plenty of resources available for having an organized prayer journal (you can find a couple of good ones here and here.)

Do you write your prayers out, or summarize what you prayed about? I write them out because God is in the details that often get left out in summary. Can you imagine if the detail of the fleece was left out of the story in Judges 6? It could have easily been summarized later by merely saying, “God told me He would save Israel by my hand, and then I got my 300 men together, and He did just that!” But knowing what Gideon specifically prayed for and how God specifically answered that prayer makes the story! And then there’s Paul, who makes it a habit in his letters to not only pray for his friends and the people to whom he’s writing but also to tell them specifically how he’s praying. Ephesians 1:15-23 and Philippians 1:9-11 are perfect examples of Paul writing out his prayers!

Stay tuned for the next post in this series that will talk all about getting started with prayer journaling! And if you have a question about prayer journaling that wasn’t answered here, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a note!

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