SEEING WHAT YOU THINK- The Formative Power of Words

“It is the very nature of language to form rather than inform. When language is personal, which it is at its best, it reveals; and revelation is always formative – we don’t know more, we become more. Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use words to make – make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make goodness, make truth.” – Eugene Peterson-

You might want to read that again, it’s that good.

Language forms. It shapes. Language makes us, us.

The words we think and speak are personal. They come from us and contribute to who we are.

Words can give us life, or weigh us down. Words can affirm and encourage, or destroy and dishearten.

Words have the potential to bring clarity, or cause confusion.

Words have power.

All this is what inspires me to continue the discipline of keeping a journal— the practice of writing my thoughts to see and to explore, to pay attention to what is forming me and how I am being formed.

The habit and discipline of journaling is harnessing the power and potential of our own words. It’s taking our thoughts and emotions that might otherwise wander around without focus, causing us angst and restlessness, and forcing them to find stillness so they can be considered.

In our journals, we give words to what’s been unnoticed and dormant. This articulation helps us find the potential in the things underneath, to find both hope and redemption. When we put pen to paper*, we begin the process of exposing our emotions. We excavate the hidden things, so we can bring them to light, to give shape to what’s covered in shadow and without form.

Finding these miraculous ways in which light brings life and form reveals the formative work God is doing in us.

This is the power of words—our own words.

Now, if you know me, this blog post comes as no surprise. I’m a huge fan of keeping a journal. And the reason is very personal and practical.

Journaling has been perhaps the most critical discipline in my own spiritual formation. It brings into perspective my past, present, and future. It helps me see who I was, who I am, and who I am becoming in Christ. Journaling is a means to express my thoughts, my prayers, my praises, my laments, and an outlet that beckons me to wonder, to wrestle, and to dream.

Writing down my thoughts has helped me to slow down and consider what is happening in my head and my heart. It allows me to see what I am actually thinking without being blinded by what I am feeling.

My journals are anchors, as well as artifacts. Tish Harrison Warren puts it this way: “Words build the cairns that guide the course of what we believe and who we are.”

What’s a cairn? I had to look it up.

A cairn is a heap of stones piled up as a landmark or as a memorial. (It’s like the stack of stones that Moana placed the conch shell on!)

Throughout the Scriptures, we see monuments and altars that God’s people built, stones stacked on one another. These cairns served as a reminder to His people and to future generations of God’s promises and His faithfulness. Each time God is declared faithful, there is faith that He will be faithful again!

My word this year is ANIMATE. I picked this word to piggyback off My One Word from 2022, which was IMAGINATION. I chose this word because it has life to it… to animate is to cause something to move and to come alive. This word has had to take on a whole different meaning as I have had to consider this motion of life through a season of loss.

Over the course of a six month span this year, both my parents passed away. My dad passed away from a heart attack in April and my mom to Alzheimer’s just three weeks ago.

I had no idea what was on the horizon when I chose my word back in January. We never do.

I have wrestled to find words to describe what I have been feeling. It takes time and space to process loss and to find ways to cherish the beauty of hard seasons. God’s word has provided such grace to consider that death does not have the final word and my grief rests on a foundation of hope.

My journal contains this struggle—the struggle to find any words, let alone the right words. But what a treasure to see the process and the faithfulness of God in the middle of a very difficult season (I am not yet through it).

The words that have come, so far, provide a vision for the legacy I’ve received from my parents. As I reflected on their lives and their marriage, what emerges from the initial sadness is gratitude. I have only begun to see this as I use words to describe and uncover the tangle of this year.

My journals reveal the messy process of faith, but they are also a witness to God’s faithfulness.

They are my own monument, a cairn, to see and remember.

I’m not sure if my journals will be around for future generations, for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to read. Some entries are so raw, so honest, I may rather burn them than have another pair of eyes on them.

But regardless, there is something about seeing the struggle in my own handwriting. Contained in the pages, I see my wrestling and desperation, my joy and excitement. There are prayers too— skittish prayers and bold prayers. There are simple prayer requests for things that seem insignificant and there is the fierce contending for people I love. All in my handwriting, providing a window into God’s work in my own life.

It may also come as no surprise that My One Word originated from my habit of journaling. (I wrote about it here).

Instead of writing down a bunch of words, in the spring of 2007, I wrote down one. And I spent the next 30 days or so just seeing what I could see through the lens of that One Word.

Here’s what I found: One Word helps us pay attention. But words formed into sentences help us think.

Words are critical to framing our perspective, and are essential to understanding what we see— what we hope to see and what God is inviting us to see.

Even a single word-one word for one year- has great power and potential in the hands of our God.

Now, let me say this…if you don’t journal, I understand.

It can feel like a homework assignment. But rest assured, there is no right or wrong way to journal and no one is checking behind you for grammar errors and misspellings. The point is to slow down and process. It’s an invitation to think and learn— to consider and to express yourself before God—in your own words.

If journaling feels totally foreign,I have a few suggestions to help you get started:

1. Write Three Sentences.

Write three sentences about what you did today, whatever comes to mind. And if writing sentences feel overwhelming, bullet points are just fine. And if three things seem too much, write just one. The point is to get into the habit of putting pen to paper and writing something.

2. Reflect on what you wrote.

Next, reflect. As you write about your day, ask yourself if you have any thoughts or emotions -any hopes, fears, expectations- tied to the happenings of the day, and write those down. Then, write out a prayer. This can be tied back to your day and your thoughts on that, or maybe it’s something on the horizon. It could be a response as you reflect on a Scripture passage, a sermon note, or a worship song. I understand this may feel awkward if you feel the need to formally approach God. But God made you and hears you, and He welcomes you to draw near to Him in this way.

3. Do it again tomorrow.

Be consistent by scheduling a time and sticking with it. It’s okay to have a slow but steady start. Start by journaling three times a week and by setting a timer for 5 minutes.

Writing helps us acknowledge what’s happening- the concrete ins and outs of our circumstances, as well as our secret innermost thoughts and feelings. Finding words for both helps us pay attention to what is happening to us and within us.

Journaling is a practice that invites us to be honest and vulnerable with ourselves, and to bring our whole selves intentionally before God.

It’s a record of who we are becoming in Christ.

As we finish this year, let’s pick up our pens and write*.

*It doesn’t have to be literal pen and paper, typing works just as well!*