Bible Journaling and Your Brain

March 21, 2022

In our chronically rushed, app-addicted world, sitting in silence to read and reflect on our Bibles might feel like we’re moving in slow motion. Or worse—like we’re inefficient.

We wouldn’t say that, of course. Most disciples of Jesus want to spend unhurried time with the Lord. We know our souls were created for life with Him. We crave His presence. But despite all our timesaving, efficiency-obsessed tools, we’re just too busy.

Americans love being busy. It signifies progress and confers significance. We can’t stand the “nothingness” of inactivity. But this nonstop preoccupation with productivity is forming our minds and souls—with devastating effects. Our attention spans are increasingly shorter. Our schedules are endlessly packed. And our reported anxiety levels surpass every other country in the world—and that was before the pandemic!

Then there’s technology. Research is still catching up to its effect on the human brain. The distracting pull of an alert, text, or notification is a centripetal force. These cultural patterns are as entrenched as they are ever-present.

And, like all deeply ingrained habits, they’re affecting our Christian lives. John Ortberg observed: “For many of us the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it.” Surface-level spirituality. Anemic Christianity. An unsettled soul.

Our chronic distraction is no small threat to our discipleship.

So, what hope do we have of change? We could try to insulate ourselves. Join a monastery. Live off the grid. Or we could cultivate counter-formational practices that enable us to be fully present in the world and fully engaged in life with God. Practices like Bible journaling.

Bible journaling involves writing out your observation, reflections, and applications of Scripture. Some people create artistic drawings, others jot down bullet points. Some people summarize a passage’s meaning, others note how the Holy Spirit applied a passage to their lives.

However you practice it, Bible journaling doesn’t just engage your mind, it helps re-form your soul. The benefits of writing your responses just might be precisely what most American Christians need. Bible journaling can increase our memory and retention, our emotional health, and our ability to slow down.

Memory and Retention

There’s a strong connection between what we write and what we retain—stronger than what we type. One neuroscientist called paper more advanced and useful than electronic documents for recall.

Writing on paper increases brain activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain linked to memory and navigation. (If you’ve ever noticed how your mind’s eye can “see” something you’ve written, that’s why.) There’s no shortage of Bible study apps and online study tools—and they each have their benefit. But to retain what you learn, the most effective method might be a simple pen and paper.

Writing increases neural activity much like meditation. If you want to practice meditating on Scripture, writing it may help reinforce your recollection. God created our brains to retain what we write. Perhaps that’s why the Lord commanded every Israelite king to write out his own copy of Deuteronomy (Deut. 17:18).

Emotional Health

During the pandemic, mental and emotional health issues spiked to crisis levels. While there’s rarely (if ever) a one-step solution to your mental and emotional health, Bible journaling can be a helpful habit.

Psalm 42 is a perfect example. The Psalmist writes down both his circumstances and God’s character. He counsels his own soul in writing: “Why are you cast down? Hope in God!” This wasn’t a diary where he chronicled his feelings and stopped there. It was a response where he recalled God’s promises in writing. Basically, he was Bible journaling. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called this the habit of actively “talking to yourself” instead of just “listening to yourself.” In our anxiety-laden times, Bible journaling can help us process our emotions and direct them to the Lord.

Slowing Down

Bible journaling requires you to slow down and think about what you write. It gives you an opportunity to linger in the truth of Scripture without rush or distraction. In other words, it’s a counter-formational spiritual habit.

In his book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, pastor John Mark Comer describes the necessity of conscious, habitual slowing, and countering our fixation with efficiency. The more hurried we are, the less we can focus. And the less we can focus, the less receptive we are to God’s Spirit working through His Word.

If you only ate at drive-throughs or grabbed something when rushing out the door, you’d have an unhealthy relationship with food. If you only spoke to your spouse in the last few minutes of every day, you’d have an unhealthy relationship with your partner. We need unrushed time with God; an unhurried margin where we can write down and retain how His Spirit ministers through His Word.

Eugene Peterson once said, “There are no shortcuts in growing up. The path to maturity is long and arduous. Hurry is no virtue.”[1] There are no shortcuts to your spiritual growth. It takes some long-term habits, disciplines, and practices.

And, maybe some longhand as well.

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Katie McCoy serves as Director Women’s Ministry at Texas Baptists. She holds a PhD in Systematic Theology from Southwestern Seminary, where she also served on faculty for five years. Katie loves teaching on theology and culture as well as women’s issues. Her research focuses on Old Testament laws about women and their pattern for justice in society.

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