Christians are often encouraged to read, but seldom are they encouraged to write.
Of course, most people write at least a little. You probably write text messages and emails. Maybe write in a birthday card or a thank you note. Chances are you write “to do” lists and reminders. But do you write more substantially? Do you ever write in a journal, or take sermon notes, or write prayers, devotions, or reflections? Perhaps you are a student, and you have to write essays, or a leader and you have to write talks, or a preacher and you write sermons. Maybe you blog. Or perhaps you write articles, or poetry or even books.
From the smallest to the largest written pieces, there’s value in sometimes putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. Even if you are not a gifted or keen writer, it is worth considering the value of writing at least a little.
John Calvin makes a striking statement in his Reader’s Preface at the start of the 1559 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, arguably one of the greatest theological works ever written. He quotes Augustine, another profound pastor and theologian, who wrote:
“I count myself one of the number of those
who write as they learn and learn as they write.”
Given Calvin is quoting Augustine, you have two of the greatest Christian minds ever agreeing on the relationship of learning and writing. Both aspects of their observation are worth considering.
First, you can write as you learn. In fact, it is one of the best ways of learning because it makes us more active, not passive. We put what we hear in our own words. We distil. We pick out the main things. We effectively repeat what we’ve read or heard by writing it down and that reinforces it in our mind.
This is why students typically take notes in class and many people like to take notes in a seminar, workshop, lecture or sermon. Some people take copious notes, getting down nearly everything that is said. Others simply write down the main ideas, the headings, or perhaps just two or three things that strike them.
While it is not uncommon to take notes when someone is speaking, there is particular value in taking notes when we are reading a book, or an article, and especially when we are reading the Bible.
In your own devotional time, try writing out the main verse of the passage you read. Or write a short summary of what it was about. Or write down one or two things about God you saw in the text. Or write down your own response to what God has said.
Like Calvin and Augustine, you may well find that if you write as you learn, you learn better. Things stick. You are forced to slow down, reflect, summarise, articulate. You also have a record of things you have thought about so you can go back over your notes later on. You will call to mind things that would otherwise slip away forever. But even if you never look at the notes again, just the act of writing will probably have helped you learn better.
Of course, not everyone learns best by writing. Some people love to draw while they listen. Others love to fiddle and fidget. Sitting still just doesn’t work for them. Some people struggle to write and would much rather verbally process what they hear with other people. That’s fine. There is no biblical mandate to write. But it just might be helpful and worth trying, even if you are not a great writer.
Second, you can learn as you write. Personally, I find it is the second half of Calvin’s and Augustine’s statement that is most profound. They both testify to learning as they write.
Often the best way to think something through is to write something down. Writing forces you to articulate what is in your head. It helps you order your thoughts and maybe rearrange them once they are down. It can show you where there are gaps in your knowledge, requiring further research. As we weigh pros and cons of a situation, a list can help. As we try to think through an issue, writing about it can sharpen us.
I often start writing about something before I am ready to, because the very process of writing helps me think it through. Actually, that’s exactly what I am doing now as I write this article!
Writing can also be cathartic. Sometimes it is just good to get it out. We can say in a personal journal what we would never say to anyone else (and then we keep the journal under lock and key or burn the page we wrote so no one ever sees it). We can write what we would like to say to someone but would never actually say it or send it. We can write words of confession, or record resolves and convictions.
For some people, writing is also a wonderfully creative process. If you are something of a wordsmith, there can be real delight in finding the most charming or compelling way to express yourself. Poetry uses an economy of words with intensity or image and emotion. Creative prose can take us into an imaginative world we’d love to move into.
Given the value of writing as you learn and learning as you write, why not try writing something now?
- You could write in one paragraph, or perhaps one page, how you were saved.
- Or write in 100 words what the gospel is.
- Or write a little, or a lot, about how it is with your soul today.
- Maybe write a short reflection on a Bible passage you have read this week.
- Try writing out some prayers – of thanksgiving, of confession, of petition, of lament.
- How about writing three goals for the coming month?
- Why not try taking a few notes on the next sermon you hear?
- Or perhaps write a letter to encourage a friend, or thank your elderly parents, or spur on your pastor? If you really want to blow them away, hand write it and post it!
God in his kindness has given us words. He spoke words and he wrote words. He also gave us the capacity to use words. If you can write, then try writing some of your words – not just thinking them or speaking them, but actually writing them down. You just might find writing is worth it.