Keeping a diary to grow in godliness
A review of Spiritual Practices of the Puritans. The importance of diary keeping by Kirsty Birkett. LT 2022
The book at number one in the non-fiction section of the Sunday Times Bestsellers list this week is Burn After Writing – a guided journal that invites users to spend less time scrolling through social media and more time exploring their emotions and experiences. The popularity of the book suggests that there is a longing for a more meaningful way to record and reflect on the ups and downs of life. But it seems that the contents of the book encourage the same self-absorption that we see on our social media feeds. You tick through your loves and hates. You plan your bucket list. You sketch out the soundtrack for the movie of your life. Its about you. And it is for you.
Where so much of what we read and write online simply expresses our love of self, the Puritan practice of diary-keeping sought to cultivate joy in the Lord and love towards our neighbours. In her short booklet on ‘Spiritual Practices of the Puritans: The Importance of Diary Keeping,’ Kirsten Birkett encourages Christians today to recover the practice of regular written self-reflection. As she introduces us to two Puritan pastors, John Beadle and Richard Rogers she brings us a challenge that is particularly relevant for our time. This is a book that will not only inspire you to follow the example of the Puritans but encourage you with their gospel wisdom and pastoral insight. Using the example of Beadle and Rogers, Birkett seeks to show that
Keeping a diary brings Christians into closer knowledge of God and his nature. It makes us better love our Lord, better love our neighbour, and brings us to humility as we recognise God’s kindness. (14)
As you consider ways in which you might grow in our walk with Jesus – and ways in which you might help others to do the same – I wonder if the habit of keeping a diary has ever crossed your mind? Birkett thinks it should. She asks: ‘Do we daily rejoice and thank God for his ever-present gift of the Holy Spirit and his comfort? What difference would it make to our lives if we did?’ This booklet is both a challenge and a guide that we might do just that.
The booklet is divided is divided into three sections. The first explores the theory of diary-keeping in the writing of John Beadle. What struck me in this section was how Beadle continually directs our attention to a love of both our Lord and our neighbours. He encourages us to write about our experiences not so that we become absorbed in our own emotions, but so that we might take hold of our hearts and place them under God’s word. What Beadle describes in theory we find expressed in the practice of Richard Rogers. The second section of the booklet takes us through the writings of Rogers to show how his diary was the place in which he sought to train his heart to delight in the gospel. Birkett observes that
He wrote to give his emotions a more godly focus, and bring himself to joy and comfort in reminding himself of the gospel. The Puritans sought and experienced great joy. (20)
The final section of the book is an example of this deliberate and disciplined search for joy. Birkett shares Rogers’ reflections from the third of November 1589. Threatened with suspension from ministry because of his Puritan convictions Rogers lays out twelve reasons to be thankful amidst his sufferings. They are not only themselves a precious encouragement for how we might think about suffering – they also offer an example of how a habit of self-reflection can cultivate a deep trust and satisfaction in the Lord.
Apparently the average person spends two and a half hours each day on social media. Even if Christians spent only half this time scrolling their news feeds, it would seem that there is more than enough space in the day for a habit that might help to cultivate a humble but joyful heart. The Puritans have been caricatured as self-absorbed and almost neurotically obsessed with the ups and downs of their own emotions. That is far from an accurate portrait of their piety. It is however not a bad description of the culture in which we live today. The diary keeping of Beadle and Rogers offers a model for practice that is much needed but much neglected. Take a day off from social media. Use that two hours to have a read of this book. And then perhaps the next day take a few minutes of those hours, to take a note book, pick up a pen and open your heart before the Lord.