One of my favorite advancements in Bible publishing technology over the last few years has been the rise in the popularity of journaling Bibles. I’ve been writing in my Bible since I was in high school, but it was always a cumbersome process that left me with ugly-looking Bible pages. But those days are in the past, thanks to my ESV journaling Bible. However, I didn’t have that relationship with my ESV journaling Bible overnight. It took some mental reframing to get to the point that I am today.
Journaling Bibles come in many different shapes, sizes, and layouts. If you’re interested in learning more about which products I recommend, I do recommend a couple of different versions on my “Recommended Bibles” page. However, that’s not really the purpose of this post.
Today I want to talk about how to use journaling Bibles to get the most out of your journaling experience. To do that, we’ll talk a bit about the differences between handwritten and digital note-taking processes, the benefits of taking notes while reading the Bible, and my own experience in Bible journaling. In the end I’ll give you my step-by-step process for using my journaling Bible in what I’ve called my “scratch journal” method.
Handwritten vs. Digital Notes
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, I love analog tools. I’m a sucker for a good pencil and notebook. While I love the convenience of digital tools and software, that’s not really how I do my best thinking. For me, thoughts always start on a handwritten page.
Once my thoughts have been recorded, brainstormed, and thought through, I’ll eventually bring them over to live in a digital space, whether that’s Notion or Accordance.
But this post is focused more on the actual capture process than the recording and archiving process. For me, there’s something tactile about creating and thinking with a pen and paper in my hands, in a way that just isn’t the same with a keyboard and a mouse. Working through my thoughts and my prayers with a pen just feels more genuine to me. I don’t know how to describe it other than just recognizing that this is how my brain works. I understand that not everyone’s brain works the same way, so this process may or may not be for you. That said, I hope you can still take a few principles from this post to apply to your own Bible study routine.
Why Journal In Your Bible
I know many people who cringe at the thought of marking inside a Bible. And that’s understandable. Bibles are important religious texts. Many of them are made of very fancy and expensive materials. But at the end of the day, a Bible is a book. A very important book, yes. But still a book.
If we highlight and write in the margins of regular books, shouldn’t we be doing so with our Bibles? Emphasizing important details, writing notes and inspiration, highlighting, underlining, making connections.
Again, the writing process is a tactile process for me. When I write with my hands, when I channel my focus through pen and ink, I can process my thoughts in ways that I otherwise couldn’t. I can draw deeper understanding. This is why I’m a big advocate for writing in your Bible. For me, there are two benefits to this.
The first and most practical reason to write in your Bible is it cements information in your brain. If you write down your thoughts and insights as you go, you will imprint those thoughts and insights in your memory better than you could if you were just reading.
Can this be done in a separate notebook? Absolutely. I don’t want to force anybody to write in their Bibles if it makes them uncomfortable. You can absolutely do this process in a separate journal or notebook. But there’s a second benefit to journaling directly in your Bible.
Keeping a Record
When you write your thoughts and insights inside your Bible as you read, study, and pray, you’re not only cementing your knowledge in that season of life. You’re giving yourself an opportunity to be reminded of your current insights anytime you turn to that passage in the foreseeable future, as long as you use that particular Bible. This has such a huge potential to bring a new layer of fruitfulness to your Bible study time as you read and reread scripture throughout the years. You will always remember your insights connected to a particular verse when you’re actually reading that verse in context.
When you take notes in a separate notebook or journal, you don’t have this contextual benefit. But that’s not to say there are no benefits to writing your Bible study notes in a separate journal. There definitely are. And we’ll get to those later. But for now, let me tell you about my Bible journaling journey.
My First Journaling Bible Experience: What I Was Doing Wrong
I was so excited when I got my first journaling Bible. It was one of those ESV Moleskin double-column journaling Bibles. I tore open the packing, proudly held my new Bible, and… that was basically it. I didn’t know what to do with it.
I started out using it as a prayer journal, but soon realized it wasn’t exactly the best resource for that. Then I used it for sermon notes, which was frustrating because of how much room sermon notes took up in those margins. So after a few weeks of trying to use it, I gave up. I went back to highlighting and taking short notes in my regular, non-journaling Bibles.
There are two paradoxical reasons why my journaling Bible just didn’t work for me the first time: there was too much space in the margins, and there was not enough space in the margins.
Too Much Space
Like I said, I’ve been writing in my Bible for years before I ever even knew journaling Bibles existed. I was used to very little margin space for writing notes. I had to write in tiny letters and compact sentence fragments. I relied on symbols and color codes and arrows. Opening a journaling Bible for the first time was a little intimidating. There was so much space that I didn’t even know where to start or what to write.
Too Little Space
But at the same time, there was not enough space in that double-column journaling Bible. The ratio of empty lines to scripture text was way off. There was no way to write about an entire page. In hindsight, I wish I would have opted for one of the single column journals. I think that would have made my journaling experience better from the start.
Toward a Definition of “Journaling”
So because of those two problems, I went years without ever opening up my journaling Bible again. But I’ve recently returned to my journaling Bible and I love it. I’m at the point now that I don’t know how I ever got along without it. The thought of going back to tiny notes in my standard Bible margins stresses me out to no end.
The reason my Bible journaling experience is so much better now is because I found a solution to my problems. And the solution was a redefinition of the word “journaling.”
To me, journaling has always meant only one thing. Long-form, stream-of-consciousness writing. Writing my thoughts, feelings, emotions, trying to become more aware of my brain and my body. Recording life events, recording prayers, recording my life.
When I first picked up a “journaling Bible” and saw those familiar lines, my mind immediately jumped to that definition of journaling.
Oh, I thought to myself. I’m supposed to use this Bible to keep a long-form journal on the topic of whatever scripture was written on that page.
So that’s what I tried to do.
But recently I came to realize that “journaling” didn’t have to mean long-form, cohesive writing in the margins of my Bible. In order to get the most out of my journaling Bible, I had to redefine “journaling” to simply mean getting my ideas, thoughts, and insights down on paper.
It may not seem like there’s much of a difference between those two statements, but there really is. Let me try to break it down a little more by discussing the differences between the two media.
Journaling in a Journal
When you have a completely blank journal, of course you start at the front and move toward the back. You journal your thoughts in an organized, cohesive, orderly manner. This medium of journaling lends itself nicely to long-form writing.
Journaling in a Bible
Typically, when reading a Bible, you don’t read it from front to back. Sometimes you do, but that’s rare. Most of the time you’re jumping around from passage to passage, book to book, testament to testament. So writing in a Bible does not lend itself nicely to the same form of orderly, long-form journaling.
So I think the best way to write in a journaling Bible is the same way I read a regular Bible: somewhat sporadically.
Scratch Paper Bible Journaling
There are two principles that I had to beat into my brain in order to get comfortable with my journaling Bible.
- White space is my friend.
- I don’t have to write in complete sentences.
- Nobody is going to see my journaling Bible.
I had to break out of my habit of always trying to fill a page just to fill the page. Once I forced myself to treat my journaling Bible sort of like scratch paper, everything changed.
My journaling Bible is like scratch paper in that it’s now my place to brainstorm what the biblical text is doing to me, how it’s shaping me, and how God is speaking to me through the text. It’s a place to jot down ideas and thoughts, no matter how crazy or silly they sound. It’s a place where I have permission to not form complete, fully-thought-out thoughts.
I can be as heretical as I want to be in my journaling Bible. I don’t have to write things that sound smart or that even make sense. I have complete freedom to experiment, to try to think new thoughts, and to be creative as I read the Bible.
In short, my new Bible journaling routine has given me permission to explore.
Now, in the final section of this blog post, I’ll walk you step by step through my own scratch paper journaling method.
The Scratch Paper Bible Journaling Method
There are three parts to my scratch paper Bible journaling method: the first reflect, the re-read.
The first step, before I do anything else, is to simply read the passage. I don’t even pull my pens or highlighters out at this point. I just want to get a general idea for the shape of the passage I’m currently reading. While I’m reading, I’m trying to trace themes that run through the passage, especially those themes that I’ve noticed running through the whole book. I try to locate common words that are repeated throughout the passage. I also try to start connecting this particular passage to the book as a whole, as well as to other parts of the Bible.
That’s really all there is to the first part. Simply read the text.
The reflect is almost a second reading of the text, but this time it’s more like I’m thinking through the text. At the end of my first reading, I’ll usually have a few ideas in my head about how the passage is shaped and how the concepts within the passage link together. At this point, I’ll start to ask myself questions of the text. Why did the author use this particular word or phrase? How does this particular metaphor fit into the author’s overall message or purpose? What exactly is God trying to say to me through this particular text? How has this text been understood throughout Christian history? How have I always interpreted this text, and do I find anything surprising this time around?
As I think through the passage, I do so with my pen and highlighter in hand. I write down pretty much any thoughts that pop into my head. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase. Sometimes it’s a full sentence. I won’t start at the top of the page and work my way down. I’ll just write it in wherever it makes sense. Remember, part of my process here was overcoming the need for full page journaling.
I’ll also go through and highlight phrases that stuck out to me during my first read-through. If there are any repeated words, I’ll highlight those the same color so that they stand out to me.
I do have a color code, but it’s not an extravagant color code. Three colors do mean something particular. But more than that, I like to connect ideas throughout passages and books by highlighting them the same color.
So red is typically “God’s presence.” Blue is “Leadership/ministry/mission.” Green is “power/Holy Spirit.” And purple is “Kingdom of God.” But if a bunch of stuff in a passage or book is highlighted the same color, that typically just means I was tracking a similar idea, theme, word, or phrase throughout the passage or book.
Honestly, I don’t give myself much structure here. The whole purpose of this method for me is just to be creative and explore new thoughts and ideas. I purposely turn off my inner editor and my inner theologian. I don’t want orthodoxy to be my guide here, as heretical as that might sound. I want to give myself the freedom to think new things and discover new ideas without the fear of my own judgment.
Now I know I lost some of you there, but just hold on a second! Bear with me. I only allow myself to go off the deep end in part two of this method because of part three. So let’s move on to get the bigger picture, and then we’ll circle back here.
At this point, after I’ve exhausted my creativity and heretical musings, I’ll set my pen down, take a deep breath, and turn back on my logical, theological brain. At this point, I’ll read back through the whole passage one more time holding it in tension with my own comments. I’ll see if any of my original questions were answered (they usually weren’t) and take a quick inventory of the thoughts that came to me during my reflection time. If there are any thoughts that I know are way off base, I’ll cross it out. If it’s something that seems like a really good thought (I do have a few of those every once in a while, but not often) I’ll make a note in Accordance so I’ll remember to come back to that thought the next time I read this text.
But for the vast majority of things I write, I don’t consider them good or bad. Usually I regard them as starting points for deeper reflection. If I find a thought that I know I’ll want to explore later, I’ll write it down in a separate journal that I have just for this. At some point, I’ll work through those thoughts, which looks different depending on the nature of the thought. If it’s theologically or biblically relevant, I’ll work through some commentaries and other reference materials. If it’s more of a devotional or spiritual idea, I’ll work through it with a long-form journal and a prayerful spirit. If it’s a relational or practical concept, I’ll do some further reflection about how I might be able to put it to the test in the real world with real people. Or maybe I’ll make a note to discuss the concept or idea with a friend sometime over a cup of coffee.
Each of these three sections are equally important to my Bible journaling workflow. The first read-through is crucial, as it gives me a framework and an outline. It orients my brain to the passage at hand and gets my thoughts working in the same direction, or as close as possible to the same direction, as the original author and audience.
The reflection time allows me to step out of my own mindset and explore questions, thoughts, and ideas that I wouldn’t normally think. It allows me to use my body, through the act of writing and marking, to think through certain themes and concepts. I can be creative and let my mind run free. This is really the heart of the whole Bible journaling process for me.
But the final part, the second read through, is probably the most important part, as it acts as my tether to reality. I’m able to process my thoughts and ideas, filtering them through a rational, analytical, and theological mind. During this time, I connect my creative insights to other themes throughout the biblical canon and throughout Christian history. I give myself an opportunity to further explore those ideas that require further explanation and to dismiss those ideas that don’t deserve much more thought.
In the end, Bible reading becomes something that I think Bible reading was always meant to be: an ongoing conversation. Sure, at this point it’s just a conversation with myself. But I think it sets myself up for productive and exciting conversations with other people.
Bible reading shouldn’t be stale. It shouldn’t be boring. And it definitely shouldn’t be limiting. When we read the Bible, we are transported to another world where we’re able to learn about ourselves, other people, and God through the eyes of people who experienced his work in history first hand. We should allow ourselves to always be creative, to always think outside the box, and to always explore new possibilities. However, we should not be so “out there” that we completely abandon orthodoxy and sound doctrine. There’s a thin line to balance between the two, but it’s a fun one. For me, Bible journaling helps me to keep my balance.
So that’s my experience and my method when it comes to using my journaling Bible. I’m anxious to hear about your own methodology! If you have any tips or ideas, please leave them in the comments below. I’m always looking for new ways to expand my Bible journaling journey.