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The start of the year is a great time to create new habits. We invited Cynthia Chua, a cell group leader and staffer at City Harvest Church, to talk about one of her passions—journaling.
At some point in every little girl’s life, she would probably have had a pink journal with a lock and a key attached to it. Not me. Growing up, I was never a diary kinda girl. I only officially started journaling at 16,because my first (and only) cell group leader told me, “Cyn, you must write down every encounter with God.” I am so thankful I heeded her advice. It was a discipline which gradually turned into a delight.
I have been a Christian for 23 years now, and my journals represent my life. To date, I have filled a cupboard with about 85 journals, and that does not include the journals I write online. Collectively, they are the substance of my 23-year walk with Jesus. Every page is saturated with my thoughts, desires, questions, prayers, cries, struggles, growth pains, answered prayers, and most precious of all, accounts of my encounters with God.
Having journaled every other day for as long as I have been a Christian, I have personally experienced a number of benefits to journaling which I will share here. While these are not exhaustive, I hope that they can inspire you to start your year in the discipline of journaling.
Do you remember the exact date you said “Yes” to Jesus? If you can, chances are at that time, you committed that significant date of your salvation to memory, or wrote it down. I received Jesus on 27 June 1999, and I have recorded down every milestone of my Christian life ever since, so that I will never forget any part of it. Being human, we tend to forget, but journals help us remember every detail.
Recently, I time-travelled back to 1999 as I flipped through the pages of my first journal, and to my surprise, the contents I had written inspired me—the younger me inspired the now older me.
I had forgotten how simple and childlike I was. When I saw this entry, I remembered my beginning as a believer. Journaling helps us remember our roots and humble beginnings. I picked up the discipline of journaling with the intention of drawing nearer to God, and now I can say I truly achieved this. I want to be able to relive what I have lived through, so that I will never forget how I got here.
Mixed emotions wash over me whenever I read my early journals. I usually find myself laughing at my then handwriting, tone, language, childishness – once, I wrote an entire entry about my fight with a cockroach! Yet, the simplicity and hunger for God that the younger me had then always moves me, and I would come away feeling challenged to empty myself so that I could be filled by God again.
To me, this is probably the most important reason to journal . I never want to forget my precious encounters with the Lord. It’s hard to forget the more dramatic encounters we have had with God, such as that first time you experienced the power of God surging through your body like an electric current, or that first time you found yourself trembling in His presence.
But more often than not, the encounters we have are simply, “I was touched by God today and I cried”, or “The sermon challenged my heart deeply”. They might not be dramatic, but they have still shaped us into who we are today, and will continue shaping us tomorrow. If we do not keep a record of these moments, we may forget them in time—that would be a terrible waste! Whenever I look back at my encounters with God, it leaves me hungry for more. I find myself praying, “Please do it again, Lord!”
Whenever I read such an entry, I am so grateful to God for these precious encounters. At the same time, I realised that what I had desired at that time had indeed happened. I was 16 when I wrote in my journal that I hoped to be a serious Christian. I probably did not think much about it back then, but 23 years later today, I am able to fall before the feet of Jesus and say, “Thank You Jesus, for touching my life. Thank You for giving me the grace to keep my faith for the last 23 years. Thank You that by Your grace alone, I am not a casual, but a serious Christian.”
Life does unfortunately become more complicated as we grow older. Whenever I read my later journals, I recall the many emotional struggles I have had. Journaling helps me to process my internal struggles by naming the emotion I was feeling or identifying the thought that was going through my mind at that moment. I often end my journaling feeling relieved, knowing that I have untangled some knots within.
Many times when I’m affected or bothered about something, but am unable to pinpoint what it was, I would simply open my journal and write something like, “I am feeling bothered about something … I feel frustrated/disturbed/depressed.” I name that emotion, and as I write, a thought or a person might come to my mind, then I would realise, “Oh, what that person said just now affected me!” Immediately, this becomes an opportunity for me to come before God in prayer. I bring my struggle and all that is affecting my heart to God in prayer, and I would always feel like a tight knot in my heart has unraveled.
Till today, every time I feel a struggle, I immediately turn it into a prayer to God by writing it down in my journal. If I have my physical journal with me, I pen my lament to God on paper. If I do not have it with me, I turn to my online journal spaces, and use them as my prayer platforms.
One day, years after I started journaling, I whispered to God, “God, I pray that my thoughts will be like prayers before You.” I wanted my every thought to be like a prayer before God – sometimes sweetly saturated with praises, other times drenched with laments and desperate pleas. I began to desire developing an all-day-long conversation with God. I wanted a space that I could talk to God in my thoughts, and so I journaled my thoughts and prayers. I journaled in every space possible – beautiful hardcopy diaries and online journal spaces like Instagram and private blogs.
All these years, I have always carried my journal with me. That is why, I try to buy lightweight journals! I write during my daily commute. I write when I am on a plane. I write in cosy cafes. I write when I am basking in the beauty of nature. I write every single time I have a thought or when I simply feel like chatting with God. All these years, I have always journaled my prayers whenever I wanted to talk to God about something or someone.
When social media became ubiquitous, I started blogs, kept private prayer spaces on Word documents or Tumblr, and processed my thoughts on Instagram. Basically, I journaled everywhere, talked to God on every space, with the desire to keep my mind as much as I can on Him.
Until today, I desire for my every thought to be a prayer before God. I borrow the psalmist’s words to express my heart’s cry: “So may the words of my mouth, my meditation-thoughts, and every movement of my heart be always pure and pleasing, acceptable before your eyes, Yahweh, my only Redeemer, my Protector” (Ps 19:14, TPT). The amazing thing is, God hears our every thought – whether spoken, unspoken, or written.
This is also why I have titled this “When Thoughts Become Answered Prayers”. Sometime after I started the practice of turning my thoughts to prayers in my journal spaces, I noticed a trend: many of my unuttered meditation-thoughts and written prayers were answered in God’s beautiful timing. God must have seen every movement of my heart.
In 2002, three years after I was saved, I attended City Harvest Church’s School of Theology (CHC’s SOT) Year 1. That year, Pastor Mike Connell, a fatherly figure who ministers powerfully in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, taught us for an entire week. I received salvation in 1999, at a church service when he preached the Word and I was so excited to see him again.
Every morning before class, I went to the roof garden at CHC’s Jurong West building and hid there to pray. Every day, I wrote my prayer down in my journal: “God, I pray for powerful encounters with You today.” For a few consecutive days, Pastor Mike got me on stage to demonstrate to the students how ministering in the gifts of the Holy Spirit looked like. I was deeply ministered to! I remembered weeping as I experienced deep inner healing and laughter because I encountered the joy of the Lord. Such precious moments that I would gladly give anything to experience again. God had answered my prayers—even written ones.
That week, Pastor Mike also prophesied over me that someday, God was going to give me a ministry related to young people. Back then, I was barely a 3-year-old Christian—I did not know much, and was still struggling with depression. I had done poorly for my A-levels, and had no dream, direction or sense of purpose. In fact, I had gone to SOT in search for meaning in life. “God will give me a ministry related to young people?!”Impossible! Furthermore, at that point, I had no desire to serve God in any way. I felt so messed up, and all I wanted was to be happy and to have hope to live life.
Nonetheless, I held these encounters close to my heart, journaled them down, and talked to God about them. Two years later, by God’s grace I found myself leading a cell group of youth. I have now been a cell group leader for 18 years and till today, I am still living out that God-answered prophecy and prayer.
Journaling opens my eyes to see that God answers every prayer. I can tell you so many more stories but for now, it is enough to say that through journaling, I saw how God has answered every thought-turned-written-prayer. And the most amazing thing about God is that He answers prayers in His higher way and in His time.
Recently, I was prayer-walking and thanking God after reading through some entries in my old journals, “God, when I was 18 and felt so hopeless in life, I had never dreamed of this day.” I found myself moved to tears.
I remembered how at 18, I was depressed and had skipped almost all classes in junior college. I did poorly and could not go to a university. My family was messed up, I was messed up. What future would I have? My parents were fighting daily, and I constantly thought, “All men are jerks. I will never marry a good man.” The 18-year-old me cried so many nights, telling God, “Life is so empty, depressing and meaningless. But if You can turn it around, please turn my life around.”
Now, at almost 40, reading my 85 journals overwhelm me with gratitude. I have also come to realise that it’s not the answered prayers that I am most grateful to God for,it is the nearness of God—His Presence. God has been with me— the good things He has done are just a bonus.
This piece is not meant to be a structured guide to “how to journal” (I am sure Google will help you with that), but I hope to inspire you to pick up journaling this year! To get started, all you need is a notebook, a pen and a raw heart. Or if you are not a pen-and-paper person, a private online space works too. Go ahead and inspire the future you with the present you!
May you find such sweet communion with our wonderful heavenly Father as you journal with God in mind, and may you live to experience Eph 3:20 (AMPC): “Now to Him Who, by (in consequence of) the [action of His] power that is at work within us, is able to [carry out His purpose and] do superabundantly, far over and above all that we [dare] ask or think [infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, hopes, or dreams].”