In Praise of Private Writing

One of the most fascinating portions of Jonathan Edwards’s collected works is a 350 page section entitled “Miscellaneous Observations” and “Notes on the Bible.” This section comprises a large collection of Edwards’s personal notes on various subjects including philosophical, theological, and biblical musings. The depth and breadth of these writings are remarkable.

But what is most intriguing to me is not the content of these writings, despite the profound and deep insights contained in Edwards’s notes. Rather, it is that fact that these notes were never originally intended for publication. While it’s true that Edwards would use some of these notes in later sermons and publications, they didn’t originate for that reason. These notes were Edwards’s private thoughts on Scripture and theology, and it was here that Edwards was forging and refining his convictions.

Blogging in Public
One of the advantages to blogging is the ease by which we are able to publish our thoughts for public readership. Some of us may have a smaller audience than others, but anyone with access to a computer and a wifi connection can produce writing that is available on the Internet for public perusal. This is a gift, and I am grateful for the blogs of men and women who would otherwise remain unread if it wasn’t for the medium of blogging. I am also thankful to be among those who have the opportunity to maintain a blog and write in public.

But technological advantages can become disadvantages if we are not careful to wield the new technology with wisdom. Specifically with blogging comes the temptation to make every thought a public thought. But if the Proverbs are to be our guide in this matter, then it would seem that our default should be to refrain from speaking rather than taking every thought as a prompt to write for public consumption.

Some Christian bloggers have compared their blogging to Edwards’s “Miscelleanies.” The major difference, however, is that Edwards didn’t write his Miscelleanies initially for public use. He wrote these notes for the sake of his own private thinking and devotion. Edwards’s writing didn’t remain private, of course, but it was his private writing that helped sharpen and prepare his thinking for public usefulness.

Private Writing as a Foundry for Thought Refinement
Like raw metals, our thinking requires time in the factory of private writing in order to be made ready for public use. Whether this private writing occurs in our journals or in personal essays we’ve started to help us sort and solidify our thoughts, private writing is vital for the creating material that is truly beneficial to others.

More than once I’ve taken an idea to my journal only to realize that my initial thoughts about a given topic lacked precision and substance and required time to mature. Some ideas have required a few hours to be ready; others a few weeks. Still others–because of their importance–will remain tucked away until I have achieved significant clarity on that particular issue. In any of these cases, had I cracked the laptop to publish immediately, I would have been a fool (see Prov 18:2; 18:13).

Private Writing at a Means for Developing Heart-Felt Convictions
But private writing is not just about honing our thinking. When I spend time thinking over a personal journal or essay that is not intended for public readership, I find that my heart more readily absorbs the truth over which I am pondering. If we write only for public use, we may fall into a pattern of teaching others while not teaching ourselves (see Rom 2:21).

Private writing helps get the truth into our hearts so that our thoughts become convictions that are deep and life-changing, not mere fodder for public instruction and discussion. To spend time over writing that may never been read or seen by anyone means that I am seeking heart-level growth, not mere intellectual development.

Going Public
For Christians, especially pastors, teachers, and other Christian leaders, our thinking must eventually go public. We cannot be those who hoard knowledge exclusively for our own benefit. We should view the insights that God grants us in our private thinking and writing and study as a stewardship over which we must diligently tend and generously dispense.(This is one reason why personal organization is important for all Christians, and especially those in a teaching role.) “Freely you have received, freely give,” Jesus once told his disciples. But the command to give implies that we have truly received. And private writing is a means by which I can ensure that I really have.

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Private Writing”

  1. DB, this was a timely piece for me to read – thanks for holding forth the merits of a practice that we do well to revive (“private writing”). Like you say, I’ve always admired the content of Edwards’ Notes on Scripture (it’s the only volume from the yale “works” that i own!), but I had not thought deeply about how the volume is exemplary and instructive in the way you explained. Seems his role as “teacher” did not displace his more fundamental identity as disciple and learner.

  2. Andrew,

    Thank you for your comment, brother. “Seems his role as ‘teacher’ did not displace his more fundamental identity as disciple and learner.” That is well put, and an excellent example to follow. Didn’t you have that copy of Edwards’ works when we were at 2A? I seem to remember perusing and discussing it with you back in the day.

    Derek

    1. oh yes, i think you’re right – i probably did have it at 2a. i also had that two volume banner of truth edition of edwards’ works which doesn’t include the ‘notes’. must say i really like the larger font of the yale editions…but it’s quite a hike in price for the larger font!

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