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Spiritual disciplines are, to paraphrase Dallas Willard, little things that we can do to help us do what we can't do by our direct efforts.

One thing I can't seem to do very well is to remember and act on what God has been trying to teach me. Yet I long to be like the "good soil" people in Jesus' parable of the four soils, those who not only hear God's word but "hold it fast" and don't let it go (Luke 8:15).

To that end, one of the most helpful spiritual disciplines in my life over the past few years has been to regularly pause and look back at my own relationship with God.

Shortly after the parable of the four soils, Jesus offers up a curious phrase (Mark 4:24): "Take heed what you hear" — or more literally: Look at what you listen. I have found the following practice a helpful way to quite literally look at what I have heard from God (and what I have been saying to Him). I share it with you, as a student of mine once shared it with me, in hopes that it may be of help to someone.

Here's what I do:

  • Read. Every month, I read back through my past month (or two) of journal entries.
  • Write. As I read, I take simple notes on a piece of scratch paper, recording the topics, emotions, and significant ideas that I find. Each note is usually just a few words, enough to capture the essence of what I learned or experienced: a Scripture verse, an insight, a sin I struggled with, a prayer request or answer to prayer, and so on.
  • Study. Once I'm done, I read back through my notes and inductively study them, using colored markers to highlight repeated themes as I notice them (see picture). This past month, for example, I underlined in blue all the notes related to writing/art/blogging; I underlined in yellow everything that related to experiencing God throughout my day; and so on. I typically end up with two to four major themes and a few minor ones.
  • Summarize. Finally, I select one to three major themes to include in my "Good Soil Recap" in my journal. I'll write an underlined heading for each theme/reminder (e.g. "Practice the Presence of God") followed by a one paragraph summary where I synthesize my notes, distilling what I most want to remember about that topic, including any concrete steps I want to take.

Much like tying a bunch of loose sticks together into a bundle for easy carrying, the hope is to gather up a pile of vague, disconnected, even forgotten thoughts, and tie the main ideas together into something simple enough to be remembered and carried on.

This discipline takes time and effort, but that is precisely where its benefits come. The process of distilling your ideas and experiences into succinct notes, and then again into single paragraphs with pithy headings, forces you to digest your ideas rather than simply regurgitate them. This often brings clarity, both to your thinking and to next steps for growth.

This approach can be easily modified to fit your needs and preferences. Do it at the end of each year (hey, that's now!) instead of monthly. Create an art piece summarizing what God has been teaching you. If you can't find a large chunk of time to do this all at once, split the process over the course of several daily quiet times, as a periodic break from your normal routine. Experiment and do what works for you.

May God help us all, in this age of frantic business and information overload, to be people who regularly slow down to look at what we listen.

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