Writing While Growing: Some Tips for Christian Writers

A friend and I were talking this weekend about Christian writing. Our conversation touched on a common concern of Christian writers, the concern of writing something that will lead someone astray. I have often told writers (and prayer ministers) that as long as you have that healthy concern, I am not worried about you. You are likely to be diligent and discerning, bringing everything before God and asking for feedback from trusted individuals before you publish anything. You will also be more humble in your writing, acknowledging what you don’t know and inviting your readers to explore along with you as you grow together. That is a healthy approach to writing.

The problem is that sometimes this healthy concern expands into paralyzing fear, and nothing ever gets written. The question “When do I know enough to write about it?” never finds its answer. Readers miss out because you were ready and you had something helpful to share, but fear kept you from publishing.

The conversation with my friend went more in-depth about this concern, and I would like to share some of what we touched on, in case it helps another writer with similar questions.

Sometimes Growth Means Re-Editing at a Later Date

My friend had observed how sometimes people write and publish their perspective on a Christian-related topic, assuming they have done their research. Then at a later date, after continued research and growth, they change their perspective. Should they have written that first piece or waited until they learned more? Of course, every situation is unique, so it’s hard to answer that question in general. But here goes my attempt.

Here is one example that came immediately to mind. This weekend, I re-edited one of my blog articles I wrote 7 years ago about centering prayer. Recently, I have discovered that some of the books I’ve read about centering prayer have been confusing for readers who are new to the topic. So I don’t want to refer to those books in a basic blog article. I went back to edit and remove the book references. If I had time to give a thorough background teaching, I might have left the book references in. But really the article was about spending quiet time with God. It wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive teaching about centering prayer. So I removed the reference to the books and republished the blog post with just the centering prayer reflections I had shared.

That’s an example of how we can write something where we are at in the moment, and then re-edit it later as we grow, learn, and discuss. In September 2012 when I first published that blog post, I was actively engaged in dialogue with those books for my own learning. I was also being taught about centering prayer in two separate venues: in seminary and in a ministry internship. So I had a deep contextual understanding (historical teaching, experiential training) of centering prayer. The books made sense to me, and I was able to take the meat and spit out the bones. But it wasn’t until I engaged those topics in a wider audience that I realized those books are not for newbies. If I didn’t plan to share the entire training in that blog post (would have been a book, not a blog article!), then I needed to not make reference to those particular books.

The Challenges for Readers and Writers

The reason for my concern is, as my friend mentioned in our conversation, unfortunately many people will read something and take it in at surface level without praying about it, asking questions, or digging deeper. Unfortunately many people who read Christian online content aren’t taught about accountability, even though the Bible reminds us of wisdom and safety in a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, 24:6). But many people aren’t taught that. Ideally when someone reads an article written by someone they don’t know, and it hits them sideways, they should go to people they trust and get their feedback. And also take it to God for His guidance. But so many people aren’t taught to do that. And if they know the author personally, then ideally they should ask the author first to explain. That not only helps the reader find clarity but might also help the author rewrite to clarify. So that is one of the challenges on the reader’s side.

On the writer’s side, often we write from the season we are in. And where else can (or should) we write from? We have to write from where we are sitting at the time. Otherwise we will never write. Then later, we experience growth, and maybe that shapes our perspective in ways that the reader can see the growth in our writing over time. Think about an author you have read for many years. I’ll bet you can literally see that author’s spiritual growth and life experiences shape the things she writes. In most situations, this growth will be gradual and will tend to move more deeply in the same direction. But in other cases we, as writers, may do an about face and realize something we said earlier does not line up with where our spiritual growth has brought us.

Ideally we will remember things we wrote earlier. If something needs to be edited or updated, we should go back and either change it or write a note updating it (or possibly delete it), or we can even create a new edition of a book with a new introduction explaining the changes. The reason for doing this is that the meat of the book is still valid, but we want to add a new perspective or context based on what we have learned over the years.

Sometimes an author has to just say they have changed their view, especially when it’s a sea change. And they need to be transparent and public about this. If they are influential or have a big following, they need to say it out loud and publicly. A prominent author that I read did that recently. He did a complete about face on a writing practice he had promoted for years. He publicly wrote a letter to his readers and told them he had changed and why he had changed.

For my own example, I originally wrote a guide to devotional writing. I wrote it 13 years ago, and 99% of it is still correct. But I no longer believe that a writer should write a devotional every day. I can’t even believe I said that, let alone believed it. That was before I had any inner healing. I hadn’t learned how to rest, to just “be,” and to let God order the rhythm of my day. If I were still in the writing community I was with at that time, I would issue a public correction of that guide. But that community no longer exists. So I simply took the guide off my website. Maybe one day I will have time to change the guidelines and republish them. But for now, they are just removed from my website because I no longer want to say anything remotely like that to a writer. Instead I spent the summer telling my online writing group why I haven’t been writing lately and why it is okay if they are having the same experience.

Writers Are Always Growing

We are always in a growing process spiritually. As Christian writers, we have the responsibility to do due diligence and make sure what we write lines up with scripture and God’s nature at the time when we are writing a particular piece, whether it be an article or a book. We need to be sure to ask for feedback on our work (before we publish) from trusted individuals who have a clearly demonstrated close walk with the Lord. This step is especially important in the age of blogging and self-publishing, where we lack the traditional layers of feedback that we would have found in working with Christian publishing houses. We also have the responsibility to follow spiritual health and growth practices like accountability, inner healing, and spending time with God and in His Word.

But we are always going to be growing. So we may, to the best of our understanding, write something that rings true at the time. But later we change our understanding and rewrite it from a place of growth. And ideally we help our readers see that transition where necessary, especially with a major about face.

We are accountable for the words we write – not just at the moment, but long after they are in print. While we are not responsible for someone’s response to our words, we do need to be aware of what we have spoken and repent when we realize our words may have been amiss. If we wrote and published something in the past, and now we realize that we were wrong, we ask and receive forgiveness. We ask God to help those who may have been confused by our words. That’s all part of growing up in Christ. And we take whatever steps are needed to publicly correct or remove those words so they don’t affect others. We’re like teenagers growing up under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We make mistakes. We learn. We repent (means a complete change of heart in a new direction, i.e., the direction of God). We take responsibility for what we have published in the past to the best of our ability and ask God what we need to do to make it right. We don’t engage in self-destruction by beating ourselves up. And we move on as God leads us. We write again.

As writers, we engage in a two-way interaction with readers. The reader also has the responsibility to use discernment, feedback, clarification, and accountability rather than just taking things in superficially. If something doesn’t sit right, the reader needs to look into it or take the meat and spit out the bones. So both the reader and writer share responsibility for how a piece is written and consumed, always taking things before God and getting wise counsel on both ends of the process.

As writers, we are also avid readers (or should be). So, we need to remember this responsibility when we are in reader mode as well. And as reader-writers, we need to be careful not to judge the authors we read for the mistakes they make. Not only does the Bible tell us not to judge others (Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 2:1-3), but also in the ways we judge other writers, we might end up reaping those judgments in possibly greater proportion in our own writing (Galatians 6:7-9, Hosea 8:7). We need to read responsibly and stay accountable for the words we consume as readers. When we read something that seems amiss, we need to realize it could just as easily be us writing that way. We are called to forgive that writer for their mistakes, as we would hope others would do for us (Luke 6:31-36). Reading the heartfelt words of other writers is a privilege that comes with a reminder to stay humble in our writing.

No Fear

As long as we do our due diligence in our writing, we don’t need to be bound up by fear that would prevent us from publishing where we are in the moment. If we have done our best to use discernment and to be sure our work lines up with God and His Word, and if we have sought healthy and trustworthy feedback, we don’t need to be afraid to publish our work. We are always growing. If we wait till we have completely grown, we will never publish anything. (See my article “When It’s Time to Hit ‘Publish.’”) And people will miss out on the blessing of the writing we could have shared with them.

People read things from where they are spiritually at that time. So a writer who has just gone through a stage of growth may be writing for someone just going through that stage, and who better to write it? Further down the road they might both be in a different place. But the writer can trust that God used that written piece to encourage that reader at that particular point in time.

Limits, and What to Do with Them

I do think also a writer has to know her limits. If there is a part of the Bible she doesn’t understand, maybe she needs to write about something more familiar to her. She might need to spend a season growing in that area she doesn’t understand, before writing about it. But she shouldn’t be afraid to embrace that area of growth and step into it.

The writer may say, “I should just forget about that passage. It’s too hard for me.” But if God prompted it, that’s a great invitation to learn and grow. She shouldn’t just dismiss it as “out of reach.” Maybe she has a helpful perspective for sharing it with readers, and maybe that’s why she should be writing about it. The writer’s personal and unique life experiences might give her the right approach to share that scripture passage in a way that will resonate with certain readers. If the writer is willing to learn and grow, she may be writing about that passage before long in ways that surprise her.

Or maybe that particular Bible passage is not for her to write about but for her own personal growth instead. It also might be a stepping stone that will lead to writing about something else altogether.

No matter what, if she feels prompted by God, she shouldn’t dismiss it. I never thought I could write about Exodus 32-34 (or any passage from Exodus for that matter) until I took the time to immerse myself in Inductive Bible Study of that passage. I would have thought it was impossible for me to understand. But if I hadn’t worked through it, I would have missed the rich teaching and truths in that passage that are so helpful for intercessors in understanding how God responds to our intercession.

Granted, the writer who moves forward with a passage that is difficult for her does need to take the time to understand it first, at least enough for what she will be writing about. This is where the use of reliable, trustworthy commentaries can be helpful. Also, the writer should know (or get to know) some pastors or Spirit-led teachers that can help give feedback and perspective. It’s helpful to have several such people to ask questions of (wisdom and safety in a multitude of counselors, Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, 24:6) and be sure they come from different life perspectives.

Seek Feedback from Trusted Individuals with a Variety of Life Perspectives

I once had a pastor disagree with how I wrote about a particular Bible story. So I quit writing about that topic. Later I talked with other pastors who agreed with my perspective. What I realized was that the first pastor I asked about it was a happily married man. He didn’t see things from the perspective of a woman who had been through an abusive marriage. He didn’t understand the dynamics that come with that experience.

In the story I wrote, my emphasis was on how my personal anger (although certainly understandable and even partly righteous anger) had turned into bitter, long-term anger that continued to hurt me. This anger would have led me to cause further abuse if I hadn’t allowed God to heal me. My anger certainly did lead me to many more years of self-abuse. That wasn’t something the pastor could relate to. I believe he thought I was being unmerciful toward people who have been abused (in his defense, he didn’t know I had been abused). In reality, I was talking about the long-term damage that continues to affect a person long after they have been removed from the situation of abuse – the pain that comes with long-term bitterness, unforgiveness, anger, and self-hatred. Often that damage has far worse consequences over time than the initial abuse, no matter how violent that abuse had been. We often do far deeper damage to ourselves than anyone else ever could. (I am the poster child for that, and I thank God for my healing.) The story I wrote ultimately showed how both abuser and abused person needed to seek Jesus’ healing at the cross.

It’s unfortunate that I stopped writing about those topics at that time. I would have written from a fresh perspective on it that might have resonated with people going through or recovering from abuse. I was remiss in not seeking out other pastors to talk to, instead of just listening to one person’s opinion. I failed to recognize that he didn’t have the life experience to see where I was going with the story I was writing. I also neglected to push back and discuss it further with him. That last point, had I done it, might have led to a fruitful discussion where he could have helped me see how to write it more clearly, and it also might have helped him grow in his understanding of his parishioners who were struggling with abuse. If not, the discussion might have led me to see why he couldn’t understand, so that I wouldn’t have dismissed a potential calling to write and publish on the internet for readers who were struggling with abuse.

Not All of Your Readers Are Christian

Whether we write on the internet or write books or articles for magazines, many of our readers may not be Christian. That is all the more reason for us to do our due diligence as writers and communicate clearly when we have experienced growth that changes or clarifies something we wrote – or in some cases to remove it or take it out of print if we are concerned it would lead someone astray.

At the same time, when we are writing pieces about spiritual growth for Christian readers, we don’t have the time or space to include everything that someone would need to understand if they are not Christian or if they are a new Christian. They are not our intended audience for that article or that book. The church needs to provide that growth and understanding for them. So we need to point them in the direction of a healthy church.

This is a reminder that we, as writers, should offer (in our books, on our websites, etc.) an invitation to pray for salvation, an actual prayer of salvation, and encouragement for that person to find a good church (and explain what that looks like). I try to include a salvation prayer and encouragement to find a healthy church in each of my books. But as I write this, I realize I don’t have such a prayer on my website or my blog. That will be the next section I add on my website.

Do Write

To sum up, I think it’s important that writers do their best to bring due diligence into their writing, to be sure it’s in line with God’s Word and His nature, and to get feedback and wisdom from multiple and trusted perspectives. I also think writers need to be diligent about their continued spiritual growth, inner healing, Bible study, prayer, accountability, and intentional quiet time with God.

Additionally, I think writers have a responsibility to be aware of what they have published in the past. When they experience a major change in perspective through a season of growth, they should make those new insights publicly available for their readers, either by publishing a new book edition with a new intro or republishing an article with a new intro. If that’s not possible – e.g., if a publishing company won’t let them – then at least they can share their insights publicly by writing a new article or delivering a podcast that informs their readers of their new perspective.

At the same time, I believe readers need to take responsibility for how they take in and respond to what they read, similar to those things mentioned above – accountability, wisdom from a multitude of counselors, their own Bible study and spiritual growth, and asking the author to clarify when they have questions. I think this is how God designed us to be in the body of Christ. And how wonderful if a piece of writing can inspire and remind us to practice these spiritual disciplines and ways of fellowship and accountability in the body of Christ.

If you are a Christian writer, let God lead you in all that you write. Practice spiritual health, growth, and discernment. Ask trusted people for feedback on your writing. Stay accountable and humble.

But do write. Do not be afraid. Trust the Holy Spirit to prompt you and help you. So many readers will be blessed.

Don’t Let Commentaries Slow Your Christian Writing

When I teach Christian writing classes, I emphasize the importance of Bible study. Christian writers have an incredible privilege of inspiring and encouraging readers to draw closer to God and to dig deeper into His Word. That means writers need to know the Bible and have a solid foundation for presenting scripture in their writing.

This doesn’t mean a devotional writer needs to be a scholar of biblical texts. But there are some basics that anyone writing about scripture needs to practice. One of these is the use of reliable biblical commentaries.

When I mention commentaries, a creative writer may sigh and think, There goes the inspiration or There goes the fun or even There goes the Holy Spirit. I get it. I often have the same response. But learning how to use reliable commentaries in minimal ways is important for Christian writers. And the use of commentaries does not need to slow or make tedious our inspirational writing.

I am creating this article as an encouragement to Christian inspirational writers on the importance of using commentaries and some simple and interesting ways to do so.

Why Should We Use Commentaries in Our Christian Writing?

As Christian writers, we need to look at reliable commentaries. Through our writing, we are expressing our voice in Christian community. We need to converse with others in the community over time and space. That need to engage in dialogue is also why we check more than one commentary and see where we find overlap, consensus, or disagreement. I recommend always consulting at least two commentaries to enhance our understanding of a particular Bible passage.

In our writing, we are pointing our readers to God’s Word. We need to understand the weight of doing that. We want to be sure we are presenting scripture in a way that reflects our own dialogue with Christian community, so we are presenting to the reader as a representative of that community. We’re all in this together.

We need to take some effort to grow in our understanding of scripture over the course of our writing lives. The Holy Spirit leads us as we search the depths of scripture. Commentaries offer a good aid along the way.

Our own wounding can cause us to skew the way we understand a Bible verse. Commentaries can help us sort it through and see more clearly.

The enemy loves to mess with Christian writers, telling us one or more of the following: our understanding of scripture is wrong or not good enough; we don’t have the biblical foundation to write about scripture; or we’re going to lead readers astray. The enemy wants to stop us from writing because he knows how powerfully God will use our writing. By consulting reliable commentaries, we will be able to discern and dismiss the lies of the enemy.

When we love scripture, as most Christian writers do, a good, trustworthy commentary can also provide insights that deepen our understanding of a Bible passage. That experience is something to treasure and appreciate. Good commentaries should add joy to the inspirational process of our Christian writing.

Some Tips for Using Commentaries with Ease

Consider your use of commentaries as part of your ongoing long-term biblical growth as a writer. Don’t let it slow your writing. Let your exploration of God’s Word (a lifelong process for all of us) continue to shape your writing as you go along. Start with where you are right now. Take it as God leads. He will guide you for sure!

1. When you start working with a Bible verse, don’t go to the commentaries right away. Begin with your own prayerful work with the Holy Spirit. Don’t consult commentaries until after you have done your own study of the Bible verse and surrounding passages. You want God to work the scriptures into your heart first. Then use the commentaries for confirmation and to shed light on additional layers to explore later.

2. Find your go-to source of commentaries now, so it doesn’t become a big deal each time. It is worth the up-front investment of time to line up the commentaries you will use as a writer. Start with your church. Does your church have a library? Ask your pastor for suggestions on how to find good, reliable commentaries. (Sadly, not all commentaries are trustworthy, so seek advice from your pastor.)

Do you have a college nearby with online databases? Many local colleges give free public access to databases, and many of those databases contain biblical commentaries. Some school library databases also have free online access to full-text articles that may focus on particular biblical passages. You can often search by chapter and verse. I recommend peer-reviewed articles as the most reliable. Talk to your local college reference librarian for help. They will be glad you’ve asked.

Commentaries can be expensive to buy, but keep your eyes on your favorite publishers. Sometimes they run sales on commentaries, and you will often find good discounts on e-book versions. If you enjoy working with a particular book of the Bible, it might be worth it to buy a good commentary focusing on that book.

Do you have fellow Christian writers in your church or community? Maybe create your own co-op for commentaries. Each person buys one, and then you share with each other.

If you invest the time up front to find good sources of commentaries, you will save time down the road when you are ready to consult those commentaries. You will know exactly where to go each time.

3. Start with Bible verses you know well. One of the best ways to get your feet wet with using commentaries is to start with Bible verses you already know. When you know the meaning of a verse really well, the use of a commentary won’t bring a huge learning curve. It will simply confirm what you already know. That’s one of the easiest ways to get used to looking at commentaries.

A commentary brings you into dialogue with Christian community regarding the interpretation of a Bible verse. For some of the more commonly referenced Bible verses, you have already lived out that dialogue in Christian community. You know the interpretation of that verse and can be confident of how you are sharing it with your readers.

When I chose the Bible verse for my devotional, “Firelight,” I was very certain the core message in my devotional expressed at least part of the meaning of that verse. Why? Because I’ve heard that verse taught, preached, sung, and lived out over my entire life. I had already experienced conversation about the verse in Christian community.

So, start with Bible verses you have heard taught and discussed many times. Verses you know well. Then see how the commentaries reaffirm what you already know. That’s a great way to get used to using commentaries.

4. Start by reading just a few paragraphs from a commentary. For devotional writing and many other inspirational writing projects, you will most likely focus on one Bible verse at a time. You don’t need to read a huge portion of a commentary, just the part that covers your verse. You can read more, of course, but don’t let that cause you to put your writing project on hold. Take baby steps and grow from there. Take a quick peek at the commentaries and keep writing.

5. When you start out, you will notice how much the commentary agrees with your own understanding of your Bible verse. That shouldn’t surprise you because you know God’s Word. That’s really all you need to do: just confirm your understanding of that verse with reliable sources. It’s great if you want to explore further and discover where the commentary offers new insights. If you have a really good commentary, you may find that enjoyable. But you don’t need to do that at the start. Simply confirm: “Yep. We agree!”

6. Remember Bible verses will often have layers and nuances of meaning. If you are writing devotionals, your message will be very focused. You will just be looking at one aspect of the Bible verse you are writing about. You can skim the commentary, looking for your particular focus, and skip all the other aspects the commentary covers. That way you won’t get overwhelmed by all the layers of meaning.

When you are starting out as a Christian inspirational writer, keep it simple. Take one step, then another. With each step, you will move more deeply into your journey of Christian writing. Before long, commentaries will become a simple and natural part of prayerful preparation for your writing.

 

When God Prompts You to Write – Write

I can’t tell you how many times the enemy has planted seeds of doubt regarding my calling as a writer. I’ve also talked with so many writers who feel the same way.

I’m writing this first of all to tell you – do not listen to the enemy. He lies!

Secondly, if God has called you to write (you wouldn’t be reading this if He didn’t), step into your calling, knowing God has an amazing purpose in everything He gives you to write.

Let me share an example. I am currently reading the second novel in a Christian series. The reviews of this novel have been harsh.

While I understood why those readers were disappointed (there are so many typos and cliches that suggest another round of edits and proofreading were needed), I felt like I wanted to continue reading the series, despite those distractions.

Why? Mainly because I fell in love with the characters. I wanted to continue to see how their fictional lives grew and transformed.

So here I am, halfway through the second novel. The main character has been facing a lot of adversity. I haven’t missed the irony that her situation is painfully similar to mine.

Maybe I have sensed a kindred spirit in the author’s description of this character. And maybe I am persevering to see what God will do in her circumstances, to add to my own hope for my struggles.

And there, right smack in the middle of the book, a woman asks the main character if she can pray for her. And the author writes the prayer. (I noticed many Kindle readers highlighted that prayer.)

As I read the words of the prayer, they spoke exactly to my situation. By the end of the prayer, the main character and I were both in tears. And I absolutely received that prayer in my heart, just as if I had been standing in the room with that character and hearing those words prayed over me.

God gave the author the words of that prayer – for me and obviously (by the number of highlights) so many others like me. The author was faithful to write and publish those words – even at the cost of getting harsh reviews. Today, that prayer has made an impact in my life. I am so grateful the author was obedient in her calling.

If you are called to write, I can assure you God has a purpose in everything He will give you to write. Sometimes the purpose will be for you, your growth, and your relationship with Him. At other times, the purpose will be for a reader like me, to give God another way of speaking into that reader’s life at a crucial moment.

He knows what the purpose is. He just asks that you write. Don’t let the enemy or your own self-doubts stand in the way. When God prompts you to write – write.

 

 

The Writer’s Prayer Life

Prayer is a key part of the writing process. We should seek God regularly for what He would have us write. We need to begin and end our writing time and writing projects with prayer. We should remain prayerful as we write. Ideally every word we write should be bathed in prayer. But that’s just part of the prayer life of the writer.

Here are five ways that will enrich our writer’s prayer life:

1. Daily conversation with God – As we spend time each day growing in relationship with God, we will experience a daily process of transformation. That process is about our life, not our writing, but it will shape our writing and give us a new excitement for the things God calls us to write.

2. Seeking God for inner healing – Again, this is part of our transformation, and we should do this whether or not we are writers. But the benefits will be clear to us and our readers. Imagine how different our writing will sound when we have found peace or forgiveness in an area where we have struggled with bitterness. Imagine the testimony through which the Holy Spirit can impart peace to those who read our words of God’s healing.

3. Lectio divina – This meditation on scripture that has been practiced for centuries in the monasteries can benefit the prayer life of the writer. We just need to be sure we are engaging the process as God’s kids, not as writers. While we can (and should) engage in lectio divina as part of our preparation to write about scripture, we also need to take time for ourselves to immerse in scripture with no writing agenda. A time to just be with God in His Word. As the Word of God comes alive in us, He will shape our writing.

4. Centering prayer – This spiritual discipline, also practiced in monasteries, is devoted to simply sitting quietly in God’s presence. Just being with Him. During this time with God, we are not aware of anything God is doing. We are simply present with Him, focused on Him, and filled with His presence. Not talking, not listening, just being. This time spent with God will shape our whole day. And the next time we sit down to write, we will see that God has been (and is) with us.

5. Soaking in God’s presence – God is always with us. But the world is also very distracting. It is life-sustaining to take time and intentionally soak in God’s presence. Just breathe Him in and revel in who He is. This may look different for each of us on any given day. It might be taking a walk and enjoying nature, listening to music, playing with animals, reading an uplifting book, or enjoying a meal with friends. If we ask the Lord, He will prompt us for what He knows we need that day. Our writing will reflect what we have soaked in.

Those are just five (of many!) ways to engage a life of prayer as a writer. We need to remember that we are not simply practicing these ways for the sake of our writing. The life of prayer is vital to our spiritual growth and well-being as God’s kids. But a healthy prayer life will also affect our writing and will impart God’s peace to our readers.