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.
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.
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.