I just returned from a week at the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop in Princeton, New Jersey. Buechner has always been a model for me, an author who expresses the essentials of faith in beautifully crafted prose, creating new forms as he writes. Spending a week with other presenters and prospective writers got me thinking about why I write.

Not long ago I received a letter from Indonesia written in fractured English:

“I been reading your book The Jesus I Never Knew. These truly a blessing. I read them three times. many times i couldn’t sleep at night thinking what you wrote. Your book help me see Jesus not only a person who lived and died on earth 2000 ago, but also a real person that risen 2000 ago that still reacheable until today.”

Whenever I get such a letter, I give thanks for the privilege of working with words and for the unlikely linkages they make possible. I know no more isolated occupation than writing. “We read to know that we’re not alone,” said one of the students tutored by C. S. Lewis in the movie Shadowlands. Yes, and we write in desperate hope that we’re not alone, hoping that the sometimes-tedious tasks of researching, composing, and polishing words will eventually become a virtual chain that links us to others.

Soul Survivor QuoteWriting has afforded a way for me to work out my faith, word by word. As a journalist I sought out people I could learn from, people who ultimately pointed me toward the Jesus way (I wrote about some of them, including Frederick Buechner, in Soul Survivor). And to my astonishment God eventually began to use my own words to encourage others in their faith.

A woman in Lebanon told me how much my book Disappointment with God meant to her. She read it a few pages a night in the midst of the civil war there, descending thirteen flights of stairs in a darkened stairway to a bomb shelter underground and reading by the light of a kerosene lamp. Another woman in Beirut wrote that my book What’s So Amazing About Grace? helped her have a better attitude toward the P.L.O. guerrillas who had commandeered her apartment. I read such letters and think to myself, I really had in mind a chronic illness not a civil war, and neighbors who play loud music not guerrillas who move in uninvited. Again and again God has surprised me by using words written with mixed motives by my impure self to bear fruit in ways I never could have imagined.

JINK P1000148cropI have an entire bookcase devoted to copies of my books published in foreign languages. I used to worry about how my words would relate to other cultures. As I travel internationally, though, I realize that we human beings are alike. We face the same basic issues: growing up, sex drives, temptation, romance, ambition, money, children, illness, death. We wonder how a God who created the universe can care about our petty problems, and why God’s intervention on earth seems so unpredictable and sporadic. We wonder about right and wrong, life and afterlife, pleasure and pain. Though they manifest themselves in different ways, at heart the same realities confront us all, no matter the culture we live in, and we writers simply try to tell the truth about those realities.

Words have a way of penetrating barriers. Think, say, of when a Jehovah’s Witness missionary knocks on your door: immediately defenses go up. But printed words are far less threatening. Someone in Indonesia can pick up a book about Jesus and decide to read it, confident that if she finds it unconvincing, she can simply put it down. Words literally saved my faith. When professors and pastors didn’t know answers to crucial questions, I could find them in authors such as C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton—and, of course, Frederick Buechner.

God forbade “graven images,” which can overwhelm and dominate, like an idol. Instead, God approaches us in the most freedom-enhancing way imaginable: through words. John’s Gospel settled on the title the Word for the clearest revelation of God’s own self.

Modern society keeps drifting away from words, relying instead on images and graphics. There’s even an emoji Bible that translates verses into emoticons (http://www.bibleemoji.com/). I won’t make that shift. I’m sticking with words.


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17 responses to “Why I Write”

  1. Deb says:

    I read a study years ago that they polled Christians and non-Christians for lots of categories and basically, there was very little difference between the two groups. The Christians had slightly more discipline and the non-Christians had slightly more joy.

    That should never be. If I am thinking properly, I think it really does have to be that legalism got in. Hence the discipline, rather than the testimonies being what we are known for.

    I know that what has happened with me is that they brought me back under shame and a sense of never being good enough and things like that.

    I had gotten past all that and they wanted me to not get past it, so that I would change better, but it backfired and I went backwards in everything, because I never could do it in the flesh.

    I kept trying to figure out how to tell them that I am the one mentally breaking down, but they are the ones thinking backwards.

    And now we both are thinking backwards about me.

  2. Deb says:

    Crying my eyes out reading why you write.

    I got to the part about the woman in Lebanon who read a few pages a night in the midst of the civil war there and tears started flowing.

    Back when I read that book, I was struggling with Disappointment With God, but I haven’t had any disappointment with Him in years. Now, I am doing the same process she did, while I feel my mind breaking down and I chose your blog, maybe because there is a sense of immediacy, maybe, because I already chose grace and already am not disappointed with God and already feel like Jesus has become someone I know as a best friend, but I feel more lost than I ever did.

    I am more disappointed with me for not figuring out how to do this whole church thing. Watching the prison documentary yesterday, the man on death row, being a Christian who said that he wanted to die, because if they released him, he would murder someone again and how is it that he had so little faith for him to be transformed and the agnostic person who started the prison had ridiculous faith and everything he believed would happen, happened just as he envisioned it and he created an environment with such freedom and such hope and such grace and mercy. That man eating sandwiches with the death row inmate and having palpable compassion on him and even keeping the jars of peanut butter and jelly and talking so sweetly about it is SUPPOSED TO BE Christianity…. [pyasst]

  3. John C. says:

    In this raucous and mean political season, I write here about the last chapters in your book “Vanishing Grace” which spotlights the troubled relationship between politics and faith — how wanna-be candidates court evangelicals insincerely; how celebrity preachers and talk-show hosts adopt Christian phrases and poses to push a favorite political agenda in disguise. This is arrogance of the highest order and the lowest denominator. As a working journalist on social issues and the arts,(you once quoted me in your book “Prayer”) I have interviewed a number of faithful people — both celebrities like the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and the Apartheid writer Alan Paton (“Cry, the Beloved Country”) and ordinary folks like two ambitious Baltimore ghetto brothers and a remarkable deaf-blind teen from Iowa. One thing they share to their credit is humility — what you call Grace — before God and before society. That doesn’t mean they are passive; just measured: they take their wisdom from above and their inspiration from below — that is, from even humbler folks whom they can help. (Mr. Wiesel once gave up his only break-time during a busy day of teaching to sit alone with me to hear my concerns.) That is real grace in practice. But meanwhile, even more disturbing than the political arrogance on display these days in the US is the public’s approval of it all as support-polls and TV ratings soar. Americans cheer the arguments, the wall building, the hubris on all sides. What a self-centered era. Once, for want of a people’s grace, Jesus wept. Thanks for your reminder/warning in print.

  4. Darek Barefoot says:

    When I was seventeen, I was forced to take a high school class that I didn’t want to take, from a teacher whose manner irritated me. By the end of the year, I was fond of the teacher. As a graduation gift she gave me a bundle of books, including one by C.S. Lewis. It turned out that I was heading into a crisis of faith, and somewhere in the middle of it I picked up the Lewis book (it was Mere Christianity) and it was as if I had been spiritually suffocating and someone let in a blast of fresh air. I read more of his books. Here was a Christian who actually thought, who wrestled with deep questions yet had strong faith. He even believed in evolution while taking the Bible seriously. I shudder to think where I would be spiritually without that gift.

    Recently, one of my friends was so impressed with What’s So Amazing about Grace that he bought a dozen or so copies and gave them away. I got one. Pretty good. I’ve always rejected the American Evangelical tendency to blend patriotism, militarism, and politics in general with the gospel. Then I saw Reaching out for the Invisible God in a thrift shop and picked it up. Refreshingly honest.

    Then I saw you on the Biologos website.

    Keep up the good words!

  5. David Such says:

    Thank you Philip. Well said. The quest to connect and to be understood even meshes for those of us who occasionally write incoherent stories while trying to tell the truth about reality.

  6. Vahen king says:

    I would like to begin by expressing a HUGE heart felt THANK YOU, to you and your beautiful wife Janet. Our brief, but most memorable encounter will be something I’ll cherish forever. Your “words”of encouragement, has made a lasting impression on on my heart. One I will not soon forget.

    I thank my God every time I remember you.
    Philippians 1:3

    As I read your blog on “Why I write,” I was encouraged and inspired, and felt compelled respond.
    You are a very accomplished author and speaker, and what an amazing blessing to know that you inspire millions of people all over the world. What a blessing from God this gift of writing influence that you possess…

    As I was reading, I felt – it was great to get a little “behind the scenes” look, if you will… To see, that no matter where you are in your writing journey, wither it’s just venturing out, or a seasoned veteran, we all feel/experience some of the same things.

    Everything from, looking for new ways to grow and be inspired, to, being open and vulnerable, to, re-living some deeply emotionally challenging times, in order to be influential.

    As I read, I can relate to “why you write” and I feel, writing is now in my blood stream. However, as a new author, I find myself asking the question, “to write or not to write?”

    From the beginning of my 3 year journey with writing my book, Going Farther, I transitioned from saying, I’m writing a book, to saying, I’m writing my first book…but never REALLY knowing if there would be a second.

    I have many thoughts and ideas already formulating about what that next book looks like. However, don’t want to write books, just for writing books sake. It is my passion to inspire people to want a deeper relationship with the Lord. And I never want to lose sight of that.
    Which brings me to the question, if I may? When do you know there’s another book inside you, and not just another blog post?

    Thank you for your heart for God, and your desire to encourage and empower lives. I pray God continues to RICHLY blesses you and your family.

    Blessed and highly favored.
    With rejoicing,
    Vahen 🙂
    Ephesians 3:29

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Writing is my full-time occupation, whereas for many people it’s a hobby or something they do evenings and weekends while juggling demands of family and job. So I’m not sure if our circumstances are the same. At one point I sat down and made a list of ten books that I wanted to write, mainly because I wanted to explore those topics. Eventually I got them all done. In my case, if I keep thinking on one track, reading books, speaking…I stop and pay attention. You know how when you get a new car you start noticing all the others on the road of the same model and type? When I keep gravitating to books on prayer, for example, I pay attention to that questioning voice.

      You’re an accomplished woman with a gripping story, Vahen, and I know you have the opportunity to tell it often. I’m sure, too, that along the way many people respond with their own stories and questions. I hope you keep writing though, as you say, there are various forms: articles, blogs, books. It’s hard work, as you well know. Thank you for the encouragement, and bless you as you listen to the voice of guidance that only you can hear. –Philip

      • Vahen king says:

        Thank you SO much,
        I really appreciate your time and attention to responding to my questions, and your beautiful words of encouragement. I value it GREATLY.
        In this season of my life God has greatly blessed me with the luxury of time and resources to travel and speak, as the doors are opening WIDE. The fact that I get to share what God has done in my life is truly a gift from God, and I thank Him EVERY day.
        I also understand what you mean about listening and “paying attention,” and so I will continue to pray for God’s direction with ears WIDE open, as I follow where He leads.  🙂

        “I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Revelation 3:8)

        Together in HIS service,

  7. Dan Leach says:


    I’ve never read any of your books. I do, however, know two of your biggest fans, and they both recommend starting with The Jesus I Never Knew. What do you think, though? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.


    Dan Leach

  8. Philip
    I’m a friend, a fan and a follower. Thank you for your words. They’ve helped me today as I try to write. Not nearly as well as you, but in my own broken voice and style.

    Thank you!

  9. Brenda says:

    I pray you and others like you continue to write. I’m reading Vanishing Grace now and it is answering a lot of my questions.
    I have one request that I hope you and other Christians writers consider. I ‘m reading this book on a Kindle and I am using it as my morning quiet time study. Therefore I would like to look up verses and read the verse in content. But the book only shows part of the verse without reference. I wish they were include the verse reference. Perhaps the hard copy book does. Thank you again.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Ah, good point. In the hard copy, the notes by page number at the back show all the verse references. I can see how this would be frustrating on a Kindle. I’ll work on that.

  10. Miriam Conrad says:

    A respected publisher has asked me to write my life story for a possible book. From the delivery room where I was rejected to this day where my 7/24 caregiving responsibilities demand all I can give and more (supplied by the heavenly delivery wagon), life has not been good. Writing about it, digging up the memories, uncovering the lies I used for protection all create open wounds where scars had covered the initial injuries. Yesterday I had determined the effort was not worth the pain. This morning your words encourage me to not give up…

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I am blessed by your note. I’m in the process of writing a memoir too, and find that even digging up painful memories can be therapeutic, a way of stitching together the past into some sort of meaningful pattern. I hope you find that true as well.

  11. Vicki Bee says:

    Richard, my daughter’s godfather, works with images. He’s a photographer and director of photography in motion pictures. He’s always been good with colors and light (a director of photography works with light and in theatre works with the lighting.) That’s why so many people in film have such an attitude problem about the DP. They think it’s nothing to do the job but none of them does it. I used to think being a secretary must be easy compared to being an ECG Technician but when I actually tried to do the work it was a nightmare. From that point forward I never thought the work of someone else was easy just bc it looked like it from a distance.

  12. Sarah Weber says:

    I have a lot of bookshelves, and anyone who looks at them can soon tell that my two favorite Christian writers are Philip Yancey and Fred Buechner! (Anne Lamott and Barbara Brown Taylor right behind you!) I also have taught an adult Sunday School class for many years, and I think the topic that left the most lasting impression was our reading (and the video) of What’s So Amazing About Grace?

    We’ve done several studies based on your books over the years. Thank you for your wisdom and grace!

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