Rule of Life
Words by Jill Barlow
No one likes making mistakes. But for many years, I lived a mistake: I had no boundaries. I was twelve people’s best friend; I went to hundreds of Young Life kids' soccer games, cheer practices, and piano recitals; I worked 50 hours a week as an actuarial consultant and managed to have a meaningful dating relationship; I led a Young Life Bible study and also a small group at church; on Sunday mornings before church, I discipled young women. I said yes to every dinner party, football game, and service project. While you may think that’s not really a mistake—nothing epic compared to the twelve book publishers that rejected Harry Potter—the result was tragic: I misjudged the abundant life Jesus offers. I was an exhausted soul.
I had no idea what Sabbath meant.
I knew it was one of the Ten Commandments, but I guess I didn’t think God meant it because I hadn’t seen anyone heed that particular word. Too often I used busy, tired, okay, distracted, overwhelmed, discouraged, or scattered in answering the question, “How are you?” The epiphany was that I knew I wasn’t alone. Not only did I say these words frequently, my friends did too. If we dared to probe further with one another, “How are your personal relationships? Your finances? Your peace? Your joy?” our faces told on us, and a full report wasn’t optional. I would confess my fatigue, tweak one or two things in my weekly schedule, but soon find myself right back in the cycle. I was worn out and frustrated, and I remember feeling like Charlie Brown at his Christmas pageant rehearsal, “Is there anyone who knows what the abundant life is all about?”
What if I obeyed God by keeping the Sabbath—no errands, no chores, no work?
What if I arranged my life to do only the things I love the most?
What if I had guidelines to help me make wise decisions and veto distractions?
My first glimpse of hope came from the book of Acts. The first believers devoted themselves to gathering together to watch wonders, hear the apostles’ teaching, break bread, sell their possessions, distribute the proceeds, attend the temple, and pray (Acts 2:42–46). They were busy, and together. Did you catch the verb? Devoted. They had “glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” according to Luke. They knew how to balance work, sleep, church, meals, relationships, Bible study, and a garage sale. Perhaps Paul had them in mind when he wrote his friends in Rome: “Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. . . . You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it” (Rom. 12:1–2, The Message).
These people experienced life as rich and joyful, and I wanted that in reality and experience, not in theory or knowledge. I sought wisdom from mentors, studied the Bible, and began to read books written by Henri Nouwen, Adele Calhoun, Ruth Haley Barton, and Stephen Macchia. Through their writings, I discovered a spiritual discipline called a rule of life. These authors described regular rhythms that encouraged sanity and disciplines that led to loving God more deeply. The more I read, the more I learned; the more I understood, the more hope began to settle.
A rule of life allows me to clarify my deepest values, my most important relationships, my most meaningful work, and my highest priorities. It gets rid of things that waste time and deplete energy. It insists on the kind of self-awareness that Jesus has in John 10. Jesus knows who he is: “I am the door of the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd” (7, 11 LEB). Jesus knows his role: “If anyone enters through me, he will be saved” (9 LEB). And Jesus knows his purpose: “I have come so that they may have life and have it abundantly” (10 LEB). Jesus is clear about his identity, his priorities, and his life’s aim. Jesus lived with intention in the present.
I can, too.
A dear mentor at Gordon-Conwell, Steve Macchia, taught me that. In his book Crafting a Rule of Life, he explains that the word rule derives from a Latin word regula, which implies a way of regulating and regularizing my life so that I can stay on the set path to abundant life. A rule of life is descriptive in that it expresses how I want to live. Like a trellis that guides a plant’s growth in a certain direction, a rule of life curbs my tendency to wander. It honors my limits. It keeps my desires in focus. It mitigates against “too much” and is written for who I am, not for who I am not. When I fall short of these intentions, the rule becomes prescriptive, showing me how to return to what I established. It shows me where I need to be stretched and challenged and highlights where I am burned out and need balance. It is not fixed and rigid, but adaptable and shaped to fit my needs and desires. It is fulfilled in the routines of everyday life, from a well-ordered heart, resulting in a well-ordered way.
Each rule is a way to partner with God for the transformation only he can bring. In the garden, when life was joyful and serene, God invited discipline. He set a limit for Adam and Eve, and it was good. Their rule of life included eating from any of the trees, except for one. It was a test of obedience, and it was their first abundant-life lesson. God wanted them to choose life, not knowledge of good and evil. He wanted them to obey his commands and to see that life is more wonderful when they practice self-discipline and honor God.
As a Christian, my life is hidden in Jesus (Col. 3:3). I have everything I need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3), yet I need the Holy Spirit to grow holiness in me. If I want to be kind or patient, my day must include time to allow the fruit of the Spirit to grow. If I want the core values that serve as the foundation for my relationships, responsibilities, and decision-making to flourish, I need pauses in my day in order to hear God. I need solitude to listen and stillness to recognize how he has designed me—his chosen, adopted, beloved child since before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:1–8)—that I might glorify him.
By clarifying my life’s vision, spiritual gifts, and desires, my new self in Christ can be transformed in concrete ways. When I practice solitude, my rule of life includes physically sitting on the floor and reading the Bible for an hour. I choose the floor because as soon as my mind wanders, I notice where I am and why I am there—on the floor, to be with my Father. There is nothing spiritual about the floor; it is part of my rule because I am easily distracted. Because I love God, I want unhurried, not-just-me-talking, meaningful time with him, so that means an early morning, and an early morning means bedtime is a rule so that I am rested when I am with him. In similar ways, I brew coffee at home so that I can be generous, text thoughtfully so that I express love rather than boredom, and do not schedule back-to-back meetings so that I can portray God’s attentiveness.
God transforms me through these disciplines, but it isn’t easy. It is hard, and sometimes it is defeating. Make no mistake: there is a thief. He comes to steal, destroy, and kill my soul (John 10:10). When he does, I take Jesus at his word: “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28 NIV). A rule of life takes discipline, which requires repetition, which requires determination, which requires time. Since there is never enough time, I must acknowledge my powerlessness. I cannot change myself, and I cannot create more time.
Today, I enjoy answering, “How are you?” I still make the mistake of packing my schedule too tightly, but it happens less often. I remind myself that the work of his Spirit depends not on my will or exertion, but on God, who gives grace and mercy. When an abundant life appears to be a paradox, or on the days that “abundant” seems like an impossibility, I take heart and once again place my life before God as an offering.