Friday, February 5, 2010

Practicing Faith, Part IX: Rule of Life

Though not itself a formal discipline, “intentionality” could very well function as one. It is impossible to conceive of a life of faithful discipleship that is not by its very nature intentional, for to follow after Jesus, taking up our cross daily and forsaking all other ways, requires the kind of attentiveness, prayerful forethought, and habits of mind that constitute what it means to live in the world intentionally.

The role of intentionality, then, in the practice of the spiritual disciplines, is that of habituating us to the rhythms of the Spirit even prior to the actual doing of the disciplines. That is to say, the practice of discipleship does not simply “happen”—it takes great effort, planning, and thoughtfulness. Of course, this does not mean that all we do as disciples is laboriously planned out beforehand, much less that it is we who do the planning. It simply means that following Jesus is not a spontaneous and thoughtless occurrence. It happens gradually, mindfully, over time, with hiccups and obstacles we never expected, in constant need of adaptation, reconsideration, and renewed submission to God’s will.

Another way of framing this is simply to recognize once again that the disciplines are not fundamentally about us, but about God. And because the disciplines are intended, at root, to create space for God to be present in our lives, we do not simply sit back waiting for that to happen, but prayerfully ask for God’s Spirit to lead us in the ways he would have us go. That prayerful discernment, with regard to the spiritual disciplines, is called a “rule of life.”

A rule of life is an ancient practice of the church, developed as a way of ordering our daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly lives in tune with the leading of the Holy Spirit, through the thoughtful planning of the practices that constitute our lives as disciples of Jesus. Instead of ending the day thinking we should have read more of the Bible, or prayed more, or set aside time for silence, or whatever, a rule of life starts at the beginning, looks at our life in all its varieties and routines, and sets out to order our lives to and by God, rather than passively letting God’s presence to us be dictated by whatever “happens to happen” in the course of our days. In this way the primacy of the call to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength does not become subordinated to what our boss, spouse, friend, or child thinks we ought to do or say instead.

Constructing a rule of life, in the context of the church community and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is fundamentally about learning to see and to attend to where God is working (or where he may be crowded out) in the world and in our lives, while it is absolutely not about spiritual performance. The moment a rule of life, and thus the disciplines it is ordering, becomes about what “we” are “doing,” we have become idolaters, because we are not worshiping the God who created, sustains, and redeems us, who loves us with a grace that triumphs over our failures, but we are instead worshiping ourselves, commendable or meritorious or successful tight-rope acts who, by our amazing performance, demonstrate our own worthiness to God and to others. As intended and passed down through the centuries, the construction of and adherence to a rule of life ought to lead resolutely away from this sort of idolatry, perpetually reminding and recalling for us the true object of our devotion, and the reason why we practice the disciplines in the first place.

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Therefore our working definition will be:

In lives of perpetual distractions and disordered desires, a rule of life gives practical shape to our personal following after Jesus, ordering us to the rhythms and habits of God’s Holy Spirit, incorporating our story into the larger narrative of the community of God’s people, and embodying the peace of Christ in a tired and heavily burdened world.

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