Learning the unforced rhythms of grace

Creating a rule of life in a 24/7 world

Jude Tiersma Watson Image Jude Tiersma Watson | Feb 26, 2014

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message

What do rhythms look like in a world where everything from groceries to gas to the Internet is available twenty-four hours every day?

Growing up on a dairy farm, rhythms were a natural part of my early life. Now as an urbanite, I find myself longing for rhythms to give some order to life in the city. In my rural upbringing, we adapted to natural rhythms. Now, living in a nonstop city, we have to be the initiators of our rhythms. One way to do this is to learn from the ancient practice of creating a “Rule of Life” for ourselves, our families, and perhaps even our communities.

What is a rule of life?

What provides the support and structure for you to grow? A decade ago, I had given this little thought. I used to think that life would get less busy next year, or the year after, but the opposite seemed to be true. Now I realize that in our society and in our ministries, filled with endless options and opportunities, I need to be more careful about the form that my life takes.

A Rule of Life provides a way for us to be more intentional about our lives and the ways we want to invite God to transform us. We can pray for God’s work in and through us, to become more Christ-like, but this does not always happen automatically or randomly. Thinking through our life patterns adds a layer of intentionality to our desire to see our lives transformed. You may already have an informal life rhythm, or “rule” of life, without calling it that—patterns that you have developed in your spiritual life. Or perhaps rhythm has eluded you, in particular as you’ve become busy with well-meaning ministry work.

Some of us might resist the idea of a “rule” as restricting our lives, but the intent is to create a guide that shapes our lives and allows us to thrive. This use of the word “rule” is from the Latin regula (not from lex or law). A regula serves as a guidepost or railing—something to hang on to in the dark that leads us to where we are going [[Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of Benedict for Today (HarperSan Francisco, 1991), 7.]]

This guidepost is sometimes described as a trellis—a support for a plant such as a grapevine. Without a trellis, grapevines would wallow in the mud after the rain, rather than being lifted above the ground. The grapevine might produce some fruit, but in a rather disordered way. Tied to a trellis, however, far more fruit is produced.

The trellis does not have value in and of itself; it does not exist for the sake of the trellis. Rather, the trellis provides the structure for growth and thriving.

Like a grapevine, humans too need structure and support for spiritual growth. Similarly, we find that spiritual fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, and others have space to flourish. Marjorie Thompson observes, “Otherwise our spirituality grows in a confused and disorderly way. The fruit of the spirit in us gets tangled and is susceptible to corruption, and the beauty of our lives is diminished. We need structure in order to have enough space, air and light to flourish. Structure gives us the freedom to grow as we were meant to.” [[Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: A Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (John Knox Press, 1995), 137.]]

The history of living in rhythm

Historically, a Rule of Life ordered the shared community ethic of those residing in monasteries as part of a religious order. Centuries ago (A.D. 540), Benedict of Nursia crafted his “Little Rule for Beginners” for those who wanted to live faithfully in uncertain times. Initially this “rule” governed life among the Benedictines. Describing a pattern of life, it nurtured a communal spirituality that came to characterize that particular religious order. Following their rule, the Benedictines became known for their rhythm of work and prayer, and the practices of listening and hospitality.

In more recent years, writing a “rule” has been discovered and adapted by laypeople of many Christian traditions as a way to order our lives and grow toward holiness. Our times, like those of Benedict, are characterized by much change and transition in the world around us. Those of us in ministry know that the demands and uncertainties of life and ministry can lead to chaos in our personal lives, or a sense of going from one thing to the other without much intentionality. The urgent can so easily begin to control our lives. We are told to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19), but sometimes life itself seems to drain us of life.

Our Creator God set the example for us with the rhythm of creation. God created in six days, and then rested. Why did God rest? I used to think that Sabbath was to rest up for the week to come, so that I could be more productive. This flies in the face of a true Sabbath, however, a day for the sake of life, not productivity. Sabbath reminds us that life is a gift to be received. [[For more FYI resources on Sabbath, see “Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City” and “REST: The Four-letter Word of Youth Workers?”]]

God certainly did not need to rest in order to be more productive the following week. By resting, God modeled a life pattern for his children to follow. God stopped, ceased his work, and saw that it was good. For many of us, this is the commandment we so easily ignore. We do so for the sake of the Kingdom, or so we think, but we ignore this at great cost. Establishing the Sabbath rhythm anchors the rest of the rhythms in our lives. Here are a few other historical examples of leaders who followed a particular rule in their lives:

  • Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker hospitality homes, had a rule that sustained her through such an intense ministry. She read the Bible and received the Eucharist each day, kept a prayer journal, and disciplined herself to see Christ in the faces of the poor.
  • Desmond Tutu, the spiritual leader and friend of Nelson Mandela who helped South Africa move out of Apartheid, refers to his “substantial spiritual rhythm” that sustained him through years of struggle. Tutu got up early to spend time with God, prayed the daily office, took monthly quiet days at a retreat center, and made a longer yearly retreat.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. developed a rule that guided the protests of the civil rights movement, sometimes called the ten commandments of the non-violent movement, to which all participants had to agree. His rule considers both specific practices as well as the inner attitudes or postures beneath those practices. They include: meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus; remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory; walk and talk in the manner of love; pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free; observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy; seek to perform regular service for others and the world; refrain from violence of fist, tongue or heart; strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health; follow the directions of the movement. [[Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, 140.]]

How to Write Your Rule

A rule of life can be either personal or communal. We will begin with tips for creating your personal rhythm, but this also can be very meaningful if done with your family or community. A personal rule is not individualistic. It might include a family rhythm as well. I’ve shared some of my rule for this year as an example below, which involves my husband in some elements.

Benedict begins his Little Rule with the word “listen.” Our rule is made out of the raw material of everyday life, not an escape from life. This is the life we have been given, no other access to God than the here and now. So we listen to our lives and to God speaking into our lives.

Here are three questions to consider as you ponder your rhythms:

  • What am I attracted to and why?
  • Where do I believe God is calling me to stretch and grow?
  • What kind of balance/rhythm do I need in my life? [[Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, 143.]]

Our rule is a blend of the places we more naturally relate to God, those practices we are drawn to, and places we need to grow. I am drawn to solitude and silence, and include a time of silence in my Rule. When I am out and about, however, I can get easily distracted, so I include a practice that reminds me to pay attention to God in the midst of my active life. This is one place God is calling me to grow.

A good starting place is recalling the rhythms in your life that have sustained you, that fit you well, and that use your natural ways of talking to God. God always works with who we are. If you have been praying the Psalms for many years, or listening to worship music, and it continues to be life-giving, do not throw that out. But perhaps there are rhythms that are no longer suited for you, that are like a yoke that does not fit very well. Perhaps it is time to let that one go. What might be a posture or practice that fits you better at this season in your life?

The idea is not to overload ourselves with practices that are unsustainable. This is not for the sake of the practice, but to be more like Jesus, to come closer to Jesus, and to find a healthy yoke that is life-giving.

Prayerfully consider just three practices to include in your Rule of Life, as well as a posture you want to live into. This is your personal rhythm. Three may not seem like much, but a rhythm needs to be realistic and sustainable. Remember that this can be tentative. We live into it, and if it does not fit well, we can adapt it.

Each year I reevaluate my Rule of Life, and typically alter one aspect of it. Not everything is included in my rule, but the aspects I will focus on this year, places where God is forming me. Other years I have included one on Sabbath, but that is not my focus this time. This year I have added a line on hurry. I heard someone quote this from Dallas Willard, and as I paid attention and listened, it seemed to call my name. I hurry too much. I need to grow in this, so I added it to my Rule for this year.

Posture also matters, and I have started adding a posture that I want to work on. A posture is a way of being. Postures I have included in the past are humility and gratitude. This year my posture relates to my tendency to hurry everywhere. Sometimes people say to me, “I know you’re busy, but…” When I look at the life of Jesus, his life was full, but he was not always in a hurry.

Jude’s Rule of Life for this year


  • Morning: 30 minutes of solitude, followed by reading scripture with John.
  • Throughout the day: Pray the Jesus Prayer as a way to pray without ceasing, with special attention to praying while walking the streets of my neighborhood. (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.”)
  • Evening: Reflect on the day with John, using the Examen. End the day with a prayer from the Celtic Prayer Book
  • “Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” (Dallas Willard)
  • Remember daily that life is a gift.

After a few months, I evaluate my Rule and see how it fits me. Is it a life-giving Rule, or does it feel like a burden? If so, how can I make adjustments?

Sometimes life gets in the way, and we lose our rhythm. Rather than feel defeated, I remind myself that this is an “unforced rhythm of grace.” God’s mercies are new every morning, and we can begin again, any time of the year.

Life Rhythm For the Sake of the World

At a conference a few years ago, I heard a Father say, “One monk finds peace, one thousand find salvation.” I sometimes remind myself of this. My rhythms are never just about me. We need to start with ourselves, but we live our lives in the world. Jesus is our example here – he sometimes withdrew from the crowds, but he did not stay there. He lived his life in the midst of people’s demands, just as we do. Our rhythms are for the sake of life, not only for our individual lives, but also for the world around us.

Action steps

  • Take a temperature reading of your own life rhythm. Do you feel more chaotic than you’d like to feel? Write down the elements of your spiritual life that make up the “Rule” you practice now, if any.
  • Read back through the “How to write your Rule” section of this article and the three questions to consider. Then form your own list of 1-3 practices and a posture, if that resonates with you.
  • Share your rule with a friend, spouse, or spiritual guide, and invite them to check in with you about how it’s going in a month. Consider making adjustments as necessary based on what’s life-giving and what feels like more of a burden.

Additional Resources

Photo by Keenan Constance

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Jude Tiersma Watson Image
Jude Tiersma Watson

Jude Tiersma Watson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Urban Mission in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary and serves on the Executive Committee for the Fuller Youth Institute. Jude and her husband John are elders with InnerCHANGE/CRM, a Christian Order Among the Poor. Jude has lived in the Westlake immigrant neighborhood in central Los Angeles for 20 years. The InnerCHANGE team in L.A. seeks to see God transform and raise up leaders for a new urban generation. Jude has a special interest in the integration of spirituality in the urban context.

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