We underestimate the power of habits, especially those we adopt unconsciously, as a result of our busy and hurried lives. We like to think of ourselves as spontaneous and authentic in our worship and work, when in reality we’re enslaved to habits and patterns that dominate our waking moments. As a consequence, we are wonderless in an age of wonders. Our technology has only freed us up . . . to live like slaves.
In This Is Our Time, I tried to apply insights from each chapter to our everyday lives, so that Christian faithfulness would take shape in habits, both individually and communally. One of the recommendations I made was that we prompt ourselves to give priority to God’s Word by making our bedrooms “phone free” and by opening the Bible in the morning to read and pray before we grab the phone and check in. Out of all the practices I recommended in This Our Time, the “Scripture before phone” application has come up in conversation with readers more frequently than anything else.
A recent reader of my book, Justin Whitmel Earley, has developed a website called The Common Rule and is writing a book on the power of “habits of love for an age of chaos.” I was excited to see the “Scripture before phone” practice recommended there, as well as the daily habit of “kneeling prayer” (in which our bodies and hearts are united in inclining ourselves to God). Justin includes other habits as well, both daily and weekly, and the patterns he recommends are intentional in turning us outward to loving God and the people around us. He writes:
If we are going to live lives shaped by the love of God and neighbor, we need to think about our habits. The vast majority of our lives are governed by habit. We are not formed simply by our deepest beliefs and greatest aspirations, but also the most ordinary of habits that guide our everyday lives. We usually don’t think about these habits, and that’s why they matter so much.
As soon as someone talks about “rules” or “monastic practices,” others are likely to react with disdain. Isn’t this putting us in chains? Who wants to live by a rule of life? Doesn’t this restrict our freedom?
The reality is, a rule of life is what makes possible other attitudes and actions that are harder to come by when suffocated by the weight of the habits we have adopted unintentionally. We are all habituated people, as Justin points out. It’s an illusion to think our habits and rituals and patterns fail to shape our lives and form our character.
The Common Rule pushes us to consider the habits we’ve adopted and to restrict ourselves in certain areas in order to make room for flourishing in others. Some of Justin’s habits (an hour of conversation with a friend, or one meal with others every day, or Sabbath for 24 hours) sound more like gifts than requirements, more like a choice to enjoy life rather than endure it. It’s not a to-do list that we can check off, or something that leads us to pat ourselves on the back spiritually. It’s the embrace of a different way of life, not by radically overhauling everything about our life now, but by strategically abstaining from certain activities or implementing new ones.
Properly understood, The Common Rule is not about self-denial or asceticism for its own sake; it is an expression of joyful willingness—the desire to embrace a new way of life in which we don’t sacrifice what is best for what is easiest. For example, his recommendation to curate weekly screen entertainment to four hours would force all of us evening Netflix watchers to make more strategic choices and only devote our time to what is truly the best use of entertainment time, rather than spending mindless hours on shows or movies that are utterly forgettable. It’s about a life of choosing what’s best, not what’s easy.
There’s no need to enter a monastery in order to reflect upon our current practices. There’s no need to wait until the kids are older, or until we’re retired, or until “things settle down.” These are practices that can be incorporated into the hustle and bustle of busy lives.
Leave aside for a moment the tips about being “more productive” or about maximizing your time and effort (as helpful as time management can be). The Common Rule isn’t about the work we do, but about the people we are becoming. Kudos to Justin Earley for his work on this project! These practices work on our hearts, pointing us upward to God as the center of all things, and then turning us outward to our neighbors, in love and friendship. May the Common Rule truly become common among us.