This is the fourth post in my Essentials of Self Care series. To read more on this topic, choose one of the following posts:

Sleep

Breathe

Own Your Time

If I had to choose an adjective to describe what life feels like in 2019, I might pick busy, or hurried, or even instant. I’ve been a legal adult for twenty years now, and in that time I’ve observed a steady and alarming progression in the average person’s expectations about how long something should take. For example, twenty years ago my mom had to start her Christmas shopping in October. She had to start that early because the approach of Christmas meant squeezing in shopping trips to the mall or the outlet center, and she already had a busy schedule. If she didn’t want to make the time for one more shopping trip, her other (and sometimes favorite) option was catalog shopping. But to do that she needed to find the type of catalog she needed, find an appropriate gift within it, and then either fill out and mail an order form to the company or call a customer sales phone number and wait on hold for a live person to take her order. And no matter which option she chose, she had to wait for the item she’d order to be prepared, packaged, and shipped, which usually took several weeks.

In contrast from the 90s, I start my Christmas shopping on Black Friday. I rarely buy anything that I need to leave the house for. Most of my shopping happens in one huge Amazon Prime order. I get gifts for everyone that way, because Amazon has pretty much everything, and I don’t have to fix myself up, leave the house, or drive anywhere to get it. I even order most of the stocking stuffers I buy. On Black Friday, or shortly after, I put in one huge Amazon Prime order, click on which of the saved credit cards I want to use for the entire order, and I’m done. I order photo Christmas cards the same way every year from photo storage and gift sites, who often have an option that could allow me to input all the addresses of my Christmas card recipients, so that the company itself will print, address, stamp, and mail all of my cards for me, without me ever even having to touch one on paper.

Amazon, and similar sites that strive to challenge Amazon’s online shopping empire, have taken over so much of our shopping business that small business owners, or even franchised brick-and-mortar store owners, are struggling to survive. The fact that we even have that term, brick-and-mortar stores, speaks to our growing need for instant retail gratification. Interestingly, even though we don’t yet have our hands on the new prize, we get that instant gratification at the point that we order it. “Add to cart” is therapeutic, and when that package shows up on my front porch, its like a shopping orgasm.

Believe me, I’m not about to preach at you about buying local or supporting small businesses. I mean, you should, and so should I, but obviously I fall into the instant gratification trap too, and not just with retail therapy. Five years ago I was obese, a result of several years of bingeing on sugary, fatty, and salty foods. King-size candy bars worked better and faster than antidepressants.

As important as all these things are, I’m not going to write an entire post about things you shouldn’t do, at least not this time. If I’ve learned anything from parenting autistic kids and being a former binge eater, it’s that people eliminate unhealthy behaviors a lot more easily when they can focus on adding healthy ones. That’s where the concept of a Rule of Life comes in.

I first encountered the idea of a Rule of Life in Ruth Haley Barton’s book Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, but Barton didn’t invent the term. A Rule of Life originally referred to a set of guidelines for monastic life. The C.S. Lewis institute describes Rule of Life as “an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness.” In other words, it’s a commitment to engage regularly in a routine of spiritual disciplines with the goal of growing closer and closer to God.

In a previous post in my Essentials of Self Care series I suggested that we can better ensure that we are living according to our personal values and priorities by analyzing our day-to-day schedules and routines and then adjusting them until the things we spend the most time on are a reflection of those values. It’s a simple concept, but it isn’t easy to achieve because there are countless sources of stimulation that fight for our attention all day long. A Rule of Life can be one way to adapt our lives toward our values, or more specifically, toward a continually deepening relationship with our Creator God. No matter how much we do to practice Christian values, no matter how many ministries we volunteer for, no matter how many times we talk to someone about Jesus, if we don’t build a deeply personal connection with God, our faith is at risk. So yes, I’m talking about reading your Bible, about praying, about your “quiet time”. You can go to Bible studies and prayer meetings (please do!), but no group event or ministry can serve as a substitute for a daily personal connection with our Lord.

There are roughly a bajillion Bible verses that describe the importance of a personal relationship with God. (For starters, try John 1:10-13, Jeremiah 29:11, Revelation 3:20, and Hebrews 11:6.) Believers tend to throw around that term, “a personal relationship with God,” without clearly defining it, but you can get a better idea of what a personal relationship with God looks like if you replace “God” with a flesh and blood person’s name. For example, I know for sure that I want to have a personal relationship with my husband. Although Eric definitely isn’t God, I love him, I want to continue loving him, and I want to do things that build up our love for each other and the relationship we’ve built for the last twenty years. That describes, vaguely anyway, what I see as the goal of a continually deepening personal relationship with Eric. The next question I can ask myself is “What can I do on a regular basis to make our love for each other last and to continually grow in closeness and love with each other?”

The answers to that question would depend on Eric’s individual characteristics, along with my own, and actions and words that I know from our past together can bring us closer together. The things on this list, and the commitment to practice them on a regular and frequent basis, would be a “rule of life” for my marriage.

Just as my list of practices that deepen my relationship with my husband are likely different than yours, our Rules of Life that guide our committed daily connection with God will differ as well. But there are some essential qualities that define a rule of life, as well as essential practices that God teaches us to use as we walk with Him everyday.

To begin with, the concept of a Rule of Life implies a commitment to practice a set of spiritual disciplines, or to do certain relationship-building things, on a daily basis. In her book Barton provides her own Rule of Life as an example, but not an exact model. Barton’s Rule of Life consists of a daily routine of “quiet time” with God, but also includes weekly and monthly commitments for longer periods of focused time alone with God. So, while your daily Rule of Life practice might consist of Bible reading, devotional reading, and prayer every morning, it’s also a good idea to include actions like Sabbath practice, personal retreats, and periods of quiet, that can connect you more deeply and for longer periods of time with our Father.

My Rule of Life includes daily Bible reading, both in the context of a topical study and a Bible-in-a-year reading plan.  The Bible isn’t a history textbook, a poetry collection, or a good novel, and God never intended us to read it once and put it back on the shelf. Unlike any other book, the Bible is God’s revelation to us of who He is. Just as you wouldn’t expect to remain close to a friend without listening to his words, you can’t stop reading God’s Word to you. No matter how many times you’ve read it, even every word, spending time reading your Bible everyday will never be a waste (Isaiah 55:11). So make daily Bible reading not just a goal, but a unwavering commitment.

I do take advantage of daily devotional books, and for the last years I have found that reading through certain devotional writings by calendar day every year helps to connect me with God’s story in my own life. I’ve been reading Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening every year for about ten years now, and I continue to gain insight and awe from his reflections. If you want to use a devotional but don’t know what to pick, I would suggest starting with a well-loved classic like Spurgeon’s or My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers. Then, in addition to a classic devotion book, find a newer book that appeals to you by its topic, intended audience, goal, or writing style.

Prayer, meditation, and writing are also essentials for me, because they engage not just my eyes on the page and my knowledge of God’s character, but my own response to what He has shown me, both by His Word and by my relentless daily connection with Him. Both prayer and meditation open my heart and mind to God, and just as significantly, close my mind to outside distractions. That’s easier said than done, of course. There are many days when my daily time with God is interrupted by children, pets, a to-do list, an oven timer, or a phone notification. Eliminate and reduce distractions as much as you can – turn off your phone, close the door, find something to keep the kids busy, and let the people around you know that this part of your time is for God alone. But know also that God recognizes that you aren’t in control of what is going on around you, and in this too there is forgiveness. The more often you practice this time of quiet, mindful prayer the more those around you will see its value in your life, and the better you’ll get at reducing any interference.

For now anyway, I’m not going to attempt to tell you how to pray, how to meditate, or how and what to write during your time with God. These practices are deeply personal, deeply emotional, and deeply individual. Who am I to say that what I get out of prayer journaling is any better than what you get out of, say, praying the rosary? I can’t, because God knows us so well that not only does He listen to any type of dedicated prayer, but I believe He actually wants you to pray in the way that is most meaningful and connected for you. God isn’t limited to only certain types of communication.

If you’re at a loss and simply can’t find a method of prayer that connects you to God, know that I’ve been there too, more than once. There have been periods of dryness in my connection with God when prayer feels like talking to the ceiling. In hindsight I’ve realized that this often happens when I am withholding something about myself that God wants to change, but that may not be the case for you. So if you need me to tell you what to do, try this: silence. Schedule your prayer time for a time when you can be completely alone, with as little noise and distraction as possible. Get up at 2AM, pray, and go back to sleep if that’s all that works for you. Find your silence, set yourself up to stay both comfortable and alert, and then close your eyes, asking God to speak to you. Breathe deep and wait for a while. See what happens. It’s not easy.

Above all, a Rule of Life is a commitment to learn and grow with intentional action and thought. If you’ve ever learned a skill by hand – playing an instrument, running a marathon, riding a bike, or fixing a car – you know that commitment, attention, and routine can come together to give you a deeper understanding and a closer relationship, even with an action or object. A Rule of Life connects us with God in a similar way, but unlike a bike or a trail or a violin, God is waiting to connect with us in a love relationship that can grow infinitely deeper and more beautiful.

Photos by Clark Young, Jan Kolar, Luisa Scheting, Ben White, Heather Mount, Samantha Sofia, and Aaron Burde via Unsplash.