Developing a Personal Rule of Life
Rev. Dr. John Fullerton
I grew up in a Roman Catholic family. I grew up with high liturgy worship services, priests hearing confessions on Saturday nights, and not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. I was even an altar boy at one point.
While I abandoned the Roman Catholic church in college and entered a seven-year lull of spiritual nothingness before a spiritual awakening at a Presbyterian Church, parts of my childhood spirituality in the Catholic church still tug at me. I am an extrovert by nature, but I also value solitude and silence, reverence during Communion, and a desire to pause for contemplation as part of prayer. I later learned to value another practice originating from the church of my childhood that is useful for any believer. It is a way of living the life of faith integrating spiritual practices described in the Scriptures. It is called the rule of life.
What is a Rule of Life?
A rule of life is a commitment to live your life in a particular way. In church history, the particular way was about communal living. Members of religious communities lived by a rule. The word “rule” is used in the same sense that a piece of wood called a ruler is a guide to help you measure. So, the rule of life originated as practices of Christian communities that helped them measure and guide their growth into godliness. Think about monks going to times of prayer at different hours of the day or keeping track of “feast days,” which are themes of daily and weekly worship around saints of the Roman Catholic church. Those were all part of their communal rule of life.
If the idea of a rule of life is new, don’t let the words rule of life trouble you. As a writer for the C.S. Lewis Institute put it, “If the traditional, ancient term ‘rule’ concerns you because it sounds legalistic, think of ‘rule’ as a ‘rhythm of life’ or as a ‘Curriculum in Christlikeness’ (Dallas Willard), or as a ‘Game Plan for Morphing’ (John Ortberg).”
A Personal Rule of Life
This post is not about a communal rule of life, but rather a personal one. As Jenn Giles Kemper from the group that produces the book Sacred Ordinary Days writes, “Most of us do not belong to communities, monastic or otherwise, that give us a rule to follow, but all communities and families share values and expectations, whether or not they are clearly articulated, and these values and expectations form us, often without our awareness. By crafting a rule of life, we become intentional about the forces and dynamics that shape who we are becoming.”
This post is about who we are becoming. The personal rule of life helps shape that person we are becoming. It’s personal because it’s drawn up by you, it’s about you, and you are the one committing yourself to it. What is helpful is that it is also holistic in that is names practices done daily, weekly, monthly, and annually.
What Goes Into a Personal Rule of Life?
In the end, a personal rule of life is a set of spiritual practices, also called spiritual disciplines. Spiritual practices make up the details of a rule of life. These practices include prayer, fasting, worship, silence, giving, serving, study, confession, and many more. Not all spiritual practices are done by every person. You choose which to include in your personal rule of life. You choose based on desired growth in love for God and personal holiness. In order to choose, some personal reflection is needed. Some self-awareness is needed.
Start with Self-Awareness
Before naming or writing a personal rule of life, think first about your life. Think about your current situation in life such as family responsibilities, work schedule, commitments, and other life circumstances. Reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of your character. Again, the C.S. Lewis Institute was helpful by asking people to think about the “seven deadly sins” – a list of sins that if left unchecked will lead to greater sins—and their opposites.
- Sloth | Fruitfulness (not productivity)
- Envy | Love
- Greed | Generosity
- Pride | Humility
- Anger | Gentleness
- Lust | Chastity
- Gluttony | Self-denial, moderation
Where do you struggle? Start there. If it is one of the above sins, name it. Journal about it. Talk with others about it. If it is pride, for example, that inordinate centering on the self, maybe the spiritual practice to help is serving in a homeless shelter. And doing so without fanfare, without posting it on social media, without self-aggrandizing. Just go quietly love people. Let what is missing or weak guide what spiritual practice to add. That will connect the practice to a greater work for your good and God’s glory.
Consider the Possibilities
Once you have identified places you want to grow into holiness, then consider where the range of possibilities. A quick search on the internet revealed this page with over 50 books on the topic. Different authors categorize the spiritual practices of our faith differently, but they are all in service of taking what is shown in Scripture and making it accessible in our day. The following is a list to help get you thinking. It is a suggested, not an exhaustive list.
- Bible study, including doctrines Scripture teaches
- Worship, Sabbath-keeping
- Biblical community, small groups
- Using spiritual gifts
- Showing compassion
- Control of the tongue
- Practicing biblical justice to help the vulnerable
- Giving away time to fulfill God’s purposes (serving)
- Giving away money to fulfill God’s purposes (stewardship)
- Giving away faith to fulfill God’s purposes (evangelization)
Rhythms Over Time
Think of what you will do as you move through time. The following are some ideas for what can be included in each segment of time.
- Daily – Prayer, Scripture reading or memorization, withdrawing, journaling
- Weekly – Sabbath keeping, small groups, fasting
- Monthly – Giving away money, serving the vulnerable, day of solitude
- Annually – Spiritual retreats, engaging church “seasons” such as Lent and Advent
- Lifetime – Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, extended sabbaticals
A Means to an End
It is important to remember that the spiritual practices that are in a personal rule of life are a means to an end and are not the end itself. The end is godliness. Personal holiness. The spiritual practices are in service to that end. In the words of the apostle Paul to Timothy, they help “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).
As Don Whitney, professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of books on spiritual disciplines, wrote, “And so we are not godly just because we practice the spiritual disciplines. That was the great error of the Pharisees. They felt by doing these things they were godly. No, they are means to godliness. Rightly motivated, they are the means to godliness.”
Write Your Own
My encouragement is for you to spend time considering where you would like to grow in godliness and with that develop your own rule of life. Even better, once you have discerned it, write it down. I keep my rule of life in my Notes app on my phone. I update it periodically and go through everything I’ve written about in this post. My goal is personal godliness. It is a satisfying work to think more holistically about my spiritual practices, and it helps my inner and outer life. I hope you will try it.
Rev. Dr. John H. Fullerton, Jr.
Dr. Fullerton has served as our senior pastor since September 2019. Prior to Lakeland, he served churches in Scotland, Ohio, Tennessee, and, most recently, in Dunedin, Florida. While serving local churches, he has also taken leave to teach in theological seminaries in Madagascar and Russia. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Florida, he worked in business for nine years. God then had other plans for his life that led him to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity and then ordination as a pastor. In 2010, he received his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He grew up in a military home that took him all over the United States but considers Palatka, Florida, his hometown. He and his wife, Cile, have been married since 1983 and are proud parents of three daughters who have given them five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading, running, golf, and spending time with family.