Ditch the resolutions for a rule

January 1 – an entire shiny new year lying ahead, 365 calendar squares of unmarked living. It screams of so much potential. Who knows what might happen in those days? What sort of life may unfold? Who might you become in this year?an unscribbled calendar

And to give voice to that deep desire for change, this time of year we regularly reflect on our lives and set out to live differently, resolving to make changes and live better. These resolutions are genuine expressions of hope, wishes for the life we want to be living. They are good desires and it’s wise to name them. But isn’t there something crazily cracked with our resolution making when six weeks later, 80 percent of people have either broken or forgotten them?

The problem with resolutions isn’t their foundational hope for growth and change, but their arrogance. We figure wanting a change and naming the change will somehow produce the change. But intent and desire alone won’t create the life we long for; they need help because resolutions regularly hit the wall of our habitual nature. (part of the hubris of this annual exercise in resolution-making is the modernist assumption that simply conceiving the change – the idea or notion of it – will make it reality. Of course, there’s also also the individualist ethos that subverts the whole project. Most of our resolutions are solo projects, assuming you can do this alone when, the truth be told, if you could do it alone you would have already done it)

The modern meaning map of unbridled individual freedom and autonomy has created the western life script of unregulated, hyper-individualism — the vision (myth) of freedom. But this is something we are proving ourselves to be extraordinarily bad at. We are now more anxious, over-weight, in debt, and lonely than ever before.

No matter how free and unencumbered we insist we are, in reality we humans are such creatures of routine and habit. Knowingly, but mostly instinctively, we crave and create meaningful patterns to our living. We simply can’t enjoy the freedom of life without a form, some skeletal structure on which to hang the flesh of our days. And the problem with New Years resolutions is that we don’t have the the eco-system of habits and practices in play to produce the life we desire.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We already do have every sort of habit and practice in place — some intended but most unnoticed. It’s this current infrastructure of practices that has produced the life we are now living. And it’s that way of life which will produce the same results, despite the blip of a few weeks of early winter resolve.

“The most powerful choices we will make in our lives are not about specific decisions but about patterns of life: the nudges and disciplines that will shape all our other choices.”  Andy Crouch

As you look ahead to a new year, let me invite you to step back a few hundred years for a bit of monkish wisdom – take your new years resolutions and trade them up for a rule of life.

A rule of life (sometimes called a regula) sat at the heart of monastic communities, providing a common way to live out the gospel. A rule of life is an intentionally curated pattern of Christian practices. In essence, a rule is a structure. You could think of it as a crutch, a support for people who limp but want to grow in lives of obedience and Christ-likeness; it’s for those who know their need for a practical, everyday pattern to shape daily life. 

“Living by a rule” notes theologian Simon Chan “is what turns one into a regular Christian.” This is not elite Christianity or super-hero faithfulness. What’s in sight is regular Christianity (rooted in a regula, a rule) – the ordinary living out of everyday faith, the small acts of prayer, service, devotion, and love cultivated through and trained by a rule of life. As St. Benedict put it, a rule of life is a tool that makes “the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”

A few years ago I completed my doctoral thesis on how a rule of life might shape a church community in our contemporary world. As a pastor, I knew something was off in how the church was forming (or not forming) disciples. It was not producing regular and resilient followers of Jesus – and not forming God’s people in community and as a people. The support structures of Christendom that once shored up faith had been dismantled, lying now in the scrapyard of secularism. Yet nothing had replaced them. So I spent time exploring the church’s history (seeing how some form of rule has been present in scripture and the church’s history) and experimenting with current-day disciples on how a rule of life can function as a renewed formation architecture to grow a shared and distinctive Christian way of life.

At my church, we have a small community that is now living out such a rule together. The rule of life we’ve crafted involves daily and weekly practices such as prayer, scripture, digital disengagement, sabbath, hospitality, friendships, fasting, and silence. We remind everyone that these practices take time to do their work and won’t immediately give us the life we desire. But like the flow of water that smooths and carves stone, these practices will slowly shape a life of communion with God, a life in which you will know yourself as loved, significant, and free.

We’re still working it out in our church, giving ourselves to these practices, discerning along the way what is working and what isn’t. But I’m hopeful. And so far, its much more helpful than a resolution.

So this year, why not ditch the resolutions and opt for the vintage wisdom of a rule of life? If you’d like help in exploring a rule of life, drop me a note and I can send you some of what we are doing here in Toronto. Of course, there is a growing field of good resources you can check out as well (for starters see: Ken Shigematsu, God in My Everything; Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms; Stephen Macchia, Crafting a Rule of Life; Justin Whitmel Earley’s The Common Rule)


5 thoughts on “Ditch the resolutions for a rule”

  1. Thanks Phil! I appreciate your emphasis on community in creating a rule of life. To develop lasting, faith forming practices takes the encouragement of others who want to grow through such practices. Would be interested to know how often your small community gathers and what kind of format you use that breathes life into this practice. Happy New Year

    1. Thanks Martin – our whole community gathers once very 4-5 weeks, but we also are gathered into triad friendships (3) which meet weekly, over a digital platform but also (and at least) once/month in person.

  2. Dear Phil, Good morning… and Happy New Year! We’ve met a couple of times. We live in Oakville and attend Chartwell Baptist Church. Paul Johansen was our pastor for a number of years. I have many fond memories of attending Knox, both as a teenager and over the years. My brother-in-law John Knibbe from Calgary spent the holidays with us and he attended one of your services. I think he spoke with you. I wanted to send you a quick thank you for your good words about ditching resolutions and going after rules in our lives. I read it at our dinner table last night. I’m thankful for the rules I’ve been able to follow over the years, but I think of the many rules where I came up short. I’m 71 now and still working on resolutions I made years ago!!! 🙂But thankfully, never too old for any of this… May God bless you and your family and your church in the coming year. God give you much grace, wisdom, love and joy as you pursue “living by a rule” in all areas of your personal and family life, and in your important work as a pastor. Kindest regards, Herb Goodhoofd Oakville

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