Introduction: Developing a Rule of Life

Dallas Willard did not often use the phrase “rule” or “rhythm of life” in his teaching. However, he clearly taught about developing new transformational patterns in our lives. And he would build these talks around themes such as: “Guidelines for Life in the Kingdom of God;” “How to put Christ into your Everyday Life;” “Learning to Live an Eternal Life Now;” and “Spending a Day with Jesus.” The Martin Institute Part 1 of 12


Table of contents



In this class we are going to focus on one brief talk Dallas gave (about 24 minutes), titled: “Spending One Day with Jesus.” If you prefer written to spoken words, you may also want to read Dallas’ chapter titled, “How to Live One Day with Jesus” in Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks. 1

We encourage you to listen to the talk “Spending One Day with Jesus.” This brief lecture will be divided into two parts. After you have read the introductory article and listened to the first section, you will find some suggestions for developing a rule of life that focuses on increasing your awareness of Christ’s presence in your every day life.

What is a Rule of Life?

Dallas Willard often said, “everyone get’s an education” and “everyone is spiritually formed.” Life is educational and formative. The only questions are, “what type of education are you receiving and how are you being spiritually formed?”

The same type of statement can be made about a rule of life. Everyone already has one. It is how you most typically live each day, week, month and year of your existence.

Can you imagine 10:00 AM arriving without eating breakfast, brushing your teeth and having a cup of coffee or three? If you cannot, these experiences are part of your liturgy for living. A morning commute to work, listening to a favorite radio station or podcast, a quick game of solitaire on your phone, lunch with a friend, picking the kids up from school, stopping by the gym on the way home, letting the mind unwind while indulging in your favorite TV program or podcast, dinner, a glass of wine, reading until you fall asleep, etc. etc. Most people already have a well-grooved pattern of daily life.

The crucial questions are: Is your current rule of life helping you to flourish in your relationships, vocation and self-care? Are the habit patterns of your life making it easy for you to do the next good, right and loving thing? Are the habitual activities of your day increasing your awareness of God’s love and presence?

In the life of the Church through the centuries many individuals and communities have crafted and lived out templates for living designed to enhance the awareness of Divine presence and facilitate spiritual transformation. Marjorie Thompson defines a rule of life as “a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness.” 2 Modern mystic and married monk, Evan Howard thinks of a rule of life as “a concrete expression of the life-intentions of a Christian community or individual made in order to help maintain or mature relationship with God and the Gospel.”3

In this class on developing a Rule of Life, we are going to begin by considering input from Dallas Willard. We will focus on a brief teaching he offered titled, “Spending One Day with Jesus.” But before we begin listening to that talk, let’s consider two questions: Why bother? And if I do decide to bother, how do I get started?

Why Bother?

As referenced above, we are all in a process of becoming. That is, we are already living life in such routine ways that habit patterns for thinking and acting have become engrained. By crafting a rule of life, we begin to be more intentional about the dynamics that shape who we are becoming.

Eugene Peterson famously said, “I am busy because I am lazy.” His reference was to a favorite theme of C. S. Lewis that only lazy people work hard. That is because, according to Lewis, they abdicate the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals to others. The bottom line is, we can become busy by letting others get to our Google Calendars before us. But if we get to our schedules first, with the priorities of a daily, weekly and monthly rule of life we can establish space for non-negotiable, life-giving rhythms.

In the words of Willard, we can only imitate Christ when we are “on the spot” if we take the time to imitate him routinely when we are “off the spot.”

Being too busy. Experiencing daily life as a series of draining demands instead of a gracious gift. Feeling that we are floundering instead of flourishing. These are invitations to begin experimenting with a rule of life.

How Do I Get Started?

A Rule of Life should help you to experience and love God and others more. It is important to remember any thinking about developing a rule as a legalistic way of earning points with God or impressing others should be abandoned. Remember, Jesus never handed out spiritual formation awards to the Pharisees. If the word “rule” concerns you because it sounds legalistic, think of “rule” as a “rhythm of life” or as a “Curriculum for Christlikeness” (Dallas Willard), or as a “Game Plan for Morphing” (John Ortberg).4

Begin where you are: First, as Evan Howard reminds, at the start of your exploration of a Rule, keep track of your time, which is your life. When you have learned what the honest realities of your life schedule, emotional energies, relationships and such demand, you will be best equipped to shape a Rule of Life that reflects not merely a pious ideal, but the concrete shape of a life of abiding and thriving.

A Few Considerations: We offer the following suggestions concerning pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Keep it Simple and Brief: You can only do what you can do, not what you can’t. A Rule must be realistic if it is to be life giving and sustainable.
  2. Keep it in Line with your God given individual differences: Rules vary widely depending on the person. If you are a night person, you don’t have to set your alarm for a 5:00 AM prayer session. Remember, God is up all night. If you are an extreme extrovert, ease into solitude. If you hate journaling, then don’t. As Thomas à Kempis offers, “All cannot use the same kind of spiritual exercises…[and] different devotions are also suited for the seasons [of life]…”
  3. A Rule of Life should include five things:
    1. Self-assessment: What is your current rhythm of life?
    2. Consultation: Dialogue with key friends and mentors as you develop your rule.
    3. A written plan: How will you implement your chosen spiritual practices – on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis?
    4. Accountability: Who will ask, “how is it going?”

Fun: Be playful with yourself and exercise child-like trust as you step into the playground of your life with God.


“Our English word rule is derived from the Latin regula, meaning ‘a straight piece of wood,’ ‘a ruler.’”5 I like to think of a rule of life being like a wooden lattice, a structure or grid that our life begins to grow around like flowers on a trellis.

Esther de Waal, a longtime student of monastic spirituality, writes that “regula, a feminine noun, carries gentle connotations: a signpost, a railing, something that gives me support as I move forward in my search for God.”6 Like a trellis, a rule of life, then, serves as a gentle guiding structure that keeps you trained toward growing in God.

  1. See Dallas Willard, Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks, (compiled and edited by Gary Black, Jr.) Harper San Francisco, 2016
  2. Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. Westminster/John Knox, 1995/2005), 146
  3. Evan Howard, “What is a Rule of Life.
  4. C. S. Lewis Institute. “Instructions for Developing a Personal Rule of Life.”
  5. See Rule of Life on the website for Sacred Ordinary Days,
  6. Ibid.
Gary Moon
Listen to all parts in this Developing a Rule of Life series