“What if the good life doesn’t come from having the ability to do what we want but from having the ability to do what we were made for? What if true freedom comes from choosing the right limitations, not avoiding all limitations?” (11)
I’ll never forget Tim Keller’s illustration of a fish out of water. As Keller explained (more eloquently than I now will), we’d like to believe that the limitless life is the penultimate experience. But we’ve clearly forgotten that limits are not only sometimes necessary, but life-giving. Take the fish out of water as an example. The fish doesn’t necessarily know he’s in the water – it is all he has known, after all. But remove the “limiting” boundaries of water, give the fish total freedom, and he will writhe, suffocate, and die. In order to give the fish a life of flourishing, it is necessary he stay put in the sea. The boundary protects him and keeps him alive.
We live in a culture that demands limitless living. But is that real freedom after all? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe our pursuit of liberation from limits has only made us like a bunch of suffocating fish, desperately gasping for life. It’s the groaning that’s too deep for words – we want to feel freedom and have no clue how to find it. We haven’t even considered that it might be found in the right limits.
The Common Ruleis a rule of life that wants to recover the right limits for the sake of human flourishing, the kind of “good life” that God created us for (and decidedly not the “good life” the world promises and fails to deliver on). The Common Rule consists of eight habits – four daily, and four weekly – that were born out of Earley’s own journey out of a life of burnout and into life with God again. The habits are as follows, with a chapter devoted to explaining each one, and even offering tips for implementing them at a practical level:
- Kneeling prayer at morning, midday, and bedtime
- One meal with others
- One hour with phone off
- Scripture before phone
- One hour of conversation with a friend
- Curate media to four hours
- Fast from something for twenty-four hours
There have been many good books on the importance of habit in the Christian life. We’re beginning to realize together that bad habits (especially ones related to technology) are turning us into a distracted, busy, pre-occupied, isolated, and short-fuse people. But it’s not enough to turn off the bad habits; because as James K.A. Smith points out, “to be human is to be a liturgical animal.” No one gets to decide to be a person of habit; they simply are one. We do get to decide, however, what those habits will be. The Common Rule is a fresh look into the power of habit and what it will do to grow our love of God, love of neighbor.
Particularly helpful is the distinction Earley draws between embrace and resistance. “Embrace,” Earley notes, “is a reminder that there is much good in the world God made,” which resistance contends that “should we do nothing, we will be taught to love the very things that tear us apart.” (28)
Another thing that sets The Common Rule apart is how accessible its content can be for readers. The book has its own “Resources” section at the end that helps readers of certain niches walk through The Common Rule (for congregations, for artists/creatives, for entrepreneurs, etc.). In addition to this, there is an entire website devoted to this initiative, with a page of resources here: https://www.thecommonrule.org/resources
Where The Common Rule really succeeds is being extremely straightforward both about the effectiveness of these habits, and yet the freedom to let some of these limits be “customizable.” For example, the curate media to four hours habit may sound extremely daunting to some. But Earley notes that while the number four is “arbitrary,” that the point remains: “picking some limit…forces curation” (117). Earley really believes in the habits themselves and is a little open-handed with how most of them are applied person to person. It’s an appreciated approach, because spiritual formation is not blueprint-able. Seasons come and go. Occupations are different. Things change. We need to be conscious of how God is calling us, in these moments, both to embrace the good and resist the bad.
Earley’s book has been extremely encouraging to me. I feel like I can take it and run with it. It’s not too ambitious or daunting. Not to say it will be easy – I know me pretty well, after all. But the real good life, according to Jesus, was never meant to be so.
I think it is critical for Christians of all vocations to give their attention to this book. Here we have the potential to change a few of our daily and weekly decisions, but much more: we have the potential to change our very lives. A big thanks to Justin Earley for his hard work in providing a helpful, simple, and beautiful argument for The Common Rule. I will be recommending it for quite some time.
As I anticipate Lent beginning, I am ready to implement The Common Rule for forty days to see what happens (Earley has a Lent guide here: https://www.thecommonrule.org/lent-2019). I’ll probably mess up at times. But I also believe at the end of it that I will realize that one of the very greatest gifts God gave us was the ability to be a creature of habitus. When the habits honor God and love our neighbor, it enables us to swim against the cultural stream as a living thing. It allows us to be the person we’ve always been created to be: limited, yet free.
*Thanks to IVPress for providing me a copy in exchange for my honest review.