A Rule for the Mind

A Rule for the Mind

I once downloaded a training schedule for completing a triathlon.

It involved a certain number of workouts on a certain number of days, with increasing intensity and duration as the event drew near. It called for cross-training in swimming, biking and running, which make up a triathlon. Along with the workouts, it built in days of rest and suggested dietary regimens.

If I followed the plan, I was assured of being ready for the competition. But I had to follow the plan. I had to subscribe to a set of practices that would enable me to achieve what I desired.

This makes perfect sense to us for physical achievement. It even makes sense in plotting our career goals and financial goals.

It is less common to think of it in terms of our spiritual lives, much less how our relationship with Christ calls us to develop our minds.

But this is the nature of an ancient spiritual practice called a “rule,” which can be traced back to the founding of Benedictine monasticism. Penned at the beginning of the sixth century, Benedict wished to write a rule that would help guide monks to holiness. By “rule,” he intended a guide for optimal spiritual formation. Thomas Moore writes that “every thoughtful person, no matter what his or her lifestyle may be, has a rule,” meaning a pattern or model for living.

Few of us live lives – or more to the point, have lives – that lend themselves to reading, learning and reflection.

We work in the home, office or factory forty to fifty hours a week, or if still in school, carry a heavy course load that allows little discretionary time. We have clothes to wash, checkbooks to balance, emails to read, soccer games to attend. The world is very real, and we live in it as real people. What we should do and what we can do often feel like radically different things, and the discouragement and defeat that comes with the chasm between them is ever present.

But that’s not all.

Most of us work in places where the ultimate virtue is “success” and the god on the throne is money. The vast majority of our colleagues do not share our relationship with Christ. While this holds great promise for personal evangelism, it holds equal peril in regard to our minds.

We are immersed in a context that wars against taking captive every thought for Christ. Our dilemma is that we do not have the time to develop our minds, and where we are forced to spend our time tears apart what little of a Christian mind we have. 

We need to recapture a sense that the development of our minds is a spiritual discipline.

We must do it intentionally, and even counterculturally. Unfortunately, many Christians do not see how study and reflection can be spiritual disciplines. Yet Dallas Willard writes that a spiritual discipline is any activity “undertaken to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and His Kingdom.”

To the Romans the apostle Paul said, “This is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2). And in speaking of the transformation itself, the tense of the Greek verb is the present imperative; thus Paul is literally saying “keep on” being transformed through the ongoing renewal of your mind. 

Our very transformation as Christians is dependent on whether our minds are engaged in an ongoing process of renewal in light of Christ. Our minds are deeply spiritual, and so developing our minds must be a spiritual discipline. Or as Os Guinness has written, our passion is not for academic respectability but for faithfulness to the commands of Jesus: “thinking Christianly is first and foremost a matter of love – of minds in love with God and the truth of his world.”

Rules are not merely lofty ambitions but gritty realities that must be pursued in the midst of daily decisions. If we do not impose a will or intent on our lives, they will be buffeted by every circumstance, every “urgency,” every demand, that comes our way. And we will seldom, if ever, sit down and read a book, take time to reflect or engage in learning experiences. We must lay claim to our life before other things lay claim to it for us.

To develop and then maintain a Christian mind, we need a real rule. Something that will take the scattered, frantic activities of life and carve out space and time needed to honor God with the full development of our intellect.

The key is discipline.

This is what a rule is – an organized set of practices we follow in order to tend to those things which would not be tended to otherwise.   

Every rule, in this sense, will be different. And rules will also change depending on our season of life (a young mother’s rule will be vastly different than the woman’s enjoying her grandchildren) and whether or not it is an intellectual rule, a devotional rule, a physical rule, and so on. But what is constant for us all is the need to drive stakes in the ground and declare “This I will do” or “This I will maintain” as a matter of ordering our life. 

This is the nature of a rule – a set of disciplines, decisions, and impositions we make on our life in order to prevent the tyranny of the urgent from stealing time away. With a rule, we achieve what we most want. If we don’t, then time will escape us.

It will be taken up by the mundane, by what screams the loudest, by what tempts us most, and we will not have the time to develop our minds …

… the way God has called us to develop them.

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.