A simple rhythm for a profound spiritual life
Here's a quick exercise to try. For the next minute, list all the things God calls us to do with our lives. "Have faith", you might say. Or pray. Or go into the world, befriend the lonely, heal the sick, share the gospel, work for justice, and more.
These are all worthy things to do. But have you ever noticed that when Jesus called his earliest followers, he didn't call them to do any of those things? At least not initially. Instead, he called them to do two things and two things alone.
Here are those two things. If we grasp this simple rhythm and live it well, it will result in a spiritual life that transforms us and the world.
Life is complicated. Spiritual life is complicated. Christian life is complicated. So it's a relief to find Jesus himself calling us to a rhythm of life that, while not easy in its implications, is simple in its approach.
"Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve – calling them apostles – that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" (Mark 3: 13-15).
"That they might be with him and that he might send them out..." There it is. The call of Jesus is a call to a two-beat rhythm of life:
To be with him in prayer and devotion.
And to be sent from him into the world.
The 'being with him' part of the rhythm provides space in our lives for prayer, solitude, contemplation on scripture, and rest. The 'being sent' aspect gives us a mission in life through daily tasks of love. In being with him we love God. In being sent we love our neighbour. Being with, being sent – that's Jesus' rhythm of life.
The Rhythm in Jesus' Life
Jesus passed on a rhythm that was central to his own spirituality. Consider these scenes from his life:
1. After his baptism, Jesus is led into the desert where he spends 40 days of focused time with God. After this he is sent out, launching his mission to the world (Luke 4: 1-15).
2. As news about Jesus spreads, crowds bring him the sick and needy everywhere he goes (Luke 5: 15-16). Who else could help them? And yet we're told that Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. He withdrew from the crowd and their needs to be with the Father. Then later, we find him back with the people, teaching, healing and befriending.
3. After an exhausting day before, we find Jesus rising before dawn to find a solitary place to be with God. "Everyone's looking for you!" his followers say when they find him. But Jesus senses it's time to move on. His retreating kept him focused on God's directives, not driven by the pressures of popularity (Mark 1: 35-39).
4. When it's time to choose the 12 apostles, Jesus heads to a mountainside, spends all night with God in prayer, and in the morning calls his team (Luke 6: 12-16).
Jesus spent time with the Father to calibrate his heart and get directions.
Then he was sent from the Father in mission to the world.
The rhythm in the first Christians' lives
We see Jesus teaching the rhythm to his friends too.
1. The time comes to send his team on mission. They've been with Jesus, watching him work, and now they're being sent out. But look what happens afterwards:
"When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida" (Luke 9: 1-10).
After being sent out, the disciples return to be with Jesus again. The rhythm repeats with each mission, task or day.
2. Jesus later sends a larger team on mission (Luke 10: 1-17). They return with great excitement: "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!" They've been with Jesus, they've been sent from him, and on their return Jesus teaches them a lesson: "Don't rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names have been written in heaven." Success would come and go; what really mattered was that they were God's children.
That's what happens when we walk to this rhythm of life: as the rhythm repeats Jesus teaches us another lesson.
The rhythm in our lives
I discovered this rhythm 10 years ago and judge my spiritual life by it today. When I'm running low spiritually I've normally slipped out of it, either through busyness or laziness, and started living out of my own strength and 'clever' ideas. But when I'm living by it, God is my companion through life and work.
Here are some thought starters to help implement the rhythm into our lives. In our production-oriented work and church cultures, most of us know the 'sent' aspect pretty well, so I'll focus on the 'with' side here:
- In our days. What moment during the day can you put aside for unhurried time with God in prayer, contemplation, and reflection on scripture? Mornings work best for me, but evenings or lunch times may be better for you. How about doing all three, punctuating mornings, afternoons and evenings with 'with' moments?
- In our weeks. A weekly church service or prayer gathering is the obvious one. But what about a prayer walk or longer session of God time? How about a weekly 'mini-pilgrimage' to a local historic church or place of significance?
- In each season. I know someone who takes a two-day retreat every three months. He rents a shack in the forest, reads scripture, prays, and reads through his journal to see where God has led him the previous season, listening for God's voice.
- In each year. Is an annual conference a good way for you to be 'with' God? How about planning in a week of fasting? Or doing something creative on New Year's Eve?
- At significant milestones. A friend of mine recently turned 50 and did the well-known Camino pilgrimage through Spain to mark the occasion. He wanted to be alone with God (walking 300 miles in three weeks!) to discern how best to invest the rest of his life.
Praying, having faith, befriending the lonely, healing the sick and working for justice are all good things. But they're not the primary things Jesus calls us to. Instead he calls us into a rhythm of being with and being sent, from which all these activities spring forth. While it may not be easy, it is simple. By living it out wholeheartedly, it can bring profound change to our lives and our world.
Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker and broadcaster, frequently contributing to faith programs on BBC Radio 2. His books include Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings and Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, and get his free ebook Five Practices for a Resilient Life.