Habits of the Heart
Justin Whitmel Earley’s “The Common Rule” describes eight practices that should shape our lives as Christians
We are all living according to a specific regimen of habits,” writes Justin Whitmel Earley, “and those habits shape most of our life.” Even more, “they form our hearts.” In The Common Rule, Earley outlines a “rule of life” or “program of habits” to help readers fulfill the biblical commandment to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:34–40).
Earley calls this program “the common rule” because it has to do with “common practice by common people.” Its focus on laity rather than clergy distinguishes it from the well-known “rules” of Benedict or Augustine, although its basic purpose is the same as theirs. The common rule consists of eight habits, four daily and four weekly.
“We are all living according to a specific regimen of habits, and those habits shape most of our life.” –Justin Whitmel Earley
The daily habits are:
- kneeling prayer three times a day,
- one meal with others,
- one hour with the phone off,
- and Scripture before phone.
The weekly habits are:
- one hour of vulnerable conversation with a friend,
- curate media to four hours,
- fasting from something for 24 hours,
- and setting aside a day for sabbath.
Earley distinguishes the habits along two other spectrums. The first spectrum pertains to whether the habit helps us love God (sabbath, fasting, prayer, and Scripture before phone) or love our neighbors (meals, conversation, phone off, curated media). The second spectrum has to do with embracing the good (sabbath, prayer, meals, and conversation) or resisting the evil (fasting, Scripture before phone, phone off, and curated media).
One of Earley’s crucial insights throughout the book is that our habits reflect (and reinforce) our beliefs. He cites the early years of his career as a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer as a cautionary tale. To keep pace with his colleagues, to take just one example, he would pick up his phone to check his emails and formulate replies even before getting out of bed. As he thought about why he did this, he came to realize that he was drawing his identity and worth from others’ opinions of him. “Unless I’m well regarded in the office, I’m not worth anything,” he writes, describing that period.
By contrast, when he began to practice the daily habit of reading Scripture before picking up his phone, he began to draw his identity and worth from a different source. “Daily immersion in the Scriptures resists the anxiety of emails, the anger of news, and the envy of social media. Instead it forms us daily in our true identity as children of the King, dearly loved.”
Our habits, then, are what Earley calls “liturgies of belief.” Regardless of what we say we believe or value, habits reveal what we really believe and really value. “Our habits often obscure what we’re really worshiping,” Earley warns, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not worshiping something. The question is, what are we worshiping?”
That’s an excellent question, one that all eight habits of the common rule force us to face as we examine our habitual behaviors.
I highly recommend The Common Rule. It is a helpful little volume that will repay careful reading and re-reading, especially if you start putting its habits into practice. The book can be read individually, but perhaps the best way to read it is in a group whose goal is to grow in love for God and neighbor together.
Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2019).