Growth in faith does not come about in vitro. It occurs in the womb of the church and is the work of the whole community.
God created us to connect with Him and others—not one or the other. He chooses to have an intimate relationship with us both individually and communally. We are to understand our lives in relation to both. We are to live perennially as people standing before God and connected to others. This interlocking interchange—alternating between time alone with God and time together with others—constitutes what we are referring to as the rhythm of the Christian life.
This rhythm has nurtured believers and their believing communities for centuries as they listened and responded to the signs of their time. This reciprocal ebb and flow of spending time alone in God’s presence and then returning to time spent with people is foundational for living a full life. This timeless back and forth movement expresses what is universally valid for every believer.
Sadly, believers and churches today have largely neglected the rhythm of the Christian life. Some have a constant desire to be with people; others desire the opposite. Some people run from being alone; others are uncomfortable being around others. Some do everything to find noise and distractions; others cringe at the idea of commotion. Few really contemplate the interplay between these two connected aspects of Christian living. As a result, our time alone remains unrelated to the broader body of Christ. And our time together doesn’t feed into our time alone, or it becomes something we do simply because we are required to as a member of a church.
At least two reasons contribute to why this is the case. The first reason relates to the common myth that we can practice our faith however we want to, as long as we perform certain core activities, even if it excludes the church community or ignores time with God. This line of reasoning stems from a general lack of attention given to the rhythm of the Christian life and cultivates individualism.
We rush to talk about the derived components of the rhythm, known as the spiritual disciplines, and occasionally examine our group times, but rarely are the rhythm and component parts tied together and fleshed out in tandem. The absence (or minimal mention) of their continuity is seen in popular literature today. The focus of the spiritual disciplines has become mostly (or solely) about how they benefit you; how they draw you closer to God; how they help you overcome certain issues; how they provide you peace and comfort. But the Christian life is not about you.
Most books and resources—certainly not all, but most—divide the rhythm and separate the disciplines in order to explain them. The authors only point out, for instance, that Jesus pursued time alone with God in order to encourage us to go and do the same. While both points are true—Jesus did and we should—this overly simplistic approach strips those moments from their surrounding context. We miss the real gravity and magnificence of them, thereby diminishing their thrust. Jesus’s individual times with God the Father were always in the midst of and with view toward his time with others. Scripture intentionally shows the intended flow between the two and how they are meant to complement each other.
A second reason seems to surface when we over-privatize and hyper-individualize many passages in the Bible. An important fact obscured in English Bible translations is that almost all the second-person pronouns and commands in the epistles are plural. Paul was writing to you all or y’all, not to you individualistically, which is how we tend to interpret them when we read individually. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” is not simply a command to you individually (Phil. 2:12). The “your own” is plural, and the corporate directive of working out our salvation is in the context of a Christian community.
Similarly, the charge for us to “put on the whole armor of God” in Ephesians 6 is not meant to be understood as the armor you put on every day as a single soldier going out to face individual spiritual attacks (though there may be some extended implications for that). Rather, the truth that Paul conveys is that we are all to suit up together as a united front going out into battle in unison. As we stand together, we advance together.
The main point in all this is that by offering some simple, even helpful categories to think through the Christian life, a false dichotomy has arisen between our individual lives with God and corporate lives with other believers. This widespread mentality operative among churches and churchgoers has led to a fragmented and unrhythmic Christian life, especially in how we understand many verses in the Bible and apply them to our lives. As a result, we experience less unity and focus almost exclusively on our own individual needs. What should we do about it?
God’s prescription for us is to embrace the rhythm of the Christian life in Christ. We need to investigate, appreciate, and apply the rhythm of the Christian life anew so we can do what Jesus instructed his disciples to do: “He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31).
The rhythm of the Christian life is the place where these extremes—time alone and time together—meet. The rhythm reduces remoteness from God and others, and curtails plunging into constant community that tends to exclude time with God. This is not a peripheral matter but a central one, for Christ died so that we might be reconciled with God and each other, as well as live life abundantly. Yes, the gospel reaches us personally and individually, one sheep at a time (Matt. 18:12). But the gospel also places us into a community, as one flock, under one shepherd (John 10:16).
Let us also consider for a moment that the author of Proverbs instructs us to “find favor and good success in the sight of God and man” (Prov. 3:4; italics added). Reuben and Gad understood this when they decided not to neglect their military responsibilities “to the Lord and to Israel” during the conquest of Canaan (Num. 32:22; italics added). Samuel demonstrated this as a boy as he “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man” (1 Sam. 2:26; italics added).
Luke shares how Jesus exemplified this: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52; italics added). Paul endeavored to do the same: “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward God and man” (Acts 24:16; italics added). He also tells us that life in the kingdom of God involves serving Jesus in a way that “is acceptable to God and approved by men” (Rom. 14:18; italics added). Peter similarly instructs all of us: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). These two pairs of four distinct commands really encompass just two categories: God and others.
It is not enough to say (as true as it is) that we should spend time alone with God and time together with others. We must also emphasize the rhythm between the two and how they accompany each other. We must focus on “why” we are doing each activity and what they involve. We will not become holy or whole by ourselves, or by way of others, but by both.
Whatever issues might confuse us about what the Bible teaches, the rhythm of the Christian life ought not to be one of them. The relationship between our time alone and time together in Scripture is clear, as we will see next.
Excerpt from The Rhythm of the Christian Life: Recapturing the Joy of Life Together (Leafwood Publishers) by Brian Wright (ThM, 2010). Used with permission.