Anyone who knows me knows that I am rhythmically challenged. Whenever I lead a song on the guitar, people don’t know when to come in or when I will come in, and when there is a new stanza, anticipation brews— will he get it right? Nah, probably not. Every so often, I surprise others and myself. I’ve always been this way, and nothing earthly can change it. I don’t even try anymore. Perhaps my being rhythmically challenged explains why I’ve been thinking about rhythms for a few years.
Rhythms are everywhere. Today I got out of Grand Central Station at 6:03 a.m. to head to morning prayer. On my two-block walk, I saw the same man unhitching his food stand from his SUV for a new day of work, greeted the same cashier at Starbucks who knew exactly what I wanted, and heard the same kind of blaring music in the background; today it was Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?”—a catchy song, I have to admit.
As a minister, I see rhythms all over the place, such as in marriages. I see the initial joys of preparing for marriage, bliss on the wedding day, the inevitable first major conflict that may linger, reconciliation, and the cycle repeats. If the couple stays the course, they will realize that there are hidden rhythms in marriage as well. Love deepens, even after decades. Loving a person for 40 years might not sound exciting, but it is, and there is only one way to find out. These rhythms are reserved for and awarded to only those who walk down that path.
There are also rhythms in worship services and communities of faith; the best ones liturgically lead people through the story of redemption repeatedly – invitation and celebration, confession, forgiveness of sins, listening, responding, and going or sending.
As a teacher, I see all kinds of rhythms in the classroom. When a student finds the pulse of the course, he or she begins to take off. Astute students can see patterns writ large and synchronize their lives to it: vocabulary and translation on Monday, grammar on Wednesday, a quiz on Friday, and the most difficult problems taken from obscure footnotes. Things become predictable. Teachers can also detect rhythms or, better yet, arrhythmias in students. Teachers may pull students aside and give them advice and even give their parents a call; arrhythmias are not only serious in medicine but also in education.
The Bible also has rhythms. If we examine the people who did great works for God, most of them underwent a similar pattern. God humbled them, taught them the important lesson of dependence, and exalted them in due time when their characters could accept praise with humility. God humbled Moses for 40 years in the wilderness, taught him the valuable lesson of dependence, and exalted him to challenge the king of Egypt.
God did the same with David. Everyone overlooked him. When Samuel came to the house of Jessie to anoint a king, David was not even present; no one thought he could be king, not his father, not his brothers, and no, not even the most discerning prophet in the land, Samuel. When David came to the court of Saul, further humbling took place to the point he became a fugitive. There in the caves, abandoned and rejected, he learned to depend on God. Eventually, he became the king of Israel. Examples can be multiplied, even in minor leaders like Gideon; God chose him because he was from the feeblest clan and the weakest family (Judges 6:15), and when God finally called him to deliver his people, he reduced his army from 32,000 men to 300: humility, dependence, exaltation, repeat.
I don’t want to belabor this point unduly, but we can see this rhythm in the life of Jesus as well. Paul says that Jesus humbled himself; the pre-incarnate Christ did not regard equality with God something to be grasped (Phil. 2:6–8). The gospels show his dependence on God in the wilderness when he says: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). The resurrection shows victory, exaltation, and glory. There are many other patterns in the Bible, but these examples should suffice to show that rhythms exist in the spiritual realm.
What does this all mean for us? First, God has a pattern for our own lives. Based on this observation, we can assess ourselves whether we are keeping in step with the Spirit. What are we doing? How do we spend our time, our money, our resources? What do we dream about? In other words, what are the beats in our lives?
By looking at our lives in broad strokes, we should be able to see whether our cadences are godly. The benefit of a broad overview is that we don’t have to exegete details; a snapshot is enough. The big picture usually does not deceive because we see leanings, tendencies, and habits. If we have not been a part of Christian community for years, then we do not prize fellowship. If we have not read the Bible in months, then we do not value Scripture. If we have not prayed in many seasons, we don’t really have a relationship with God. If we don’t give to the work of missions, then we don’t have a missional heart. If we incessantly think about getting ahead in the marketplace, then that, too, tells a story. A diagnostic analysis can teach us which way our hearts are leaning and what the rhythms of our lives are.
Second, by examining Scripture and studying the patterns of God, we can begin to see what God may be doing in our lives. Is God “bruising us” and teaching us the importance of humility? If so, then knowing that God typically works in people before he works through them will not only give great insight but also great encouragement. God is near in his love and working, not far and distant. Do we feel that we are in the wilderness? If so, this insight can be invaluable because the wilderness teaches essential lessons as well—trusting God for provisions, the need for endurance, and discerning God’s leading.
Let’s not forget that God walked with Israel and provided for them in the wilderness, and at times he even carried them. Even when God exalts us, knowing the patterns of Scripture helps because no one stays on top. In fact, there are dangers of being exalted, pride being the greatest. If we know this point, then we can guard our hearts and always take the lowest seat of honor in our exaltation, which is always a prudent decision, proof that we have learned well.
Third, if we are walking in step with God, then we can look around and see who else has a similar rhythm. I have come to realize that when we find these people, ministry gains considerable speed for the simple reason that we are now walking with others in fellowship. More pointedly, because we are walking in time with others, we don’t have to do anything new to walk with this person. The God of rhythms has brought rhythms together. An illustration at this point can be helpful.
It would not be easy for me to mentor a person. I am married, have children, have a job that requires a good number of hours, and a ministry of teaching, writing, and networking. I don’t have many hours left over. But I can mentor many people if God aligns rhythms. For example, if God calls a person to morning prayer, then I will see this person two times a week for one hour each time. If this same person happens to be a man, and he commits to my monthly men’s prayer meeting, then I will see him for an additional three hours once a month on Saturday morning. If this person also comes to the same Bible study on Monday evenings, then I will spend an additional two hours with this person. If this person attends the same church, then the hours multiply even more. Finally, if this person attends my dinners, events, and goes on missions with me, then I will see this person more than he or she would want to see me! God aligns people.
Church planting, kingdom-centered endeavors, and like projects do not have to be time-consuming if our rhythms are synchronized. Discerning what God is doing and has already done is one key to acceleration. If we believe that there is not one maverick molecule in the universe (thank you, R. C. Sproul for that alliteration), then is it surprising that God orchestrates the lives of people? We only need to look up and then look around to see. Looking upward keeps our focus on God, and looking around allows us to see what networks God has established for us.
The challenge to living this way is our pride. If God has set up everything, then we can’t take credit for it. Our fallen flesh does not like this part. However, far from being bad news; it is the only way to build. As the psalmist reminds us: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). I pray that we discern God’s patterns in our lives, get into good and godly rhythms, and find others with whom to walk. The outcome will be fellowship, friendship, and fruitfulness.
John Lee is the head of the Upper School at The Geneva School of Manhattan, a Christian classical school. His most recent book is Paradoxes of Leadership (Elevate, 2017).