A Celebration of Limitation
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve… And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.” (Aslan to Prince Caspian)
Have you noticed your limitations lately?
I don't know about you, but this time of year is always a dangerous one. After the summer-slow-down when it s felt like I have had more time, and after a holiday when I have a bit more energy, my instinct is to hit the accelerator pedal and disappear off into the distance as fast as possible. As this particular autumn rolls around, and churches are gathering again, and new things are being started, it's a temptation I'm aware of almost more than ever.
The trouble is, I know from experience that if I do that I'll run out of fuel in just a few weeks. I don't have an unlimited supply of energy and resources. So why do I often try to act as though I do?
The answer is that I forget a central truth about myself, and about God: God is God and I'm not! Which means he is unlimited and I am not.
Whenever we ponder God’s infinite glory this is perhaps the key conclusion we should always draw.
For example, think about God’s power: He is all-powerful. We are not. In recent months perhaps Covid has highlighted that all the more in our lack of ability to easily overcome the pandemic.
Or think of God’s presence. He is present everywhere. We are not. Recent months have highlighted that too, in our enforced absence from one another.
In sum; by our God-given nature, we are limited.
We are limited in knowledge (we can’t know everything), in relationships (we can’t have the same depth of relationship with everyone), in time (we can’t do everything all the time), in energy (we need to rest), and so on. But God is not limited in any of these ways.
Sometimes limitations cause frustration. For the first year or so of my time working in ministry I found myself frustrated and grumpy on my day off every week. I was horrible to live with! As each week came to an end, I knew I hadn’t managed to do all that I’d hoped.
As I began to notice that pattern (and it was lovingly pointed out to me by my wife!) I had to work out what the problem was. Was I being lazy and inefficient? Perhaps here and there improvements could be made, but the biggest problem was actually that I was trying to behave as though I wasn’t limited. I was frustrated because I hadn’t managed to complete the 10 days’ worth of work, I had tried to squeeze into the 6 days I was given.
We’re used to understanding frustration in life as a product of the fall, aren’t we? We know that Genesis 3 teaches that work will be frustrating and fruitless because the world has been damaged and the ground cursed as a result of human sin.
So, yes, sometimes my frustration at not getting things done is caused by my laptop crashing, or my creative efforts in preparing a sermon yielding the sermon equivalent of thorns and thistles. But what if it’s more complicated than that? What if sometimes our frustration comes, not from the fallenness around us, but from the fallenness in us?
It’s very easy to confuse finitude for fallenness: We tend to think that our frustrations result from living in a sinful world, when in fact we may be frustrated because at a deep level we’re pushing against our God-given limitations in a way which simply reveals our fallenness.
That’s the interesting part about all this. To get a right view of the limitations which are common to humans—in place, time, energy, relationships, knowledge etc—we need to remember that they are God-given. We may vary in how each of those limitation affect us, but God created us all in his image. An image isn’t the same as the original. We are to God as a statue of a horse-and-rider is to the real cavalryman. The statue reveals the majesty of the real thing, perhaps even gives an idea of the power and nobility, but there are some things the statue just can’t do. It’s limited.
In a similar way, we should rejoice that there are lots of ways in which we humans reflect and represent God in the world. The honour and value which flows from that are vast, and not to be underestimated. Yet at the same time, there is much about God that is not true about us. We're images. Which means we're limited.
But that doesn’t mean our limitations are problematic. What did God say after he created these images? “Very good!” Our given limitations aren’t problems which we’re supposed to overcome, they’re woven into our very good nature. In fact, they’re actually part of what makes us human because they’re part of why we’re images of God. We reflect his infinite knowledge in a limited way as we learn. We reflect his everywhere-presence in a limited way when we are truly present with another—with all the relational power that brings.
The age-old temptation to which Adam and Eve succumbed is to believe that being limited images isn’t enough. Remember what Satan said? “You can be like God.” How quickly Adam and Eve forgot that they already were! As image-bearing humans they were already as like God as it is possible for a creature to be.
The tragedy of that is that as soon as humanity tries to reach beyond its limitations, we are no longer able to be what we were created to be. By reaching out so far, we end up falling short of what it means to be human.
So how are you feeling about your limitations? Are you frustrated by them, even wrestling against them and constantly trying to be more? Yes, it’s important to guard against laziness, but I suspect most of us have the opposite set of problems. Technology has given us the illusion of omnipresence—you can be in my living room even while you’re in your own! It’s even given us the illusion of omnipotence—you can be working full time even while you’re home-schooling! But they are illusions. We should be careful not to believe what they try to tell us about ourselves.
Instead, as life continues to rumble on in uncertainty, but work, school and church begin to crank up again, perhaps we should step back for a moment, take stock, and even celebrate our limitations. During the height of lockdown a few months ago, a friend of mine wisely noticed that in working, being attentive to his wife, parenting, schooling, and looking after his home, instead of trying to do everything at 100%, he had to accept giving everything as a little less of himself, but trusting that would be 'enough.' He’s limited in power, time and presence.
It turns out that sometimes, on this road to glory, making peace with the fact that we can’t do everything at full volume all the time is a vital part of worshipping the one who can!