The Joy of Limitations

This week my whole family fell like dominoes to a stomach bug, one tapping another in a week-long chain of misery. I was the last to go down which meant that I was scrambling between holding three-year olds while they threw up, changing and washing sheets and pajamas, attempting to feed those with an appetite, and trying to hammer out a few pieces of work in the midst of it all. 

I love to think of myself as a “do it all” person. I can work from home with no childcare during a pandemic! I can find time to exercise and read and write! I can definitely attend a new women’s Bible study! I can, I can, I can! I can do it all! But the humbling truth is that I can’t. I cannot do it all; and that’s actually a good thing.

God made humans as limited beings. Where he is transcendent and unending and all-knowing and without beginning or end—limitless—we are not. As embodied people, our flesh literally enrobes us in limits. We cannot be two places at once, we can’t stay up all day and all night, we cannot go without food or water—we inhabit this fleshy thing with all sorts of requirements and needs. And because we have limits, we must daily choose how to use our energy, where to put our time, what to focus our attention on. 

GK Chesterton says, “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else.” The decisions we make—our acts of will—are actually acts of self-limitation, a choice that says, I value this very much and am choosing to pour my resources into it. But by choosing one thing, we are inherently not choosing something else. 

But Chesterton goes beyond merely saying that we make these self-limiting decisions every day to say that when we desire to do anything, we are desiring limitation. We actually want to be limited, to not do everything and do the one thing that we want or need to. And this reality of choosing to do one thing becomes an act of self-sacrifice, choosing to deny yourself of all other things for the one thing you do choose. When I chose to marry my husband Andrew, I chose to deny every other man on the planet. That is an act of self-limitation, and that limitation is actually something to desire, something good

Even as I write this, my modern sentiments scream, this is why multi-tasking is so great! We can do more than one thing! Or if I’m just smart enough and have enough hacks, I can do much more in less time, perhaps doubling the number of things I can choose. But the reality remains, that no matter how many wonderful things we do cram into a day or week or year, we will never be able to do it all. Each “yes” means a million “no’s.”

Though God wove human limitations into the fabric of creation before the fall and we know that our limits are good, when God took on human flesh and became a limited person, He showed us how to navigate the temptation to do everything. As one scholar put it, Jesus led a wildly unsuccessful and inefficient healing and teaching ministry. He chose to hang out with a handful of average men, never leveraging to get in more—more healings, miracles, sermons, declarations of divinity. Jesus, as a limited man, walked the same pathways of limitations that we do. Choosing to heal one person meant not being available to millions of others. Choosing to teach one sermon meant not teaching the infinite others he had. Choosing to travel to Jerusalem and its surrounding cities meant not traveling across the world to share the good news of the Kingdom of God. 

God became limited. God said “no” to things. God entered into our realm of action and self-sacrifice to show us that it is good! It is good to have limits. And He became like us to show us how to be faithful in our limits. He was faithful to the people who needed his time, to the people he was called to and the people he chose, enjoying the reality that His ministry would be spent with guys like Peter and John, giving them His full attention. He was faithful in His limits; he said “yes” to things and, therefore, said “no,” trusting that He didn’t need to heal every person on earth for the Father to accomplish the purposes He had for Him. And because Jesus did, we can too. 

This week I experienced my limits, I couldn’t do it all. I was forced in a unique way to grapple with the fact that my multitasking might seem effective, but in reality is a guise—I am limited. And those limits are for my good, for my enjoyment and benefit, that I might faithfully say “yes” to the things I need to and want to while I trust in my limitless God to tend to the things I cannot. 

From Suffering to Praise, Together

On Sunday at church I bumped into a friend on my way to grab a coffee and asked, “How are you?!” “I’m fine,” she replied, although I noticed her teary eyes. Then she gave—”Actually no, I’m not good,” and the tears came. I was honored by her honesty, but it stabbed at my heart during the service—how many others are here today just pretending to be ok?

Does anyone know your deepest pain today? Have you told anyone of the ways you are suffering, struggling with sin, discouraged, or apathetic? I would imagine that the answer for many is no. When it comes to pain, our impulse is to pray and suffer in isolation, only revealing our deepest wounds and hopes in the quiet of prayer. We pray for our desires, but it feels too vulnerable to invite anyone else into the longings of our heart.

But the logic of the church opposes this individualism—the church by nature is communal, an interconnected family to which we belong and are known. As believers, we can’t afford to suffer in isolation because the way Christ is most clearly manifested to us today is in His Body—the Church. As members of God’s body, we need to cast off this individualism and reclaim the beauty and power of being known in our church.

Psalm 22 offers a template for crying out to God in the context of community, situating ourselves in the story of God’s faithfulness in the past, and testifying to the congregation when God answers our prayers. As we practice this discipline, we are formed into the people of God—people who participate in the story of God’s salvation and faithfulness today.

Remembering who God is. Psalm 22 presents a suffering Psalmist, feeling abandoned and alone, but fixing his eyes on God’s holiness—His character—and remembering God’s faithfulness to his forefathers. 

My god my god why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame (1-5).

As in many of the psalms, we see the invitation to cry out to God with honesty, but as we do so to cling to God’s character and the ways that God has demonstrated His faithfulness to His people before. Though the psalmist feels forsaken and like the Lord will never answer him, he leans upon what He knows God has done before. Each instance of God’s provision that came before this moment has collected in his imagination, testifying to a God who has always been faithful. This is why God sits enthroned on Israel’s praises; as God proves his steadfast, holy, and good character again and again in the lives of His people, we do what we were made to do—glorify Him, enshrouding Him in our right worship. When we find ourselves suffering, we must turn to the story of God’s people before us, but we must also turn to God’s people around us.

Praising God in the congregation.

I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you; you who fear the Lord praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel (22-23).

The Psalmist understands the communal nature and responsibility of his current suffering—that when God proves himself faithful, he will testify to God’s work, glorifying Him and participating in the story of God’s people from the beginning. But if we never share our suffering with the congregation, we probably won’t tell them when God answers our prayer. Rejoicing in the Lord’s provision is a community activity in the Psalms, and our participation is not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the entire community.

God doesn’t only answer prayers for us—He answers them for our friend, for the woman sitting next to me at church, for the weary moms and disillusioned dads. God answers our prayer for our own good but also for His glory, He wants us to tell of His power and mercy and faithfulness again and again. This is why the Psalmist says, From you comes my praise in the great congregation...The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord (26). When we share our suffering and God’s provision with the Body, we nourish the afflicted who are crying out, and give hope for those who are seeking Him. God uses our suffering and His faithfulness as an encouragement to others, so when we isolate ourselves in a church, we withhold the power of God in our lives from those around us who need it most.

A beautiful inheritance. Posterity (future generations) shall serve him. It shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it (30-31). 

Though a community is blessed when members share their burdens and testify to God’s faithfulness, this practice forms us as spiritual people. As we learn to live in community and again and again see that God is who He says He is, God shapes us into His people—people who are known, who ask for prayer and pray fervently, who remember what God has done, and glorify Him always. In community, we become what Israel was to us—the people who followed God in their context and whose stories we turn to for a reminder of who God is.

As we are formed into people who trust in the Lord in community, we pass on the most valuable gift of our own spiritual formation; we testify both in our words and deeds to the coming generation of who this God is. We become people who proclaim his righteousness to those not yet born. So while we will tell the incredible stories of God’s works to the next generation, the inheritance we bestow on our children and their children is a legacy of seeking God, participating in the body of Christ, and glorifying God in all circumstances. A people formed by these movements will shape the generation following them, creating a beautiful inheritance. 

On the cross, Jesus prayed the opening verses of this psalm. He prayed alone, as one left to die in His suffering. He prayed remembering the Father’s perfect faithfulness to His people. On the cross, Jesus cried out, envisioning the future of God’s people, and died alone so that we might participate in His resurrected Body as people who are certain of His faithfulness and equipped to endure suffering together.

Do You Understand?

During my time leading Bible studies for college students, a phrase I heard more often than any other was, “What this verse means to me is…”

I’ve said it, you probably have, too, but when it comes to reading, studying, and understanding the Word of God, exploring what a verse “means to me” is a flimsy foundation on which to build our faith. We so want to read a verse or chapter, get a sense for the vibe of the passage, and allow it to mean exactly what we would like it to mean, but when we study God’s Word, our goal must always be to discover what the verse means in the context it is written

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart argue in How To Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, “A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.” We might want a verse to mean something to us, but if it does not align with the context in which it was written, it cannot and does not mean what we want it to mean. And because the Bible is not primarily a tool for self-discovery, we must be willing to spend time in it as such.

When we come to the Bible, we must begin with comprehension—understanding what is actually being said. We often jump to what a verse “means to me” because we have skipped this essential step. When we leave it out, what the Bible says becomes completely subjective and self-centered, meaning whatever we might want it to mean at that time. It’s easy to read a passage and get an impression or jump on one phrase, but it takes time to read a passage, follow the logic and argument, ask questions about a phrase, and study what the author is actually saying. But do this we must. One of the first things I learned in seminary was that “context is king;” you cannot escape, get around or avoid it—to read the Bible, you must go through the context in which it is written.

Context vs. expectation

Any time we read Scripture, we bring our whole selves—how our day is going, our experiences, our emotions, our hopes for this particular moment in God’s Word—and that’s good. It is good to be self-aware, knowing how we are doing, the expectations we have, and what we might be needing to hear on any given day. But without comprehension, we will likely read into the text what we want to see rather than studying God’s Word for what He wants us to see.

Here’s an example. Philippians 3:14 says, “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.” I absolutely made this my verse for high school sports, whispering it to myself, and maybe a teammate, when we were losing by 10 in the fourth quarter, because, you know, Jesus will totally make me win this game. But if we read the chapter to understand what Paul is saying, he says he can do anything in Christ who strengthens him in the context of suffering, not always having what he needed, and depending on others to support him in his lack. I might want this verse to mean that I can do and accomplish anything in Christ, but Paul is saying that because of Jesus, he can face any circumstance, especially adverse ones, with joy, because Jesus is his life.  

The good news is that God, through His Holy Spirit, illuminates His Word to us—the Spirit literally opens our minds and hearts to receive what He wants to teach us. Our God is so personal and loving that when we open His word, He promises to meet us, reveal Himself to us, and speak to us. God knows exactly what we need, and if we are willing to listen to what His Word actually says, we might discover that what he has for us is even better than what we were hoping to find. 

Skipping comprehension diminishes who God is

Beyond reading ourselves into the text, when we skip comprehension, we never learn the heart of God for us, we opt out of hard words that might challenge us, and ultimately, we never grow in our confidence of what the Bible really says. When we elevate our situation, feelings, or an interpretation apart from the context, the Word of God becomes a story that is bent around what we want to hear, but it will never be able to stand up to the difficulties we will face. 

God wants us to know him. So when we skip comprehension we don’t allow God to actually speak to us. He wants to reveal himself to us, to teach us, to meet us in our circumstances and struggles. But if we ignore how he has revealed himself to his people before us, we will never know who he is for us today. We need a Bible that that says “You are not your own but have been bought with a price” because I want to be my own master every day. We need a Bible that speaks words that don’t always align with our culture. We need a Bible that tells us what our sin is. We need a Bible that tells us about the holiness of God. We need a Bible that confronts our own agenda for our lives.

As we approach God’s word today, remember that our experience, emotions, and desires are not the center of the universe, God is. And as we read His Word with expectation, we will find ourselves hearing what we need to hear, being challenged in the ways we need to be challenged, and receiving comfort from a God who loves us so much that He makes Himself known to us.