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. 

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