Life-Giving Limitations

When John Adams wrote the Massachusetts constitution (the oldest written constitution in the world, by the way, older than the US Constitution), he wrote, “All men are born with equal rights.” Much to his annoyance, this was altered to, “all men are born equal.” He did not like it. Although he fervently believed that all men are equally valuable and therefore deserving of human rights, he deemed it ridiculous to assert that they are born equal. The inherent value of each person in the sight of God is precious. Nevertheless, some are born with severe mental and physical limitations. Some are born with superior educational opportunities or social standing. Others are born without such opportunities or standing.

However, in the words of Parker Palmer, “We resist the very idea of limits, regarding limits of all sorts as temporary and regrettable impositions on our lives. Our national myth is about the endless defiance of limits: opening the western frontier, breaking the speed of sound, dropping people on the moon, [and] discovering cyberspace…[As a nation,] we refuse to take no for an answer.”

However, while our culture tells us that we can become whatever we choose to become – a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist, or a president – many believe that such a perspective profoundly misunderstands the biblical nature of personhood. We do indeed want every person to achieve their full potential, but it would be foolish to believe that our personal potential has no limits or boundaries.

In fact, if we take our template of true personhood from the incarnation, we are led to believe that perhaps it is my limitations – be they physical, psychological, intellectual, or emotional – that actually define who I am. What defines someone is that I am male and not female; Caucasian and not Asian; six foot tall and not six foot six; that my IQ is 110 and not 140; that I can bench press 180 pounds and not 360. What defines me in relationship to others is my limits. This is how I am known and recognized. If my limitations were all miraculously and instantaneously removed, no one would any longer know who I am.

This perspective is not to discourage anyone from achieving her or his full potential. In fact, the problem with many people is that they have placed false limits on their abilities, and they need to be encouraged to expand their horizons.

However, the pressure culturally, is to push ourselves – or our children – beyond our limits. Nevertheless, to aspire to be what we are not, and what we can never become, is to abandon all hope of contentment. It is to fail to realize that freedom and joy come by the acceptance of our limitations, realizing that in fact these actually define who I am as a unique person. And it is the happy acceptance of these limits that reveal how the image of God is uniquely expressed in who I am. This is one of the keys to freedom and joy. And in an age where anything short of being a superstar or a Navy Seal in any field of human endeavor is to be a failure, this is good news indeed. Discovering one’s limits, discovering who I am not, as well as discovering who I am, is a key to discovering one’s authentic self. And this in turn becomes a key to freedom and fulfillment.

Speaking of his friendship with G.K. Chesterton, Émile Cammaerts said, “Listening to him, I understood again what I had once understood in my childhood, that humanity is not made of heroes, but of common men and women, and that the best way of being original is to be commonplace.” Now to say this is not to settle for the mediocre, nor is it to resign ourselves to the flatlands of human endeavor. But it is to realize that being “common,” being content with who I am, is another way of describing the simple dignity that is born of the realization that I have the high honor of bearing the image of God in a way that is unique to me, and only me, among the children of men.

Someone has said that, “God will never be the same because you lived.” And Angus Hunter adds, “Each person expresses something about God I would not know otherwise. When I get to know you, it is not only you I learn about, but God in the flavor of you.” These thoughts contain encouraging implications: you have the high honor of bearing the image of God in a way that is unique to you and only you among all people on earth, common though you may be.

However, in addition to understanding our limits as being key to our identity, we also need to understand that they can be redemptive and facilitate the revelation of Christ flowing from us in a unique way.

David McCullough says, “We come to the limitation in life and we discover life in the limitation.” (The Consolations of Imperfection: Learning to Appreciate Life’s Limitations. Brazos Press, 2004., p. 31) And this is true to the accounts in scripture, which turn everything upside down and show us that in contrast to humankind, who continually fight against all limitations, the enfleshment of God in Christ meant that God himself joyfully embraced the most severe limitations.

We see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, yet in becoming man in order that we could see and understand the Father, he had to subject himself to the most rigorous limitations imaginable: the limitation of his power, the limitation of his immortality, and the limitation of his omniscience. Yet without these limitations he would not have been truly human, and unless he was truly human we would not have had the revelation of the Father or the miracle of the atonement. And if the joyful embracing of limitations was the key to the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, then perhaps the joyful embracing of our own limitations is the key to the revelation of God in our lives also.

Igor Stravinsky points out that great art is not possible without limitations. He speaks of the difference between unrestricted freedom and creative freedom, which “consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each of my undertakings. My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of actions and the more I surround myself with obstacles.” (Consolations, p. 18) For Stravinsky, great art emerges only out of severe limitations.

McCullough uses the example of photography:

“One of the first principles I learned is that I have to limit my view of reality. No photograph can record everything the eye can see, and so a necessary limitation must take place. On the focusing screen of my camera, I can include something as large as a forest or as small as a flower, but I have to make a choice before snapping the shutter; I have to crop my perception of the world around me.

“And when a print is made, what do we see within the picture itself, if not a series of limitations? Recall any of your favorite prints by Ansel Adams. Are they not – essentially – arranged patterns of limitations? Moon and mountain, and sky and cloud, and lake and tree. White against black and black against white. Each thing sharply restricted by the other. Each thing finding its identity in its limitation.” (Consolations, p.18)

We see, therefore, that limitations are not to be feared. Under the hand of the Lord they are often framed into compositions of beauty, and our lives become portraits in which the loveliness of Christ is reflected through the prism of our limitations.

However, as I hinted at above, limits not only have the capacity to facilitate the revelation of Christ through our lives, they also have the potential to become redemptive. The ultimate limitation is that of death, and however we might try and circumvent the other limitations on our lives, the fact that they are all bounded by this grotesque terminus could make trying to evade life’s minor limitations rather cosmetic and futile.

McCullough says, “If God was present in Jesus Christ, then the divine has entered the worst limitation we face – indeed the one that terrifies us the most – and transformed it from something evil into something redemptive. The raising of Jesus supplies us with hope, and not simply hope that one day we, too, will live beyond the grave, but hope that every limitation, by the same grace of God, can be transformed into something more than it is, something healing and redemptive and life-giving. And this is the ultimate consolation of every limitation.” (Consolations, p. 194)

According to William J. Bausch, there is a tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church that involves sitting around the table and telling jokes on the day after Easter – which is, of course, for the Orthodox, the high point in the Christian calendar. Bausch writes that the reason for this tradition is that “Satan thought he had won, and was smug in his victory, smiling to himself, having had the last word – so he thought. Then God raised Jesus from the dead, and life and salvation became the last word. And the whole world laughed at the devil’s discomfort. This attitude passed into the medieval concept of hilaritas, which did not mean mindless giggling, but that even at the moment of disaster one may wink because he or she knows there is a God.” (Consolations, p.195)

The ultimate limitation is death, but when we view it in the light of the empty tomb, according to McCullough, we must wink, if not laugh. “We know the story is not finished; if it now seems like a tragedy, it will, by an astonishing turn of events, become a comedy.” (Consolations, p.196). And if the resurrection has the capacity to transform the great human limitation of death, it also has the potential to redeem every other limitation that appears to circumscribe and restrict our ambitions and dreams.

One half of growth and maturity is to discover and develop one’s gifts and talents to the full. However, the other half is to discover one’s limits and rejoice in them simply because they are part of what defines our unique personhood. The first half is well emphasized in our culture, but the second, which I believe is a key to freedom and fulfillment, is counter- cultural and neglected.

Philippians 2 is the beautiful passage about the Lord Jesus Christ, who, although he was equal with God, joyfully embraced the limits of finitude and became, in the words of Charles Wesley, “our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” And if we are those who seek to imitate him, then limits are not something to be afraid of, but rather, something that we also, when necessary, joyfully embrace.

  • Authored by Ray Mayhew, , and revised with the author’s permission by his friend Kurt Mahler. 
  • Image: The waterfalls of Plitvice National Park in Croatia Copyright : fesus  Image ID : 37942451.

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