Life within limits
Here in Auckland where I live, we have been living through a partial lockdown for the last month due to a local outbreak of Covid-19. It’s not been as severe a lockdown as we experienced earlier in the year, but those in the greater Auckland area have been subject to a number of restrictions: we have faced the limitation of social interactions, travel, communication and work patterns. Wherever you live in the world, you have probably lived through or are currently experiencing some form of lockdown because of Covid-19.
Beyond the specific restrictions of a lockdown situation, these experiences highlight the fact that all humans live within various kinds of limitations. How many times have you used the phrase, “I wish I had more . . . [blank]”? You fill in that blank . . . time, money, patience, friends, space at home. To be human is to experience certain limits. No one is strong enough to pick up a car all by themselves. No one can jump over a skyscraper. No one can stay awake for over 24 hours and still function well. To be human is to have limits. So, what does it mean to relate to a limitless God when we ourselves experience limitations?
Our starting point to answer that question must be Jesus. For the uniqueness of Christ being fully human and fully divine gives us important insights from the word go. We believe that Jesus underwent a fully human experience, without losing His divine nature. But in becoming human, Jesus had to take on board certain limitations which are common to all humanity. The Apostle Paul’s insights in Philippians 2 are one of the best descriptions of the Incarnation in the New Testament:
Christ Jesus, Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
On earth Jesus became subject to the physical limitations of living an embodied human life. He could only be in one place at one time. He became subject to human physical tiredness, hunger and thirst. This is very deep theology. Remember, if you are divine, you have no need of anything outside of yourself. But in the Incarnation, God had need of food and sleep in the person of Jesus. Growing in His life on earth, Jesus would have experienced tiredness and hunger every day. Jesus learned what it meant to live with human limitations, but His divine nature was undiminished despite those limitations. Jesus shows us, therefore, how to perfectly live a human life, in relationship with God, despite experiencing limitations. There are two important truths we learn about life within limitations when we look at Jesus.
We can experience fulfilment in life despite experiencing limitations
As we have just seen, it must have been quite something for Jesus to operate within human limitations. He could only be in one place at one time. He laid aside His power in coming to earth. The reason why Jesus could perform powerful deeds of healing was because the power of the Holy Spirit was working perfectly through Him. Similarly, Jesus gave up being all-knowing when He came to earth. If He had special insight into what someone was thinking, that again was only because the Holy Spirit was revealing it to Him.
Because Jesus had a perfect relationship with God, Jesus was the most fulfilled person who ever lived. Yet His life was marked by certain boundaries and limitations. This shows that our human limitations in themselves do not imply that we cannot live a fulfilled life.
Living with human limitations doesn’t imply we are forced to become less effective
Jesus experienced freedom of movement for all of His life on earth, except at the very end. Jesus’ arrest marks an important transition point in the way His life is described in the Gospels. Up until His arrest, Jesus’ actions are described using active verbs. In other words, things like, Jesus spoke, Jesus healed, Jesus cast out an evil spirit, Jesus walked on water, Jesus calmed a storm. In all these stories, Jesus is the active one.
But from the moment He is arrested, the verbs relating to Jesus become mostly passive in grammatical terms. So now things are done to Jesus. He is arrested, He is bound, He is taken away, He is brought to trial, He is mocked and beaten, He is crucified. Now Jesus is no longer the active one. Other people are doing things to Him. Jesus has become passive, a time when limitations were imposed upon Him. And yet, during that time of passivity, during the time when most limitations were placed upon Him, Jesus accomplished His most important work – the redemption of the whole creation through His death on the cross. So, to operate within human limitations does not imply lack of effectiveness.
What are some general principles for living in relationship with a limitless God within our human limitations? Let me share three principles.
Honestly recognise, not deny our limitations
We have seen in the reading from Philippians 2 just how fully Jesus accepted His humanity. Right at the very beginning of His ministry, we see Jesus’ determination to embrace His humanity in the way He handled His temptations in the wilderness. The devil tried to get Jesus to miraculously circumvent His human limitations. The devil said, “Tell these stones to become bread.” And, “Jump off the top of the Temple, because angels will miraculously catch you.” Both of these were tempting Jesus by saying, “Go on, Jesus, you’re different to all the other human beings. You can use God’s power and be special and bypass the limitations everyone else has. You know you can, so go ahead and do it.”
But Jesus resisted any choices that set Him up on some kind of pedestal. He would not use God’s power so He could uniquely circumvent what are standard human limitations. Because He said no to this it’s very affirming for us, because it means that our limitations do not diminish the inherent worth of our humanity before God.
The Apostle Paul also didn’t play down the difficulties and limitations he experienced. Take this passage for instance from 2 Corinthians 4:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (verses 7-8).
Paul doesn’t shy away from being real about the issues he was experiencing. Hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. Those are very real hardships and limitations. Neither the example of Jesus or Paul point to a Christian life having some unreal triumphalistic quality which denies our life concerns and limitations.
When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His death, as He was contemplating the cross, He said to His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with grief to the point of death.” In other words He said to them He felt so weak and scared, He thought He would die then and there. That was one of the most real statements Jesus ever uttered and if the most perfect human being was that real about His struggles, then it’s right for people to reflect the same level of openness. As we are honest with one another about our struggles and limitations, so we can get alongside each another in practical, emotional and prayerful ways.
Honesty about our experience of human struggle and limitation is simply the first step on the journey. The second step begins to lift our eyes from our own circumstances to God.
Remember God’s limitless qualities
Both our readings from Philippians 2 and 2 Corinthians turn our eyes to God in the midst of our human limitations. In the Philippians reading, after Paul has written of the reality of Jesus embracing humanity when He came to earth, he then lifts our eyes from the human perspective to the God perspective:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Yes, we must never diminish the full humanity of Jesus. But we must not forget either that He was and is the divine Lord of all, at whose name every knee will one day bow. That’s quite a statement for Paul to make. It points to the limitless qualities of God. And Paul points in the same way in the passage from 2 Corinthians 4. Paul frames his honest comments about his struggles, with this sentence:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
We might feel like fragile jars of clay, but God can be at work with all-surpassing power. The phrase that Paul uses in his original Greek is very strong. “All-surpassing” is the Greek word hyperbole which literally means to throw something beyond. And the word Paul uses for power in the Greek is the word from which we get our English word dynamite! So, if we wanted to use a more paraphrased translation of Paul, he is saying that God’s power is excessively dynamite!
And for Paul, that means that there can be a transformative experience within the reality of our struggles and limitations. So, Paul says,
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (emphasis mine).
Because of God’s limitless qualities, our struggles can all have the word “But” placed after them. Because of God, our struggles alone don’t have to have the final word.
If we are to be both real about our struggles and conscious of a limitless God, how do those two concepts come together in our everyday experience? Here’s where our third principle comes in.
Watch for the ways in which God transcends our limitations by His power
The following passage from the Apostle Paul is a good illustration of this:
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:8-10).
Paul is writing from a Roman prison. That is definitely an experience of limitation. He’s incarcerated and thinking he’s probably on death row, not expecting to get out alive. For someone who had travelled so much and planted churches in so many places, this imprisonment looks like a severe limitation and the end of Paul’s usefulness to the Kingdom. But Paul doesn’t think like that. He knows that he is physically chained. But he writes this to his fellow worker Timothy: “But God’s word is not chained.”
In prison Paul worked out that God had given him a power different to what he could achieve by travelling and starting churches in person. God had given Paul the power of the pen. Paul’s letters carried God’s word far and wide. Paul might have been stuck in one dingy cell, but God used him to spread good news and to encourage churches all over the Roman Empire.
Sometimes God in His graciousness will lift a limitation from us. So, if He heals us, that’s an example of lifting the limitation of illness from us. But let’s remember also that God can bring a new freedom by working in and through a limitation we experience. That’s what He did with Paul and the power of his writing.
At the heart of the answer to how we face into very real struggles and limitations is a very real God who didn’t stay distant, but came to live among us in a very real human experience. Jesus is the One who points us in the direction of living fulfilled and effective lives even in the midst of struggle and limitation.