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 simply because he believed that all men were equally valuable and deserving of human rights, but it was ridiculous to assert that they are born equal. Some are born with severe mental and physical limitations and others with severe social and limitations. We are all equally precious in the sight of God, but we are not all born with equal mental and physical abilities, nor with equal educational opportunities or social 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 and answer.” (Consolations, 14)
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 and 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 they are male and not female, Caucasian and not Asian, six foot tall and not six foot six; that their IQ is 110 and not 140; that they 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 was.
This perspective is not to discourage anyone from achieving their full potential. In fact the problem with most people is that they have placed false limits on their abilities and they need to be encourage to expand their horizons.
However, the pressure culturally, is to push myself or my children, beyond our limits, but to aspire to be what I am not, is to abandon all hope of contentment and fail to realize that freedom and joy come by the acceptance of one’s 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. And this is one of the keys to freedom and joy. And in an age where anything short of being a superstar 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 C.K. Chesterton, Emile 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 and the flatlands of human endeavor, but to realize the 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 sons of men.
Someone said that, “God will never be the same because you lived”. And that is because you have the high honor of bearing the image of God in a way that is unique to you and only you among the sons of men.”
However, as well as our limits being our identification, we need to also understand that they can be redemptive and facilitate the revelation of Christ flowing from us in a unique way.
McCullough in his book, The Consolations of Imperfections, he says that “we come to the limitation in life and we discover life in the limitation.” (Consolations, 31) And this is true to scripture which turns everything upside down and shows us that in contrast to humankind who continually fight against all limitation, the enfleshment of God in Christ meant that God himself joyfully embraced the most sever 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, his immortality, and omniscience. And 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 limitations is the key to the revelation of God in my life also.
Igor Stravinsky points out that great art is not possible without limitations and 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, 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 t limit my view of reality. No photograph can record everything the eye 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, 18)
So 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 form 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, something healing and redemptive and life-giving. And this is the ultimate consolation of every limitation.” (Consolations, 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. 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, 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, 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 discovering 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 two is the beautiful passage about the one who although he was equal with God, joyfully embraced the limits of finitude and was 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.