Life Within Limits

October 19th, 2009 · No Comments


Mark 10:35-45

The human spirit, like a captive bird, wants to be free. Confinement is cruel and limitations are stifling. Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” This “something” is in all of us. We long to transcend our restrictions. When someone chooses isolation it is often a sign of serious illness. So, we sing: “Oh, give me land, lots of land / Under starry skies above / Don’t fence me in.” (Cole Porter) Yet, human life is always lived within limits of one kind or another. The challenge to every one of us is to find meaningful life within limits.

The disciples of Jesus believed he had no limitations whatsoever. They had seen him change water into wine, and feed thousands of people with a boy’s lunch, and raise Lazarus from the dead. Anyone who could do that could do anything! Jesus could re-establish Israel’s power and prominence in the world. He could restore the glory days of King David. The disciples’ confidence in Jesus was unbounded that James and John asked Jesus for the two places of honor, one on his right hand and one on his left, when he came to power.

None of the disciples understood the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. All their lives they had been imbued with Israel’s messianic expectation. The Messiah would destroy Israel’s enemies and rule as conquering hero and as God’s anointed. James and John were no different from most Jews. Jesus responded to their request by saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He asked if they were able to drink his cup and endure his baptism, referring to his suffering and death. They, still thinking in political and military terms, said proudly, “We are able.” Such moments must have been very discouraging to Jesus.

Jesus’ limits were self-imposed. They were the limitations of obedience to God and of love. Greatness in his kingdom is not in ruling, but in serving. The “Son of man came not to be served but to serve,” he said, “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus cannot give us many of the things we ask for because they are off-limits for him. Some things he cannot give us because he loves us. Jesus’ self-imposed limitations were obedience to God and love.

We humans have at least two kinds of limitations. First, there are our given limitations. Some of these we have in common with all human beings, and some we have because each of us is a unique individual. Now, we should not underestimate our potential or shy away from challenges, but it is important to know and accept our limitations. When we know our weaknesses, and guard against them, they become our strengths. A sign of maturity is being realistic about both one’s capabilities and one’s limitations. Faith involves accepting our limits in relation to God’s sovereign power.

Second, we all have self-imposed limitations. Here our values and our faith come into play. If we respect the individuality and freedom of another person, for example, we will not seek to control or dominate that person. We limit our interaction with that person to the Golden Rule. If we believe in the primacy of truth and goodness, we will regard falsehood and evil as off-limits to us. If marriage partners believe in the sanctity of their vows, they will stake out limits accordingly. If, for health’s sake, we commit ourselves to physical fitness, we will build fences around demonic things like ice cream. Self-imposed limitations function, not to punish us, but to enhance and enrich our lives.

Jesus was the suffering servant, but he was not a masochist. The reason he accepted limitations was not because he found pleasure in suffering. His limitations were free choices. Jesus knew that love for God and love for the neighbor, far from being burdensome obligations, lead to the highest joy.

Meanwhile, our culture fawns over the celebrity who ignores limits. A common characteristic of those we dub “superstars” seems to be their rejection of limitations. So firm is their grip on us that we excuse all manner of aberrant behavior, fully expecting them to carry weapons, and “drive while intoxicated,” and spend a fortune on cushy rehab facilities. We envy them because we think our limits cause us suffering. We want to be free. We didn’t invent this need. It goes all the way back. Genesis tells of the limitations imposed on Adam and Eve, and of their unwillingness to accept them. Like them we believe that limitations are bad. “Don’t fence me in.”

We are so childish they shouldn’t let us out of the house. Children don’t understand limits. They see only the restriction of their mobility and curiosity. Only later do they understand why playing in the street was off limits. Like every good parent, God sets limits because God loves us. The wise speak of the “sacrament” of limits. Limits are a saving grace. It is only within our God-ordained limits that we thrive, and grow, and experience the fullness of life.

A friend, I think it was Browning Ware, was having coffee in a little café and noticed an elderly couple in a booth near by. The woman was a nearly helpless invalid. The man helped her eat and drink. When they had finished, the man picked her up in his arms, carried her out to a pickup, and placed her in the passenger seat. My friend and the waitress watched them. Then the waitress said, “That man took his vows seriously.”

Was the scene something tragic or something beautiful? Vows are limits. Every commitment we make is a fence we build. And the most beautiful parts of our lives take place inside fences.

Finally, our limits facilitate our knowledge of God. Our finitude points us to the Infinite. Our temporality has echoes of the Eternal. Our imperfect love reaches for God’s perfect love. This is the grace, the sacrament of limits. “Art consists of limitation,” said G. K. Chesterton. “The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

O God, forgive our foolish longing for the far country. Open our eyes to the goodness and joy of being constrained by your matchless and everlasting love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

C. David Matthews  /  Royal Lane Baptist Church  /  October 18, 2009

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