This was my dream job. I was invited to join a city-reaching team and teach at a Bible college. It would require a move from the midwest to the northwest. Peggy and I flew out to meet the staff and experience the setting. There was just one small problem.
This particular city was notorious for its rain. Rain isn’t so bad, it’s the mould that moisture produces and Peggy has a severe mold allergy. By the third day of our visit, she was in bed with a migraine.
I went to a lunch appointment alone that day. The Navigators’ Director of International Missions was in town and we agreed to meet for lunch. The Director’s job was to screen, prepare, and send American staff to positions overseas. I had never met him and was looking forward to connecting.
As we began our lunch, he naturally asked, “Where’s your wife?” I told him that she was in bed with a headache due to mold allergies. With a look of surprise and concern, he set down his fork and proceeded to tell me a story.
“Whenever possible I try to take new missionaries out to dinner one last time before they go overseas. The dinner date this night was with a young couple going to the Philippines. I took them to my favorite fish restaurant. When it came time for the wife to order she asked the server, “What do you have besides fish? I’m allergic to fish.” I put down the menu and told the couple, “You can’t go overseas. All they eat in the Philippines is fish.”
“I’ve learned over the years,” he told me, “that sometimes God sovereignly places boundaries around us. We’re not always free to do whatever we want to do.” Right then I thought, “We can’t move here. Peggy would either be constantly medicated or in bed with a migraine.” God had placed some limitations on our lives and I turned down the position.
If you’re like me, I consider limits to be a compromise for faith. Shouldn’t we stretch our limits and our vision because we have a great God? Shouldn’t I trust God for Peggy’s health to change? Shouldn’t churches and ministries set high goals — seemingly impossible goals — believing that God can supply? The Scriptures and my gray hair of experience has called me to question some of these assumptions.
Psalm 127 is a Psalm of limits. The writer starts with an obvious truth, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (127:1) The key word here is “vanity.” Vanity conveys the meaning that something is transitory, absurd, meaningless, puzzling. No one wants to live this kind of life. What’s the vanity that the Psalmist is cautioning us against? Vanity is a life without limits and the first limit is the belief that I can do it alone. Let me explain.
It’s obvious that people build houses. It’s obvious that we need watchmen to watch. When does building and watching cross the line into vanity – something unsubstantial, transitory, absurd, and meaningless? The line is crossed when I assume I can do it on my own, it’s all my responsibility. I quickly forget I belong on a team called the body of Christ with the Lord as the team’s captain. My abilities and energies are limited; vanity thinks I can do it alone.
As Americans, we love the image of the strong man or woman fully competent to do anything they set their minds to do. ”No dream is too big to achieve if you believe in yourself,” we’re taught. This is vanity. For believers, we could call it the Messiah complex.
A Messiah complex tells me I’m indispensable to God’s purposes. If I don’t answer this phone call, see this person, or accept someone’s request, then the ministry will collapse. I’m learning that my limits may be someone else’s opportunity. Vanity is thinking that I can do it alone. Vanity is a life without limits.
The second act of vanity is “rising up early and going to bed late” (127:2). This is like eating “anxious bread” — we feed ourselves by fretting, worrying, and scheming — and this keeps us up at night. We assume that with less sleep we can accomplish more. The harder I work the more I will gain but often the gain is more anxiety — talk about an absurd life! This is work without profit leaving me only with vanity. Vanity is not accepting my physical and emotional limits.
I so appreciate the insight of agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry when he writes that “farmers must farm the farm given to them.” It’s vain to plant pineapples in New Hampshire or rice in the Arizona dessert. Berry states that we must understand the “genius of the place.” This “genius” is not mental acuity but the “prevalent characteristic” of a location. In other words, farmers wisely consider the limitations of their land and plant accordingly. They know how to live with physical limits.
God has built physical and emotional limits into our bodies. Do you realize that the majority of our lives are spent sleeping? The need for sleep is a natural limit. Current research shows that bad health happens without adequate sleep. For Israel, God built in another limitation — the keeping of the Sabbath.
Sabbath-keeping required a rest from all work for a twenty-four hour period. For a full day I pamper my soul reminding myself, “I’m not in charge of the world.” Every seven years, God commanded Israel to take a year off from all work. What an outrageous idea!
The limitations that Sabbath keeping placed upon Israel was to remind them that God is fully able to care for them and accomplish His purposes without their efforts. We need to learn the lesson of the Sabbath — our minds and bodies are not constructed for perpetual motion. Vanity is not accepting my physical and emotional limits.
Here are three simple guidelines that help me live a limited life.
- Accept God’s unique design of me. Romans 12:3 teaches that we’re not “to think more highly than we ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” I was not created to be “omni-competent” — fully skilled in everything. God has assigned me certain gifts and strengths and I need to faithfully serve within these limitations. Life and ministry are not a singles-match but a team sport with the Lord as my captain and His body as my team. I’m not indispensible.
- Limits give freedom and focus. I don’t have to do everything but I can wisely invest in a few things and do them well. The question from the Lord will not be “How much did you do?” but “Were you faithful in the few things I assigned you?” (Luke 16:10). When we discover our limits we can focus in fresh and creative ways on living out God’s purposes within our unique designs.
- Say “no” to say “yes.” This is really hard for me — just ask Peggy. Too often I make decisions to please others. I don’t want to let them down or communicate a lack of commitment. After all, committed people are always available, no matter the time of day or how we feel. As one leader wisely yet bluntly stated, “Just because you have an emergency doesn’t make it my emergency.” Limits help me to say “no” to the tyranny of the urgent (and others) so I can be available to say “yes” to what’s important.
God is teaching me how to live a limited life. God wisely designed us with limits. A limited life helps me align with the Apostle Paul’s conclusion: “I have learned how to be content.” When I think that I can do it on my own or that I have endless physical or emotional energy then I face a life of vanity. Living the limited life reminds me that the Lord, not myself, is in charge of the universe . . . and with this I can be content.