The following is an article that Temple Seminary graciously invited me to submit for publication in the Aletheias Theological Journal. If you’d like to read the journal click here.
We are living in a day in our country and culture when there are as much uncertainty and fear as any time this generation has ever known. It is a generation of rhetoric. Truth has been relegated to post-modern relativity while political leaders have learned, since truth is relative, if you repeat something enough times, someone will believe it to be true—even when the person declaring it knows it to be false. What is all this causing? More than a divided country, it is also causing an unwillingness to try. Why? Because, in our day, if you try to do anything worth doing, it will be adjudicated in the court of public opinion, which for many is a frightening prospect.
What we are realizing today is that the fear in our culture is creating an unwillingness to try, and an unwillingness to try will eventually lead to an inability to succeed—all from a mindset of fear.
Whether the above paragraphs resonate with you or not, certainly you know and understand fear. We all have it. I think most of us have fear for the reasons stated above. We all fear different things in different ways in this life. For that fear God has given all mankind an interesting and unusual gift.—“the gift of limits.”
“The gift of limits” presses against what some preach in popular Christianity today and also against what many Christians believe. For many, Christianity has been reduced to a set of precepts that interpret faith in God as something to help humankind to be successful and to succeed in anything humankind tries. That sounds good, but it is simply not true.
Paul actually lived and preached a different truth. Paul declares both through his life and words that God will purposefully and graciously let us come to the end of our limits—the end of ourselves. Through circumstances and seasons, God will allow us to come to the end of ourselves which will force us to reach for Him. The implications of this promise are spectacular. Paul broaches this truth at the Areopagus in Athens.
In his speech at the Hill of Ares found in Acts 17, Paul talks of the limitations that man has on them and that God placed those limitations upon man deliberately. In his recognition that the Areopagites were both religious and idolatrous, Paul tells the philosophers that God has placed upon their lives a way that they can find Him. That way is limitations.
Paul tells his audience that though they do not know Him, God created them. In His creation of them, along with all mankind, God “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). Paul is telling them that they will have seasons of life, life- span, and times when they will only be able to go so far. This is true for all of us. I believe that of which Paul is speaking is simply that we, by God’s design, will all eventually come to the end of ourselves and our abilities. Why would God do this to us? Punishment? No, actually it is grace.
Paul continues to tell them the reason for these limits. He says God limits men, “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him.” The language of this verse is describing anxiously groping in the dark and searching for help. The best part of this is that Paul describes the outcome of this groping and reaching, which is to “find Him. Yet he is actually not far from any of us” (Acts 17:27).
When I am completely up against my limits, and I am anxious, and I am reaching in the dark as far as I can, suddenly it is there that I can find God—both His presence and His working. In addition, I find he was never very far away!
Being a Christian then does not mean that I will be able to do anything to which I set my mind. Though I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I still will have times and attempts in life at which I will fail. If Paul believes this, then “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” cannot mean what so many people today think it means (Philippians 4:13). If God will purposely and providentially allow me to come to the end of myself, Paul must have meant something different with that verse.
Before I come to a conclusion on this, let me first explore some of the benefits of limits. As I come to the end of myself and find God in my reach, it exposes some other blessings along with it.
Limits expose the weaknesses in that to which I am clinging.
Luke records how Paul points this out to the philosophers he is addressing. First, that the Areopagites are “very religious” (Acts 17:22). Our limits expose the weakness of our religiosity. God gives us limits to make sure we do not jump through our religious hoops in the hope of somehow pleasing God. Trying to keep God pleased by religion so he will not punish us is a severe misunderstanding of the cross. Our limits keep the cross in view. When the cross stays in view, we are consistently reminded of the fact that God poured all of His wrath for our sin on the Son, thereby crushing the need for religion.
Secondly, limits expose the weakness of our personal abilities. Paul explains this as he explains that God is not “served with human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25). This speaks directly to the fact that being a Christian is not a guarantee of success in everything we try to do. Sometimes God lets us fail. In doing so, God by His grace exposes that there are weaknesses to our personal abilities. When we find we are unable and seek God, even in frustration we find God is able.
Lastly, limits expose the weakness of what I cling to that are cultural norms. Paul points out that the Athenians were clinging to things that were the cultural norms for strength and mooring. Paul explains that “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone…” The words “to think” in verse 29 come from the Greek word νομίζω, which means “to follow or practice what is customary.” Their idols were their customary comforts. Needless to say, in our twenty-first-century culture, we have many customary comforts on which we rely for strength and encouragement. Today it can be anything from likes and followers on social media, to binging on Netflix, to pain killers, food, or many other things we rely on for comfort today. Our limits expose how weak all these things are compared to God. When we come to the end, when we can no longer find comfort, then by God’s design, we will reach for help and find Him without having to search very far.
Limits grow my faith
Every person on earth has two choices—either to try to live by faith in one’s self or by faith in God. You cannot do both. That is why it is important to understand that God never meant Christianity to cause a Christian to believe that everything he does or tries will work. God will always be working in our lives to help us live the way he demands we live, and he makes but one demand—by faith (Romans 1:17).
This is why limits are an act of grace. When we come to the end of ourselves, we are forced to look for help outside of us. When we have exhausted all other options, all of our customary comforts, we are left to grope in the dark; and by God’s grace, that is when our faith in Him grows—we find Him.
Limits grow my ability to see God work (again).
If the above is true, it makes sense that we may find ourselves up against our limits more than once in this life. For Paul, it was many, many times. You can find a list of some of these times in 2 Corinthians 11. Earlier in 2 Corinthians Paul explains what the gift of limits did for him:
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. he delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Corinthians 1:8–10).
Every time Paul came to the end of himself, he found God was there to deliver him, and Paul learned to believe the next time God would deliver him again.
Paul understood the gift of limits very well because he found himself up against his limits many times. When he was preaching at the Areopagus, he was not only sharing theological truth but also practical experience. It is important we remember that Paul was just as human as you and I. Because of this, I am convinced that when Paul wrote Philippians 4:13 he was not thinking the way so many Christians do today when they apply this verse. He did not mean because he was a believer that he could do anything to which he set his mind. He was basing it upon the gift of limits that he learned through his entire ministry.
I am not saying that Paul was not very spiritual, but Paul himself admitted that he struggled just as much as you and I do (Romans 7:18-20). When Paul went through the struggles, persecutions, and trials of his ministry, I believe many times he found himself at the end of his limitations, which is why he speaks about the gift of limits the way he does.
When Paul wrote Philippians 4:13, it comes at the end of a section of Scripture that was deeply personal for Paul. I am convinced that couched in Philippians chapter 4 are truths that Paul had been repeating and preaching to himself during many times of struggle. Verses such as 6 and 7, when Paul states, “Be anxious for nothing” comes from Paul struggling with his own anxiety. In this Paul is reminding himself that his anxiety will melt away, and he will know God’s peace when he prays and makes his requests known to God (Philippians 4:6-7). In the same way in verse eight, Paul explains how to keep the negative reel of thoughts that we all can have running in our minds from sending us into depression—especially during seasons of difficulty.
When Paul under inspiration wrote the above verses he wrote Philippians 4:13 as well, which he did sitting in a jail. It is ironic that he is writing to the churches in Philippi. It was in Philippi that Paul experienced both persecution and an incredible miracle of deliverance that came with it (Acts 16:16-34). However, this time, as he sits in jail Silas is not present, they are not singing hymns, there will be no earthquake shaking to open the cell doors and no dropping off of the shackles. There will be no jailer and his family converted, nor a celebration of baptism because of their faith. It is at this moment that Paul wrote such a powerful and pivotal verse.
When Paul wrote these incredible words, he was not speaking about being successful in everything he tried, and he was not speaking about doing things well. He was saying that because of the many times in his ministry that he came to the end of himself, and the many times he experienced God’s mercy, he learned something. Every time Paul reached and groped in the dark, he found out that God was “not far” from him but ever so close. Paul knew that because of that truth he could even sit in prison without any hope or thought of rescue. Paul, based upon everything he knew about this truth of the gift limits, was saying, “because of what I know, I can even do this!”
Paul knew by experience, and through theological truth, that when faced with his limits, he would experience the limitlessness of God.