Thursday, September 12, 2019


Been thinking a bit about limits and limitations this week.  The first 'limits' in the Biblical story are found right back in Genesis 1, when God separates light from dark, the earth from the heavens, the land from the sea.  The anti-creation forces of darkness and chaos are driven back to within specific limits, in order to create space for life.  And according to the unfolding story, God maintains these limits - consider specifically the boundaries of the sea in Jeremiah 5:22.  The limits which make life possible were established by him in his Wisdom and are preserved by him so that life itself may be preserved.  (Consider the story of Noah's flood as an example of what happens when God in his wrath declines to preserve these borders!)

The counterpart to the limits of Genesis 1 are found in the story of the Garden.  There is, of course, the boundary to the Garden itself, but actually this is not the real limit in the story; there seems to be some expectation that the Man will increase the size of the Garden, cultivating the earth and making it all a place fit for human life.  The real limit is found in the centre of the garden, where the two trees stand: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

This is the first personal, ethical limitation that we find in Scripture.  The limits of Genesis 1 were established by fiat; this limit is delivered by command and requires obedience.  Here the Lord deals with his animate, rational creature, rather than the impersonal darkness and sea.  But the purpose of the limitation is the same - life.  God limits the darkness and the sea because he wills the life and flourishing of humanity.  The world without form and void is not habitable.  It is death.  In the same way, 'life' outside the commandment of God is not life, but death.  This continues to be underlined throughout Scripture.  Wherever humanity is confronted by God's command, the options are life and good or death and evil.  There is only life in his will.  The limit is good.

To rail against our limitations seems to be the most human thing in the world - and perhaps it is.  Human, all too human.  But if God is for us - if he is on our side - then the limits he has imposed are good for us.  He has given me these gifts and skills and not those.  That limits me.  He has given me this level of energy and not that.  I am limited.  I cannot, contrary to the mush which passes for a contemporary worldview, be whoever and whatever I want to be.  I must accept these limits as the good provision of God.  They provide the borders, the negatives, within which God wills to give positive shape to me.  I can only exist as the person I am here.

And similarly, the commands of God which limit me, which tell me what I may and may not do - these are good.  They set out the boundaries of human flourishing.  It is not possible to transgress them with impunity - not in the end, and if it seems like you're getting away with it, it just isn't the end yet.  Actually, just as I can only really be me within the physical/psychological/cultural/etc. limits that God has set for me, so I can only really be me within the limits of God's commandments.  God's commandments, which seem so narrow from the outside, turn out from the inside to establish a broad space within which I can live.

The most challenging limitation of all is of course death, when God returns me to dust.  I think about that a lot, and this week I marked another birthday, which makes me think about it more.  But to accept this limitation too as in some way good - not perhaps good in the sense of the first design of creation, but good for me as a sinner, as one who is fallen, just as I believe it was mercy which set up the flashing sword at the gate of Eden - that is a challenge.  But one to be embraced in Christ Jesus; as the limit which also carries the promise of a glorious resurrection, the boundary which makes life - real life - possible.

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