Embrace Your Limits

The Greek myth of Prometheus provides a way. In one telling of the story, Prometheus, as a sort of revenge on Zeus, does three things to aid a human revolt. He first erases the memory in humans of the day of their death. Up until then, humans, according to Greek lore, were born with the knowledge of the day they would die, a built-in sense of limitation. Having removed their sense of finiteness, Prometheus then filled their heads with dreams larger than what they could achieve. Then to complete his mischief, he gave them fire. This last bit is the best-known part of the myth of Prometheus. But we would do well to pay attention to all three acts.

The modern man and woman have lost any sense of mortality or limitation. Our heads and hearts have been nourished on the lie from the Romantic era that we can be anything we want to be, that we can achieve anything we set out to achieve. And with every technological innovation—from the microchip to a globe wrapped with fiber-optic cable—we start to believe a little bit more that we can indeed do anything. We have fire in our hands, dreams in our hearts, and no concept of limitation in our heads. And so we live. We tell our children they can be and do anything they set out to be or do. But it’s a lie. It’s an illusion that we have seen unravel as adults but still hope will be true for our children. We hope for them to make something of themselves that we couldn’t make of ourselves. We live the illusion of self-reliance vicariously through our children. Fire is in our hands. But sooner or later, we will get burned.

We don’t have to wait to until we get burned. We can confess our limitations and the limitations of the things we have, the money we’ve earned, the stuff we’ve acquired. We can be honest and admit that a car will not make us invincible in bad weather, that a security system will not prevent a break-in, that a good investment strategy can’t guarantee retiring as a millionaire. All these things are good, and they increase the probability of your desired outcomes. But they make no absolute promises. The simple act of acknowledging that can free you from a reliance on the wrong things. It can also prevent you from disappointment when any of those things begin to crack. I know an airline pilot who lost a big chunk of his retirement after the airline filed for bankruptcy several years ago. He made adjustments to their plans and to their lifestyle and kept going. He knew the limitations of a corporate retirement plan. I know a young girl who is trying not to be disappointed when her boyfriend doesn’t meet her every emotional need. She is learning about the limitations of human relationships. Everything on earth has limits.

The most difficult limitations to embrace are our own personal ones, the ceiling on our capacity. We have to put aside the foolish talk of boundless human potential and pray, as Moses did, that God would “teach us to number our days” (Ps. 90:12). All our efforts have limits. There are people we cannot help, situations we cannot change, goals we cannot achieve. We have limits. Embracing our finiteness helps us look up to the God who is infinite. Our boundedness opens us up to His boundless grace.

As we confess our limitations and number our days, we can choose to surrender our dreams. “Dreaming big” cannot be a virtue in itself; we cannot assume that any big dream must be God’s dream because it is big. Dreams are for giving life to others. Joseph had to learn how to be a slave to Potiphar and a prisoner in Egypt before becoming a prince. In the difficult years, he learned to surrender his ambition and rejoice in someone else’s success. It was then that he was lifted out of prison and put in the position to save his brothers and keep God’s chosen family alive through years of drought.

We haven’t yet understood this if our so-called big dreams make us ignore the small, simple moments. It never fails that the people who can’t stop talking about spiritual things are the ones who can’t seem to get their natural lives in order. The fantastic is an escape from the ordinary. They talk about wanting miracles to be the norm, but their family is in shambles. They put on a show on the platform but are rude to the volunteer who’s driving them back to the hotel. Some of the meanest, most depersonalizing people are the ones consumed with their mission. I heard of a pastor who ruthlessly fired a faithful worship leader because he wanted someone who could help them “get where they wanted to go.” When told of how hurt she was by the way he handled the situation, he gave some retort about this being a “spiritual war zone” and there not being time to worry about people’s feelings. That is not the sort of talk that comes from the God-dependent. That is the language of self-importance, of the one who believes the weight of saving the world rests on his shoulders—the result of believing that your dreams are so urgent and divine that people don’t matter.

Confessing our limitations and surrendering our dreams helps us hold power loosely. We stop playing with fire. We understand that power corrupts, that even the noblest mortal will melt when held up too close to the sun. We must do with our power what Christ did with His: Give it away. Let others lead. Use the power you have to lift up others. This much we know. But to really ensure that the temptation of power has no grip on us, there are times when you must turn down a perfectly good opportunity. Sometimes taking on an additional role or responsibility is not about actually helping others; it’s about gaining more status. That’s when fire is in our hands. Let it go before you get burned.

To confess our limits, to surrender our dreams and embrace the ordinary, to hold power loosely and even turn down the chance to gain more—these are unlikely, uncommon spiritual disciplines that can help us remain God-dependent even in the midst of plenty. The God-dependent have learned that only God is fully in charge of the world He created. They understand that, even in plenty, all the good things of this life are simply a foretaste of what’s coming. In the meantime the God-dependent know that everything here is a gift.

This post was slightly adapted from “Chapter 3: The God-Dependent” from Lucky: How the Kingdom Comes to Unlikely People, a fresh look at the Beatitudes in Luke 6. The book releases March 1, 2011, but you can pre-order it HERE. Copyright, 2011, Glenn Packiam. Published by David C. Cook.