Wow, has it really been over two months since I last posted? It isn’t a bad thing, I guess, as these weeks have flown by and included a road-trip family vacation down south, various summer church activities, and the like (i.e. I don’t really remember much of what fills my days).
Something I have been mulling over these days is how to live out of a correct understanding of my own limits. It’s possible that most other people already know how to do this, but a recurring pattern in my life is that I often push past the point where those who know me well begin to notice I’m fraying a bit at the edges. The reasons I am prone to this are complicated– I’m thinking having to do with personality, culture (Chinese? American? Mix?), modeling, sometimes guilt and other times pride– and it’s tough because I am not as self-aware as I ought to be about this given the way it affects me and those around me. Whatever the reasons, I am increasingly convinced that the understanding, implications, and applications of understanding that we are finite creatures is an important topic to consider in ministry in particular and life in general.
One Biblical Foundation to Consider: God Alone Has No limits
I think one reason that it’s been hard for me to think about the having a healthy understanding of work, limits, and rest is that so much of Scripture seems to talk about how God is able to supersede our limitations and do more than what we’d expect. God often calls us to do hard things and many people in the Bible were called to operate out of their comfort zones. Because of this, I’ve often found myself in Christian circles where saying that something is beyond one’s capacity can be seen as a symptom of a lack of faith in the power of God or, worse, a self-focused rejection of God’s call for us to deny ourselves.
While it is true that God calls us to deny ourselves daily and not live a life driven by comfort and our own human assessments of our capacities, I believe that understanding our own limitations (physically, emotionally, capability, capacity, giftedness) is not antithetical to faith, but a sign of faith in the word and character of God.
We see in the Psalms again and again the contrast the psalmists make between God who is unlimited vs. us, people, as created creatures. Rather than being cause for condemnation, it is fodder for worship. God alone is the one who does not slumber nor sleep and thus though we are weak and needy, he is our help! (Psalm 121) The work of our hands only matters if God establishes it, and rather than live in anxious toil because of this limitation, we rest because God grants sleep to those he loves! (Psalm 127) God cares for us and remembers that we are dust. This isn’t a derogatory statement, but one of love and gentleness– he remembers we are dust and he knows our frame (how we’re made) and has fatherly compassion on us. (Psalm 103) (Christopher Ash talks about these passages here: How to Maintain Pastoral Zeal While Avoiding Pastoral Burnout.)
A year or so ago as I wrestled with how to deal with brokenness and the fallout of people’s sin in ministry and life in general, reading through Zachary Eswine’s book Sensing Jesus was one of the best things I could do. The premise of his book is the way that we often operate when trying to serve God and others actually shows our refusal to recognize that we are not God. Rather, we act as if we are omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere at the same time) in the big and small things we do. His book is amazing at getting to the heart of much of our striving and is written beautifully too. I highly recommend it!
Why This Matters
These are a few reasons why I am convinced that understanding and responding accordingly to my own creaturely limits is helpful for me, honoring to God, and best for loving others:
1. Knowing my limits helps me better serve those around me.
A few months ago, when talking to Jeff about how I could grow in serving our family, he encouraged me by saying something like, “Well, I think you’re getting to know better when you’re reaching your limits and how to ask for help.” It surprised me that he said that, but I am learning to see this now as an issue of stewardship for the sake of serving others.
It’s easier to talk about stewardship with physical things (e.g. money) because we all see clearly that we have a limited supply of it. Though there are many good causes we can give to and people we can serve, we give of our money towards specific circumstances we believe we are called to. I can act like there is no limit to how much money I have, but I’d eventually have to face the reality of an empty bank account.
It’s tougher with intangibles– energy, giftedness, emotional capacity– but still real nonetheless. There’s no bank statement sent out, but that low-balance text alert does come in the form of depression, sickness, burnout, frustration, anger, deep discouragement, etc. That not only affects me, but those around me who I am called to serve and can no longer serve well. When I recognize my limits, I am able to prioritize a resource that is limited. Though I may want to, I can’t give my best to everyone. That means I need to set priorities with godly wisdom and with the help of those around me for the sake of those that I am called to.
I remember an older missionary giving advice during a talk at a college conference. One thing that stuck out to me was “your body is your horse, take care of it because you can only push it so far.” It stuck out to me because it seemed strange that he would choose to share something so seemingly non-spiritual, at least that’s how it seemed to me at the time. Now I realize the wisdom in that. First of all, God made our bodies and we are called to honor him with them. And secondly, we can’t push them beyond what they ought to handle and still continue to serve others as we are called to.
2. Knowing my limits keeps me from temptation.
Do you ever get to the point where you know you’re thinking crazy and that if you open your mouth, you’re going to say things that you shouldn’t say and wouldn’t say if you were clear headed? A few weeks ago, I had one of those thank-you-Jesus-for-keeping-me-from-saying-what-I-was-thinking-yesterday moments. That was in large part due to my realizing at the time that I was, in fact, thinking crazy because I was physically exhausted and that any “discussion” I started would not be fruitful and would find me saying things that are, in fact, untrue. And it was true that in the morning after a good rest, I was feeling better and relieved, was able to pray “thank you SO MUCH for keeping my mouth shut!”
Being physically, spiritually, or emotionally exhausted is not an excuse for sin. If I sin when I’m tired, I still need to repent and ask for forgiveness from those around me. But, we are embodied souls and the interplay between our souls, minds, and bodies, though mysterious, is real.
This quote in Kevin Deyoung’s Crazy Busy (quoting D.A. Carson) is great:
If you are among those who become nasty, cynical, or even full of doubt when you are missing your sleep, you are morally obligated to try to get the sleep you need. We are whole, complicated beings: our physical existence is tied up to our spiritual well-being, to our mental outlook, to our relationship with others, including our relationship with God. Sometimes the godliest thing you do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep– not pray all night, but sleep. I’m certainly not denying that there may be a place for praying all night; I’m merely insisting that in the normal course of things, spiritual discipline obligates you get the sleep your body needs. (97)
A few months ago, I was battling feeling an overwhelming amount of annoyance at people which I normally wouldn’t feel. I didn’t want to serve people or in ministry and I kept finding things people did annoying. I was sharing this to ask for prayer and help, and it took three different people at different times suggesting that maybe I needed rest and that I was just really tired to realize that yes, I needed rest and was just really tired.
3. It brings me to humble dependence on other people and deeper appreciation for God’s church.
One summer on missions in Taiwan, I was supposed to lead a Bible study and I felt like I just could not do it. I couldn’t take it on physically–I was exhausted– and I felt so guilty. This ended up being one of the biggest testimonies of God’s work that trip, that because I was unable to lead the study, my teaching assistant, another young man from the local church did so– with better language skills than me (of course), and with the possibility of continuing the relationships long after the team left.
As Christians, we are all part of a body and we can’t say to each other “I don’t need you.” Though we would never say “I don’t need you!” to another person in the church (that’s messed up!), we often do not live in such a way to affirm the opposite, that in fact, Biblically “I do need you.” One way I have seen the work of God through the body of Christ most clearly is when I, having reached the end of my own resources, experience God’s provision not through the increasing of what I can do, but through another who is able to do what I cannot.
4. Knowing my limits helps me to be merciful towards others in understanding they have their own God-given limits too.
I find that I get upset at others for not doing more when I am pushing past my own limit. (Public confession: This happens especially at home.) I compare my own tiredness to others’ and in my mind, they have a right to be tired if they’re doing more than I am (at which point I feel bad that I can’t handle more), but if they aren’t, then there’s no sympathy from me! The more I am pushing myself past the breaking point, the more I expect others to be pushing themselves too. But when I am being faithful to work within my God-given limits, recognizing that God as my Father is compassionate toward me, I can empathize, sympathize, and be understanding towards those who are having a hard time or need rest.
A pastor’s wife shared once at a workshop about how in any given harbor, there are boats of different sizes with different weight limits. If the water level rises beyond a certain point in any one boat, it means that the limit has been exceeded and if it’s floating much higher, than there is still more that can be put onboard. Likewise, we all are made differently with different capacities physically, emotionally, etc. If I can accept that and seek to honor God with that as a boat myself, it helps me to recognize that others also have their own weight limits that may differ from mine.
5. Knowing my limits leads me to deeper worship through the recognition of my own creaturely bounds vs. God who alone is God.
One distinction that has helped me in considering my limitations is recognizing the difference between being a sinner and being a creature (created). I used to think that saying no to an opportunity that could be God-given because of my own assessment of my limits was a lack of faith. It is true that my orienting question for serving others shouldn’t be “will this make me tired?” Serving and loving others means suffering, inconvenience, and tiredness oftentimes. But I believe there is an appropriate place for considering that I am a creature, created to be limited in energy, wisdom, power, and strength. Rather than being led to guilt (“What’s wrong with me?”) or apathy (“Oh well, if I can’t, I can’t”) because of this, I can be thrown into deeper dependence on God and awe at his being God (i.e his divinity).
I am bound by space and time. I can only pray for so many people or care about so many issues. I can only “take” so much on. And as I consider what I am unable to take up, the emotional burdens I can’t carry, the time commitments I can’t make, people I can’t help, causes I can’t participate in– I can come to God in praise and trust that he who has no limits is able to carry all that I am unable to.
How I’m Learning
What I’m not saying is that I’ve figured it all out or that this is the only factor to consider when taking on that extra responsibility or going out of my way to serve another person. I’m learning that I need wisdom, both from God through Scripture and through those who are good examples of this to me. I need to see people who give to God and others sacrificially when it’s hard and inconvenient, and yet have a Biblically sound and practical way to consider their own limitations. I also need those around me who know me well to either give me a kick in the rear (don’t be lazy!) or to let me know, “hey, I think it’s okay for you to say no and I think you need to rest.” I’m learning that there is a difference between a sustainable tiredness that is part in parcel of being a parent with young children and serving in the local church versus a sustained dread-filled exhaustion. The first is to be expected, and we rejoice that we are tired because of God’s blessings! The second is cause to consider whether or not I am living out of Biblical truth.
God’s grace comes in varied forms, and I am learning to consider that the grace I am praying for to sustain me with help through the day may not come in the form of my receiving superhuman strength and abilities (though if necessary, it may!), but the grace of being permitted to say “no, maybe in the future”, to sit down and rest for a few minutes in trust that God will enable me to finish a task later, to ask for help from a willing husband and grandmas (the girls’) and friends. I am learning to embrace the fact that I am in fact, dust– and this was in fact designed for the sake of the glory of him isn’t merely “super-human”, but God.
Here are some resources that in the last year or two have been greatly helpful to me and shaped what I’ve shared:
A great practical and engaging talk by a seasoned minister: How to Maintain Pastoral Zeal While Avoiding Pastoral Burnout (YouTube) Here’s the description:
How can burnout be a problem in ministry when Christ Himself encouraged His followers to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel? Christopher Ash explains that there is a vital difference between living sacrificially for Jesus and pursuing our calling in a way that leads to mental and physical exhaustion. When Christian leaders bear in mind that we are created by God from dust and that all of our endeavors are dependent on Him for success, we are reminded that Gospel ministry is a humbling privilege and enabled to rejoice that we are recipients of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.
Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being by Zackary Eswine (Amazon, WTSbooks)
Crazy Busy by Kevin Deyoung (Amazon, WTSbooks)
Some Books recommended by Christopher Ash in talk above (I haven’t read these, but may soon!)
- Going the Distance: How to Stay Fit For a Lifetime of Ministry
Serving Without Sinking- How To Serve Christ And Save Your Joy- John Hindley
Dangerous Calling- Paul Tripp
Liberating Ministry From The Success Syndrome- R. Kent Hughes
Honorably Wounded: Stress Among Christian Workers- Marjory F. Foyle (esp. for cross cultural)
4 thoughts on “I Am Dust”
This resonates with me so much more deeply than it would have four months ago. Especially #2 (I have said to Cliff several times in the past month these exact words: “Tiredness is not an excuse for sin!”) and #3 (I have a tendency to politely decline help offered by others because it makes me feel… dependent). Thank you for blessing me with your writing!
this is a VERY helpful post, one of which i am deeply encouraged and can relate much to 🙂 i especially like #2 and #4 as it has illuminated some of my own struggles. thank you, faith!
Saying no to activities outside of my personal and official church ministries rather than yes is difficult for me. However, when I think about the times I do say no, I don’t regret the time I spent instead…whether it was more time for myself to recharge so I could serve better at work and after work the next day (I think I need it more often than I really do) or spend more time meditating on the Word or reading Christian books that challenge me. I think I especially have to say, “no” more to casual gatherings or even group celebrations, but I am learning that I don’t have to necessarily be at such things in order to experience fellowship. Or I can even ask God how I can celebrate someone in different ways if I miss the gathering.