Everyone has limits, few want to admit them. In a day and age when limits are ignore because of the advancement of technology in many ways, limits are seen as hindrances to personal growth and pleasure. But we would be wise to embrace our limits and have eyes to see that limits in your life might even be what God uses to accomplish His purposes.
We can learn about limits by looking at the life of John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer (Johnny B). He was a prophet who came before Jesus to prepare the way for Jesus being the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, and of the whole world. Johnny B had a very unique, but successful ministry. He lived out in the desert, off the grid. He wore clothes that you could make out in the wild, he only ate food that you didn’t have to pay for or pay temple tax for. He was not immersed into the religious system of the day. That’s exactly why he was so crazy and weird.
Anyone who doesn’t want to live within the confines of a religious system will always be looked at as “weird” by those who are within that particular system. Johnny B’s message was simple: “Repent and be baptized.” In other words, “Turn from worshipping the system, and worship God again. Come back to your first love. The Messiah is coming. You better be ready for Him or you will miss Him.”
Johnny B was a weird-o, but he had a following and he was getting famous as a prophet of God. So when we come upon this passage in John 3, what Johnny B does is actually a very mature thing; he embraces his limits. He realizes who he is and lives in reality. Turn to John 3:22-30 with me now:
22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).
25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Peter Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, says, “There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality. In fact the true spiritual life is not an escape from reality but an absolute commitment to it. Loss marks the place where self-knowledge and powerful transformation happen…” Let me say that last part again: “Loss marks the place where self-knowledge and powerful transformation happen…” In other words, not having enough to give, or coming to the end of yourself is the very means of growing up. This is called the gift of limits. This is what Johnny B models for us here.
Limits (or limitations) are the cause of much of our loss in life. Can you imagine the ego shot that Johnny B took by surrendering to his limits at the prime of his ministry? It is here that he fully felt and realized his limitations as a human being, and that his time was up. It was time to move over to let the more qualified person step in, in this case, the God of the universe.
We are limited creatures, but that is often a problem to us in our fast-paced, get-what-you-want, comfort-driven, climb-the-ladder-of-success kind of society. Many of us view limits as this attack against our freedom that interrupts our desired “normal” lives.
And because of these limits that keep us from that life that we think to be the “good life”, we turn to things to cope with the grief of the loss. Again, Peter Scazzero says, “We numb our pain through denial, blaming, rationalizations, addictions, and avoidance. We search for spiritual shortcuts around our wounds. We demand others take away our pain.”
To be honest, addictions of many kinds has been the drug of choice to help us deal with pain. We want to manage our lives and protect ourselves from the risk of being let down or bumping into our limits. We consumers demand that someone or something (a marriage, a sexual partner, an ideal family, children, an achievement, a career, a church, or a church leader) take our loneliness and pain away.
The sad thing about all this is that by running to addictions and short cuts, we deny and minimizing our pain and losses, and what this does over the course of many months and years, is that we stop being human the way God intended, and experience a way of being human that deteriorates our bodies and souls. We become empty religious Christians with very sophisticated masks. Eventually, this way of living wears us down so much, that we stop knowing how to feel altogether.
Much of our pain and misfortune from losses are like experiencing deaths (death of a dream, desire, family system, comfort, youth, routines). God has given all of us the gift of limits, and many of us hate it. We are limited, and believe it or not, it’s a gift. Limits keep us grounded and make us humble, needy, and creative.
Think about this: the reason why we all relate to the book of Job somehow, and the reason why whenever suffering and pain is spoken of, we are interested even though it brings up pain and other realities that we want to dodge, is because we all experience the same types of losses that Job did.
Job lost everything in one day: his family, his wealth, his health (Job 1:13-2:8). Most of us experience our losses more slowly, over the course of our whole lives, until we find ourselves on the door of death, leaving everything behind, but none-the-less, we still experience these losses like Job, and they hurt, they max out our limits. We are limited.
Many of you have experienced losses at church or in another intimate and vulnerable setting. You’ve been betrayed by a tradition, a leader, or a spouse. You’ve been hurt by someone in your community and you lose the joy of feeling comfortable there. You lose friends; they move, they don’t forgive you, they change.
Everybody who gives of themselves in community with other believers, sooner or later, experiences these kinds of loses and the grief that comes with those losses.
I’m going here because I want to take us to where our limits end. I believe it is at this place where special things happen; growth happens; maturing happens; a realized need for help happens… oh these are specials things! Often times our eyes and hearts are not opened to the deeper and more beautiful things of God until we reach our limits; we get to the end of ourselves; and that’s where we find Jesus.
But we need help going here, because turning to consult our pain and losses is counter-cultural today. But if we were to actually get to the heart of the gospel, we would see that this is actually normal. Let me show you:
John 12:24-25: Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Mark 8:34-35: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Mark 9:35b: If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.
Mark 10:43-45: But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
The way up is down. The way to real power is to give up power. The way to gain power is to lose power. The way to become rich is to become poor. The way to be great is to be the slave of all! Limits!! We are limited, and realizing our limits is the key to embracing the good news of Jesus. That’s called living in reality. Oh how beautiful!
It works for us when we are young, vulnerable children to create coping mechanism to help us survive and deal with the pain of being wounded; that is actually a gift from God to children in many cases. Blocking out the pain, or forgetting abuse done to you as a child altogether, enables the child to keep living a “normal” life. So at that point, it’s a healthy thing to not fully experience, or block out, those painful realities when we’re young so we can be relatively stable.
But the transition into adulthood requires that we mature through our coping mechanisms such as: denial, minimizing, blaming others, blaming yourself, justifying actions, intellectualizing, distracting, becoming hostile, numbing, etc. The transition into maturity from childhood is one of honestly, looking at what is true; what really happened; how we truly are emotionally, etc. Jesus himself said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Unfortunately, even as adults, it is ever so easy and convenient to carry with us many coping maneuvers to protect ourselves from pain. Here’s why this is a problem and why embracing reality (our limits) as adults is so crucial: false reality blocks us from growing up spiritually and emotionally, as well as from the light;
1 John 1:6-7: 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
So what I want to do is to put some things out there, things that we who are still coping as children (and if we were honest, we’d all raise our hands to this), that we could do to help us to move in the direction of embracing our limits and reality:
1. Pay attention to the pain and don’t be quick to dismiss it, numb yourself from it, or call it a lie or an attack from the enemy. Jesus did this, even though He knew there was an answer to certain things; Jesus wept over Lazarus and cried out in grief over Jerusalem (see John 11:35 and Luke 13:34). He experienced the pain of the moment and lived in the reality of what happened. He wasn’t ultimately crushed by it, but He didn’t say: “Oh, let go and let God. I’m gonna raise that bro up again. Stop crying everyone!” No, he sat in the emotion of the moment and grieved.
2. Wait in the confusion to hear from Jesus. No one like confusion. There’s even a passage that says: 1 Cor. 14:33: For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. But this passage often times is misused, as Paul was describing different practices within the corporate church gatherings such as speaking in tongues without some to interpret it. God had often used confusion in the OT stories to accomplish His will, and often times, it’s not until we are so utterly confused and we stop looking for answers, that God shows up and reveals somethings so sweet and clear. “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).
3. Embrace the gift of limits. Embrace the reality that your body is the way it is. The same with your mind, your family, your finances, your talents, etc. Johnny B understood his limits when he said this: “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). Essentially he was saying, “I accept my limits, my humanity, my declining popularity. He must increase. I must decrease. I’m good with that.” (see John 3:30).
4. Climb the latter of humility, not progress and success. Remember the gospel? The way up is down. The way to real power is to give up power. The way to gain power is to lose power. The way to become rich is to become poor. The way to be great is to be the slave of all! Prov. 22:4: The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.
5. Let the dead seed stay dead so it can get planted and grow. Good grieving and embracing your limits is not just letting go, but also letting it bless you. Remember, the resurrection only comes after death, real death. Trust that in God’s economy, ashes always produce beauty. Our losses are real, let them kill you, not destroy you, but kill you. And remember that our God, the living God, is big and He raises the dead! 2 Cor. 1:8-9: 8 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. 9 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.
This journey is not popular and it will not be easy, but it is the way to maturity and intimacy with Jesus. There are many beautiful realities that spring forth in our lives as a result of embracing our limits and grieving our losses, and I would say that the greatest and most beautiful reality will be our relationship to God. We will move from a “Give me, give me, give me” prayer life to an intimate, loving prayer life characterized by a loving union with God. When we embrace our limits and let Jesus steal the show, we are changed forever.
Johnny B’s story ends sadly here on earth. Soon after he gives up being the man in the wilderness and begins to decrease, he really decreases. His church plant implodes, he gets arrested, thrown into jail, and then Herod has his head cut off because of a foolish vow he made to his mistresses daughter. Not the way any of us want to go, but the reality of the resurrection for Johnny B was certain, and his life was not wasted. I pray that our eyes and our hearts would be opened this morning to the all-surpassing beauty and power of God in Christ Jesus.