Reaching your limit

July 29th, 2020

“I’m so tired.” Tons of people report feeling exhausted by the time they get home from work. More than a few have been dragging themselves through the entire day every day since the pandemic descended upon us.

Mental health providers call this pandemic fatigue, and they point to a variety of causes.

Life has become unpredictable. Circumstances keep changing. People feel anxious about lost income or fear of infection or what to do with the kids. Isolation brings with it loneliness. Thousands grieve the death of loved ones.

As my friend Brenda used to say, “Too much! Too much! Too much!” It’s overwhelming. We’ve reached our emotional and spiritual and cognitive limit.

Counselors are suggesting sound coping strategies like forming new routines, taking walks outside and cutting back on our media consumption, especially before bedtime. I will leave psychological advice about how to handle reaching your limit to the professionals. Instead, I invite you to consider the spiritual lesson of reaching your limit.

Here’s the pandemic’s spiritual news flash. Despite what you might have assumed while you were enjoying your pre-pandemic normal, you really do have limits. As human beings, our understanding, our imagination, and especially our power to control the course of our own lives are all finite.

By contrast, once life overwhelms you, you know in your gut that you’re finite. You genuinely acknowledge that you’re limited precisely when you’ve reached your limit. There’s no deceiving yourself any longer.

Oh, you may have acknowledged your limits intellectually. But you could still act as if having the right plan, the sufficient willpower, and the best connections would get you where you wanted to go. You could say, “People are finite,” without that idea actually changing how you live.

And that is just when God can become real for you. You feel in your marrow that God is God, and you are not.

Contrary to how some people think, faith is not at its core having the correct ideas about God. Instead, faith is having the humility to let God be God in your life. One of the greatest stumbling blocks to faith is the certainty with which we cling to our concepts of God.

But our finite capacities of understanding and imagination are incapable of fully and finally comprehending the infinite God. There is always more of the holy God than we’ve gotten our hearts and minds around. So faith involves having the humility to face our limits so that God can stretch us beyond them.

As it turns out, Jesus did precisely this kind of spiritual stretching by telling parables. As Ronald Rolheiser puts it, “The parables … are iconoclastic, subverting and smashing people’s familiar notions of God in such a way that out of the ruins comes an invitation to a new understanding of God.” (The Shattered Lantern, p. 99)

When Jesus’ disciples asked him why he taught using parables, he explained this way:

“For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.” (Matthew 13:15)

Paradoxically, the rigidity with which we hold our preferred truths about God can obscure from us what God is revealing to us in the moment. We will see or hear only what we want to see or hear. And so the parables jolt us by bringing us to the limits of our imagination.

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed. We’re so used to this illustration, that its absurdity for its original hearers — and for us really — might elude us. The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny seed that grows into a shrub and birds nest in it.

What? God’s reign is like a tiny seed?

Or, the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. God’s reign is like yeast. You know what I mean? Well, no actually.

Sure, you’ve heard dozens of sermons telling you just exactly what these parables presumably tell you about God. But imagine the surprise of hearing them for the first time.

Maybe you can even remember hearing them for the first time. I can, sort of. I wanted somebody to tell me just what this means so that I could get the right answer and stop fretting over it.

But Jesus’ aim is precisely to open us up to letting God be God for us in the moment. To being surprised by the new depths and perspectives that God will show us.

Following Jesus means that you’ll reach your limit again and again. And maybe meet God again for yourself.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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