Roger Bannister died earlier this year. Don’t know who Roger Bannister was? On May 6, 1954, he broke the four-minute mile, achieving a feat thought to be virtually impossible. Today, Hicham El Guerrouj, retired runner from Morocco, is the men’s record holder with a time of 3:43.13, while Svetlana Masterkova of Russia owns the women’s record of 4:12.56. Amazing feats of athletics to be sure, but will there ever be a three-minute mile? Is there a limit to a human’s physical achievement?
We live in a world of limits, a world where boundaries and barriers are natural consequences of living on earth. Limits are what God has built into his creation. In Job 38:8-11 we read,
Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther and here shall your proud waves be stayed?’ (ESV).
When rivers breach the limits of their banks, the resulting floods create havoc. The higher we go in our atmosphere the thinner the air.
Humans have limits. Certainly, physical training might increase our limits, but there are still limits even for the most skilled athlete. Though we may not wish to acknowledge it, the limits of age eventually take their toll. There are things I could easily do in my twenties that I simply can’t do now in my sixties.
But what do limits have to do with my calling as a missionary? It’s a matter of theology and practical health. A theology of limits comes from realizing that I am a creature and not the Creator.
In their book Beloved Dust, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel note that human identity is shaped by two fundamental concepts.
First, “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground.” We are dust—earthy and humble, finite and temporal. Second, he “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” We live on borrowed breath. We are alive in the most profound sense of the word—filled with the very breath that spoke creation into being. Within this tension is a status that is regal but lowly, significant but insignificant, unique but ordinary. God looks upon humanity’s frame of dust and says, ‘I formed you, I love you, and I delight in you.’ We are beloved dust.1
God made us out of dust, and one day he’ll turn us back into dust. Psalm 90:3: “You turn people back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, you mortals.’” Meanwhile, between our beginning and our end we live within God-created limits. Job again says of humans—“Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5).
The problem is when we fail to acknowledge the truth that we are dust. We listen to the lie Satan spoke to Eve, that we too can “be like God.” It’s just too tempting an offer. So instead of embracing our limits, we strive to break out of them in a way that puts us in control—which could set us up for harm.
Jen Wilkin says in None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different from Us (and why that’s a good thing):
[H]uman beings created to bear the image of God instead aspire to become like God. Designed to reflect his glory, we choose instead to rival it. We do so by reaching for those attributes that are true only of God, those suited only to a limitless being . . . Like our father Adam and our mother Eve, we long for that which is intended only for God, rejecting our God-given limits and craving the limitlessness we foolishly believe we are capable of wielding and entitled to possess.2
With the reality of our limits in mind, here are four practical suggestions to assist us in being healthy and resilient in our service to Christ.
Acknowledge our limitations
Given how God has made us, we do have the ability to serve long and well in ministry and still remain healthy—as long as we recognize that we can’t do it all. Pushing the boundaries of our limits can have negative consequences, leading to burnout.
Another consequence of ignoring God-given limitations is that our heart of love shrinks for God and for others. We are enveloped by frustration, depression, and a sense of being overwhelmed. We find it more difficult to express love. We don’t want to be with God or people. When these symptoms come into our awareness, we need to seriously pay attention to our lives. How can you pay attention to your heart?
Practice the principle of stewardship
A steward, according to the dictionary, is “a person who manages another’s property or financial affairs; one who administers anything as the agent of another or others.”3 Stewardship, then, is the responsibility someone has to manage something which is not their own.
God has given us our bodies to manage. They are not our own but given to us to use for his purposes on this earth. 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” We are given the privilege of stewarding this valuable resource, this wonderful gift. How are you caring for this precious gift?
Embrace the practice of self-care
One of my Barnabas International colleagues, Dr. Nairy Ohanian, shared this: “No matter how important our jobs and ministries are, we are never indispensable. We all need to give care and attention to ourselves; hence the term ‘self-care’.” We sometimes feel that self-care is selfish, but Dr. Ohanian said that it “is a wise, mature, preventative and self-respecting practice for anyone who desires to remain in their role of care and service. Self-care ensures that one will thrive and flourish as opposed to merely survive and cope. Self-care is the unseen root system—deep, nourished, expanding—of a strong, resilient, blossoming tree.”4
For you, what are the practices of self-care that give life? Ask yourself these questions: How much sleep is best for me? Am I getting enough? What relationships in my life are stimulating and enjoyable? What do I do on my day off? What is God doing in my life that gives me inner renewal? How’s my joy quotient?
Focus on what you can do, not regretting what you can’t
It is so easy to succumb to the lie that if we just do a bit more, stay up a little later, cut time with friends, skip taking a day off, or attend another meeting, we’ll be just that much more effective; maybe we’ll be a bit more “successful” as a missionary. But that performance mentality is deadly in ministry.
So rejoice in the fact that you don’t have to perform or “measure up” to be a delight in God’s eyes. Lean into his love and grace in your life. Focus on staying close to him. Appreciate the gifts he’s given you to serve with. Finally, depend on his unlimited power to carry you to the end. Living and working within the God-given limits in our lives will make for a much more fulfilling and joy-filled ministry experience.
1. Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, Beloved Dust: Drawing Close to God by Discovering the Truth about Yourself (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2014), 8.
2. Jen Wilkin, None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different from Us (and why that’s a good thing) (Illinois: Crossway, 2016).
3. Webster’s College Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1991), 1312.
4. Nairy Ohanian, “Self-Care in Ministry,” Revised September 2015, https://www.barnabas.org/resources/member-care-downloads.
Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Photo: “Even Deers Have Their Limits” by Flickr user peasap
After time in Japan as a missionary, Dr. Alan Steier was a pastor in the US for 22 years. He and his wife, Judy, have been with Barnabas International since 2012. They are the leaders of JEMA’s Member Care Ministry.