Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them?
The question wrote itself in my mind as yesterday's preacher spoke from Acts 2, focussing on the little phrase, ". . . as the Spirit enabled them” (v.4). The Spirit's enabling is the secret to how we can live a life that matters because, as Jesus reminded us, without him we can do nothing (John 15:5). The Spirit empowered the gathered disciples to speak coherently in languages they’d never learned, overcoming their natural human limitations.
But just fifteen minutes before the service began, I’d been talking about learning to respect my limitations. Sometimes I still find my limitations frustrating. Often I see them as gifts. (And it's quite possible for them to be both at the same time!) They have made space for me to know that God loves and wants me, not just my work. They help guide me into the work God has for me to do, and to say no to what is not mine to do. And, often, my limitations are what God uses to help me understand and love someone else well in the midst of their own limitations.
So which is it? Does the Spirit overcome our natural human limitations, or use them, giving us grace to live well within them?
As I ponder and pray, I’m realizing three things:
- God’s ways are higher than mine, and just because I can’t tidily explain how two things fit together doesn’t mean they aren’t both true. Take free will and predestination, or Jesus’ complete humanity and divinity. Our minds struggle to hold them together, yet if one is separated from the other, we slip into a belief that is so one-sided it is no longer true.
- When heaven invades earth, it doesn’t obliterate it. Jesus’ divinity didn’t override his humanity. He remained fully human and limited, needing to eat and sleep, becoming weary, and remaining susceptible to the ultimate limitation: death. He wasn’t superhuman so much as the perfect human.
- God doesn’t promise to empower me for everything I want to do, or even everything I think I should be able to do. He will, however, enable me for the work He has prepared for me to do.
For some years I did work I should not have been able to do with my medical condition. Was I walking on water by the Spirit’s enabling, or was I keeping myself from sinking by desperately pulling myself along, hand-over-hand along a high bar, wondering when my arms would give way and I would drop into the water waiting below?
Perhaps some of both.
Definitely a lot of the second.
Limits are a good and important part of our humanity, reminding us of the profound grace that we are not God, and keeping us close to the One who loves us and is able to do what we can’t.
Sometimes God empowers us to do what would otherwise be humanly impossible: speak in languages we haven’t learned, love people we can’t otherwise love, and thrive in situations that seem impossible. Sometimes we’re given the ability, for a moment, to walk on water.
Many other times, God works through our limitations, rather than taking them away. He says to us what he said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Slowly I’m learning to recognize when I’m walking on water, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and when I’m pulling myself along above the water in my own strength. One of the markers, I think, is Jesus’ promise in Matthew 11:28-30 that his yoke is easy and his burden light. If I feel like I’m pulling myself hand-over-hand through my exhaustion, there’s a good chance I am.
There’s hard work which results in weariness but is also marked by peace and joy and hope—signs of the Spirit at work (Gal 5:22-23)—and there’s hard work that just drains away more and more life. Can we allow ourselves, in that place, to let go into Jesus' strong arms, trusting that his strength will catch and hold and help us in my weakness?