Imagine a World With Limits

Picture two artists tasked to create works of art.

mending the hurts
“Mending the Hurts” by Rebekah Munson 2011.  Charcoal and Colored Pencils

Artist A is given limitations. He is told that it must be a painting on a 1 meter by 1 meter canvas. He is also given time constraints– perhaps 4 weeks. Further he may be given subject constraints— perhaps the one who commissioned it is a wealthy person who wants the painting to express hope in overcoming cancer.

Artist B is given essentially no limitations. There are no guidance as to the size, or even type of art. There are no time constraints— take as long as is needed.  And there are no subject constraints— just make the artwork “awesome!”

Who is likely to create the better piece of art? Most likely it will be Artist A. That is because most of us tend not to do well with no constraints. Most of us lack the discipline to keep working as hard when no one is holding a clock to ensure that we are making progress as agreed upon. Most of us would struggle to be creative when there are no limitations in media. For example, consider the massive creativity involved to apply paint to a limited size 2-dimension surface to show great vistas of outdoor scenery, or abstract imaginings? This requires a great deal of creativity.

Essentially, creativity is the act of overcoming the limitations of media or time. How does one create a moving 2-D image on a screen, with sound) that tells a story of huge battles in outer space? Or record a chariot race in a hippodrome in a setting that had disappeared 2 millennia before the film was produced? How can words on paper or sounds in a radio play draw one into the story so effectively, that years later one cannot recall whether one read it, heard it, or watched it as a movie.

I am presently reading “The Golden Bough” by James G. Frazer. The edition I am reading is almost 800 pages long. It is a LONG book… a compendium of minutiae. On a certain level I appreciate the bits of cultural trivia that are brought together to explain culturally the somewhat obscure ritual of the Arician Grove. While I may appreciate the book, I must also believe that the book would have been stronger as a creative construct if it was about 1/3 the length. There is far too much of — Group G has this practice… and Group H has a pretty similar practice… and so does Groups I, J, and K, although contrasting somewhat with Groups L and M. The book would certainly be easier to appreciate if it was shorter. Perhaps Fraser would have said, or did say, that it needed to be that long to cover the topic fully. I have heard some preachers make the argument that they have to preach for ______ minutes because they have to say what God told them to say. But it is quite likely that they would tell what God told them to say better and more effectively if they recognized that they were limited in time and in the attention span of the recipients. Preachers would most likely be better at preaching if churches put limits on their oratory.

Now suppose, surprise surprise, that Artist B produces a better work than Artist A. Is that possible? Certainly. There is no guarantee. But Artist A is LIKELY to do better because we thrive with REASONABLE limits.  An artist who gets paid minimally for making 2 minute caricatures of people at a carnival may have too many limiters to grow beyond a certain limit. But at the same time, the limitations of that situation may still motivate the artist to hunger (literally and figuratively) for bigger things    Too great of limitations MAY crush the creative spirit, but it can also act as a fire the drives growth.

But suppose that Artist B (without limitations) does do a better job than Artist A (with limitations) at that time.  What if the situation repeats itself? Who will improve the most? Almost certainly Artist A. Pushing against the limitations of media, subject, and time, exercises the creative “muscles.” Artist A is likely to grow as an artist through the discipline provided. It is likely that A will overtake B, all else being equal.

Sometimes there seems to be exceptions to this. The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, designed by Anton Gaudi, seems like an exception– an extravagant piece of art with very little constraints. Almost a century later, the building still is not complete. The Taj Mahal, and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel seem to point to greatness coming from no limitations. But my argument is that creativity grows through constraints. The artist grows through limitations… and in this culture of limitations and discipline, growth occurs. That creative growth and discipline provides the environment for an artist to shine if many of the limitations are removed. (I would still argue that time constraints are still needed… the Sagrada Familia’s century of build is hard to justify as a design project.)

Ministry is creative as well. And in a similar manner we need limitations.

It is good to have time and money limitations. I have seen ministry projects where money and time were not key constraints. The results were wasteful and sloppy. It is also good to have people who provide limitations through guidance and accountability. We simply do better with those things.

But suppose you are one of those unfortunate people in ministry that does not have a lot of accountability or constraints… what can you do? Well, you can create constraints.

  • If asked to speak/preach somewhere, ask for the topic. If they say to speak on whatever you would prefer, seek preferences or find out what are the concerns. It is comfortable, and lazy, to fall back into one’s own favorite topics.
  • If others don’t place limits on you, such as for preaching, set them for yourself. Maybe aim for a 20 minute or 30 minute sermon. While there are some cultures that appreciate longer sermons (especially where oratory is more of a performance art, rather than an act of prophetic ministry), most groups lose attention soon past 30 minutes. Don’t fall in love with your voice so much that you think the longer you speak the more effective you are.
  • If you head an organization, place people over you. Billy Graham established a board over him who guided him and even determined his pay. In the mission field, missionaries sometimes are in a position where no one (at least no one within a few thousand miles) has oversight. If you have none, find some.
  • Develop accountability partners. Today, some pastors serve in churches where there is no one they are accountable to. The same is true of missionaries— especially now that we are in an era where some missionaries are self-sent.
  • Tighten the limitations. If one has 10,000 dollars to accomplish something, establish a budget of $7,000. That not only gives you $3,000 for emergency, but it also pushes you to find creative solutions.
Of course, every time one gives advice, one risks someone (strangely) taking the advice too much to heart. I have known medical missions here in the Philippines that are very wasteful… depending on foreign medicines and foreign professionals, to say nothing are burning money wherever they go. Yet there are other ones that cut TOO many corners. They use expired medicines or doctors samples, and use underqualified medical professionals. Creativity is driven by oversight that sets limitations, but also maintains quality control.

I hope you will look for opportunities to be limited in your ministry!


I CAN’T Do All Things Through Christ

In case the title wasn’t clear enough… I must say it again. “I can’t do all things through Christ.”  And that feels really good.

Now I know some will read thisKnow-Your-Limitations-Then-Defy-Them and see a contradiction. After all, one of the most well-known Bible verses is “I CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Many of you know that this is one of the most well-known examples of misinterpreting a verse by ripping it from its context.

The verse seems straightforward enough. But the context makes it clear that “all things” refer to being abased and abounding, full and hungry, and presumably everything in between. “Do” refers to enduring or persevering. So the strength that Christ provides is to handle and endure any situation.

Sadly, the common interpretation to that verse implies that I am in control. Christ gives me strength to do whatever I want. In other words… It presumes the obedience of God TO me, rather than the benevolence of God FOR me.

I really don’t need God’s obedience, I need His benevolence? Why? Because I am a limited being.  I am limited in:

  • Knowledge. I am limited in my knowledge of the past, of the present, and (almost completely) of the future.
  • Time and Space. I am finite and thus hugely limited in perspective.
  • Wisdom. Even if I had full knowledge of all all things in the past and present, I lack the brainpower and discernment to determine the optimum utilization of these facts for a better future.

Because of my limitations, I don’t need God’s obedience… I need His benevolence. I don’t need control of what is beyond my ability to understand, I need God’s strengthening to be able to endure what is beyond my ability to understand. If I did have the ability to control what I don’t understand, I am likely to choose self-serving, foolish things— frankly the things that humans (self-serving, foolish creatures) tend to choose are… well… self-serving and foolish.  Here are some foolish things:

  • Missionaries get burned out… trying to do too much— claiming they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them. But apparently they try to do all things except establish balance (healthy balance in terms of physical, psychoemotional, social, and spiritual) in their lives.
  • Pastors do not maintain healthy ethical boundaries— claiming that as ministers they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them. But apparently they try to do all things except know what their weaknesses and temptations are. (We shouldn’t be all that surprised that pastors who do counseling are more likely to become inappropriately involved sexually with a counselee than their secular counterparts. Secular counselors make no assumptions that they can do without ethical boundaries.)
  • Pastoral Care Providers help those who are far beyond their own training— yes, claiming they can do all things through Christ. But apparently they seek to do all things except refer those to those competent and trained to handle specific problems. They sacrifice helpseekers on the alter of their own hubris.

So YES! I CAN’T do all things through Christ who strengthens me… and I am so thankful.

Some More Thinking Inside the Box. Part 2

  1. Limitations aid growth.

Maybe the best way to explain this is by example. I preach periodically. It used to be that I really enjoyed being given full freedom in what I am to preach on. I liked choosing my topic. But over time, I learned to appreciate being given a topic. The reason is that the limitations actually make me work and study and grow. When I pick my own topic… I tend to fall into old ruts in the road.

Matrix 7I remember a friend of mine telling a story of an acquaintance of his. This other pastor was asked to speak in a church in a different city. He was given a topic to preach on. However, upon arrival he stated that he could not do the topic he was given. He said that on the bus ride to the city, his sermon was picked up by the wind and blown out of the bus. This pastor took that as “divine guidance” that he should be guided by the Holy Spirit on what to preach on. This sounds really holy… but my friend had his doubts. The sermon this other pastor ended up preaching was on the topic he almost always preaches on, based on a passage he commonly uses. My friends view was that the pastor wasn’t seeking to be guided by God… but seeking to be self-guided and, in fact, be lazy.

One can embrace the limitations and recognize them as part of one’s freedom. I believe I have used this example before… but years ago we had young children and an open backyard. We were afraid to let our children get more than a few feet from us in fear that they would run at full speed into the road. We eventually bought a chain link fence. After this, we could allow our children explore our entire backyard. Now if you think about it, there were limits/boundaries before the fence and after the fence. Before, they were there but poorly defined (from our children’s perspective) and poorly maintained (from our perspective). Therefore, we had to keep a close eye on our children. After the fence was installed… the boundaries were clear to our kids and well-maintained from our perspective. The result was great freedom for our children.

We often grow because we are forced to grow. It is good to embrace the limitations as opportunities.