Sheldon Vanauken wrote in his book A Severe Mercy about a dog named Gypsy.
"Gypsy, a furry, wheat-coloured collie, found herself in possession of several hundred acres of woods, full of good things like rabbit trails and streams and intriguing burrows, and she delighted in it all. She was given a comfortable bed and good meals. Perhaps she rather took it all for granted. Of obligations there were few, and they not heavy. She was, to be sure, supposed to worship her Master and be right joyous to be with him. She knew she must not chase the chickens. While she must obey certain commands--to follow, to come, to lie down--there were no unreasonable ones, and no tricks. After all, to obey and to worship were natural to her dog nature."
Vanauken goes on to describe how one day Gypsy sees a rabbit and hears her master call at the same instant, and after rationalizing her decision, runs after the rabbit. Then follows guilt, and then further disobedience because she has tasted "freedom." One day Gypsy runs away for good and is unable to find her Master and the comforts of food and a warm bed ever again.
The story is a wonderful picture of the Fall, wherein mankind chose sin rather than obedience to God. We see a metaphor for the false freedom found in sin and the true freedom found in obedience to God. But I think the illustration can be taken farther than that. I think God sets limits for us in many areas of life. He puts things in our lives that keep us safely in His will and help us avoid running away into the dangers and pitfalls of life outside of His will. Here are a few categories of limitations that I've thought of.
1) Time. We all have the same amount of hours each day, and once those hours are used up, they are gone. The more responsibilities we have, the less time there is to spend as we wish.
2) Finances. Obviously.
3) Circumstances. This could include things like the size or layout of our house, or the number of children you have, or whether or not you work outside the home. It could include things like relatives who need a lot of help from you or having a long commute to and from work. These are things that you can't change on a whim and in some ways limit you. I'd also include in this category the personalities of the people you live with--which you can't change at all! There are probably things about your spouse or kids and their needs that limit your own options.
4) Health. Some of us are generally healthy with a few sick days here and there. Some of us care for ailing loved ones, and that limits us. Some of us have chronic or terminal diseases that affect every area of our lives. And all of us have our own unique energy level that provides the boundaries of what we can or cannot do.
5) Personality and gifting. There are some things we are good at, and some things we are not. There are some things about our personality that make certain tasks difficult or impossible. If God made you an introvert, he may call you to stretch yourself in areas of sociability but he will not call you to live as an extrovert. If God made you tonally challenged, one of your limitations it that the church choir is not where you should volunteer your time.
I do have a point here. Sometimes it's easy to be discontented with where we are or what we have. We get an idea of something we'd like to do, and then realize that we can't do it. Our house isn't big enough to entertain all those people. Or we don't have time and energy to do all the things we want to do for our kids. Or we just aren't good at the thing we wish we were good at. Or our schedule just will not allow us to do this or that fun thing we really want to do.
We can either be constantly frustrated with those things, or we can think of those limitations as healthy boundaries that God has put in our lives for this time. We may not like our boundaries, we may pray for them to change, and we may eventually be called to move the boundaries. But in the end, we all have some limitations that we need to live with. And I think the secret to being content with our lives is recognizing our limitations and then accepting them as from the hand of God.
That doesn't mean we turn into a doormat and never try to better our circumstances. But it does mean that we pray for wisdom to know when is the right time to push the boundaries.
Here's an example. I used to feel guilty whenever my girls were invited to slumber parties because I did not want to reciprocate the invitation. But recently I've realized that the reason I don't want to host sleepovers is because of my limitations: five children, small house, baby sleeping in the basement where we would have to host the sleepover, etc., etc. And I can see that those limitations will change over time as we finally get the baby sleeping upstairs and as we get past the stage where the four-year-old wakes us up multiple times a week to tell us he has to go to the bathroom ("um...then go!"). So for now I accept that limitation and move forward without the guilt.
Or as another example, just this week we got rid of some furniture. We used to feel like we needed to have seating available for everyone who might possibly come over. But now we realize that all that furniture was cluttering up our everyday lives (in other words, it was using too much of our limited space), and that on the rare occasions we have more people over than we have seating for, we can use kitchen chairs or sit on the floor. We're learning to live within the limits of the home God has given us.
I often feel limited by money, and I can either be frustrated that I can't afford thus-and-so or I can accept that financial limitation as a signal that we are better off without that item.
I think there's a further benefit to naming our limitations and seeing them as gifts from God: not only can we learn to be content with our limits, but sometimes they can offer us a chance for creativity. When we're busy wishing our lives away, we may miss an opportunity to fulfill our desires in some other way. If I stop being frustrated that I can't host the cast parties or youth group events, I may discover that I can host more people for a meal if I put up an additional table in the living room. Or I can wait until summer and have events outside. I may not be able to afford an awesome American Girl whatever for Christmas, but maybe I could enjoy making a substitute. My limitations don't have to be negatives--they can be turned into positives.
It's been very freeing for me to look at my circumstances as gifts from God rather than hindrances. He has given me my circumstances, and that means that I can do everything He is calling me to do within the limits of my time, health, finances, circumstances, and personality. What a blessing that He has put those limits in my life for a reason!
One of the Bible verses that my dad often quotes is Psalm 16:5-6: "LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance." (NIV) I've always thought that "boundary lines" in this passage refers to these types of things--those circumstances and limitations that are a natural part of our lives. May we, like the psalmist, affirm that those boundary lines are pleasant.
What about you--are there limits your thankful for? Or limits that you've been fighting and need to accept and move on from?