Here’s something I learned this week:
Although you would never know it from the movies, you should never save a drowning person by diving in after them. Not at first, anyway. When a person is drowning, you should use a pole or a buoy, or lie down on the ground and reach out with your arm. But only as a last resort should you dive in to save them. Drowning is so physical and desperate that if you get in the water, you risk getting pulled down too.
That’s the strange thing about drowning. It takes an exhausting amount of energy to drown. You are kicking and flailing and trying to breathe, but your efforts are in vain. They accomplish the exact opposite of what you hope.
Staying afloat, on the other hand, takes relatively no effort at all. The “dead man’s float”, which many of us learn as children, requires only that you lie on your back, perfectly level and still. That’s it.
This image reminded me of a recent article by my friend Karen Swallow Prior. Karen is an English professor at Liberty University and a fellow contributor to Her.meneutics. She is awesome. Pay attention to her. Seriously.
In July Karen wrote an article for Christianity Today called The Hidden Blessing of Infertility. I’m not sure what drew me to read it because I have not struggled with infertility, but I’m so glad I did. Her message is for everyone, and it hit me square between the eyes. Especially because of its timing.
I hope you’ll take the time to read the whole article, but here is one quote that especially hit home:
To be sure, not all the pain of infertility can be eliminated. But much of this pain is perpetuated by a culture—including a church culture—that does not emphasize enough the flourishing that comes in accepting our limits rather than futilely insisting they be overcome.
In July when I read those words, I was at the peak of my morning sickness. Ordinarily, I have a fairly high capacity for getting things done, but not when I’m pregnant. When I’m pregnant, I want to lie on the couch all day and watch Netflix.
And that’s basically what I did. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation, but that became an exercise in futility. Everyday I woke up thinking, “I am going to write today!” But when I sat down to write, I couldn’t even think straight. In fact, sitting up–as in, simply being in an upright position–was really difficult. So the prospect of forming sentences, let alone doctoral sentences, felt about as feasible as climbing Mount Everest.
For six weeks, I did nothing on my dissertation. And for 6 weeks, I felt like a failure.
Which is why the timing of Karen’s words couldn’t have been better. The reality was, I had a limitation. Pregnancy was slowing me down, but stubbornly refusing to acknowledge my limitation wasn’t helping me either. In fact, it was contributing to my misery. I flailed and flailed with all the energy I could muster, only to drown in a sea of failure and inadequacy.
So when I read Karen’s words, I knew what I had to do. I had to accept my limitation. And I had to discover what God was teaching to me in the midst of it.
One of the most popular, oft quoted verses in the Bible is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is also one of the most misused verses in the Bible. The way people use it, you’d think Jesus was a personal super power for running marathons or getting that big promotion.
But here’s the trouble with reading Philippians 4:13 that way: First, it makes Jesus a means to an end. Jesus is the way we get the thing we really want. Rather than seek Christ for contentment when life lets us down, we can use Christ to overcome our limitations.
Second, it means limitations are bad. It means that in Christ, we should have no limits, that limits are the enemy. It means that when we do face limits, we must be doing something wrong.
And when we view our limitations this way, defeat, bitterness, and burn-out are not far behind.
Thank goodness, that’s not what Paul was saying. In the context of that verse, Paul writes of being content in all circumstances, and sometimes those circumstances come with limits. Sometimes Paul struggled with a “thorn in his side”, but rather than fight against it he “boasted all the more gladly” of his weakness, knowing that “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12)
That’s why it’s so important to remember that an unqualified “nothing is impossible” is not good news. Instead, it’s an especially heavy burden. It mocks us when we fail. And it promises something that Jesus himself never promised. After all, we follow a savior who overcame sin and death by submitting himself to human limitations.
That means that as I continue with this pregnancy, I have two options: I can either fight my limitations in vain, or I can accept them. I can use every scrap of my energy to resist my limitations, or I can cease striving and live. I can choke on my limitations, or I can revel in God’s enough.
Between those options, I choose the easy yoke of Christ. Fighting my limitations leaves me drowning in defeat, insecurity, and shattered hopes. So I choose to embrace the grace that comes through limitations. And in doing so, I choose life.