In 2008 Michael Phelps published No Limits: The Will to Succeed. Here is a quote:
So many people along the way, whatever it is you aspire to do, will tell you it can’t be done. But all it takes is imagination. You dream. you plan, you reach. There will be obstacles. There will be doubters. There will be mistakes. But with hard work, with belief, with confidence and trust in yourself and those around you there are NO LIMITS.
That mentality certainly paid off! He is the most medaled Olympian of all time. Plus, he makes about $9 million a year, even today, at 34 years old.
But there was another side to the great athlete. After each Olympics he experienced a major episode of the general pattern of his life. After the 2004 Olympics he experienced a major depression for the first time, and that year he also got his first DUI. After 2008 he was photographed smoking marijuana. He said about that much later, “It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was I was trying to run from.” After he retired the first time after 2012 he considered killing himself. He finally sought treatment. Now, he says he has learned it is, “Ok to not be OK.” He agrees that while mental illness still “has a stigma around it,” things are beginning to improve. “I think people actually finally understand it is real. People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change.”
Americans are a “no limits” and “freedom” society. We all seem to want to grasp the first quotes from Phelps and ignore the realities of the second set. Many Christians are the worst examples of denying any kind of limitations, because they think it would deny God’s sovereignty and the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. The only limitations many Christians acknowledge are due to their own poor faith.
I think many people have given up their faith altogether because it just wasn’t working out as perfectly as they were promised. Their loss is especially tragic during Advent when we see God purposely limiting herself to become Jesus to join us in the limitations of being human and then demonstrating the fullness of being resurrected humans.
Working within limitations
While we all dream of having ultimate freedom to be and do anything and everything we want, the hard truth of the matter is that we all face some limitations, large or small. Limitations may be things you’ve dealt with all your life, or they may come upon you suddenly through an accident or change of circumstances. The older one gets, the more real limitations become, as I well know.
Limitations are not the same as a jail sentence. Phelps obviously perfected his swimming within the limits of a regulation-sized pool and mastered various prescribed strokes. Even in art, where complete freedom can be glorious and expansive, sometimes the most innovative ideas come from solving a problem. Having boundaries forces us to use our resources in imaginative ways, and a limitation viewed as a challenge can inspire us to create something completely unexpected.
Limitations can take many different shapes. The most obvious are health or physical disabilities and limited financial means. Others are limited time or energy; lack of skills, knowledge or credentials; and reduced opportunities due to age, gender and/or racial bias or economic background. A change in status due to divorce or job loss can also be a limiting factor.
We also experience “perceived” limitations. Feelings such as fear, self-doubt, feeling you’re not good enough live in our minds, but can stop us just as effectively as physical limitations. No doubt we all had an experience in our childhood where someone told us we were a quitter or bad at math or would never amount to anything that imprinted itself on our psyche and kept us from achieving our potential, at least for awhile.
But limitations can be overcome, or at least stretched, and you can probably find numerous examples of people in your own life who have done so — maybe even yourself. Here are a couple of famous examples:
- Irish painter Christy Brown, born with cerebral palsy, painted with the only limb over which he had control. His story is told in the film My Left Foot.
- Oprah Winfrey, a woman of color who grew up with poverty and abuse, is one of the richest and most successful people in the world.
Gently push the boundaries
So, what can you do to push back your limitations? Paul told the Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). One of the main things Paul thought he could do was face his present prison sentence and possible execution. He wrote one of the most encouraging and beloved books of the New Testament while under the extreme limitations of house arrest by the ruthless Romans! People from the U.S. empire often have expectations commensurate with their own ruthless society, so they might totally mistake Paul’s “I can do all things” for Michael Phelps’ “There are NO LIMITS.”
Contrary to a lot of American sensibilities, we all have boundaries to what we can do. I Believe I Can Fly is still kind of silly. If we can’t handle our limitations, we are Michael Phelps needing a hit.
But we can do all the things God calls us to accomplish with the strength we are given. Here are eight practical things to think and do if we want to gently explore the far reaches of our limitations with hope, not perfectionism, both as individuals and as the body of Christ.
- Be realistic about who you are and what you can do. You can accomplish more by accepting your limitations and starting from there, rather than depleting your energy wishing you were somewhere else. Self-pity and giving up are the biggest obstacles you’ll face.
As a church, we need to be realistic about who we are and what we can do. That’s why we map our future together and try to discern just how far we can go with what we have been given.
- When you feel limited by your circumstances, come up with as many alternatives or options as possible. Be imaginative. In the brainstorming process, you’ll open up new possibilities for yourself that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
As a whole church, a team or a cell, we keep the dialogue about where we are and where we are going fresh, so we can imagine with God. We should always have a Plan B (and C,D, etc) when we are committing to a course of action.
- Challenge your limiters. If you were given only 3 colors to paint with, what would you do with them? Keep pushing the envelope. Make it a chance to play, not a reason to diminish yourself or your abilities. Boundaries give us something to push against. While those boundaries may sometimes be constricting, they can force us to be more focused and productive than we might be without them.
In the church, we need to be grateful for what we have, not listen to the critics (inside and out) who try to damn us for all we are not. We are saved, not flawless.
- Change your expectations, or let them go altogether. Sometimes, when you try something you don’t think you’re good at, you can release your expectations and just go for it.
As a church, I think we are pretty good at this, since we love it when people try things and honor people when they fail. We know we are a miracle; we live by grace. We are not merely the predictable outcome of our own efforts.
- Value the talents and abilities you do have, and leverage them. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. The gifts you have may not be the ones your family or friends value. Understand your own value, rather than restricting yourself to other people’s expectations, and use your gifts fully.
I also think our church is pretty good at this. Even among the society of churches, we allow ourselves to be our alternative selves, without worrying too much about how others look at us.
- Use your limitations to help you focus and use your resources efficiently. If you have $20 to pay for groceries for the week, you’ll think more carefully about what to buy than if you had an unlimited amount. Alternatively, you might starve yourself for fear of scarcity. Efficiency is about determination to meet a goal (like surviving, in this example!); it should not be about being a well-oiled cog in the machine of someone else’s unrevealed goal.
As a church we are always walking this balance, too! We seem to err on the side of risk and it often pays dividends. When we bought 2007 Frankford Ave, it seemed like a huge investment, but it has paid off repeatedly in saved lives and social action.
- Do what you can when you can. Modify or adjust your dreams to suit your own parameters, not according to how it’s “supposed” to be done. Every path to fullness is unique. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other, but we’ll have to apply what we learn uniquely.
As a church we are into this mentality. I think we are mostly committed to not really knowing how everything is supposed to be done. That way, we have freedom to trust God to use what we express. No small seed of faith is planted fruitlessly.
- If your limitation comes upon you suddenly, through accident, trauma or loss, be sure to deal with the grief and all the other feelings, so that you can move on.
As a church we do so much for each other as cells, we often provide a safe place for people to experience calamity. We welcomed Circle Counseling as a partner from the very beginning of our mission to help us face what has come upon us.
Challenging our limitations can be scary. We’ll feel discouraged at times. But if you feel drawn to doing something despite the challenges, your successes will be that much sweeter. Giving up can lead to boredom or depression or that great denial of our true selves Phelps described.
I don’t know anyone who’s ever regretted trying. Paul also wrote this to the Philippians: I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. He thought pressing on was his re-birthright, not some pressure-filled obligation. He pressed on because he was saved, not because he needed to succeed at being saved. He could press on even if he was in jail!
We always have a choice because we are chosen. God reached into our limitations in Jesus so they would not stop us. The Lord is such an inspiration that billions of people now follow Jesus all over the world. Jesus handled his limitations with love and demonstrated achievement so deep and high that we are all inspired to believe we can follow him with our own variation of his example.