I’m spending time re-reading one of my favourite books, ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ by Eugene Peterson, a masterly exposition of five Old Testament books (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther) as they pertain to prayer, stories, pain-sharing, nay-saying and community building. I find these commentaries life-affirming and helpful in keeping me in touch with my primary role as a pastor.
One sentence in the chapter on Ecclesiastes has made me pause: Peterson’s observation that the writer was ‘sure of the importance of his work but sure also of its limitations.’ (P170)
We tend to despise limitations. We want to be all things to all people and end up, as a result, exhausted and careworn. We tend to despise God’s boundaries, seeing them as restrictive rather than protective. But just as we need a sense of purpose and significance in our lives if we are to function well, so we need to live ‘within the limits’ if we are to flourish (to thrive instead of merely surviving.)
The driver who drives within the speed limit and laws can travel with confidence. The citizen who pays his taxes and lives lawfully generally has nothing to fear from authority (providing, of course, that the authority is not despotic or acting unlawfully itself.) The person who lives within the limits of God’s laws has confidence and trust (God’s laws are for our good, not simply to limit). Limitations do not have to be viewed negatively. They are boundaries, and God has brought us into a ‘spacious place’ within the boundaries He sets.
We often struggle with both importance (‘does what I do really matter?’) and limitations (‘why can’t I do more?’) When we accept God’s perspective (the cup of cold water given on a hot day brings an eternal reward; the limitations God sets are protective, not restrictive), we can live with confidence and hope.