The Paradox of Limitation

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In Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman defines the paradox of limitation this way:

[T]he more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead–and work with them, rather than against them–the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes. I don’t think the feeling of anxiety every completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations. But I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.

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Facing the way things truly are is the key for a life of wisdom. That insight applies to more than time management.

But let’s stick with time management for a moment. When I was a seminarian, I was introduced to the idea of a well ordered life. I was challenged to think deeply about calling, purpose, and discipline. I was invited to make commitments that would place me on a trajectory that, over time, would make a difference.

One of my professors had a plaque on his wall that said, “As now, so then.” This principle was applied to the spiritual life: your choices in the present have implications for your life in the future, for who you are becoming, and who you will one day be. Those choices can be intentional, or we can drift along.

The real challenge in applying this principle wasn’t necessarily the “now” (though an inventory of present practices can be complicated), but the “then.” What are we made for? Where do we want to end up? What is a life well lived, who is living that way, and how do I do it?

Answers to those questions will vary. But the answer will make all the difference. If we could envision where we’d like to land, could we better plot the course from A to B?

For Christian people, we are made by and for God, and our purpose is to bring God glory. We glorify God when we live as reconciled creatures, a reconciliation made possible in and through Jesus Christ. Once reconciled through the cross, we leave behind our old way of life. We live in keeping with the “new creation” as citizens of God’s kingdom, remaining in step with God’s Spirit, walking in rhythm with God’s reign and rule.

Our “then” is the then of eternity. Our “now” is bound up and constrained by time. Our life is where time and eternity intersect, and in Christ, time and eternity are brought together. His path becomes ours. His salvation takes effect, not in the ledger of the afterlife, but in the here and now. When we receive this grace, our bodies remain mortal, even while our souls are enlivened and awakened to another plane. Our days in this mortal coil remain numbered. But they are given additional weight, a weight of glory. Our days become more significant, not less. Our work, that which is done unto the Lord, not only counts for a moment, but forever.

A truth I often speak to young ministers comes to mind: “We’re all interims.” Here’s another one: ” We’ll all be held to account, for both the good and the bad that we do.” Our work is appointed for a particular time; it will be weighed and measured by the standard of eternity. Be diligent. Choose wisely. Do good.

There are several Scripture passages I could quote here, but it suffices to say that we want to be good stewards, making the most of the time. As finite creatures, we trust the outcomes to God, who is eternal. We manage our time knowing we are given a finite amount.

Our limitations constrain us. We cannot possibly do it all.

But acknowledging our limitations also frees us. It frees us to trust in God, and to differentiate between what is ours to do and what is ours to leave undone.

If you try to manage your time in order to bring everything under your control, you are attempting to be God. You are not. You are mortal. But if you embrace your limitations, if you acknowledge your mortality, you are free to be productive, to find meaning, and to experience joy in those things which are uniquely yours, appointed for you and your life. You are invited to enjoy the life you have been given and to trust that God, who is eternal, is perfectly capable of handling the rest.