When life shut down in March of 2020, I saw friends adjust in many ways. Families set up rooms for online learning; healthcare workers developed new homecoming routines as they strove to protect their families; birthday parties became drive-by affairs.
One friend started sleeping more than he had in decades. This was not the embodiment of some deeper depression or problem, but just that he needed the rest. He would get up, work his corporate America job from home for some hours, eat, and then sleep some more. He slept for hours on the weekends. When he confessed to my husband and me that this was how he was passing the time of intense social distancing, I scolded him in a sisterly manner. “You never stop!” I cried, “do you see how you needed to?” He took the scolding well. He agreed that, since the time he was in graduate school more than two decades earlier, he hadn’t stopped. He is a tireless servant to our church body and a high achiever at work; he hardly ever sets limits on himself. Pandemic restrictions meant that he finally let himself stop, and he benefited from the forced limitations.
In her book A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits, Ashley Hales—writer, speaker, and host of the Finding Holy podcast—takes the reader through an exercise of pressing against the various limits of our lives, reminding us that limits exist for our good. These limits can take the form of time restraints, physical limitations, or emotional and spiritual restraints. All can serve, Hales contends, to remind us of our humanness, and God’s limitlessness.
When we humans strive to push beyond what we’re capable of, we cease to tell the truth about our role versus God’s role. God is the limitless one, the creator and sustainer. We are created beings, susceptible to weather, traffic, fatigue, sickness, and death. Daily, we Christians get this arrangement backward and become frustrated when we’re not able to escape our limitations. We act surprised when we reach the end of the day and there’s still so much undone. Yet there lies the boundary line. We must rest and go about our work the next day, in a limited, human way, to the glory of God.
A helpful metaphor for kind limitations is that of guardrails. We often take these roadside additions for granted, not even seeing them as they form part of the landscape that whizzes by the car window. However, in the event of a treacherous drive, such as an icy trek on unfamiliar roads, those guardrails prove to be a reassuring safeguard. They can save us from plummeting into tragedy. “We think guardrails restrict our freedom,” Hales states. “When freedom is freedom from constraints, we live in a world we control—yet we find ourselves caged by the things we chase. . . . These guardrails don’t take something from us, they actually bestow on us the necessary constraints for flourishing.” (p.112)
In a series of chapters on such topics as smallness, attention, rest, delight, and community, the author recalls her struggles against her limitations. Of course, I as a fellow mom of many kids related to her everyday struggles against the time and mental energy that make demands on parents. But Hales also draws accurate pictures of the larger human struggle to achieve, hustle, and press outside of our given restraints. She invites the reader to welcome their limitations —a hospitable invitation to a better way.
The COVID shutdown left us no choice but to focus on our most local life: our homes and the people in and around them. Now that we’re back to a life that looks a bit more normal, the temptation to hurry along is back. We strive through our lives, not noticing what God’s doing. We press forward with our self-made agendas, mowing over our children or our friends in the process. Hales reminds us, “Part of our work as followers of Jesus is resisting the limit to create our own purpose and instead to receive the one God gives us, even if it doesn’t look like what we imagined.” (p.126)
Each chapter ends with a prayer, thoughtfully composed on the topic covered. In praying about our limits (chap. 2), I’ve pondered her phrase “I speak about hustle with the language of virtue” (p.22) as I see post after post of self-made Instagram entrepreneurs. If you search the hashtag “#hustle,” you’ll see that our culture has made “hustle” into a praiseworthy goal, a performative badge of honor. At its best, “hustle” can serve as shorthand for God-glorifying entrepreneurial drive. But more often than not, I’m concerned that it means “harried effort requiring more than is spiritually, emotionally, or physically healthy.”
Six years ago, my husband and I took part in a church planting effort. The team we began with was just 40 people. It’s safe to say I knew everyone on that team fairly well. Now years later, God has granted steady growth to our church, and we have around 300 on a Sunday. I do not know everyone anymore, and I gave up trying to know everyone a long time ago. Occasionally opportunities arise when I’m able to make new relationships, but I’m also learning to love investing deeply where I already am.
Recall Jesus’ disciples during his earthly ministry: they were constrained to a certain period of time, in a certain geographical location, for the sake of particular relationships. Jesus also interacted with “insignificant” people every day of his earthly life. Some, like Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna, flourished in their limitations. They recognized their own small, yet important, role to play in the story of the coming of Christ. They were grateful to the Father for their position and purpose. Others, like the rich young ruler, allowed limitations to rule their hearts, to their demise. This young man looked to press beyond the limitations of being Christ’s disciple; he wanted to love both his earthly wealth and be justified before God. Mark tells us that “he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (10:22). In the same way, we Christians may either recognize and live peacefully with our limitations, or rage against them.
A friend recently introduced me to the following hymn, and I thought it was a fitting echo of A Spacious Life. Anna Lætitia Waring, Welsh hymn-writer and poet, penned the following words during her life in the 19th century. In her wisdom, she recognizes the happy limitation of “a little space” meant for glorifying God:
So I ask Thee for the daily strength,
To none that ask denied,
And a mind to blend with outward life
While keeping at Thy side;
Content to fill a little space,
If Thou be glorified.
In a service which Thy will appoints,
There are no bonds for me,
For my inmost heart is taught “the truth”
That makes Thy children “free”;
And a life of self-renouncing love
Is a life of liberty.
I desire more contentment in my “little space” meant to honor God. Ashley Hales has done a service for us in recalling our deep limitations as human beings and reminding us of how they are for our good. Christians ought to find that “there is a spacious life waiting for you inside the narrow gate.” (p.10) There are many ways in which Christians ought to strive to be like their Father. Being limitless is not one of them.