Pious limitations

What are your limitations? We all have them as finite creatures and sinful ones at that. I know that I am very limited indeed when it comes to being musical. Put simply I can't sing or play any musical instrument whatsoever. In sport, too, I am very limited. My PE teacher, back in the days when teachers could tell parents their honest opinions of their offspring, once wrote on my school report, "Paul likes to run around occasionally, but that's it." Actually he had me wrong. I hated running around as well. Sometimes we limit ourselves unnecessarily. We are going to be no good at something so we just don't try it.

The point is that we are all limited in some way (and gifted in others). But God is only limited by his own nature. That is that he cannot do anything that would run counter to who he is. He cannot, for example, sin. Now I doubt that any Bible believing Christian would think that God's power was limited in any other way. Yet we often act as though it is. And we do so often for what we think are godly reasons. For want of a better title, I am calling these "pious limitations." Here are just a few that occurred to me. No doubt you can think of others:

(i) We limit God when we treat him as a slot machine for our desires. That is to say we want a certain thing to happen, we strongly desire it, and so we pray for it and claim it as our right because we have prayed for it. I call that a pious limitation because the person doing the claiming feels that in so doing he or she is being godly in exercising complete faith that God will answer the prayer in the affirmative. But it limits God because it puts God at our beck and call. Now God does want us to pray and he does want us to have faith that he can and will answer. But we cannot use that as a means for us to impose our will, whatever it may be, on that of God. His will may not be for us to be healed in the way we have prayed for. God may want us to come to glory to begin enjoying eternal life with him or he may want to heal us of our sinful attachment to health, prosperity and so on.

(ii) Another is when we say "I am a sinner and can never attain perfection" and then use that as a means of avoiding taking too seriously the calls of the Bible, such as "Without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Why is that a pious limitation? It is pious because we think we are being truly humble by declaring our inability to be perfect. It is a limitation because it discounts the fact that we have the power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead at work within us (Ephesians 1:19-20). Now, of course we still rely on the righteousness of Christ to be saved. None the less one cannot escape the calls of Scripture to live out the implications of what God has made us to be. One example is that Paul tells us in Philippians that he has learned contentment in all circumstances. He doesn't say, "I am making slow progress but I am human and will never get to the stage of being truly content no matter what," he says he has become content. And the reason for that is because of Christ giving him the strength to do it (see Philippians 4:10-13). We need to acknowledge our sinfulness and that we will not attain to sinless perfection this side of glory, but we should not use that as a means of limiting the power of God to change us in the here and now. The power of God that, in the present life, transforms us from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinithians 3:18)

(iii) Less pious - the one that, when confronted with Scripture's call to share our growth with one another, to speak the truth in love to each other, to encourage each other and, most radically of all, to confess our sins to one another so that we may be healed (James 5:16), says, "But we are British and are reserved by nature. It is easy for others to do this, but we can't." That is a limitation for the same reason as the above one is. Additionally, we should recall that we are re-born. And, as someone rightly pointed out to me recently, while that does not mean that our personalities are changed, it does mean that the blockage that stopped us from the desire to obey God, and the ability to do so in his power, has been removed. The call to confess our sins to one another is a command of Scripture. To disobey that is to sin. And the same is true of all of the other passages that, taken together, show that we need to share our spiritual lives with each other in a way that goes beyond the superficial.

Now, for those of tender consciences, let me assert again that we are saved by the grace of God, through the work of Christ. We trust his righteousness alone when it comes to our standing before God. None of the above is meant to detract from that. Indeed, I think it honours it better than the alternatives. Why? Because, as we discovered here on Sunday, the gospel is the God glorifying power of Christ to change our lives and salvation includes that change.

I am sure that I have not covered all of the ways we can limit God by things we think to be godly. Maybe you can think of one or two?


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