“It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”Proverbs 25:2
Last night, I wrestled for hours for words that refused to come. There were all sorts of things I could have said, including things I’ve said before. And all sorts of lines I could have quoted. But not a single one crystallized what I’d been trying to pull out of thin air.
I’ve never wanted to say things just for the sake of saying them. Like Plato never said but someone online has said in his name, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”
But it wasn’t even about that. There was something in me that just so needed to find the right words. And it wasn’t about writer’s block, either.
No, this was a different kind of reaching. Except I’d been reaching in the wrong direction. I was searching trees for fruit, but this is winter. All the action is happening underground. In darkness. It’ll take time before new things are born.
I knew in those hours my grasping was futile, but it was one of those evenings so rare in its degree of uncomfortable helplessness. My roots were aching in their striving search. It took me awhile to respond to God, in his tenderness, speaking. Reminding me that it wasn’t all up to me. Telling me to be still. Receive. Listen. Be. Shift my eyes more fully back to him. Not just my intellectual attention, but resting in the awareness of his faithful, loving presence. Acknowledging the tension between effort, his whispered gifts, and this life simply lived with him.
Do you ever choose a word for the year ahead? A word that represents a theme God is already walking you through? It wasn’t that long ago when my long-awaited words were ones like “bloom” and “flourish.” But here I am a couple years later now, in a new semester of school with God, and this time circling a stranger word: limits.
Oddly enough, though, this has struck me as a different kind of abundance and possibility. A different kind of moving forward and going deeper. Even a different way of meeting life and others and having greater impact.
This past year I read a book called The Coming of God, by Maria Boulding, a Benedictine nun, and I’ve been thinking about this passage for many months. She wrote:
“Jesus accepted limitations and used them creatively. Every creator works within limitations; to work with them rather than fighting them is part of the challenge: the form of the symphony, the grain of the wood, the strict confines of the sonnet, the painful pruning of the young tree. Art feeds on sacrifice, and small is beautiful. The incarnation is God’s supreme, most glorious work of art, and he accepts the limitations of operating within a finite nature.”Maria Boulding, The Coming of God
“Limits” is such a countercultural word that most of us will lament or even resent at some point. And even an unspiritual word, depending on who you ask. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” right? Philippians 4:13. Cherry picked and silkscreened on coffee mugs and workout gear.
Except “all things” here in Philippians means contentment in every situation. Well fed or hungry. In want or in plenty. Not how much we carry. This past year, maybe more than any other, I’m realizing “all things” doesn’t mean everything. And not at every moment, or all at once, or forever, or without help or support or times of setting it all down.
Don’t picture this realization as some filtered, Instagram-worthy moment. My ragged self came to an abrupt, decidedly ungraceful stop after many months of perpetually crested limits. Because of all things 2020, the number and intensity of responsibilities, challenges, and burdens had begun to dogpile me in the second half of the year. Knowing it was the same for everyone, though, I wanted to remain the strong one who doesn’t let a single duty or spinning heart drop. It was more than I could sustain, and it brought my own spinning heart clattering down at the feet of Jesus.
“WHAT am I doing,” I said out loud to myself and to God as I tossed my phone away after one more conversation that had left me feeling profoundly unseen, unheard, and even dismissed. Not in a fit of wounded pride but in a surge of sudden clarity and repentance. I’d been trying too hard. With so much. And not even out of need — this had been no need to be needed — but a sense of responsibility and mission lacking sufficient discernment and wisdom in this new season.
In that very same breath, the deepest rest and peace rushed in. Everything suddenly so still in this wide, open clearing. And in that moment, my open, relaxed hands felt more loving than my efforts. I felt God loving on me, too. I could actually hardly contain my excitement. The possibilities for all of that freed up, redirected focus and energy felt like treasure just waiting to be discovered.
No matter the context, the limits I’ve had to freshly consider in the months since then have had to do with one central idea: where my role or effort stops and where God’s and others’ begins. Leaving more room for everything God is doing in each of us. And more space for all the different voices, situations, and questions we each have to synthesize and deal with. And more space for everyone around me to want what they want, need what they need, and choose what they choose. Even if it’s not me or what I’d value or do.
Only in this way can true walking side-by-side happen. Overlaboring can only hinder. As caring as it can seem on the surface, we interfere with God’s work in both our lives and others’ if we try to do or say too much. If we spread ourselves too thin. If we’re not taking into consideration whether what we’re doing or how doggedly we’re doing it is even effective. If we’re not abiding in him. Our creating, speaking, working, and even reaching out — whatever our array of gifts and how we wield them — can be driven not by the Holy Spirit but by pride, fear, wounds, coping mechanisms, or even just unexamined, unchallenged impulsiveness or habit. Our patterns. What we’re used to doing when the world’s upended.
In her book, Boulding went on to say about Jesus:
“His Father, to whom he escaped at times for long stretches of prayer, was immensity and space to breathe, to breathe the spirit of their mutual love through his human prayer. He must have needed the space, the silence, the call to stretch beyond the narrowness of day-to-day ministry, but for all that, it was within the narrow confines that he knew the Father and listened to his word. By creatively accepting the limitations he invested them with Easter significance, and thereby empowered us to do the same.”Maria Boulding, The Coming of God
The theme of limits has been translating to every area of my life. Work, to-do lists, responsibilities, people to love on and pray for, the amount of news and issues I have the capacity to delve into. And, of course, my art and writing, which everything else supports and informs. I’d been operating out of a place where neither my days nor I could ever possibly be enough. But I’m gaining greater perspective about what is actually my part to do. And the search for what those things are is shifting from overwhelming to adventure.
In Daniel 2, Daniel said that God “reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.” There’s darkness not just within our subject matter and circumstances that we stumble through; there’s darkness within us, the ones with pen in hand and pages yet to be filled.
Don’t be afraid — it’s the darkness of mystery, and we walk there with the God of love and light who shows us the way. And who picks us back up when we lose our footing, our hope, our bravery. He’ll lead us into our answers. And even things much greater than what we set out looking for.
Let’s learn to stop and ask this always: Do we take our limits and our creative winters, even if they last just 24 hours, as failing or prison or invitation? Can we distinguish the darkness of abyss from the darkness of mystery, full of treasure?
Father, at times, our limits seem like something you couldn’t possibly have meant to allow. We can curse them and try to brute force our way through. Or we can turn to you like Paul and Silas and sing how good you are, even here, and watch doors open.
Lead us into what only you can reveal. About the world, about others, about ourselves. About you. About the issues and events that most stir our hearts, minds, and imaginations. Help us humbly remember we’re each just one part of your body. You designed us to work together, each of us doing our part rather than trying to do our part and everyone else’s, too. And all of us relying on you. Like Paul said, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6-8).
As writers and artists, we all need more than cleverness, talent, intelligence, or skill. We need you, Father. How else can we bear fruit that will nourish? So do your winter work in us. In those mysterious hours when we can only wait or do what little we can do, Father, tend to all that we can’t, and tend to us, too.
Cheryl Velk is the author of the book Garden Songs: A Spiritual Formation Field Journal. Follow her on Instagram.