It is the nature of city life to push limits. In one sense, a city is a town that has burst its limits and become something new. Globally we are seeing the rise of the city and the mega city as populations shift towards urban centres. In cities like Leeds we can shop longer, buy more, work harder, and party later. As a friend once said, ‘let’s be honest, most of us live in the city because we’re driven’.
This fits with our modern conception of life: we don’t like to be limited. Which of us, for instance, would appreciate being described as ‘a profoundly limited person’? Speaking personally, I have an ambivalent relationship with limits. Whether it’s amber lights, working hours, budget constraints or the deadline for submitting this article, I tend to push things to the max and sometimes beyond. It is hard to submit to limitation – and for those of us who would prefer not to, Leeds is a great place to live.
Unfortunately, the myth of limitless consumption, if it ever had currency at all, is surely bankrupt now. Ecologically, financially and personally, we are being forced us to consider our limits. The question is whether the Christian narrative has something to contribute at this point. It is suggested in some presentations of Christianity that faith is effectively life without limits. But this way of interpreting Jesus’ offer of ‘life to the full’ is all too easily co-opted by the consumer dream. Others, looking critically at the history of the Church, have seen warrant in the Scriptures for an arrogant human subjugation of the environment which is intolerant of limitation. I would like, instead, to propose a different reading of the Bible, one in which limits play a crucial role and which therefore holds promise for life in congested 21st Century Leeds.
At the heart of the Biblical narrative is a concept of limit as something that blesses rather than inhibits. This requires us to revisit our notion of limit. We tend to see limit as an oppressive restriction, but this obscures the crucial protective function of boundaries. A goldfish bowl, for instance, could be described as a restrictive limitation, but for the goldfish it may be preferable to a rather brief ‘no limits’ existence on the dining room carpet! Strictly speaking, although limits are themselves a gift, it is what they safeguard that is most precious. Football, to take another example, is not really about lines on a pitch, however without the lines it could not take place at higher levels. The limits enable play.
A richer analogy still is marriage. The marriage vows are not, ‘To have and to hold, Til death do us part, unless I get an offer from a supermodel…’. Marriage is a covenant in which the boundaries of unconditional commitment safeguard the space in which partners can flourish. It is this kind of relationship – covenant commitment – that describes the way God relates to creation. The limits God gives are covenant boundaries in which relationships are safeguarded and God’s blessing can be experienced.
Retelling the Story: Limits Broken, Limits Redeemed
The whole story of the Bible can be told in terms of limits. The garden in which the first humans are depicted includes a limit: do not eat from one particular tree (Genesis 2-3). But the fact of there being a limit does not make the garden a place of meagre subsistence. There is enough, more than enough. There is every kind of plant and provision. The limit given by the commandment is in place simply to protect Adam and Eve, and to safeguard their relationship with God.
As the story unfolds, the first act of sin is the breaking of a limit. It is consumption beyond the boundaries of Eden’s divinely gifted ecology. The serpent suggests that life within covenant boundaries is pitiful and diminished. Beyond the limits, it claims, is a place of abundance and freedom. In fact, as becomes clear, the opposite is true. Outside the circle of covenant relationship with God is death. The primeval choice to live without regard for God’s limits has consequences both for people and the environment: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you’.
The history of Israel plays out on the canvas of a given area of land. Throughout this journey, faithfulness on, or on the way to, the land means living within boundaries. In the wilderness, God provides abundant mana, but God also gives a limit: only collect what each day requires. In the promised land itself boundary markers set limits for each family’s territory. Farming laws set limits on what could be harvested so that others can glean the leftovers at the edge of each field. In the Book of Ruth we see how these laws provide for the refugee and the stranger. The sabbath set limits on working time. Significantly, sabbath law also limited the time anyone could demand from those working for them, whether human or animal. Then there was the sabbath of sabbaths, the Jubilee, which set a limit on acquisition of land and debasement of ancestral assets by stipulating return of slaves and cancellation of debts every 50th year.
In each case, what God gives as a gift is also given with a limit. To honour the limit is to recognise that the gift came from God in the first place. The Old Testament amply shows how limits protect the poor, maintain justice and lead to surprising occasions for compassion and creativity (as in the Book of Ruth). To exceed the law’s limits is to steal from the poor, to trample justice. It promises abundance but delivers only scarcity, because it separates us from the generosity of God.
The life of perfect limits was lived out by Jesus. Consider for a moment what a limited life he lived. He did not subscribe to the acquisitive creed of busy city life. His accommodation options were limited. His time was limited. His travel experience was limited. He never did just what he wanted; he only ever did what he believed Heaven required of each moment. And yet, within these limits, his one human life became a channel for the abundance and blessing of God like nothing else in history.
In this story of broken limits, the death of Jesus plays a unique role. If covenant breach leads us to a place of futility and death, Jesus shows God’s own willingness to meet us there. Jesus leaves the circle of divine accompaniment, his natural home, and enters the place of covenant curse and broken boundaries. It is this loving act which remakes covenant between God and humanity and precipitates an outpouring of blessing through Jesus to the world. Recipients of this blessing are enabled to live lives of justice and fruitfulness, not simply on one strip of land in Israel, but anywhere on the planet.
The theme above is, of course, only one part of the full Biblical symphony. Ultimately, as the story of Israel shows, the limitations of law are powerless to manage behaviour and society without a deeper work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself kept the covenant but sometimes broke the limits implied by law. He abrogated sabbath law for the sake of compassion. He censured those who hid behind limits for selfish gain or used them to oppress others. His teaching on holiness went beyond the expected limits of the society of his day. Later, his apostles eschewed ‘balanced’ lives to work night and day sharing the gospel.
So when should limits be broken and when kept? To work this out requires an iterative process of discovery and reflection, listening with others for the voice of God’s Spirit. There are no simple answers, rather we must engage in complex judgements. But it is safe to say that the environmental and social challenges we now face require just this sort of process of reflection today.
How might this conversation be taken forward in Leeds? We must start with the pressing political, civic and personal questions of our day. What should be the lowest limit for pay in our city? What provision do we make as a city for sabbath? What should be the ecological footprint of Leeds, and what action is required to achieve it? What limitation by some of us might enable space and resources for refugees to be welcomed? What boundaries do we personally need to observe in order to safeguard space for prayer, for family, for play?
Finally, in all the above, where might the process of engaging with limits become the occasion for creativity, compassion and surprising joy? We should pursue these discussions, bearing in mind that ultimately we are called to embrace not limits themselves, but the precious relationships they protect.
Mark Powley is Principal of Yorkshire Ministry Course (www.ymc.org.uk) and author of Consumer Detox (Zondervan). He lives in north Leeds with his wife Ailsa and their four children.