A year ago I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, which came as a surprising relief at the time given that I’d been sick for over two months and the initial concern was that it might have been something lethal. But once the ‘phew it’s not cancer’ relief wore off a firm reality had to settle in: I am going to have chronic pain and fatigue for the rest of my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t accept this right away, and some friends and family are still unable to accept this. At the beginning the doctors and nurses kept on talking about drugs that might help me achieve ‘remission,’ which I naïvely thought meant that I would one-day feel better and I would go back to my normal 6-day working week. But when ‘remission’ finally came and all the tests revealed that the disease was supposedly ‘inactive’, I was still feeling sick every day, and I didn’t know how to accept this on a psychological level. Admittedly it was much milder than before: I am now able to dress without too much difficulty, I shower most days, I cook and eat food, and on good days I can go for walks; but my head was still in the toilet bowel most mornings, my arthritis still came and went ad hoc, I was still feeling flat out exhausted like an elephant was sitting on my chest, and, while the sharp pain on the right side of my abdomen no longer made me pass out, it is still very present and causes significant distress on a regular basis.
After a few months of this I learnt that this is very normal for some people with my illness, so I signed up to do a course about it through a local support group. The course description said it was about using mindfulness to help manage chronic systems, which I thought meant they would give me breathing exercises to help make the pain go away. Instead, the psychologist said the best she could do was provide Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT) to help me psychologically cope with the reality that I might never feel well again, and that from now on my life will always have severe limitations. Initially I was gutted. But eventually this has became a game changer, and I’ve found that accepting, and dare I say sometimes celebrating my limitations has become enormously freeing for my soul.
Broadly speaking, this experience is not restricted to those of us who are perpetually unwell or disabled. Everyone knows how frustrating it can be to have your freedoms taken away from you against your will. Our whole western culture is built around the idea that we are autonomous ‘free’ agents, so when life imposes restrictions on us, we can often be so baffled by our newfound limitations that we literally don’t know how to cope, and sometimes this can result in pretty extreme denial or anger.
‘Freedom’, we are told, is the autonomy to choose to do whatever we want. The idea behind it is that we know what’s best for us, and that if anyone else tries to tell us what to do or if an unfortunate event forces us to accept there are some things we physically can’t do, then we become some kind of victim.
But there are some real-world problems that all of us need to face at some stage of our lives, and these can force us to either deny the reality of our loss of ‘freedom’ or accept that true freedom isn’t exactly what we thought it would be:
First, not all things we are ‘free’ to do are necessarily good for us. In fact, some ‘freedoms’ can be incredibly bad for our health, for our relationships, for our society, or for our home that is planet earth. For example we may be legally ‘free’ to smoke when we turn 18, but smoking can significantly damage and kill your body, which not only causes you physical and mental suffering, but also impacts the people who love you. Likewise, you may be ‘free’ to consume as much single-use plastic as you like, but the reality is that if you continue to consume and dispose at that level then you contribute towards the death of our home and the demise of our future stability as a species. Again, I may be ‘free’ to work three days a week at my part time job, study for another three days a week for my masters, have every evening of the week booked to do something with church community, and spend Sunday flat out serving at church every week, but eventually the lack of real rest is going to catch up with me and my body is going to crash (and it did!). Nobody is physically stopping you from doing these things, but if you exercise your right to do so then there are pretty severe consequences down the line. The ‘freedom’ may be yours, but the consequences are not optional.
Second, there are many ‘freedoms’ that we think are fine because they give us short term pleasure and they don’t hurt anybody, but over the course of time we realise that we can’t stop doing them. And I’m not just talking about recreational drugs here. There are some itches that become more itchy once you start scratching, and what you used to think was freedom eventually starts to look a lot like addiction. This cannot be true freedom. You may have the ‘freedom’ to choose at the beginning, but further along down the line you have absolutely no freedom at all. While many of us exist in some kind of groupthink that says certain addictive habits are ok, the fact is that what you thought was freedom may actually have the power to strip your freedom away from you because you simply cannot stop. John 8:34 & 36 come to mind in this instance: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin… [but] if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’
True freedom then, may in fact not be the autonomy to do whatever we want, but rather the acceptance that certain Godly limitations may be good for us. Moreover, self-mastery over the things that are designed to be addictive may be more powerful than the short-term pleasures that are promised by hedonism.
So I want to reflect today on the accidental freedom I have found in accepting my physical limitations. There are some limitations that are forced upon us by things such as illnesses (and pandemics!) and there are other limitations that might not be imposed but have been advocated by ancient wisdom because they have the power to be surprisingly freeing in the truest sense of the word.
An example of the former may be when I discovered I was coeliac over a decade ago and was forced to switch to a diet that was gluten-free. Almost overnight both my health and my cooking improved. I discovered that a simple restriction in my diet forced me to live healthier and to be more creative in my cooking. Over time this has turned cooking into a joy and a passion that I take great pride in. This limitation, although frustrating when I had to adjust to it ten years ago, actually ended up improving the quality of my life.
Similarly, I’ve met a number of architects who have told me that they prefer a design brief with heavy limitations because the restriction forces creativity, which can in turn disarm the inertia that often comes with having too much choice.
For the latter, the early churches knew very well that certain restrictions can be life-giving, and there have been many religious communities that have chosen to live a way that is intentionally limiting so that they may find deeper freedom in their relationships with people, with the land, and with God. The Benedictine ‘Rule of Life’ is one such example, but there are many others. In the case of ‘The Rule,’ St Benedict proposed that Christians intentionally restrict their lives with specific rules so that they may find the right balance of prayer, work, study, and leisure (or renewal). This healthy balance in turn meant that Christians would be better equipped to love the world and follow the ways of Jesus without exceeding their human capacity. To a modern world that says you are free to do whatever you want, this is a radically counter-cultural way of life.
This doesn’t mean that the global church always gets it right though. I’ve noticed in Evangelical/Charismatic/Pentecostal circles that people often think that if you accept the limitations of your own life then you’re somehow imposing those same restrictions on God. Of course this is ridiculous and may in fact be a heresy: if your God is transcendent, omnipresent and infinite, assuming that you too possess those qualities is straight up idolatry. But nevertheless, we tell ourselves that if we accept Jesus into our lives then he’ll basically give us his superpowers, and then we can do anything or go anywhere or be whoever we want because God’s limitless existence somehow means that we are limitless too. ‘My God is on my side’ gradually evolves into ‘my God is me.’
But all of us at some stage have to accept not just the reality of our own limits, but the gifts that restrictions can bring to us, regardless of whether they are forced or voluntary.
To caveat: I’m not saying that we should never persevere when life gets hard or that we should give up on our God-given potential. But our western culture is very good at preaching those things because the narrative of ‘don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do’ tends to make it easier to sell things. For the majority of Millennials and Gen Zs, burnout culture has become completely normalised because we struggle to accept this one simple fact: we are finite, embodied creatures that exist in time and space.
Pete Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality says, ‘you find God’s will for your life in your limitations.’ When the church focuses only on people’s potential and not enough on their limitations then we very quickly make our way towards burnout because we physically and mentally force ourselves to transcend the limited capabilities God has given us. Anne Helen Petersen says in her article on Millennial Burnout, ‘Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.’
As much as we try and be like God and tell ourselves we have eternal youth and infinite capacity – I recently heard of someone saying that the iPhone is ‘the human experiment in omnipresence,’ – we need to come to terms with the reality of our real-world existence on planet earth. Our time has limits. Our bodies have limits. Our personalities have limits. Our capacity to know everything has limits. And this is a very good thing.
The world may say that there is a bottomless hole of endless consumption or that if you just keep achieving and striving you may one day feel fulfilled in your life, but this is a lie.
Here’s a startling idea: you can’t say yes to everything. I’ve often heard that I don’t have to say yes to everything, but no-one ever told me until I got sick that I physically cannot say yes to everything. And this is wonderful because when I’m saying no to a good thing, it means that my yes to something else will be better and more fulfilling.
An interesting reading of The Fall in Genesis 3 by John Marc Comer is that it is about our perpetual ‘temptation to transgress our limitations.’ In other words, there were an abundance of yeses and only one simple no, but we wanted to become like God with no limits so we refused to accept the no and overruled the boundaries that were set before us. That is the heart of sin: that we cannot accept our limitations and our place before God.
Yes, God has endless capacity, endless resource and endless power. But you don’t. And learning that you are an embodied finite creature with limitations does not in any way impede God’s capacity to provide for you as a loving father does.
In fact learning to live within the capacity he has given you (for example, he has built us with a need for rest and then commanded us to do so with this thing called Sabbath) is surprisingly freeing.
I would never wish my Colitis on anyone because it is a horribly painful disease that never goes away. But the restriction of my capacity hasn’t been all that bad for my emotional wellbeing.
I have learnt that rest is a virtue and not a sin.
I have learnt that I am an embodied creature rather than a ‘brain on a stick,’ and that my body has needs that I should listen and respond to.
I have learnt that slowing down my life can bring a wonderful peace to my soul.
I have learnt that sitting at the feet of Jesus really is far better than all the other things I used to think were important.
I have learnt how to ask people for help, and that 90% of those people are actually pleased that I asked them.
I’ve learnt to accept changes in my body (steroids combined with bed rest results in lots of weight gain), and that the standards of beauty of the world aren’t actually all that healthy.
I have learnt how to properly cry.
I have learnt how to be honest with Jesus.
There are many things I cannot do anymore, or can only do with limited capacity. I have to ask people to help me a lot. But to be honest, the value of the things I’ve learnt far exceed the things the luxury of self-sufficiency.
So this has been my accidental freedom: the acceptance of my finite existence, my limited capacity, and the fundamental truth that I am not God.
I hope more people can accept this without requiring illness to be their teacher.
Book by John Marc Comer: The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry
Article by Anne Helen Petersen: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation
Book by Pete Greig: God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer
For those who have chronic illness or disability: a book by Emily Ackerman called The Amazing Technicolour Pyjama Therapy.