Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forevermore. (Psalm 73:25-26)
The other day while jogging, I came to the most challenging part of my route: running up a long meandering hill that seems to go on forever. When I first started running the route, I couldn’t do it. I hit the wall quickly and had to walk up the hill. As time passed and I continued to run, however, I found that my body strengthened and began to adjust. I could run part of the way up, and then most of the way up. Now, while it’s never effortless, I can run up the entire hill without hitting the wall like I used to.
Encounter our limits is inevitable as people. In fact, in our life with God, the inevitable end of our human strength brings us into something that’s better: the infinite strength of God. It is good to encounter our limits in order to more powerfully encounter God’s limitless strength and presence.
To come to the end of ourselves – and even the limits of others – opens us both to our need for God and to the joyful capacity of God to fill our need. However, like my jog up the hill that ended with a quick slowing of the pace to walking, hitting the wall spiritually can be both humbling and distressing. In that place, we see who we are and who we’re not. We realize that we are not God, and that we have limits.
But God meets us there, joyfully unencumbered by our human limitations and also eternally free to carry our burdens. What once was humbling and distressing now becomes the source of joy in God, as we reach out to Him and find that His grace is more than sufficient for us, even that His power is made perfect, as St. Paul wrote, in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). This echoes the words of Isaiah the prophet:
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)
We all know there is no way to grow other than to encounter limits. In exercise, when we “hit the wall,” we can either pull back or press forward to develop new muscles or skills. The same is true in other areas of our lives, whether learning an instrument, developing mastery of financial skills, or apprenticing to a trade.
The same is true in our life with God. The moment we encounter our human limits is simultaneously the moment we begin to develop new “muscles” within our souls. When we are pushed beyond our capacity physically, we feel the burning of muscles pushing toward growth or lung capacity stretching in new ways. We say, “no pain – no gain.” Likewise in our spiritual lives, there is a breaking and refining that happens as we stretch into growth and development. Even here, the encounter with limits and the stretching of growth reminds us that spiritually it is also true: “no pain – no gain.”
The writer to the Hebrews describes God’s grace in apparently strange terms that resonate with this reality: “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). The discipline of the Lord shapes us in formational ways, helping us grow and develop. Without that discipline we will not change; discipline is a subset of discipleship. James also acknowledges this in one of the most memorable portions of his epistle:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
In light of this, hitting the wall in our spiritual lives is actually a moment of grace. The encounter with our human limitations is a potential encounter with God’s joyful presence and shaping grace. When we come to the end of ourselves we are also enter an opportunity to see ourselves become more like Christ as the Holy Spirit enters into our weak places to shape us, both individually and as His community, for the glory of God.