Limitation and Enlargement

Change always sounds wonderful until it involves, well, change.  

Have you ever stepped into a restaurant, and felt like the place was a good idea—the theme of it, the art, the menu?  Perhaps you thought, I bet I could do something like this. I’ve got a flair for decorating, a catchy cafe name, and my grandmother’s recipes.  

It is as though in our minds, the path between idea and finished product is a smooth one.  

On a television program called Restaurant Rescue, restaurant owners/operators who had a good idea pursued it for a while, but got stuck.  Then they call in an expert—usually a rude guy—who tells them the truth. It gets dicey until someone in management realizes change is needed.  Then they have a breakthrough.

The fact is, none of us like challenges. We’ll do whatever we can to eliminate wait time, difficulty, and learning curve.  Christians have invented whole theologies to overturn hardship, ranging from prayer to rebuking it in the name of Jesus. If those don’t work, there are always pop psychology alternatives.  

Yet there are no shortcuts for Christians, not if you’re looking for true advancement.  Every one of us will face serious challenge, and we haven’t been called to use Houdini-like ingenuity to escape it.  We’ll only experience genuine spiritual breakthroughs in our union with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the first and greatest of all lessons is the one related to limitation and enlargement.

“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, sir, we wish to see Jesus. Philip went and told Andrew, Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, the hour has come for the son of man to be glorified” (John 12:20-23).

Had I been a disciple standing there, I would probably have gotten excited.  Oh boy, it’s glory time!  The crowds are going to increase. The nations are going to start lining up to seek Jesus.  This is the breakthrough moment, beginning with these Greeks.  

If the disciples were thinking this way—the way of enlargement—they were right to do so, but they were leaving out a crucial part of the process.  Their omission was every bit as serious as leaving out the “H” from “H²O.” You can’t have glorious enlargement without it.

What is it?  Jesus supplies the missing part in verse 24, when he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the Earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” 

Take a look at the details here. Jesus compared himself to a grain of wheat.  The life inside the grain is the secret to its explosive fruitfulness, but it is a life enclosed, trapped, bounded by a restrictive husk.  In Philippians chapter 2, Christ emptied himself of the unlimited, unbounded form of God, and constrained Himself to the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of a lowly man. That’s unprecedented limitation.    

For the first time ever, this infinite, eternal Son of God was limited by time itself.  He had said the hour had come for His glorification. What could this mean, except that He had waited thirty-three years for it to arrive?  And if glory had not arrived until that time, what else can be implied except that He had lived in an inglorious state for all those years, at least externally? 

He had to travel like everyone else, because he couldn’t be in all places at once. When He was hungry, He wouldn’t call a buffet into existence, as the devil had tempted him to do. He had to find His own food for Himself, like everyone else.  He also had to rest, and once needed it so badly, He fell asleep in a boat during a thunderstorm.

His greatest indignity of limitation was death, and worse, the death of a cross.  He stylized it as a grain of wheat falling into the Earth and dying. His crucifixion was the release of the glorious life within him to the millions down through history who would receive it.  

Calvary was His breakthrough moment, not popular Greek attention.    

In verse 25, He further portrayed this life of limitation unto enlargement as a principal, saying, “Whoever, loves his life loses it.”  God will inevitably limit you or allow limitation upon you in some way. Whoever loves his life will react by insisting upon, and keeping his comforts, distractions, and preferences.  Yet he will lose those things eventually, sometimes even before leaving this world. It’s the person who lives for fishing—he can’t be in church because he’s on the lake, can’t tithe because he’s making payments on a bass boat, can’t read his Bible because he’s taking care of tackle—but discovers one day he’s too arthritic to do it anymore.  Thus, he loses it. It’s the person who is reluctant to follow Christ because his family won’t approve. But she loses them one by one to the cemetery.

In effect, you can lose these things for God, or lose them anyway.  

Conversely, Jesus says, “Whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”   That is, whoever de-prioritizes this current transient life in favor of the will of God, will, in a counter-intuitive twist, keep it for eternal life, ultimate enlargement.  

In Verse 26, Jesus continues, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.”  Real servants follow Him into the experience of limitation, falling into the ground and dying for the sake of God and others. 

This of course, doesn’t mean we join with Him in dying for the sins of the world–He alone is qualified for that.  No, this means living a sacrificial life in union with him so the outcome would be other people brought to Christ, of Christ-like virtues being formed in them, and in you, too. “If anyone serves me [like this] the Father will honor him.” God knows when we live in union with Jesus, and would never appraise such a life as a garden variety religious one.  It is worthy of great respect and distinction.

Years ago, a number of brilliant medical students who began their education as atheists, all came to faith in Christ by the time they graduated.  All at the same university, and all through the influence of one professor. The professor experienced fruit bearing that any minister would love to have, but think of the limitations he had to operate under.

First, if you want to do campus ministry, you need the time and the focus to do it.  Since he was a professor with many other responsibilities, he had a vocational limitation.  Second, you need an environment friendly for ministry. However, his “field” was a university, where there are certain legalities and a bias forbidding how much you can say about religion. Third, you need a supportive network around you for encouragement.  His were secular colleagues, who could very easily disapprove of his faith, and damage his academic reputation. Finally, the people you hope to bring to Christ should at least be open-minded. But the students he had to work with were hardened atheists.

That’s a lot of limitation, at least according to popular Christian opinion.  The professor could have complained about it and hunted for something easier, but instead fell into the ground of that campus and died.  God respected it because He saw His Son in it, and there could be no other outcome, but fruit.

We think in order to arrive at spiritual enlargement, we need to get our limitations out of the way. If only I could escape these kids.  If only my spouse was more spiritual.  If only I didn’t have to deal with this ungodly work environment. If only I didn’t live in this neighborhood. If only I were in another church.  If only people could appreciate me the way they ought.

The question is not how we can escape our various limitations, but will we be a grain of wheat, falling into the earth, dying, and coming up in the glory of resurrection.  Spiritual immaturity is everywhere in churches, partly because we believe limitation is evil, and shouldn’t be tolerated, even as the Bible seeks to limit us, moral responsibilities try to limit us, and reality itself says, “Stop!”  

As a result, there’s no falling into the ground, no breaking, and no fruit.  We don’t see the 30, 60, or 100-fold enlargement like in Matthew 13:8, where the good ground bears bushels of increase.     

Oddly enough, we don’t care much for enlargement, either.  Everyone likes the idea of a big ministry, being Christ-like, etc., etc., but not so much when we’re in the process of it.  Most of us actually struggle to stay the way we are.

It is like attempting to get your kids to try any food other than peanut butter, or Mac n’ cheese, or chicken tenders.  They don’t understand the enlargement you want to bring to their palette, and so a small war breaks out every night at the dinner table.  

I fought spiritual enlargement a lot in my early ministry, even while wishing to have a larger spiritual life. 

When I was a young ministry intern, a mentor asked me to take over a high school conference. At that time, I was preaching on college campuses and leading Bible studies in the student union.  The high school crowd didn’t intersect what I was doing. Besides, I didn’t know how to arrange a conference. I didn’t have time for it. I wasn’t gifted for it.

I reluctantly accepted the assignment.  “Do you have any tips?” I asked the mentor.  “Yes,” he said. “Get a pencil and a notebook.”  It wasn’t so I could take notes from him. He meant for me to start scribbling, sketching, thinking through things.  He hoped I would get away from the shoot-from-the-hip style of leadership I typically employed. It forced me to drill down on who the kids were and what they needed, the best schedule for them, snacks, and study materials.  

In a sense, I started from the inside, and worked to the outside, rather than occupying myself solely with the peripherals of ministry planning. Though the event went well, it was a one-and-done, which I never executed again. In fact, soon afterwards I spiraled out of the high school ministry orbit, and into upper age groups where I have stayed ever since.  

Was the experience a waste?  No way. I still refer to the lessons learned during that brief little season any time today when I set out to launch a new church initiative. I won’t lie, though. At the very beginning, I wanted to tell that mentor, “Can you find somebody else for this? I’m coming down with a little cough…”  

I like enlargement as long as I don’t have to change.      

Regardless of where you are in the limitation/enlargement process, don’t run from it.  

You are, after all, one with Him who has already been there.

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