Uncomfortably Limited: The Frustrating Beauty of Finitude


When did you first become acquainted with your finitude?

To some, that may seem like a funny question. When was I not acquainted with finitude? For as long as you remember, you’ve been confronted with the limits you face in the mirror. Sometimes, it may even feel like the mirror has come to life and follows you, carrying your flaws and failures wherever you go. There’s a friend who sticks closer than a brother, and finitude draws closer still.

Where shall I go from my limits?
     Or where shall I flee from my weakness?
If I work diligently into the night, you are there!
     If I wake early before the others, you are there!
If I give all I have, and do all I can, and make every possible effort,
     even there you find me.

Finitude, of course, touches a dozen different nerves. You may get tired more quickly than others, and end most days worrying about what didn’t get done. You may have a hard time falling asleep, or staying asleep. Or if there’s an opportunity to get sick, your body seems to seize it. Maybe you’ve battled chronic illness or persistent pain over years or decades. Or you’re called to some difficult relationship that always seems to demand more than you can give. It’s part of the mystery and brilliance of humanity — these creatures that can harness electricity, transplant a heart, and visit the moon, and yet still need naps and sick days.

Whatever limits you, you can probably walk outside and see something of yourself in those tiny green blades beneath your feet:

As for man, his days are like grass;
     he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
     and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:15–16)

If you follow this grassy trail through Scripture, you realize that our finitude isn’t the accident it often seems to be (or at least feels like in the moment). If you can believe it, it’s actually a feature.

“Humans are finite to maximize, not minimize, what humans are made to be and do.”

Notice, even before the fall (before our need for redemption), God made us unavoidably limited. And now after the fall, he uses our finitude to draw us back to him. From the beginning, humans are finite to maximize, not minimize, what humans are made to be and do. To be fully human requires feeling and embracing the limits of being human. Even glorified humans living with God in the new heavens and new earth will still be finite — free from sin and pain and sorrow, but not without the limits of a body.

We know our finiteness is intentional and purposeful, because God brings it up again and again in the Bible. As he does, he often reaches for grass (which, remember, he himself sovereignly sketched and planted).

All flesh is grass,
     and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
     when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
     surely the people are grass. (Isaiah 40:6–7)

As I write, our yard’s been without rain for several weeks. Despite some real (modest) effort, I’m watching the withering in real time the brief and fragile life of my poor lawn. And I’m learning about myself. All flesh is grass, even mine, and my short spring and summer will soon fall into winter.

But grass isn’t the only window we have into finitude. Even in Psalm 103, God gives us another metaphor for our limitations: “He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). Man was formed from dust, and we must all return to dust, and in between, we are small, brief, and brittle, like dust. Dust from dust to dust.

By the sweat of your face
     you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
     for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
     and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19; see Ecclesiastes 3:20)

Like grass, like dust, like a single drip of water: “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales” (Isaiah 40:15). We were meant to feel this way, like a 5-foot 9-inch blade of grass, like a 195-pound shadow. If you feel the discomfort of finitude, you’re not alone and you’re not crazy. You’re human.

Prayers of Finitude

The more I walk through the field of Psalm 103 in particular — “As for man, his days are like grass” — the more I realize that finitude weaves its way through the whole psalm. These have been some of my favorite verses to pray in all the Bible:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
     and all that is within me,
     bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
     and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
     who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
     who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
     so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1–5)

I’ve long loved these verses for rehearsing the height and width and depth of God’s power and love, but I’ve recently learned to appreciate them even more for being prayers of vulnerability and finitude. These are the prayers of people acquainted with sickness (“who heals all your diseases”), of people in desperate situations (“who redeems your life from the pit”), of people wrestling with weakness (who renews your youth), of people weighed down by sin (“who forgives all your iniquity”), and in the next verse, of people who’ve been wronged and wounded (who “works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed”).

“Finitude exists to lead us to Infinitude.”

In just a handful of lines, we can each find someone who relates to our finitude. We can find a cry for whatever fragile moments we experience. We also find a God ready to meet and bless us in our particular limits and weaknesses.

Where Finitude Takes Us

If we let it, finitude really will help us live happier, more fully human lives, but only if we see through the grass, the dust, the shadow, the drip. Follow Psalm 103 through the field: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But . . .” Now we’ll learn where the good path of finitude finally leads. All of our weakness, sickness, frustration, disappointment has been leading us to and through this sentence:

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
     and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
     and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
     and his kingdom rules over all. (Psalm 103:17–19)

Finitude exists to lead us to Infinitude. God never grows weak or tired. He never needs help. He never sins. He never feels stuck or desperate. He never needs to sleep in or take a nap. Unlike us, he’s not like grass. If all the nations are a drop in the bucket, his kingdom is an ocean.

So, as we come up against our limits again and again, when we feel our dust-ness more acutely again today, or tomorrow, or sometime next year, we’re meant to see and feel his limitlessness. There’s no ceiling to his ability, no reins on his power, no vulnerability in his plan, no exhausting his mercy. The grassiness of our short, complicated, confusing, often discouraging lives should lead us to his iron throne of love. Every limit and weakness that sets us apart from God can help us savor more of him.

He Knows Our Frame

Being himself infinite, you might think God would have a hard time relating to finite creatures like us, but he doesn’t. In his infinitude, he finds the heart to father the weak and flawed, to love us as if we were his own children. He loves us more than an earthly father could (Luke 11:13).

As a father shows compassion to his children,
     so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
     he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:13–14)

We know our frame, and we grumble and despair. God knows our frame (even more than we know ourselves), and yet instead of complaining about us or rejecting us, he draws close to strengthen and help us. In Christ, his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). He approaches our frailty with the heart of a devoted father, not of a ruthless manager. If we fear and follow him, the limits we’re tempted to despise about ourselves stir and inflame the coals of his compassion.

And he not only knows our frame, but sent his Son to bear our frame. Our God is the only God ever conceived who can sympathize with finitude. Jesus lived a short, physically demanding, relationally trying, temptation-battling life. He slept and got sick. He even died. And then he rose to give your grass-like life a throne-like weight and glory.

So, if you feel a little like grass, let those sharp green blades point you up and away from your frustrations and insecurities to the God who knows your finitude, planned your finitude, lived your finitude, and now redeems your finitude.

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