I’ll never forget driving from Massachusetts to Iowa to return my car to the college I was attending (in the mid-70’s), and then hopping on a plane to connect with four of my buddies in Montana to drive to our friend’s wedding in northwest Washington state. I had allotted three days to get to Iowa, including a stop for another friend’s wedding in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Then, an additional three days to camp and drive to the Pacific Northwest.
When I left home my mother cautioned me, “Stephen, I’m concerned that you haven’t left any time for an emergency.” I responded, “Don’t worry, mom, I’ll be fine.”
THE TRUTH SETS YOU FREE
I love the words of Jesus when he told his followers “The truth will set you free.” Freedom comes by embracing the truth, not by holding onto lies, illusions and myths.
It’s interesting to note that the Apostle Paul wrote two different books to the same group of followers of Jesus in a city named Corinth in the Greek Isles. In the second book, we see an older, more mature Paul talk about living within limits. In 2 Corinthians 10:13, Paul explains his understanding of living life within the limits God has set for us. He writes about not over-extending ourselves.
“But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you.
The Message puts it this way:
“We aren’t making outrageous claims here. We’re sticking to the limits of what God has set for us.”
A limit requires a basic understanding of where you should invest yourself and where you should refrain. A limit is understanding what writer Wendell Berry calls “your carrying capacity; knowing your own “bandwidth.” How much can you work? And not how long can you work, but how long SHOULD you work? And it’s not just about work. Limits are important to understand regarding most aspects of our lives. How much should we exercise, eat, sleep, play, use technology? How much can you carry before something is dropped?
What’s true is this: A person cannot give 110% all the time. That’s just not possible. As the Bible says, “Young men do grow weary.” Even young men and women need to learn the limitations of their physical strength. Tim’s spouse told me, “All I get from Tim when he gets home are the leftovers.” It’s a message my wife, Gwen, tried to tell me when my own career was blossoming and I was at the zenith of my vocational ladder. Now, years later, I lament to Gwen and often share in my talks when asked to speak on this subject: “I gave the best years of my life to my work and the leftovers to my family.” Sure I tried to be present, to go to my son’s basketball games and soccer matches. I tried to understand the concept of “quality time.” But now I can say, I may have been physically present but I was far, far away in some distant land in my mind. I now realize that I was emotionally absent. I was checked-out, pre-occupied with planning meetings, building reports, and strategies for growth; in other words, my kingdom.
I regret not really showing up for much of my life. I showed up in work but did not show up in other ways and I paid the price. Please hear me—so will you. No one escapes the boomerang of ignoring your limits. I have spent much time seeking to regain the “years that the locusts have eaten” in my life, with my family ties and especially with my most sacred of all relationships—my wife. Learning to live within my limits was a key “Aha” moment for me. When the lights came on, my life began to change—and so will yours—and all for the better.
Over-extending yourself is stretching your physical, emotional, financial, vocational, and relational boundaries to the point of depletion. Have you ever heard the expression someone says when the money is running tight. It goes like this: “There too much month for too little money.” Translated it means, “I’ve run out of money to pay all my bills and it’s only the middle of the month.” That’s what happens when we overextend ourselves; there’s more being asked of us than we can give.
This overextending causes stress to accumulate: the stress at home, in the workplace, during travel, it all piles up like a huge stack of dirty laundry. Stress, as we all know, is deadly to our health. Every doctor and therapist will tell you that unresolved stress is going will “do you in.” Stress works itself out through our blood pressure, and attacks our vital organs. Stress releases a toxin that when built up leaves it’s marks inside of us. We live with a tyranny of the urgent mentality with drives us, manipulates us, and sucks life and passion right out of our marrow and veins. Everything must be done now. Everything has to be quick.
Professions that call for high emotional investment in people, otherwise known as “helping professions” need to take note. Examples include ministers, counselors, social workers, nurses, doctors, teachers. The principle that anyone involved in a helping profession needs to uphold is this: Those who care must be cared for. No one is the exception to this, not even you! An important step in learning to live your life within limits is to confess, “There are no exceptions to this principle. Not even me!”
In the military world, men and women who have repeated multiple deployments, living in harms way for extended periods of time apart from loved ones, experience signs and symptoms of the burn-out and depletion I am describing. I have three sons who serve as officers in the United States Army. When they are deployed, I see firsthand the stress on their wives, children, and in their own souls. I also sense my own stress rising when they are deployed. Sometimes, I can’t sleep if I know they are truly in harm’s way.
I’ve worked with numerous people who work in the area of disaster relief and in crisis situations for large organizations. After flying overseas or travelling to a site where a hurricane, earthquake, or human plight has developed, they go into fierce action-mode, doing everything possible to save lives and alleviate suffering. It always takes a toll. One relief worker who is employed by a United Nations relief agency came to our retreat and introduced himself with these words: “I’m DOA. Dead On Arrival. I’m spent and have no idea where I left my heart along the way.”
Most people in the developed world know to wash their hands before eating. By washing your hands, you are preventing the spread of germs that can make you sick. In developing countries, many cross-cultural workers will teach people about drinking water that is safe. They say, “Urinate over there and keep this area clean and pure so nothing bad will go into the water.” Again, it’s a simple truth to keep people healthy. Learning to live within your limits is a simple preventative principle that will help you stay healthy. All aspects of caring for yourself are really preventative work. Preventative care is an important part of the work within the work. It’s never a selfish act to care for yourself! Never! In the bigger picture of life and health it is stewardship.
I tell people this simple proverb: “Know before you go!” and what I mean by that is you need to know some basic life principles before you go and give your heart away for a cause, a mission, an organization or a company. This by far is the most identified regret of my entire life.
To explore your own limits, consider these categories that will help you as you begin setting realistic limits for yourself.
First, consider how you can conserve energy, as in “your” energy. We need to learn some conservation skills. We simply cannot give all of our energy all the time. No one ever told me this. I was taught to give my all and that my all was needed, if not demanded. I was also taught, via sermons, and books, and stories, that even God expected my all. Now I know this is simply not true. Even Jesus did not even begin his thirty-six month mission on earth until he was thirty years old. With the kind of thinking that was ingrained in me, I found myself wondering “Jesus wasted a lot of time. What if he had begun earlier in life; hung up his tool belt by age 18 and started out then…look at how much MORE he could have done.”
Winston Churchill, the undeniable leader of the Free World has much to teach emerging leaders here on the “know before you go” principle.
In Paul Johnson’s biography of this legendary British hero, Churchill, we read these words:
In 1946, I had the good fortune to ask him a question:
“Mr. Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?”
Without pause or hesitation, he replied:
“Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”
Johnson then goes on to explain the idea of conserving your energy on an every day basis:
“Churchill was capable of tremendous physical and intellectual efforts, of high intensity over long periods, often with little sleep. But he had corresponding powers of relaxation, filled with a variety of pleasurable occupations, and he also had the gift of taking short naps when time permitted. Again, when possible, he spent his mornings in bed, telephoning, dictating, and receiving visitors.”
Second, embrace the idea of living life in rhythm, not in balance.
[T]he idea of balance is a lie. It simply cannot be maintained. Despite all the seminars, books, and TED talks, balance is bunk. Rhythm is doable and allows you to develop your own understanding living life in limits. I have a friend who is a Registered Nurse in a Cancer Ward at a leading hospital. She works three days “on” and four “off.” Her three days on are twelve-hour shifts that sometimes extend to 13 hours—even 14 some days when there is so much documentation needed. Her first day “off” is useless to her. She is so tired, so exhausted, so “spent” that she told me, “On my first day off, I’m no good to anyone. I just sleep, “veg” and eat. By the second day off, I’m sensing who I am again, and go out for lunch or dinner with a good friend.” It’s a necessary limit and rhythm that she has come to understand about her own life and need for recovery.
Third, steward your output by mentally and emotionally disengaging after you work. I coach leaders to leave their work at work and do not do work in your home if at all possible. If you work at home, define a definite workspace. Hint—this should NOT be your bedroom. In defining work areas, you actually create mental and emotional space.
My wife and I do not speak, mention, or chat about the name of our work, people we work with, or issues relating to space on our days off or in our home after work hours. To talk about our team is to talk about work. We’ve set high boundaries here and limit our conversations to issues pertaining to us, our kids, grandkids, close friends, and vacation plans. We literally try to set our mind to ease by saying, “This is not a Sabbath conversation. Let’s talk about this tomorrow.”
After every great output of energy, plan and schedule a time for input. Give yourself what brings you life. Give yourself permission to live and not just work. After you spend enormous time and energy involving yourself in a project or travel obligation, know that you need some recovery time. You cannot simply give and give and give. This is a deadly mistake that will lead to burnout and depression. You have to replenish.
I travel internationally and after doing this for several years, I’ve learned that just the trip alone and the changing of time zones and the stress of waiting and delays and security issues requires that I need to set aside calendar time to re-coup. Last year, I traveled to India. I flew all night and half of the next day to get there. I arrived and was whisked away in a taxi to give a talk. It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I was completely zoned out. Now I know better. I “know before I go” and build in a day or two to get adjusted, to rest, and to have time to collect my thoughts.
After a time of intense work, how about taking a couple of days for yourself—to go see a “sight” or to have some life giving experience? Could your spouse join you for an extended time “off” knowing that you’ve been “on” so much lately? By thinking like this, you will insulate yourself from the crisis of cramming too much in and doing too much. Build in your time off before you go. Work this out with your boss and team and call it “Compensatory Time” or something that will give you permission to take good care of yourself. This is vital and key to learning to live within your limits.
Fourth, face the truth that you cannot do everything and do everything well. We cannot burn the candle at both ends. Jesus wisely asked three penetrating questions to his followers—not to people who were considering following him—but to those who had already signed up. His questions were:
Are you tired?
Are you worn out?
Are you burned out on religion?
These three questions give us permission to know our limits and grow in our own self-awareness of how we are really doing and to care for our souls. So many people are living in one of these three unhealthy spheres that Jesus describes: physical exhaustion, mental anguish involving guilt and shame for not doing more, and then the big one which leaves us totally worn out—being burned out—that state where we live like we’re fried without the hope of recovery.
 John 8:32
 Is 40:30
 This is a reference to Joel 2:25 which offers God’s perspective about regaining the lost years of our lives due to certain “locusts” demolishing our lives, families, health, relationships and more.
 Seen in Matthew 11:28, the Message.
In our modern world, we often treat the spiritual life like a business deal or a construction project. This approach might work in the early stages of life in Christ. However, as we move into the deeper places of our life with God, a more tender, nuanced, reflective approach is needed.
In the Old Testament, The Song of Songs speaks of the deep intimacy that we are able to experience in Christ. In the Song, we find a refrain which is repeated three times: “do not awaken love until it pleases.” Our love relationship with Jesus is compared to the does and gazelles of the field, meaning that the deep things of our soul are timid and shy like a wild animal. We can rush in too quickly and cause the soul to retreat to seemingly safer places instead of waiting and listening patiently.
Christian Spiritual Direction is the practice whereby one person helps another to pay attention to God—to God’s presence, voice, and sanctifying work in his or her life. It is the shared noticing of Jesus, revealed in Scripture and the daily events of a walk and a meal, attended to in feelings of disappointment and hope, of joy and burning hearts.
Spiritual Direction conversations include the “stuff” of ordinary life—vocation, relationships, circumstances, health, the life of worship and prayer and service, joys and sorrows, boredoms and adventures—and seek to notice God’s presence, work, and invitations in the midst of those.