Limitations and the Good Life

I like having options.

I got really excited about my electives in college and seminary, I shop on Amazon because they have about a thousand versions of everything, and I keep too many t-shirts because, well, maybe twenty-five choices won’t always be enough.

I also hate having options.

I still suffer regret wondering whether I missed out on the best electives, I spent way too much time worrying about which mouse to buy on Amazon, and I sometimes have a hard time closing my t-shirt drawer even though I basically rotate through the same five shirts every week.

The fact is that having options can enrich your life, but infinite options can drown you. And this isn’t just true of t-shirts.

G.K. Chesterton's Philosophy of Limitation

G.K. Chesterton, a 19th century Christian writer and apologist, believed that limitation is a fundamental part of being human and that humanity can only thrive in the presence of well-placed restrictions. In other words, we function best when our options are limited for us. What did Chesterton mean by limitation? Stated most simply: man is not God. Limitation is part of human nature because, while “God is that which can make something out of nothing…man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything.”[1] The distinct pleasure of God is to create a finite thing from infinite resources and limitless possibilities. The distinct pleasure of being human is to create and enjoy within God-given limits.

Limits are not boundaries on how much humans are allowed to enjoy and create, but rather limits are boundaries which make joy and creativity possible. To illustrate, Chesterton argues that the joy of property necessitates limitation:

A man with true poetry of possession wishes to see the wall where his garden meets Smith’s garden; the hedge where his farm touches Brown’s. He cannot see the shape of his own land unless he sees the edges of his neighbor’s. It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.[2]

Today, there is a certain fascination with the idea of limitless possibilities. The academic and cultural elites tell us that we will be happy if only we will throw off the bonds of morality and shackles of tradition and head off into a paradise brought about by technology. But a person can only enjoy their property or their spouse if they are aware of what does not belong to them. Having a property line around your yard is what gives you special joy in maintaining your lawn. No one has been spotted pulling weeds at a gas station out of joy. It is the pride of ownership that produces joy, and ownership requires limits. As humans, we must live and work within limitations in order to experience the best things in life.

Limitation Makes Good Technology

Simple design, inside and out, has been a core principle for Apple from the computer company’s inception. The first Apple brochure proudly proclaimed, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” James Day explains that simplicity is “not merely the shallow simplicity that comes from an uncluttered look and feel and surface of a product, but the deep simplicity that comes from knowing the essence of every product, the complexities of its engineering and the function of every component.”[3] While complexity gives the appearance of being difficult to produce, it is actually the natural state of things. True simplicity, as understood by Apple, is exceedingly difficult to attain.

However, Apple’s design simplicity necessarily results in limitation for the user. Apple ruthlessly removes complexity by making as many choices as possible before users get their hands on the product.[4] Apple enthusiasts regularly bemoan how the company is loathe to include customization options common on other smartphone platforms. There is even a small community of iPhone users called “jail-breakers” who find ways to break into the software of the phone to allow more customization. Apple’s lineup of products is also much smaller than most tech companies, even after it has somewhat expanded recently. Like it or not, Apple has achieved unrivaled simplicity by limiting the user’s options.

While Apple’s pursuit of simplicity is well-documented, the important question is why the strategy works at all. How has the most successful tech company in the world built a famously loyal following by limiting options and taking freedom of choice away from their devoted customers? Does Apple thrive in spite of limiting user options or because of it? While the answers to these questions are certainly multi-faceted, it is apparent that humans and their technologies thrive in the presence of limitations.

To understand this concept we must first understand that the iPhone is a tool, and that tools are extensions of ourselves. A shovel, for instance, serves to extend your hand's ability to dig. Furthermore, a shovel is only useful because we know what it is good for: digging holes. The less clear a tool’s purpose, the less useful it becomes.

In comparison, a smartphone is an exceedingly complex tool capable of extending our ears to hear phone calls, our eyes to preserve images as pictures, and our memories as we write things down in to-do lists. Users could easily become overwhelmed and not undrstand how to use the iPhone at all. Apple’s ruthless design simplicity is all about limiting the user’s control over uneccesary options so they can focus on using the tool to its greatest effect.

Limitation Makes for a Good Life

Technology is not the only arena in which limits encourage human flourishing. God has also put limitations on the exercise of free will in the form of moral law. The Ten Commandments God delivered to Moses at Mount Sinai were not designed to curb the joy of the Israelites, but to provide the boundaries necessary to fulfill their purpose as humans created in God’s image. Each commandment is a life-giving boundary. There is a commandment that protects the joy of human life by forbidding murder. Another commandment protects the joy of property by forbidding theft. Other commandments protect the joy of marriage by forbidding adultery, the joy of communication by forbidding lies, and the joy of contentment by forbidding covetousness. Most important of all, the first commandment protects the joy of worship by forbidding the worship of false gods.

G.K. Chesterton and Apple both understand the necessity and, even more, the goodness of limitations. Limitations are foundational to being finite humans created in God’s image. Humans flourish when limits are respected, in technology design and morality alike. Some will always argue that freedom comes when all limits are cast off. Christianity proclaims that limits are necessary for freedom, joy, and flourishing.

Maybe I should get rid of some t-shirts.

Notes

[1]: G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, 23.

[2]: G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, 24.

[3]: James Day, “How Steve Jobs’ Love of Simplicity Fueled a Design Revolution”.

[4]: Macworld.com, “The Secret of Apple’s Design Success: the Humane Interface.”

Virtual Reality: Should Christians Adopt or Avoid It?

This excerpt is from a guest post at IntersectProject.org

Myke Hurley and CGP Grey discuss their first virtual reality (VR) experience in hushed tones. They joke of sounding like drug users talking about their first high. “I feel my life is fundamentally different now,” says Grey, “I see the world differently.” The hosts of Cortex, a popular podcast on work and technology, are convinced that VR will quite literally change the world.

Early reviews of VR have drawn a range of responses from anticipation to alarm, with some even suggesting that VR will change the way we experience church. In an interview with Hypergrid Business, Presbyterian pastor Christopher Benek explained that with VR “we may soon be able to easily develop virtual worship and Christian education experiences. This would be a great asset to the church universal, as it will enable the infirm, homebound, and potentially even the poor to participate from afar regardless of their...

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Self-Driving Cars Are Coming to a Road Near You. How Should Christians Respond?

This excerpt is from a guest post at IntersectProject.org

Like it or not, self-driving cars are coming.

Google, Apple and Tesla are racing to produce autonomous vehicles for public transportation. Google and Tesla are testing self-driving cars on public roads, and Tesla has already begun to roll out self-driving features in their high-end electric cars. For example, the Tesla Model S can stay in its lane, adjust its speed in traffic, park itself and be summoned by its driver. In the next several years we should see the first fully autonomous car that needs no human participation in the driving process. By the time my future children are grown up, learning to drive a car may be optional.

We all tend to have a default reaction to technological advancements. You may default to excited anticipation. If so, you probably...

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What's Best Next - A Brief Review

In his new book, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done, Matt Perman presents a gospel-centered view of productivity and writes to show Christians how to maximize their productivity.

Effectiveness, Not Efficiency

So what did I learn from What’s Best Next? Productivity is not about getting as much stuff done as possible, but getting the right things done. Perman highlights this by contrasting effectiveness with efficiency. Efficiency is about getting things done more quickly and with less friction. But if you are doing the wrong things to begin with, efficiency only makes things worse. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols were incredibly efficient at slaughtering millions of men, women, and children. However, their efficiency is grotesque and appalling because they were most certainly doing the wrong things! Effectiveness is about getting the right things done. As Christians we believe that God sets the agenda for what we should do with our lives. Therefore, getting the right things done should be important to us. The Bible describes this as doing the good works God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10).

Gospel-Driven Productivity

The amazing thing about gospel-driven productivity is thatMatt Perman says "Gospel-driven Christians are Christians who are enthusiastic in doing good not to gain acceptance with God but because they already have acceptance with God" (112). In other words, we are free to be truly productive because our acceptance by God is not affected if we fail. That is where true peace comes from. "Just as we do good works from justification rather than for justification, we are also to do good works from peace rather than for peace" (120). The gospel makes Christians able to be more productive than any other people on the planet.

I encourage you to consider reading What’s Best Next. It is a great opportunity to look at your life in light of the gospel and actually weave what you learn into the fabric of your life. One of Perman’s most profound points comes when he explains why so many people lack a sense of fulfillment in their lives. He says, "The deeper reason is that we feel unfulfilled when there is a gap between what is most important to us...and what we are actually doing with our time" (52). If you feel that way often, coming to understand Gospel-Driven Productivity can set you on course to close that gap and not only find personal fulfillment, but be a more faithful steward of the life God has given you.

Practical Tips

What’s Best Next gives readers more than grand notions of productivity and good works, the second half of the book provides detailed principles and advice for how to close the gap between what is important and how you spend your time. The author explains how to set good goals, schedule your day, organize projects, keep to-do lists, and even process you email inbox down to zero, but he always keeps the big picture in mind. All of these systems and tools are there, not to enable us to get as much done as possible, but to get the right things done. As Christians we must strive to do what is important, not merely what is urgent. And that insight alone is enough reason to read the book.

Take Control of Your Mornings

"I am not a morning person.”

If you have made this statement as many times as I have, I would encourage you to keep reading. You will discover that getting the most out of your mornings is not at the mercy of your genetic predisposition, but rather a skill that can be learned. 

I am typically very groggy in the morning while more awake and alert at night. Throughout college and the majority of seminary, I did of my projects and assignments late in the day. But in the last year of seminary my life underwent some dramatic changes. I married a wonderful woman with whom I want to spend every waking moment. I got my first full-time job, which entails about two hours of commuting daily. Combined with classes, staying active in church, and a (somewhat) social life, suddenly I was thinking more seriously about how I use my time.

I realized that if I am going to be proactive and more productive with my time, I am going to have to take control of my mornings. No longer can I roll out of bed with just enough time to get ready and leave for work. If I do that, it will be about 7:00pm before I can stop to think about what I want to do with my day, and by that time the day is practically over. Every day I was letting my circumstances dictate what kind of day I was going to have. I was frustrated by a lack of spiritual growth and felt like I was not making any progress toward my goals. Something needed to change. I would like to share my morning journey to help you take control of you own mornings and take steps toward leading a proactive lifestyle instead of merely reacting to what the day throws at you.

Finding Motivation

Having a morning routine allows me to focus on what is important before the day gets away from me. By waking up earlier, I can set the tone for the entire day. However, for a morning routine to positively impact your life, you need to establish a motivation. I am motivated by the desire for Christ and the gospel to penetrate my thoughts, marriage, work, and church life. A secondary motivation is to get more organized so I can do things that are important in the long run but are not necessarily urgent. You need to clearly articulate your own motives before constructing a morning routine.

Getting Started

Once you have motivation for your morning routine, you need a game plan. It is highly unlikely that at the start of this process you will suddenly begin waking up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the crack of dawn based upon willpower alone. To establish your morning routine, you will have to think hard about what you want to accomplish. If you are a Christian, the first thing that should come to mind is the importance of starting the day spending time with God. There are a few other things you may want to incorporate into your routine: eating a healthy breakfast, exercising, reviewing your calendar and to-do list, and setting goals for the day. I recommend brainstorming a list of practices you think would be useful.

After you have a list of things you would like to do in the morning, select the top two to four things you deem most essential. Most people will have a difficult time jumping right into a complicated routine, so keep it simple. For example, I decided to start reading Scripture, praying, and journaling every morning.

Next, pick a manageable amount of time to spend on your morning routine. It is tempting to get overly-ambitious here and aim to start with an hour or two, which is unreasonable. I started with 15 minutes a day, choosing to read for five minutes, pray for five minutes, and journal for five minutes. More specifically, I chose to read one page of the Bible, pray through a list of four items, and set a goal or two for the day in my journal.

If you’re not a morning person, the following fact may be sobering: You will need to set your alarm clock early enough to allow time for your morning routine and time to get ready for the day. In other words, make sure your mornings have time carved out specifically for these new practices. When choosing your time, don't pick an arbitrary one that sounds really early and impressive. Just do the simple math and figure out what time you need to get up to fit everything in.

Adjusting Your Routine

Before long you will probably think of ways to change your routine. I got really excited and wanted to make it longer and started adding in Scripture meditation and extended my prayer time. As counterintuitive as it sounds, you need to resist the urge to rapidly expand your morning routine. Stick with your initial plan for at least three weeks. Once the routine is ingrained into your lifestyle you will be able to add extra time and new activities without overwhelming yourself and causing sudden burnout. After three weeks you can start slowly expanding and adjusting your morning routine. Personally, I increased my time to about 25-30 minutes within 6 weeks.

Starting a realistic, well-structured morning routine based on godly motivation can make a real difference in your life. In less than two months I have already seen how my time with God in the morning has impacted me. The events of the day carry more significance after I have put life in an eternal perspective in the morning causing me to think about God’s kingdom a little more often. If you are like me and dread getting up early, you should consider how taking charge of your morning could change things for the better.


Maybe you should try a morning routine.