Book Review

Why God-given limits are for our good

An interview with Ashley Hales on "A Spacious Life"

October 4, 2021

For many of us, we imagine that “the good life” is a life lived without limits. We view freedom as a license to do what we please, where we please, when we please, and how we please. Nowadays, we often have the opportunity to exercise such so-called freedom. But is this really freedom? And is it what “the good life” actually looks like?

In A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits, Ashley Hales argues that “the good life” comes not when we attempt to shuck the limits that we find so cumbersome, but when we embrace what she calls “the confines of God’s loving limits.” Paradoxically, it’s when we surrender to these limits that a life of flourishing opens up for us.

Hales answers a few questions below about how we can pursue the “spacious life” she calls her readers to. 

When you use the phrase “a spacious life,” what do you mean by that?

A spacious life connotes a life of purpose, rest, and stability that isn’t dictated by our circumstances. It’s another way of talking about the green pastures of Psalm 23, or where the “boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” (Ps. 16:6), and the place where Paul speaks about learning the secret of contentment in want or plenty (Phil. 4:12). A spacious place is a space of rescue, the space of God’s presence, and a place of stable care.

What are some of our misconceptions about what it means to live a spacious life? In what ways do we typically get this wrong?

Most of the time, we tend to equate a sense of spaciousness as expansive: we have more options open to us, more financial freedom, more career security, more free or leisure time. We’ve equated the “good life” with an upwardly mobile, Western one. But “more” doesn’t usually lead to meaningful. We’re all looking for meaning, for a sense of security and peace, even when circumstances don’t go our way. If anything, 2020 has shown us (in often hard and painful ways) that we’re limited, and the story of unlimited autonomy isn’t getting us to meaning, it’s leaving us exhausted. As Wendell Berry says, we must leave behind the sense that we are “godlike animals.” He also says, “We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity of limits.”

You talk a lot in the book about limits, which, at first glance, seem contradictory to this idea of living a spacious life. How do limits contribute to our flourishing?

Before sin entered the world, the world was created good. Part of that goodness included boundary lines. For example, there were cycles of harvesting and seasons where the ground lay fallow and orbits to planets. God-given limits are good. Without God’s loving setting of limits, the world would be formless and void. People too, were created with limits of body, time, place, relationship, and vocation. The problem is that after the fall of our first parents, we’ve tried to go past (transgress) God-given limits in favor of doing it our own way. As we lean into our God-given limits, we’ll be living in a more redemptive space, acquiescing to God’s will rather than our own.

Why are we so committed to transgressing our God-given limits?

It’s the human way since the Fall! We still believe the lie that God-given limits aren’t really good, or God’s not really good, or that he’s somehow withholding something from us. We’ve also likely imbibed American origin stories more than the story of God: instead of seeing God’s good limits as the path to flourishing, we transgress (literally “move past or beyond”) those limits in favor of building our own modern Towers of Babel to try to earn a place in this world by our own effort.

You say, “A more spacious life is not to be gained by becoming bigger or by spreading out more thinly; it’s by following the way of Jesus.” Can you talk more about this?

We think we’ll get this spacious life we crave by doing more — like adding to our calendars lots of activities that we think will make ourselves, our families, our colleagues, and perhaps God happy. A sense of spaciousness grows in our souls not through hustle or hurry or ratcheting up our importance through accolades and acknowledgment. The life of Jesus was small; he was poor, he lived outside of the places where important things happened. He spent time in prayer and study, he spent time in quiet; he also paid attention to the needs around him, healing, teaching, feeding, and preaching. When he was tempted in the wilderness he chose to wait on the care of God the Father, not hurry ahead to provide for himself or draw glory to himself. If we want a sort of spaciousness to grow inside our souls, we too, will need to heed these limits. We are invited to wait, to rest, to pay attention, to be gathered into the people of God, to participate in the work God is already doing. These limits form the contours and guardrails of faithfulness.

You devote a chapter of your book to social media. When it comes to living a spacious life, what sorts of challenges does social media present?

Social media encourages us to imagine ourselves everywhere at once. We’re disconnected from the bodies on the other side of another person’s screen. We’re able to all weigh in on the issue of the day. And when we find ourselves scrolling, we’re often looking to soothe the uncomfortable feelings of living with the limits of our bodies, our time, our actual places and neighborhoods, our attention, and calling. Life seems simpler in little squares. While social media can provide connection, we need to create guardrails in our schedules so that we do not become simply reactive to a tool that is designed to form and shape us into its own image. Things like rest, reading Scripture, joining around dining tables, welcoming others who are different from you, and walking are small starting places to prioritize in-the-flesh community. We grow through the constraints of local community. If social media has its proper place and is an outflow of embodied community, then it can be a helpful tool.

In another chapter, you focus your attention on the practice of waiting. Though we often view waiting as time wasted, you argue otherwise. How does viewing waiting as “good news,” as you say, help cultivate the spacious life you call your readers to?

Waiting time isn’t wasted time. We often fill up waiting time because waiting makes us feel uncomfortable. When we wait, we reckon with our lack of control. In the story of God, we ultimately have one who is both good and in control. That means if we’re being invited to wait, though it’s hard, it is an opportunity to place ourselves into the hands of our loving Parent. We can rest secure knowing that whatever outcome is on the other side, it is for our good and his glory.

In our culture especially, the practice of waiting and, likewise, rest, is hard. How do we get better at it?

Prioritizing sleep is a great way to start. Put your phone out of your bedroom. Turn off screens a few hours before bed. Do something that relaxes you, like taking a bath or having a cup of tea before bed. Rest, too, can also look active. I’ve asked people to make themselves a “delight list,” a list of all that brings you delight, noticing how God has uniquely wired you. Perhaps picking one of those on your list to add to your practice of Sabbath would be a great way to start. 

Throughout the book, in addition to what we’ve discussed already, you highlight other ways that people can cultivate the sort of life you’re commending, from embracing Christian community to “practicing the art of dying” and others. It’s a whole different way of being, isn’t it? It makes me think about the idea that the church is meant to be a “contrast community.” In addition to our own flourishing, what implications might living a spacious life have on the surrounding community and culture?

This is such an important point. We often think that a spacious life is just an individualized, vertical relationship between us and God. And we think that the idea of leaning into our limits means we get to say “no” to everything that doesn’t seem to feel like flourishing. But if the church is to be a “contrast community,” that means that the limits God is inviting me into aren’t just for me, they are for the good of my neighbor too. We are to be, like Abraham, a blessing to the nations. That means that as I’m welcomed into God’s family, it is not simply about my growth, but all of us together form the bride of Christ.

Freedom isn’t simply freedom from, but freedom for. The freedom Jesus offers is freedom from self-righteousness, freedom from sin, and freedom from shame and guilt. But it’s also for something, for love. Because Jesus limits his autonomy for the salvation of the world, we are invited into receiving his love and spending our lives in love, too.

For readers who will undoubtedly find the idea of living a spacious life compelling, where should they start? What’s the first piece of advice you’d give for the person looking to take up this new way of life?

Reading A Spacious Life and getting the “pocket practices” (prayers, questions and formation practices) at aspacious.life is a great way to start. I’d also encourage someone who’s compelled to begin this way of thinking to write down some limits: of their body, time, season of life, etc. Which is hardest to embrace? Which is easiest? And then consider what they do when they hit a limit. Maybe they ignore their limits, or control them, or fall into blame or shame. (There’s also a hustle habit quiz at aspacious.life and a roadmap with some practical starting places for each hustle habit type). You’ll begin to notice your patterns, and then you are invited to bring your list of limits to God knowing that he sees them, loves you, and desires you to look more like Jesus. 

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24