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Book Review

Why God-given limits are for our good

An interview with Ashley Hales on "A Spacious Life"

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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. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author