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Issue 05

On Being Finite

David McIlroy

David McIlroy is Chair of Trustees at the KLC. He is a practising barrister and author of Ransomed, Redeemed, and Forgiven: Money and the Atonement. First appearing at Theology of Law.

When I was younger, I wanted to be the lead singer in a band, I wanted to play sport for England, I wanted to act in plays, I wanted to get top marks in my studies, and I wanted to date and eventually marry a beautiful woman. One of the shocks of growing up was discovering that I couldn’t fulfil all those dreams – that lack of time and limitations on my talents meant only two of them came true.

What I needed to learn was that there is more than one big “F” in the Christian life. The big “F” I knew about was Fallenness. I knew that I was full of sin, I knew that my best efforts were tainted by mixed motives, and I knew that I needed to depend on the grace of God in order to do any good. 

But it has taken me a long time to understand the big “F” of Finitude. To accept and embrace the truth that to be a creature is to be finite, and that’s a good thing. Being finite means that I do not have enough time to invest in all the things I am interested in, I do not have enough energy to give to all the people I want to support, I do not have enough capacity to meet all the needs that I see.

Waldemar Flaig, Cemetery with Chapel

What is more, the fact that I am finite is a good thing. The Genesis narrative repeatedly affirms that the things-in-relationship that the triune, relational God made, were good. There is a goodness to the difference between land and water, which we enjoy when we listen to a stream, swim in a river or dive into an ocean. There is a goodness to what I experience when I stroke my dog, ride a horse, or watch the birds flying in my garden. Being finite and embodied gives us unique, particular experiences as well as creating space for our relationships with one another.

Being finite is a good thing because our limitations are an important reason why we need one another. To be a finite human being is part of what it means for us to be made for community. Because I am finite, because I have only a limited amount of energy and a fixed number of hours in the day, I need others to do not only the things I cannot do as well as them but also to do some things I can do well in order to free me to do other things I can do even better.

Being finite is a good thing because it places limits on the ability of any one human being to do evil. Our embodiment is part of the reason why human beings are neither wholly good like the angels nor wholly bad like the demons. Our embodiment both gives us appetites which can be overindulged and also means that we can exhaust our capacity to indulge our appetites.

Wassily Kandinsky, At Rest

Being finite is a good thing because it is a reminder that I am not a saviour. God has already saved the world through Jesus. God does not need to do so all over again. Because I am finite, I cannot do everything, I cannot control everything, I cannot fix everything. I am not called to do so.

Being finite is therefore a divinely ordained aspect of our createdness. It is infralapsarian, that is to say, it is part of the original design of creation before the fall. Human beings were always meant to inhabit individual bodies, to form communities, to occupy particular places, and to relate to one another, to creatures, and to particular spaces in unique and individual ways.

Where our finitude and our fallenness intersect is this: if we forget that we are finite, we fail to recognise that we are Fragile. The brilliant Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne who graduated from Edinburgh University in 1827 aged just 14, and who was leading a mega-church of over 1,000 people by age 23, worked himself to death by age 29. As he was dying, he said: “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.”

One of the things I find hardest to accept is that I cannot always be at my best. If I am tired, I get grumpy. If I am exhausted, I make more mistakes. If I work too hard, I sleep badly. If I take on too much I run out of time and let people down. If I try to control everything, I will end up either stressed out or manipulating others. If I neglect my need for rest, my health will collapse. 

Franz Marc, Cats on a Red Cloth
William–Adolphe Bouguereau, Rest at Harvest

Denying that we are fragile is an aspect of Fallenness. It is a refusal to accept that only God needs to have a God’s eye view. It is a rejection of the good gift of sabbath, of our need to rest and to enjoy, rather than to solve and to control.

Those of us who are activists by nature are particularly prone to denying that we need to rest in order to serve well. Apart from very specific and extreme contexts, we are not called to sacrifice our health in the service of the mission of God. We are not called to do so because we are not the saviour; only Jesus is. The saviour complex carries a high price tag in the medium term. Those who are manipulated and controlled are denied their freedom in Christ. Others are exploited to meet the saviour’s needs. And the pressure on the saviours themselves becomes unsustainable. Either their health breaks or they engage in some reckless or deliberate act that torpedoes their ministry (and sometimes both).

Even if we don’t suffer from the saviour complex, or have managed to overcome it before it is too late, if we forget that we are finite, we will fail to be Fulfilled. Fulfilment comes not from trying to solve all the world’s problems, but knowing what we have been called to do and what we have been equipped to do. Fulfilment comes from focusing our finite energies on the limited good which we as fragile, fallen creatures can do through the empowering of the Holy Spirit who equips us to follow Christ to the glory of God the Father.