"When you choose anything, you reject everything else." G.K. Chesterton

The Freedom of Limitations

On my left hand, I wear the symbol of a choice I made 29 years ago. When I said yes to the union that was forged between my husband and me on that day of satin and lace, I was also saying no to a thousand other things, and this is the nature of choice. By making any choice, I accept the limitations that go with it.

Heroes of the faith like Wycliffe and Bonhoeffer made costly decisions to pursue the will of God even though it clashed (and ultimately collided) with the power structures of their times. More recently, civil rights activists who willed themselves into identity with a minority were prepared to accept the limitations imposed upon them:  ridicule, social censure, jail time, or even death.

In Chapter 3 of Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton defines human will or volition as the act of “choosing one course as better than another.” (62) He meanders into the matter of choice in the context of his ongoing disagreements with H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw and their kin, but the alarm and scorn he directs toward their exaltation of the human will seems wildly relevant a hundred years later.

Isak Dinesen described a man (in Out of Africa) who would not “strive toward a happiness or comfort which may be irrelevant to God’s idea of him.” When an individual’s will becomes an end in itself, it becomes an idol. Chesterton referred to this as the “worship of will,” and, apparently his adversaries had overlooked the limitations that come with freedom, for “when you choose anything, you reject everything else.” (63)

Early 20th-century will-worshipers may have purposefully sidestepped the notion that it was God who conceived of freedom of the will for humanity in the first place. When He granted “the dignity of causality” (Pascal’s phrase, not Chesterton’s), this was in keeping with our creation in His glorious likeness. Then, the entire narrative arc of Scripture follows as a record of God’s working His divine will through the exercise of the free will of a rag-tag assortment of men and women who, at times, gave every indication that they had not an inkling of “God’s idea of them.”

If “every act of the will is an act of self-limitation,” (63) this rings true even for the Almighty. God’s sovereign choice to confer upon us the gift of free will set limits around His own freedom:

  • He chose not to coerce;
  • He stoops to ask for our cooperation;
  • He waits for us to participate in the fulfillment of His plans.

Even in the flesh, Jesus worked miracles through acts of human collaboration at His request:  fill up a water pot, extend a hand, distribute a torn up loaf of bread. He despaired over the faithlessness of whole communities and let their unbelief turn the holy spigot of blessing to the off position.

When I’m tempted to lament my own unwise choices or to fear the gift of free will in the hands of the inexperienced young men I love, let me first remember that the claustrophobia of limitation is only a corollary to the glorious freedom that is ours in the first place: We are free to make mistakes and to learn from them, to sin and be forgiven and then to start over.

Second, may I live toward a boldness that, in Chesterton’s words, is able to “choose a path and go down it like a thunderbolt.” (69) This was the way of Christ when He aligned His power of choosing with the Father so that, in maturity of faith, He was able to choose the cross, and in despising the shame, to accept the limitations of that choice without regret.

Thank you all for reading along,

P.S. Linda, my friend and fellow reader in this year of Orthodoxy, has written a great post on Chesterton’s response to this question: “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?”  Chesterton’s thoughts on self-confidence may be even more relevant today than ever. Click here to enjoy Linda’s summary and her own visceral response to his words.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

56 thoughts on “The Freedom of Limitations”

  1. This is a thought-provoking post. I think freedom and limitation are more strongly tied together than we often think. We hear a lot about the freedom to choose but often don’t think that as we say yes to one thing we are saying no to several others. It is important to consider that and to accept the limitations that come with our choices.


    1. And I think we need to be faithfully communicating this to our kids in very practical ways. For instance, if they spend $150 on a pair of shoes: “Hey, it’s your money! But then you won’t have that amount of money to put towards the car you are saving for. Think about it.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m sitting here loving that truth about accepting the limitations that go with our choices – marriage, what I’m eating, and on and on and on.


  3. There’s that great quote, everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial so you need to pick and choose. Although I might be mis-remembering! Great read as always. Have a lovely week 🙂


  4. Such truth, Michele:

    “He chose not to coerce;
    He stoops to ask for our cooperation;
    He waits for us to participate in the fulfillment of His plans.”

    I think love and humility is actually more often the choice to pull back when God asks us to. Even at the risk of being falsely accused – just as Jesus was. This “fixer” in the hand of Grace and daily transformation is learning that. Slowly. As I heed His Word even with my flesh screaming: “No!!! But…but…but” I wonder if He’s preparing me for the teenage years with my girls 😅.


    1. Wow, Anna, is that ever the truth. I think we’re afraid that if we say no to anything, we might disappear.
      And we need all the preparation for those teen years that we can get. I’ve never done it with girls, but I’ve heard a few things . . .


  5. Deep thoughts and powerful truth here, my friend. We are often too myopic to recognize the gravity of choices we make and the corresponding limitations they bring until we are much farther along life’s path than it would be good to be. Well said! Well said!!


  6. I love this: “boldness that, in Chesterton’s words, is able to “choose a path and go down it like a thunderbolt.” Oh, for boldness and conviction like that! We’ve been in the midst of making some choices lately, so this is making me think. 🙂


    1. It’s great that Chesterton’s thoughts are putting iron in your soul, Betsy. We all need a boost in the courage department from time to time, especially in this business of making choices, so often between two (or more) very good things.


  7. My husband and I have talked about that concept, but what a succinct way to put it: “when you choose anything, you reject everything else.”

    It’s such a mystery how God’s sovereignty and man’s choice work together, and I’ve known too many people to get sidetracked one way or the other rather than accepting them both.

    I agree, free will in the hands of teenagers and young adults is a scary thing. But as you said, as they exercise it, they learn and grow just like we did and are still doing.

    Thanks for your thought and for sharing Chesterton’s! Always good reading.


    1. So happy to hear you use the word “succinct” as I round the corner into chapter 4 of Orthodoxy! But you’re right. Nestled into the long paragraphs of arguments, there are all these bright diamonds of wisdom. This batch has been from chapter 3.
      There seems to be something for everyone in this book, but since I’m up to my fetlocks right now in the parenting journey (as well as thinking and studying about it for an upcoming class) it seems to find it’s way into everything lately.


  8. This was a thick, thick chapter, Michele. I have a “YAY” in the side margin on p.56 where Chesterton says: “Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business of this book–the rough review of recent thought.” (!Yay!)
    I find I’m not well enough versed in philosophy to track well with Chesterton’s arguments with Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Shaw et.al.
    A quote I did grasp was: “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth.” The paradox of man’s free will and God’s absolute Sovereignty is one that will not be surmounted without humility and a sanctified will that is glad to bow to God’s will. This ability too is a gift of God’s grace!

    That quote about choosing a path and going down it like a thunderbolt, reminds me of Isaiah’s prophesy of the Messiah: But the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. – Isa 50:7 ESV. A strong will (even in a child) will only prove a blessing when it is aligned with God’s will. “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

    Pardon my scattered thoughts. Thank-you for mining gold from this difficult chapter!


  9. This is a convicting post today! “ When an individual’s will becomes an end in itself, it becomes an idol.” Whew that is truth. And then you share your own challenge of how we back ourselves into a corner with our limitations and lose sight of the true freedom we have in Jesus. You have given me so much to think about. It is so relevant to some things that are going on in my life right now too.


  10. Michele,
    It seems paradoxical to me that God gives us free will, but when we choose to “color inside the lines” of His boundaries, that’s when we truly find life in the sweet spot. Unfortunately, it may take several or many times of coloring outside the lines for us to realize this. Thank goodness for forgiveness!
    Bev xx


  11. I never quite thought quite like that; making one choice means letting go of many others in its favour! This is a very thought provoking piece Michele; one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading!


    1. I’m so glad to hear that! It’s a good concept to consider in big picture choices, and I also find it to be helpful in having conversations with my kids about finances and time management. We all need help with choosing!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Funny that you should bring up Out of Africa’s author–I don’t remember the movie being particularly religious. Now I’ll need to watch it again (or maybe read the book–books are always better than movies!).


    1. I want to see if I can find it in audio book form. Right now I’m listening to Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. So great to get some “reading” time in when I’m running the teenager from point A to point B.


  13. You’ve got me thinking (again), Michele. You had me at “I was also saying no to a thousand other things, and this is the nature of choice.” It’s so true. I just never thought about choices in quite this way before. When we say yes to one thing, we’re saying no to other things.

    There are so many life applications. And yes, I pray hard for my boy-men as they make choices, exercising their free will. Just like our Heavenly Father, I need to allow them the freedom of choice-making, because this is how they learn.

    Great post!


    1. It’s a white knuckle journey, for sure.
      We can be very thankful that our children have good spiritual underpinnings and rest assured that the mistakes they make are just exactly what they need in order to become the men God wants them to be.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Michele, there is so much wisdom in this post. I love the quote ” “choose a path and go down it like a thunderbolt.” We count the cost and then proceed without looking back.


    1. I covet this kind of clear-eyed determination. So often I wait for sky-writing to come. Maybe it’s a life long process, this business of becoming confident in following the will of God.


  15. This is a wonderful post, Michele. I love this quote “We are free to make mistakes and to learn from them, to sin and be forgiven and then to start over.” Othodoxy sounds like a very interesting book too!


  16. I’m grateful to be learning from Chesterton through you and your applications and reflections, Michele. Thank you for this wisdom and nutritious food for thought!


  17. Michele, this reminds me of a conversation my husband had with a pre-marital couple. He told them that by entering into the covenant of marriage, they were giving up all other options. The man’s response shocked him and his fiancee. He said, “That’s a morbid way to look at it!” My husband looked at the young woman and said, “I guess you two have some things to talk about!” I think most of us would agree that especially at that point in a relationship, that should be a joyous rather than a morbid choice. But once we have made it, the choice must guide all our other choices in that area. But as you’ve pointed out that’s true in many areas of life.


  18. Oh, Michele, may I, too, live with such boldness that I am able to “choose a path and go down it like a thunderbolt.” I really need to get back to reading Orthodoxy. I’ve read a good many of Chesterton’s fiction books and they are full of truth, too. Blessings to you! Thanks for sharing with us at the #LMMLinkup!


  19. “When an individual’s will becomes an end in itself, it becomes an idol.” If we aren’t careful, we can find ourselves worshiping our “self-will” without even realizing it. Thank you bringing this to light Michele! Have a blessed one!


  20. WOW! There is a LOT of meat here, Michele! I just love how you always stretch my thinking and exercise my mind! Blessings!


  21. Yes, this is a profound and paradoxical mystery, Michele. But we serve a profound and paradoxical God that our human minds cannot contain or completely understand. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, my friend! Always inspiring to visit your place!


  22. Wow! I’m going to be pondering this idea of the limitations that come with freedom for some time, I have no doubt! Thanks for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com!


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