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The Limitations of Life

Category Articles
Date July 2, 2021

‘Remember my bonds.’
— Colossians 4:18

[‘The following is an extract from Dr W. M. Taylor, of New York, taken from his volume of the same title, The Limitations of Life, fourth edition, 1888.]

What an exquisite pathos there is in these words of Paul! He is now ‘such an one as Paul the aged’, and the tremor of years is in his hand. He is, besides, ‘the prisoner of the Lord Jesus Christ,’ and the chain by which his right arm is bound to the left arm of ‘the soldier that kept him,’ impedes the free motion of his wrist, so that he cannot write with his usual ease. Hence, as he takes the pen from his amanuensis and appends the salutation whereby this letter was to be authorized, he delicately apologizes for the uncouth irregularity of the characters which he has traced by adding this clause, ‘Remember my bonds.’

My design is to draw from the circumstances in which the great apostle was at this time placed a few lessons which may serve to cheer and encourage us amid the hampering limitations within which our work on earth has to be carried on. We all have our bonds. There is not one of us who does not feel himself fettered somehow or somewhere, so that he cannot quite accomplish all that he desires to do. Continually we discover that the realization of our aspirations, or the attainment of our purposes, is marred by some chain, even as the penmanship of Paul was made angular and irregular by his bonds. ‘We could have done so much better,’ so we often say, ‘if some unavoidable and disturbing influence had not prevented us.’

Thus we are each carrying about with us a chain, of which, so long as we are working within its limits, we may be largely unconscious, but which brings us to a stand the moment we have gone to its farthest length. The businessman, if he is to serve God in his daily pursuits, must look after them, and so he is bound to his office by a cord which neither his God nor his conscience will allow him to break. The professional man is hemmed in by his engagements as really as the prisoner is by the walls of his dungeon — with this difference, that in the latter case the restraints are external and physical, in the former they are internal and spiritual. The invalid is held down to her couch as truly by weakness as the galley-slave was held to his seat by his chains; and her devoted nurse is kept continually at the bedside of the sick one by a cord, which is not the less real because it is invisible, or the less powerful because its strands consist of love. The mother is, for the most part, bound to the home, so that, wherever she goes, she feels tugging at her heart the silken string that ties her to the cradle and its tiny inmate. The poor man is hampered by his poverty, and he who is the servant of another has his service of God in some sort conditioned and qualified by the duties which he owes to his earthly master. Thus each of us has his own bonds; and hardly a day elapses without our feeling it needful at its close to come to God, and say to him as an explanation of the poor quality of the work we bring him: ‘Remember my bonds.’

You know all about this, my friends; many times over you felt it during the week that has just passed, and even as I have been speaking, you have been anew made conscious of the weight of your chain, and seem to yourselves to be hearing the clanking of its links. But I have not designed thus to aggravate your humiliation. I want rather to remove it altogether; and it seems to me that we may find a few things suggested by this chapter in the history of Paul which may tend to reconcile us to our bonds, and lead us to say as he did, ‘Most gladly will I glory even in mine infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’

Notice, then, in the first place, that the apostle’s bonds were no disgrace to him. He had not been imprisoned for any ‘matter of wrong or wicked lewdness.’ He was where he was because he would not do what he knew to be wrong. Hence his chain was the trophy of principle, and was really more ornamental to him than the bracelets of our fashionable ladies are to them. If he had not cared so much about preaching the simple unfettered gospel of Christ, he would never have been subjected to this abridgment of his liberty. Thus though he might at first regret what seemed to be the effect produced by his bonds, he never could be sorry for or ashamed of the cause for which they were put upon him. Now that was a great deal. He could not blame his own folly or wickedness for his present condition. It came to him while he was in the way of duty, and the consciousness of that was a support and solace to him all through.

But it is quite similar with those providential limitations to our service of God and of our generation, which I have called our ‘bonds.’ There is no disgrace in poverty or in sickness, provided only we have not brought it upon ourselves by our iniquity. The business man has no need to be ashamed of his attention to his office; nay, rather, the shame and sin would be if through neglect he should allow himself to drift into ruin. The mother cannot think that she is disgraced by the little ones that fill the nursery with their glee. Disgraced! nay, rather, she is highly favoured among women, for it is written, ‘Lo! children are an heritage of the Lord.’ And if there be anywhere on earth the human incarnation of that angel who ministered to our Lord in his Gethsemane anguish, it is to be found in the devoted nurse who tends the fevered sufferer all through his midnight tossings. Let us not feel ashamed, therefore, and condemn ourselves if, because we are unavoidably called to the discharge of such duties, we cannot give ourselves to work in some public and popular department of church activity.

I am sorry that there should be need for such a style of remark. But the tendency of much that is said nowadays is to make one dissatisfied with himself if he be not engaged, in some way, in one or other of the common departments of ecclesiastical work. Now, it is good to have a church which will realize John Wesley’s idea, ‘at work, all at work, and always at work.’ But it is not good to advocate this in such a way as shall wound those who, because of the limiting conditions in their lives, cannot respond to the call as, in other circumstances, they would. I have known a gentle heart well-nigh broken because a minister, more remarkable for zeal than wisdom, almost as good as declared that those who were connected with the church, and who did not engage in a certain kind of work, were unworthy to be called Christians. But if he had only known it, the truth was that the quiet one whom he had almost crushed was every day doing a kind of service for Christ which required far more self-denial than that to which the preacher would have summoned her, and one, too, which she could not have neglected without sin.

But this is not all. The effect of such unqualified expressions upon those who are weak in health is apt to be most disastrous. It leads them to think that they are useless where they are, and tends to develop in them a spirit of impatience. But in reality the service of suffering is as well pleasing to God as is that of working. Usefulness is very good. But usefulness is not the whole of Christianity. Holiness is better, because holiness is useful without making any effort and by the simple fact of its existence. Now holiness comes out in suffering as well as in working. And so, provided we maintain holiness within the limits of our chain, it is no disgrace to us that we cannot go beyond them.

Shortly before I left the old country, I went to see a dearly beloved brother in the ministry who had been laid aside for two years by a severe and painful illness, of which he afterwards died. I had many long and profitable talks with him, and at length he set his daughter to read to me some beautiful hymns, written by one who was known to us both, and who had been kept from becoming a minister by lifelong physical weakness. Of these my friend dwelt most upon one which indicated his own feelings under his trial, and as it may be serviceable to some of you, I will repeat it here:

I am not sent a pilgrim here,
My heart with earth to fill;
But I am here God’s grace to learn,
And serve God’s sovereign will.

He leads me on through smiles and tears,
Grief follows gladness still;
But let me welcome both alike
Since both work out his will.

The strong man’s strength to toil for Christ,
The fervent preacher’s skill
I sometimes wish, — but better far
To be just what God will.

I know not how this languid life
May life’s vast ends fulfil;
He knows, — and that life is not lost
That answers best his will.

No service in itself is small,
None great, though earth it fill;
But that is small, that seeks its own,
And great, that seeks God’s will.

Then hold my hand, most gracious Lord,
Guide all my goings still:
And let this be my life’s one aim,
To do or bear thy will.

Whatever, therefore, be the limitations of your condition, whether they arise from poverty or sickness, or business or domestic duty, accept them as from God. They are no disgrace to you. Do all that you can do within them, and fret not because you can do nothing beyond them. Nay, remember this, that you will best succeed in doing something beyond them, by doing all you can within them.

Observe, in the second place, that Paul’s bonds did not prevent him from being useful. I doubt not, for our apostle was very human, that Paul was sometimes saddened by the thought that his long imprisonment had kept him from that missionary work on which his heart was set; and yet, in the long run, he became convinced that his chain had really advanced the cause to which he was devoted; for in writing to the Philippians he wished them to understand ‘that the things which had happened unto him had fallen out rather to the furtherance of the gospel.’ It came about ‘on this wise.’ The soldier to whom he was bound was changed every four hours, until all the members of the company to which he belonged had taken turn in the service, and then the duty was passed on to another military party. So, by systematically and wisely embracing the opportunity of conversing with each of his guardians, Paul became instrumental in the conversion of many soldiers, and introduced the leaven of Christianity into the Roman army. This is what he refers to when he says ‘my bonds in Christ are manifest throughout the praetorian guard’ [for so the word translated ‘palace’ ought to be rendered] ‘and in all other places.’1 He came into contact with the lowest and the highest of the people, and was blessed in the salvation not only of the runaway slave Onesimus, but also of some of the inmates of Caesar’s household.

Nor was this all. It was at this time that he wrote his letters to the Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon; and who may undertake to estimate the results which these epistles have produced, and are still producing among men! Thus Paul was laid aside from personal activity for a time, in order that, through these letters, he might work for all time; and now, as we take a broad and comprehensive view of the whole case, we see that his usefulness was not prevented by his chain.

Now, there is much in all this to stimulate and encourage us. How much the business man might accomplish for the Lord, if he were only to do with those who are brought into immediate contact with him what Paul did with his soldier guardians! And is there on this earth any sanctuary so blessed as the sick chamber, where the pulpit is a couch of suffering, and the preacher is a patient, loving, gentle one who tries to bear all for Christ? Adolphe Monod, the famous French Protestant clergyman, preached many most eloquent and powerful sermons to crowded congregations; but none of them produced such deep and permanent impressions as the devout utterances, interrupted often by paroxysms of pain, which he addressed during his long illness to those who came into his sick-room and joined him there in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. His very weakness was a power which thrilled the hearts of his hearers, even as the clanking of Paul’s chain was more effective than all his arguments, when he said before Agrippa, ‘except these bonds.’2 And taking an illustration more in the line of Paul’s experience in the case before us, I doubt whether many ministers have been instrumental in converting by their sermons as many souls as were blessed through the letters of Harlan Page.3

It may seem a great hardship to the mother that she is kept by family cares from joining in the work of the mission school, or taking a share in any of the departments of active benevolence which the Church has organized. But wait a little until that bright-eyed boy at her side has grown up to become a godly man, it may be a noble minister of the gospel, and then she will have the satisfaction of knowing that the influence of her training is telling through him upon thousands of hearts. Let this thought sink deep into our minds. We never lose in the long run, even in the matter of usefulness, by giving ourselves wholly to the work that is nearest us, and to which we seem to ourselves to be bound by a chain which we must not, dare not, cannot break. Another person can do as well in the mission school, or in the visitation of the ignorant from house to house, as our mother could; but who save she can be a mother to her children? Therefore let her do with undivided heart what lies nearest to her, and God through that will widen and perpetuate her influence. We are poor judges of ultimate results, and perhaps in the day of final apocalypse few things will surprise us more than the far-reaching benefits which have sprung from the labours of some humble Christian, who thought all the time that she was doing scarcely anything, and who, throughout, was feeling herself hampered and confined by the bonds within which Providence restrained her. Courage! then, my friend; do the little that you can within your sphere, and God will make it great. Work at that which is within the area of your chain, and Christ will carry it out far beyond the limits of your personal and immediate circle. You may be fettered, but he whom you serve is not bound; and so that which you put into his hand may be sent by him the world over.

This article was first published in the February 1972 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.


  1. See Lightfoot’s Philippians, pp. 97-102.
  2. Adolphe Monad’s Farewell, contains all these dying utterances, which is now sadly out of print withe the Trust.
  3. Agent in New York for the American Tract Society. He died in 1834 at the age of 43.

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