‘Tis within limits that the master shows.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
Goethe wrote that line to illustrate how strict forms of writing poetry, like the sonnet, helped show who were the real gifted poets. Basically being to Germans what Shakespeare is to the English speaking world, he should know. Being confined within the parameters forced them to refine, distill, and perfect their poetic intentions. It was in the limitations that they find their strength. American poet and artist Julia Cameron expresses the same, updated for the twentieth century: “in limits there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure.”
This may grate against us at first. How can being confined be a freeing thing? Aren’t all limits restrictive? The fact that the idea grates is evidence at just how counter-cultural it is in a world where any restraint upon us is felt to be an injustice. But only within restraint can we be truly free.
But having rules on the field which restrict play free everyone enjoy the game.
A society which has no laws, customs, or social virtues may permit one to do whatever they want to anyone else. But would such freedom really feel like freedom if you were living in it?
Staying faithful in marriage limits intimacy to one partner. But it also frees us to enjoy the extended, long-term, committed love that only such an exclusive relationship can bring.
With God, it is the same. As as a well-known worship song says it’s only in Your will that I am free. And that idea does not come from nowhere. It comes from God, who desires us to be more free than we would even choose to be on our own.
The Psalmist in Psalm 119, that massive meditation on God’s word, says: I will run in the way of your commandments, when you enlarge my heart… (v 32). The image is one of running free yet while being held within God’s desires for us expressed in His word. A heart set truly free is one within limits.