News broke this week that a secret startup led by Bill Gates achieved an incredible breakthrough in solar energy that may enable our most energy-intensive industries to drastically reduce their carbon footprint. It seems every day we find the marker for human achievement advanced further than imaginable. Which raises the question, what are the limits to human ability?
The story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-14 lends two insights about human ability. First, it affirms that we are in fact limited, and that where our abilities come to their end, God’s abilities have only just begun. Naaman was a general who had achieved everything a person might dream of – he was the commander of the armies of Syria, who had won victory for his nation and was esteemed by all, including his king. Yet he had one fatal weakness he could not rid himself of – he had leprosy. All his power, status, wealth and wisdom could not heal him of his disease. His abilities had a limit. God in his mercy healed Naaman, showing that he alone was God and able to work miracles.
Like Naaman, our abilities have a limit. We cannot heal ourselves of our deepest afflictions. This includes our physical ailments, but also our character flaws, and at their root, our sin nature. We cannot save ourselves. But the story of Naaman shows us that where our abilities end, God’s abilities have only just begun. God is the only one able to heal Naaman, and in His mercy, he extends healing to him. Naaman is humbled to realize his true state – that he is dependent on God, and that God alone can save.
But Naaman’s story also reveals a second insight about human ability – that it is indeed great, because God Himself enables it. Naaman’s victories in battle were only his “because by him the Lord had given victory” (5:1). Yes, Naaman had accomplished great things, but only because the Lord had enabled him to do so.
The biblical doctrine of creation likewise affirms that humanity has great potential because we are created in God’s image. At every point, our ability is limited by our creatureliness and fallenness, but where our ability is great, it is enabled by the God who created us, sustains us and extends common grace to all humanity.
In other words, God is powerfully at work not only in the humanly impossible or supernatural – miracles and healings – but also in all that we consider humanly possible or natural. God heals not only through miracles, but also through medicine, for the laws of nature, which science and medicine unlock and harness, are his laws that govern his creation. God provides for the hungry through the miraculous multiplication of bread, but also, as Martin Luther put it, through the mundane work of the farmer and the milkmaid.
Human ability, then, is both great and limited. It is great only because it is enabled by God, and it is limited because of our creatureliness and our fallenness. How should we then respond to breakthroughs like the recent one by Bill Gates? Naaman’s story teaches us that we should acknowledge and praise the God who enables such breakthroughs, and we should also remember our limitations, that we are dust, dependent on Him in all that we are able and unable to do (Ps. 103:14).