Being human can be very frustrating. We’re always long on demands but short on time and energy. And so we redouble our efforts, searching for the magical time-management hack that will allow us to cram more life into our waking hours so that we can live the most efficient and productive life possible.
Yet even as we strain against our natural limits, ultimately they cannot (and should not) be overcome, because God designed them for our good. That’s the premise underlying Covenant College theologian Kelly M. Kapic’s latest book, You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News. Persuasion podcast cohost Erin Straza spoke with Kapic about the beauty of our human limits and the freedom that comes when we learn to embrace God’s design for a meaningful life.
Most people live with a nagging sense that they aren’t meeting expectations or fulfilling obligations. Yet you propose that God purposefully made us to live within certain limits. Why is there such a gap between our understanding about how God designed us and the expectations we have for ourselves?
I’ve had the conviction for a couple of decades now that Christians, particularly in evangelicalism, have an underdeveloped doctrine of creation. We talk about creation, but normally that is reduced to talking about when and how God made the earth. But we’re missing key ideas, like the reality that God made us as creatures. And the good part about being a creature is we were made to be dependent upon God and, by our very design, also dependent on other people and the earth.
The reality of our belief in God’s creation is found in our very non-creaturely (mis)understanding of his expectations of us. Dependence goes against a lot of our instincts. Just think about how we use the language of dependence in our culture. It’s usually negative. It’s one of the reasons we struggle with community. It’s one of the reasons we view one another in competitive ways.
Often what we’re missing is the good of dependence. We need to cultivate an awareness of how our dependence and our needs open avenues of love. How do you love when you’re not dependent on someone else? Many of us have been raised in a culture where that tug of dependence on another makes us very scared, which makes us want to pull away. But a proper theology of interdependence allows flourishing; it allows love to grow.
Our modern marketplace is filled with an unbelievable supply of solutions, devices, and practices for mastering our daily lives and getting more done in less time. If we accept that we are creatures with limits, who cannot possibly do all that needs to be done, won’t that lead to apathy or laziness?
Often those who struggle with being too busy will describe themselves as slothful or lazy just because they’ve binged Netflix for four or five hours. But I think we’re blaming a symptom rather than the reality underneath it. People are looking at Facebook and endlessly watching Netflix because of a deeper problem: We set unrealistic expectations, and then they wear us out and we can’t keep up.
This is a theological problem, not a time-management problem. What if we stopped thinking of life as to-dos and started thinking of it as relationships? When we’re so task-driven, it’s very hard to appreciate love, because love is incredibly inefficient—and we love efficiency. Making efficiency our highest value is often dehumanizing. We always worry we’re going to make machines like humans, but we’ve also made humans like machines.
In chapters 3 and 4, you draw our attention to the embodied human experience. Besides our very real physical limits and the natural aging process, we also must contend with the impossible images that society upholds as beautiful and worthy. How can we learn to embrace real physical humanness and connect with others despite our imperfections?
We live in a time when we’re on screens constantly. We’re living in this digital space, which makes it difficult to come to terms with our real bodies. It’s helpful, in light of this difficulty, to wrestle with the full humanity of Jesus. You and I should get comfortable with our bodies because God entered the womb and Jesus is born of Mary—and it’s a real birth with afterbirth and everything! And there was a real physical, bodily resurrection for Jesus too. All this shapes how we think of our own bodies.
One consequence of inhabiting hyperspace rather than real life is that it gradually dehumanizes us. What does it mean to see one another, and ourselves, the way God sees us? I remember an artist who did portraits saying, “I’ve never seen a face that’s not beautiful.” When you look someone in the face and hear that person’s story, it’s never just a face. It’s a good creature lovingly created by God. As we look more deeply into one another’s eyes, rather than these pseudo-images, we get more comfortable with the physicality God loves. One of my biggest hopes for readers is that they will see a closer connection between creation and redemption: between the God who loved what he made and the God who remakes us in the image of his Son.
Self-help books are all the rage. We seem obsessed with becoming something better and conquering our human failings. Likewise, Christians are frustrated with their failures and want to speed up their journey toward holiness. How can we learn to embrace God’s unhurried pace in our spiritual formation?
First, look at the process of creation. Whether it involved six billion years or six literal days, God took his time, by his Spirit, to bring about order through developmental growth. God, it seems, is quite comfortable with this process. He’s not panicked by it.
Now, look at our own growth. When you and I were three years old, we weren’t what we are now, and our parents didn’t expect us to be. As grownups, of course, we’re in a different place, cognitively and otherwise, and so there are different expectations. Good parents know their children well enough not to set the bar too high, whatever their stage of development. Likewise, when we were younger, God didn’t expect us to be what we are now. He’s still taking his time, by his Spirit, to bring about order through developmental growth. So as Christians, even though we’re immediately saints (because we’re captured by the Spirit), we’re also growing in sanctification at the same time (and by the same Spirit).
In all things, we can rest assured that God is working in his timing. My hope is we can grow more comfortable with the Spirit of creation, who is the Spirit of sanctification, recognizing the way the Spirit works in Scripture is often through process.
How does understanding the doctrine of human finitude enable us to live a robust, satisfying communal life?
In church life, like in some businesses, 15 to 20 percent of the people often do almost all the work. Lots of people were feeling busy because of church, and other things, when COVID-19 gave everyone a break—and now they’re terrified to go back. Other people realized they didn’t know anyone at church; without meaningful relationships, it all feels vacuous. People have disengaged. Some may never come back.
But it takes the entire church to be the one body of Christ. In Matthew 25, when Jesus is talking about the sheep and the goats, he’s talking about visiting the prisoner, helping the marginalized, and so on. But that doesn’t mean you’re called to do all those things by yourself. My hope, as people come back from COVID-19, is that they will reconnect to the church, where together we delight in our different gifts and depend on each other for what we need.
How we can begin embracing our human limits, even today?
The first way sounds so spiritual, but I genuinely mean it: by prayer. Part of recognizing our limits is getting comfortable in God’s space and growing in dependance on him. Sometimes, I think we’re actually scared to death to pray, because if we actually take the time to get quiet, we might begin to fear that God’s not there or wonder whether he’s apathetic or just really angry. Only in prayer will we discover how compassionately God views us.
The second way is related to the first: by cultivating the gift of encouraging and celebrating others. It’s a spiritual discipline, a healthy way of dying to yourself and encouraging others. We are all dying for someone to pay attention and notice our presence and being. When someone articulates that, it’s life-changing.
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