We all know that we have limits, that’s a part of being human. But most of us see our limits as a curse not a gift. How do our limits reflect God’s design? How are our limits actually good news for us? How is it a good thing that we are dependent beings? We’ll answer these questions and more with our guest, Dr. Kelly Kapic, a theologian at Covenant College in his book, You’re Only Human.
Dr. Kelly Kapic is Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College, where he has taught since 2001. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Embodied Hope and Becoming Whole.
Scott Rae: We all know that we have limits, so that's just a part of being human. But most of us, I think, see our limits as a curse and not a gift. How do our limits reflect God's design? How are our limits actually good news for us? How is it a good thing that we are dependent beings? We'll answer these questions and more with our guest, Dr. Kelly Kapic, theologian at Covenant College in his new book, "You're Only Human." This is “Think Biblically” from Talbot School of Theology. I'm your host, Scott Rae.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.
Scott Rae: Kelly, thanks so much for being with us. We loved your book. Tell us a little bit about what was the impetus to work on this subject of our limits and finitude.
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, well, thank you both. I appreciate you both in your writings. And so this is, for me, it's a joy to be with you and thanks for the kind words about the book. Yeah, in some ways, there's kind of personal and theological impetus behind the book. So I'll just mention, maybe I'll go very quickly, but the personal is twofold. I have often throughout my life, like many people, kind of get to a point almost every day where I'll feel a sense of guilt or shame. And what's interesting is when I look at why and examine it, why do I feel that wave of guilt and shame? Often like when I put my head on the pillow at night. I'm a theologian. And so if when I examine that, I come up with, well, look, you were cruel to this person, you were greedy, you were, this or that, then I need to acknowledge it before God, repent and bask in his kindness and forgiveness. But what was interesting is when I would actually take the time to examine and scratch below the surface so much at the time it was, I just feel guilty that I didn't get more done.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Kelly Kapic: And this shame and behind it is this unspoken, unexamined thought of like, maybe God's just disappointed in me constantly. 'Cause doesn't he expect me to be productive, right? I'm a good Protestant. (laughing) Yeah, I'm in this Protestant work ethic and all of that. And when is it ever enough? So for me, trying to think through that and am I really just supposed to feel defeated every day if I don't accomplish a massive to-do list? And then the other side of the personal is my wife and I got married in 1993 in California. You guys are in California. But we were married nine years before we had kids, but eventually, long story short, in 2008, she developed cancer and we went through that. And by God's grace after surgeries, et cetera, she was declared cancer free.
Sean McDowell: Wow. Scott Rae: Here, here.
Kelly Kapic: But then in 2010, she developed chronic pain, pretty severe. Started on a June day that year and remains with us to this day. There's not a day where she doesn't feel pretty significant pain and fatigue. And so we're both people who like to get, you know, I don't know if we're type A personalities, maybe that, but we love to get things done. We're doers, where our house would be full and going through that process, it was like we had to keep cutting and keep cutting and mourning that loss and coming to be okay with quiet at times and doing less and thinking through that. So that's a personal, and then just as an aside, we can explore more if you want.
On theological, really for me, I'm convinced that as evangelicals, we don't have a very strong doctrine of creation, and we don't have a very strong doctrine of the humanity of Jesus, and those both deeply shape me in this whole process.
Sean McDowell: Well, thanks for sharing your personal motivation and professional ones. Let's jump in. You mentioned creation, and what I want to ask is how you think our limits reflect God's design. In other words, this is built into us the way we're supposed to be, and why is that good news, even though, as you said, it's often personally difficult to accept?
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, exactly. I mean, part of it is just realizing... I mean, we know that the theological... A very important theological axiom is what we call the creator-creature distinction. God is God and we are not. And if you ask most Christians, "Do you think you're God?" We all say, "No, of course not." But some of it's culturally in the West and other... We have this endless sense of we should be more places and do more things and know more things and all of that. And so it's very interesting to think about theologically. Humans were created from the beginning as creatures. I use the word finitude a lot. Finitude is a fancy word just meaning limits of space, time, knowledge, and power. But from a Christian perspective, the other word you could use is just creature. To be a creature even before their sin or the fall is to be limited, which means it's part of the good of God's creation. So part of what I'm interested in, why have we confused our finitude with sin? And when we do collapse those two, how is it distorting us? How is it hurting us? Given that we don't become finite, we don't become limited after the fall, but before the fall. So that's kind of what I'm interested in thinking through.
Scott Rae: Well, Kelly, let me press that a little bit further, Kelly Kapic: Sure.
Scott Rae: because one of the first questions I had in getting into your book was certainly some of our limits are the result of the general entrance of sin into the world, like your wife's cancer, for example, and chronic pain. And some of these things are limits that are just part of our design and constitution. So how do you tell the difference between those two?
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, that's great. In some ways, and you both know this, you work in ethics and spirituality in those fields, in some ways, you can take something very complicated and make it simple. And the simplest way I know to explain it is the limits that are part of our good design are meant to foster healthy dependence in community and relationships. And the limits that are related to our sin tend to breed death, disruption, and disordered desires.Something along those lines.
Scott Rae: Okay, so let me take a specific example. Kelly Kapic: Sure.
Scott Rae: Aging, for example. Is that a created limit, or is that the result of the general entrance of sin?
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, that's such a great question, right? So these all deserve books, don't they? So I think it's a fascinating...
Scot Rae: I'll get right on it. (Laughing)
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, exactly. I think it's a fascinating thing. Irenaeus, one of the early church fathers, when he's talking about Adam and Eve before the fall, he and much of the church argues... he basically uses language like their adolescence. And what he's trying to get at is when God made Adam and Eve, it wasn't a finished, complete project. It was going somewhere. It was starting a process, not ending a process. And so you can argue that growth and development, that's all a good, normal part of the way God designed us. Jesus, as Luke says, grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men, but Jesus grew physically, mentally, and these can make us uncomfortable, but that's part of the true assumption of a human nature. And Augustine has interesting reflections on aging and even seasons of life, trying to think through some of those things. So all that to say, but what's a problem becomes death. Death isn't a front to the gift of life. Death isn't a front to relationships. And so that matters, and that's a key signal for the tradition and biblically, because when we talk about the problem of sickness, whether we realize it or not, in many ways, sickness is signaling death. It's an indicator of that deeper malady and where we're going in disruption. But growth and development itself is not a problem.
Sean McDowell: I'm curious how we can come to see limitation as a gift because we've had this phenomenon of superhero movies. And we often think, gosh, if I was like Superman, I had no limitations in strength and speed and insight, my life would be awesome. But sometimes superhero movies also show the burden that comes with that, which I appreciate that. But what was it like in your life? And how do you encourage others to see our personal limitations and human limitations actually as a gift rather than something keeping us from living a better, more full life?
Kelly Kapic: Yeah. Thank you. That's a great question. So at risk of being too abstract, let's use an actual concrete example, humility. So if you ask most Christians, you know, don't give them a bunch of preparation, you say, "Hey, why should we be humble?" Very common immediate response is, "Well, because we're sinners." And it is true that we're sinners and that that reality should contribute to our humility. But it's fascinating.
When you look at the history of the church and in our own day, when you try and build the doctrine of the reality of humility on the foundation of sin, it distorts the whole thing. So that we all know we should be humble, but then the only way you can be humble, it tends to be you need to think how bad you are. You need to concentrate on what a worm you are, how terrible you are, and that kind of thing. And the irony is, trying to seek humility by focusing on how bad you are still makes you the center of the whole thing and distorts the whole thing and often can create unintended consequences like self-hatred. But, and here's the big aha, humility is not built on the foundation of sin, but on the foundation of the goodness of creation. So a simple way of asking it is, Adam and Eve before the fall, should they have been humble? And when you think about it, you're like, yes, of course, because, and here's the key, to be a creature in the goodness of a human creature, designed in God's image, we were made to be from the beginning before sinner fall, we were made to be dependent on God, dependent on our neighbor, and dependent on the earth, dependent on the rest of creation. Those dependencies and Bonhoeffer in the early 20th century has a great discussion of this, but those dependencies are not... don't develop because of sin in the fall. They're part of the good of design. And just think about how difficult this is for our view of spirituality, because if I say, if I say, you know, to Sean, “Hey, you know, Scott's interesting, but he's just super dependent on other people.” (Laughing) In our culture, it's never a compliment, right?
And yet, if fundamental to being truly human and the good of our spirituality is dependence, how do you foster healthy spirituality in a culture that the word dependence immediately just makes us deeply concerned and it's problematic? But now I'm aware of codependence and the problem of disordered dependencies and those kind of thing. But we're made from that. And so that's an example of the good of a creation then. “In humility” means I can foster humility by actually learning to delight in other people and celebrate them rather than thinking of them as competition or a threat. I can grow in humility and delight and foster and cultivate this creation, recognizing both my dependence upon it and the ways I can contribute to it, all meant to foster freedom and joy. And I can bask in my dependence on God without trying to be God. All of that is a path of life, not death, but you cannot get there if you think your limits are a problem rather than a gift.
Sean McDowell: So at the heart of the Christian story is we are made to be in a relationship with God and other people. That's what's ultimately going to give us the flourishing good life. And unless we recognize the infinite distance between us and God, we can never know and trust Him. And recognizing our limitations through humility is a good that helps us know God in the way we're meant to know Him and ultimately others. Is that fair?
Kelly Kapic:That's right, that’s right. Sean McDowell: Love it.
Scott Rae: Kelly, one of the most insightful parts of the book was toward the very beginning, when you raise the question, "Of course God loves us, but does He actually like us?" Does He even see us as individuals? And you make the claim that we've misunderstood one of the main passages that talks about our spiritual life in Galatians 2:20, where it says, "It's not I who live, but Christ who lives within me." And I think the misapplication is not hard to see, that when God looks at me, He sees Jesus. But what does that say about how God feels actually about me? How should we correctly understand that text? And how do you answer the question, "Does God actually like us?"
Kelly Kapic: Yeah. No, it's great. I mean, as you know, I work with... my primary work is with college students. And part of this came from talking to students, and we'd be, you know, they'd be in my office and maybe they're dealing with some family stuff. And if I would ask them, do you think your parents love you? I don't really think I've ever had a student say no, no matter how hard it is. But if I then ask, do you think your mom or your dad or both of them, do you think they actually like you? What's painful is how often all of a sudden the tears just start to roll down.
Scott Rae: That’s brutal. Sean McDowell: Wow.
Kelly Kapic: And I don't think it's that different for us with God because it's the same kind of thing. We all know God loves us 'cause he has to, he's God. Just like you know your parents have to love you, right? But it becomes this obligation kind of thing. But the idea that your parent or that your God, right, as we read, "Rejoices over you with singing."
Scott Rae: Here, here.
Kelly Kapic: Right? You know like a the groom with the bride delights in her takes pleasure in her is so moved by his love he would come, and there's a reason in the ancient church that in the medieval church the Song of Songs was so important in terms of just trying to understand this kind of idea of God seeking and loving and delighting in, and so I'm very interested in Galatians 2:20 is an example where we mean well because it does say “I've been crucified with Christ and I no longer live” but then the question is well then in order to become a Christian or to grow does that mean I am unimportant, that God actually doesn't even know me and we do often say don't worry God doesn't see you He see the father doesn't see you he sees his son and that's a wonderful thing at first. As you're just soaked in your own guilt and shame and sin praise God he's, you know, the father's looking at you through the son. But the problem is, at some point, if that's the only truth you've been told, and that truth gets distorted, at some point you ask, "Yeah, but does he actually just love... does the father just love the son, or does he love me? Does he even see me? Does he recognize me?"
And that's where I think it's interesting that Paul goes on to say, "And the life I live, I live by faith." You still live. God isn't interested in obliterating us. God doesn't, he actually, and this is why I think we, an example of where we have a weak doctrine of creation. God doesn't hate what he made. He loves what he made. So he doesn't want to obliterate you. He wants to renew you. He doesn't love the sin that is distorting and really undermining all of the flourishing and goodness of what he made and likes and the sin that so easily entangles us. So he hates the sin because he loves us, because he likes us. So all of that to say, to be godly, to be truly spiritual, to be in communion with Christ, doesn't mean you have to necessarily change your personality. Like introverts don't need to become extroverts. That's not the goal, right? It's who did God make you to be and resisting sin and resting in God's grace and the power of the Spirit growing in those ways. You will never be more you than when you grow in grace and truth.
Sean McDowell: That is such a powerful question I'm thinking about with my own kids. I've asked them, "Do you know that I love you?" And they're like, "Of course, Dad." But I've never asked them, "Do you think I like you?" And just see how they respond with my students, with my wife. I'm sure she knows that. But that's such a good angle that God not only loves us, but He likes us and finds pleasure in the unique way He made us to be, which has been thwarted by sin, but He loves and likes us nonetheless.
That's a really practical hook. Tell us about this exercise you do during Christmas break to help your students understand their identity.
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, thanks for asking that. You know, in college, it's a normal time for people to deal with identity questions and I do often in one of my classes that ends before Christmas, I'm mindful that students are going home and some of them are going home to places they don't really want to be, they don't have very good relationships with their folks or a parent, whoever they're living with. But others even that do have a good relationship with their parents, one of the things you find is, and maybe you've seen this as a kid, they come home, it's so great, everyone's so happy to see each other. And by three days in, all of a sudden they're like, my dad, his breathing is so loud, right? (Laughing) Right. Mom's questions are just annoying. And the way she dresses is, you know, whatever it is. And it's amazing, even in healthy relationships, it's like this, this sense of, uh, and they were like, no, I'm me. Right. And so anyways, in light of that tension, I tell students and I was... you have to listen to the whole illustration. Otherwise it's going to sound super creepy and offensive. But I tell them to go in and take a shower. And when they're in the shower to look down and to see their belly button because of the belly button and [Inaudible] but the belly button has tremendous theological value because it reminds you... since existentialism, everyone's been saying, you don't create your own identity. You don't just create your... you came from someone, you and I have a DNA from people. We walk like parents, we joke like parents, both parents we know and some of us are adopted with parents we didn't even know were shaped by them, both biologically and then those who raise us. And it's just a sobering reality that we, but also a gift, we came from these people, right? Or we have a debt to these people. And it is interesting, we all know, you know, often the thing that drives you most crazy about someone in the family is an area that you yourself struggle with, right? So anyways, I think it's a way, the belly button is a way of remembering we're creatures, even though there's so much telling us we're not dependent. We are. We always have been.
Scott Rae: Kelly, let me tackle that idea of dependence a little bit further. You mentioned a couple of minutes ago that we often see our dependence as a negative and not something that we ought to embrace. Why don't we see our dependence as a good thing? Let's be really clear about that.
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, I think it's because it's not just in non-Christian circles, it's in Christian circles. I think our highest, some of our highest values are independence, productivity and efficiency. And all of those very strong cultural values are at odds with healthy dependence. So I am someone who loves to get things done. I want to be efficient and productive. And one of the sobering realities for me was to come to terms with the fact that productivity and efficiency, despite what I think I thought, are not God's highest values. Love is. And so think about when you have a newborn child, what is more inefficient than loving a child? Right? I mean, it's so, or a puppy, right? Because people make demands on us. And that's what love is. Love slows you down. Love takes attention. It takes you to be present. And so it is, part of it is, it's very difficult or independence rails against this idea that I need others, that I don't have to be the center of the story, all of that kind of thing. But that's a path of life.
Sean McDowell: Let me shift back to the topic of humility that we were discussing earlier. You say humility is pre-fall good because the kind of creature God has made us to be. Now, if I said, "Kelly, you are a good author and you played it off and said, 'No, I'm not. I can't write.'" That would be false humility because your book is excellent. On the other hand, if you said, "You know what, Sean? I am. I'm great. I'm the best.”
That would be pride. So it kind of seems to me that humility is having an accurate view of who we are with our strengths and with our weaknesses. Would you agree with that? What would you add or take away to having an accurate biblical understanding of humility?
Kelly Kapic: I think you just nailed it. I remember publicly lecturing on humility one time and saying some of these things. Someone came up to me afterwards, a student, a clever student. And he said, "Dr. Kapic, that was the best lecture I've ever heard." And I said, "No, it wasn't." (Laughing) And then he said, "Oh, I got you." And I said, "No, you didn't, because you've been in this class. And I think that was a good lecture, but I've given better." And anyways, I mean, we're just having fun, but I think you're actually right. Humility is not, it's not about lying, right? It's not about lying and saying things are worse than they are or better than they are. And so a healthy, realistic understanding of where things go. And this is where our insecurities all come from, right? All three of us write books. And it's interesting, someone can tell us, “Oh, that's such a helpful book.” But it is, you know, people often don't realize as authors, all we often think about are all the other people who are writing more and better than us and are well received or whatever. It's just amazing. And so recognizing, I had a friend of mine who's an author and he said, you know, one person told him his first book was the worst book that had ever been published. And then the second book he read a review and said, this is a new C.S. Lewis. And he said, neither was true.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Kelly Kapic: And so trying to navigate these things. And I really like how you put it. I do think it's about a realistic or accurate assessment. And we need other people to help us with that.
Scott Rae: I think I'd have been inclined to tell that student who told you it was the best lecture he'd ever heard. I'd say, "Dude, you haven't been to that many lectures." (Laughing) You need to get out more.
Kelly Kapic: You need to get out more. Yeah, exactly.
Scott Rae: You know, I think one of the things I think that you mentioned in the book that troubles me is, you know, we talk about being transformed. We talk about eradicating our sin, sort of putting that behind us. But I'm wrestling with some of the same stuff that I wrestled with 50 years ago when I came to faith.
Kelly Kapic: Yeah
Scott Rae: And I don't know if...that God's just had and beat me over the head hard enough to get my attention. But I get so frustrated with the fact that sometimes change is just glacially slow. And I think the question you raise, why is it so slow when God is fully capable of speeding up our process of change? But why is that so slow? And I don't think I'm alone in that.
Kelly Kapic: Well, I mean, yeah, I'm– that's what spurred on one of those chapters, because that's something I deeply wrestle with. In our time here, I guess what I would say is it takes us back to the doctrine of creation. And I do find it interesting. When I tell evangelical audiences, I don't think we have a very strong doctrine of creation. Sometimes people say, wait, we talk about creation all the time. But when I ask, pay attention over the last 150 years, what have we been talking about? It's normally about when did God make the earth and how did he do it, right? And I'm not gonna say that those aren't important questions, but I don't actually don't think biblically they're the top questions by any means. And that kind of very narrow focus I think has hurt us.
So when you actually look at the biblical narrative here, and this relates to your question, it's stunning because whether or not you... Let's just say you think that you followed James Usher in the 17th century and you think the earth is basically 10,000 years old, something like that. Or you think the world is 4 billion years old or trillion years old, you make it wherever you want. What's interesting is from Christians holding those different views, no matter where you're at on that spectrum, everyone would agree that God could have made it instantaneously. And whether or not he did it in six literal 24 hour days, 10,000 years ago, or he did it each day representing millennia, what's fascinating and that everyone can agree on is the God who could have done it in a millisecond did it over time. And that means he's always valued process. And it's interesting, I didn't have the guts for this, but that chapter, the opening sentence that I wanted to say was, “God didn't create a perfect world, but a good one.” And the reason I didn't obviously, 'cause that, I mean, if I would read that in someone else's book, I'd get upset immediately and go, "What are you talking about?" But actually, biblically, the idea of, it is all good, but the idea of perfection is linked with full or complete. And it's kind of like we were talking about Irenaeus earlier, God made the world, but it wasn't a finished product. I mean, our biblical hope is not to go back to the Garden of Eden, but to this great beast that is to come and to the fullness of a new creation.
So all that to say, God has always been comfortable with process. And even when it comes to our sin, he's okay. And so I'll just give you one illustration and then we can push on or you can push back on this. But I think about like when my oldest son, Jonathan, was learning to walk, like most parents, you know, at some point when he was just, I thought,
ready, we'd take him and I'd stand him up next to the couch and he'd put one arm on the couch and I'd walk about eight feet away and I'd say, "Hey, Jonathan, come to me, come to me." And he's kind of nervous and kind of smiling. And then he eventually gets a courage and he moves his hand off the couch and he takes a step or two and then we all know what happens. Boom, he hits the ground. And when he hits the ground, I look at him and go, "You idiot, what are you doing? I told you to walk. What didn't you”... right? Of course I didn't do that, but it's fascinating. That's exactly how we think God treats us. Instead, I walk over to Jonathan, as you know, I pick him up, I look to say, "Hey buddy, you're okay. I know that kind of hurt." But it's not that I don't think Jonathan needed to learn how to walk, but I also knew he needed to develop muscles. He needed to go through this process. And that's how the father is. If we don't understand, if we don't get more comfortable with God, the Creator who loves and his values process, then the only option we have is every day, God is just disappointed with us.
Scott Rae: Yeah, that's a great insight.
Kelly Kapic: But if you learn to value... God is okay with... he's not freaking out. It doesn't mean he loves your sin, but he's not panicked because he who did, you know, he who's done a good work in you is going to carry it to completion, he's gonna see it through. So we've got to rest in him and go, all right, God, I commit that day to you with my sin and weaknesses and ask for your help and strength for tomorrow. And he's okay. He's a smiling, delighting father who's like, "Yes, you're going to get stronger. I'm not going to let this go." You know?
Sean McDowell: Kelly, let me ask you one last question. You walk through a lot of theological ideas, share some stories, but at the end, you give some disciplines to start helping the reality of humility and our finitude sink in. Now, I don't want to steal the thunder of your book, but
just give us one that we could use, but also sample kind of what you go into your book to start practicing this and owning it in our experience, so to speak.
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, that's great. And yeah, there's stuff on vulnerability and rest, and this fun section for me, I got to research on sleeping and the theology of sleep. But on a real practical level that helps me in my own life and might help some of your listeners, I actually think cultivating two sides of the same coin, which is cultivating gratitude and lament, gratitude and lament, because gratitude is recognizing that all good gifts are from [Inaudible], our God. And there really isn't a debate if God is giving gifts. The only question is, are we recognizing them, right?
And I actually work, you guys know Liz Hall there at Biola, and I work with her and Jason McMartin there, and we've been working with the Templeton Foundation and all this stuff, but earlier at Biola, I worked with a guy named Robert Emmons from UC Davis, and there's this whole positive psychology movement, and they studied gratitude. And he himself is a Christian. And looking into gratitude was fascinating because as Christians, we shouldn't be surprised by this, but they're like, are there any health empirical benefits to people who practice gratitude? And what you find is if you have people who take a journal and just every day write like five to seven things they're grateful for, and it could be a crisp apple, it could be someone said a kind word to you at the grocery store, it doesn't have to be... just every day, write down five, seven things. At the end of 30 days, people's blood pressure tends to go down, they're sleeping a bit better. There's all this data. Now, as a theologian, that kind of stuff makes me nervous, but in another sense, it also doesn't, shouldn't surprise me. Like that's how God made us, to recognize gifts and our dependence on others and to have this kind of, and lament is just a flip side, because gratitude is saying, I'm not in control. I need God and others and the earth. But lament says things are not as they should be and I am not in control and can't do it all. So it also cultivates this dependence on God, like where were you God? Why is this happening? What's going on? Lament is actually a healthy biblical from the Psalms and elsewhere practice for us. And both of gratitude and lament foster a healthy view of being a creature dependent on God, needing others and in relationship to the earth.
Scott Rae: I think we could close in prayer and go home. Sean McDowell: Amen.
Scott Rae: On that one, that's great stuff. Kelly, it's been so insightful. Thank you.
Kelly Kapic: Well, you guys are kind.Thank you very much for taking this time.
Scott Rae: Thank you so much for being with us. I want to commend to our listeners again, Kelly Kapic, “You’re Only Human”, subtitle, “How Your Limits Reflect God's Design and Why That's Good News.” Thanks so much for being with us. This is great stuff. And again, encourage our listeners to pick up the book and read further on this one. This will really enrich your view of yourself and your spiritual life.
Kelly Kapic: Thanks so much, guys.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” “Think Biblically” podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including those in our Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you
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