You’re Only Human by Kelly M. Kapic, Professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, is a book recently published by Brazos Press (and which recently won a Christianity Today Book of the Year award). The point of the book is clearly stated in the subtitle: “How your limits reflect God’s design and why that’s good news.”
I’m delighted that Kelly was kind enough to take a little time to talk about his recent book and its implications for our life, especially in a digital age.
DCS: Kelly, it appears there were both personal and theological reasons motivating you to write You’re Only Human. Could you first give us some of the personal ones?
KMK: Thanks for asking. While academics can find it odd to share personal matters, it’s often our own stories and interests that drive us to research. And that is certainly part of the story here.
For as long as I can remember I have wrestled almost daily with questions at the heart of this book. Unwanted waves of guilt and shame would visit me most days with the accusatory question, “Why didn’t you do more today?” Few are the days when I would allow myself to feel good about my day and how it was spent.
As a theologian, I am not opposed to facing my guilt and repenting for ways I have hurt others, been hardened toward God, or mistreated his creation. Repentance is a gift. But this lingering accusation of “not doing enough” or not “being enough” sounded to me less like the God of the scriptures and more like Ben Franklin, who said, “Time is money.” The economic metaphor of efficiency and productivity had clearly formed me in ways I didn’t realize at the time.
Productivity and efficiency had become my highest values, and my research and reflection for this book reminded me that, while God values those things, they are certainly not his highest values. Love is! God has always been comfortable taking his time, delighting in process, slow growth, and development.
For many years I have been wrestling through what I believe is a fundamental confusion in Christian circles, especially in the West. We have too often confused finitude with sin. This means we too often feel guilty for being limited creatures rather than the infinite God. We (including me!) have a hard time believing that our limits of space, time, knowledge, and power are anything but negatives. But what if those limits are not a curse or negative? What if they are part of the good of God’s creation?
I have become convinced that our finitude – another way of saying ‘creatureliness’ – is a beautiful and practical gift. It is how God made us.
Finally, the other personal side to this relates to my family’s experience with my wife’s cancer in 2008 and her chronic pain since 2010. Tabitha and I both love ‘getting things done,’ and so, for the last 10+ years, God has helped us grow more comfortable with not being able to do all that we think is good or even important. Only after living with extended times of lament and suffering and reflecting on the experience in my work Embodied Hope was I finally able to talk about the good of being a creature (You’re Only Human). Seems reversed, but that is how it worked in my mind and heart.
DCS: What were the theological motivations behind writing your book?
Two main things.
I believe too many of us Christians in the Western world have weak or underdeveloped doctrines of the goodness of creation and the humanity of Christ. Theological and pastoral problems have grown from this nutrient-deprived soil.
Put simply, we need to reconnect creation with redemption more clearly. The Creator God is the same as the Redeemer God, but too often we divide these in practice. This shows up in our weak view of vocation, our struggles with our bodies, etc.
DCS: In what ways does technology (mis)shape our notion of creaturely limits? Is there a way that technology might actually help us with accepting and living within our limits?
KMK: Our imaginations are deeply shaped by certain forms of contemporary technology, and this has drastic implications for our lives. Innovation and technology can be wonderful, but a good servant can easily become a terrible master. Problems begin in our imaginations and then distort our lives. For example, our imaginations are more shaped by the car, smartphones, and the “Cloud” nowadays than by the horse, the crop, or our elderly neighbors. The former set stresses speed, quick recharge, and endless expansion, while the latter forces a slowness, recognizes seasonal differences, and honors wisdom over mere information.
Our values, even in the Church, have been deeply reshaped. Good is equated with faster, stronger, and more efficient, while slower, weaker, and inefficient are almost always seen as negative.
This is partly why, for example, when some families have their first child, they are surprised by feeling shame, insignificance, and frustration at their newly encountered inefficiency – the baby is just so needy. We laugh with these folks (yes, babies are super needy!) and hope to point them to the goodness of seasons of slowness, learning afresh to value presence over productivity.
But receiving such wisdom isn’t easy when we judge everything and everyone else by their efficiency and productivity. This is a massive problem for us as individuals, communities, and whole societies.
Technology can wonderfully help connect us with others and it can do all kinds of stunningly good and God-honoring things, from medical advances to ambulances. But we just need to be more aware of how we are being shaped in our current day, especially in terms of what a faithful day, week, or even life looks like. We are not machines and our lives are not simply to-do lists.
DCS: You have an entire chapter dedicated to humility. How does humility relate to our creaturely finitude?
KMK: While I would love to unpack this fully, here is the simple idea. Many Christians throughout the centuries and even to this day have, often without realizing it, built their ideas of humility on their doctrine of sin. They assume that we should be humble because we are sinners. Misled by this assumption, Christians often encourage people to grow in humility by focusing on what bad sinners they are. This creates huge problems, from self-hatred to self-absorption.
Let’s ask a different question: before sin or the fall, were humans meant to be humble? Yes! God created human persons to be dependent upon God, others, and the earth. Part of the good of creation is our creaturely dependence. This means that humility doesn’t just say “I’m sorry” and “can you forgive me,” but it says “I don’t know” and “can you help me.”
Humility is the path of liberty and joy. It means not having to constantly compete with everyone, but instead learning to delight in others and celebrate them. It is the path of wonder, gratitude, and healthy relationships. But when the word “dependence” is negative in our western imaginations, how destructive is that to any real effort toward Christian discipleship?
DCS: Do you have any advice for faculty who find themselves overwhelmed with the demands of teaching, research, and other service? How might Christian colleges and universities create a culture that reflects God’s design for limits?
KMK: This requires a much longer conversation, but let me boil it down to one sentence: we desperately need to remember we and our students are just creatures. And that is a wonderful thing.
For various reasons, we have often cultivated unrealistic and unhelpful expectations for our students and ourselves. Yes, of course, there are times when we all need to be stretched and pushed – that is part of a good education. But I know many of us (including our students!) feel guilty for not being able to do it all; and yet, upon examination we often discover it would be impossible to do all we somehow imagine we should do. In this way, we are unintentionally irrational.
Try this exercise.
List everything you think you should be doing, like fresh preparation for lectures and seminars, mentoring students, ongoing research and writing, administrative responsibilities, family and church obligations, caring for neighbors and the vulnerable, exercising, praying, etc. All good things. But when is it ever enough?
We keep approaching this as a time management problem, but I am convinced that it’s a theological and pastoral problem.
I hope that we, as faculty shaping the next generation, can commit ourselves to helping them have a truly Christian vision of what it means to be human. To being a good and faithful, limited human creature. Little may be timelier and more important in our day.
DCS: Thank you for taking the time to share these insights—and for your book. We need voices like yours to remind us that “our limits reflect God’s design and why that’s good news.” Thanks!
What an important book! Yesterday, I watched a sermon available on You Tube and led by a pastor who was vocationally a potter before the Lord called him to pastoral ministry. The focus was, of course, on “the Potter and the Clay” in Jeremiah 18. Two takeaways as he created a number of vases and one bowl as he preached to the congregation: one, the amount of work he did on the INSIDE the vessel as he was shaping it. The other was his comment that each vessel’s value was in the hands of the Potter; that it was the potter who would determine what the vessel would be. For me personally, this comment was liberating: I have felt frustrated by various people in my Christian walk, some pastors and another a family member, who have judged my value, and that of other Christians, by our performance to do what THEY viewed as important and by each having the “right” personality in THEIR eyes for service. My being an academic rather than being something else more “spiritual” or “practical” has irked them, but seeing my value in the light of being and living according to the way that He has made me is immensely helpful. That, and the reminder that, as the potter shapes the “lump” of clay into the vessel of his design by exerting pressure on its INSIDE is a reminder that He uses pressures in our lives to shape and refine our character to grow spiritually, and we need to allow those pressures to do their work to help us each grow into the Christlike vessel He has designed each of us to be.
Thank you for this interview and thank you for expanding our understanding of what it means to be human. That’s good news, indeed.