After another too-short-but oh-so-long day of unfinished projects, unfulfilled promises to my kids, overdue assignments, and too-fast meals, I step out the back door to take a walk reflecting on weakness and weariness and the weight on my chest. Turning over the day in my memory, I inevitably come to a few conclusions.
First, I recognize that there is so much more to be done—whether at home, at work, at church, or in the community. Second, I rationalize that if I don’t step up to do those things, they won’t get done (or won’t get done as quickly and as thoroughly as I think they should—a crushing, if self-flattering, lie). Third, I meditate on all the excuses I don’thave for falling behind. I am not unemployed. I am not currently suffering from any pain or illness to speak of. My family loves me. I live on a quiet street in a relatively stable country in a relatively prosperous time. I have been given many resources and abilities by God to put to use for the flourishing of His people. The facts that I am working full-time for a ministry organization, parenting 4 daughters (ages 3 to 12) with my wife, taking 2-3 M. Div. courses per semester, and active in church (teaching Sunday school, preaching occasionally, sitting on committees, serving in outreach) don’t seem to count in my calculus of why I’m tired. Lastly, just as the sense of failure settles deep in my bones, I resolve to somehow do better tomorrow.
It’s a vicious cycle of the worst kind, and one I cannot escape without help.
One of the people who has helped me get off this hamster wheel is my friend Kelly Kapic. He is many things—a gifted theologian, passionate educator, celebrated author, husband and dad—but to me and so many others over the years, he has been a faithful encourager. He’s the type of person who, when he hears you’ve had a personal loss (or even just a busy season at work), will send you a text to remind you that God loves you, your toils or troubles are not the sum of your existence, and that he is praying for you.
He has recently published a powerful statement about the why behind his work of encouragement out into the world for all of us to read. In You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News, Kapic offers a pastorally attuned theological basis for resting in our finitude.
Loving our Limits
Kapic’s goal is simply to call us to reflect on and love our limits. Though certainly not eliding the effects of the Fall, Kapic focuses our attention on the doctrine of creation. He wants us to see ourselves as God does—embodied creatures, with inherent, designed limits on our presence, mobility, time, health, etc. that lead us to depend upon our Creator and each other. Designed limits that resist our attempts to live beyond them show us vulnerability, weakness, and fragility as features, not bugs, in the human condition.
In this brief yet thorough book, Kapic expands on the apostles’ teaching of union with Christ as the spiritual reality to which our designed dependence points, and demonstrates how this union is expressed in our spiritual and physical interconnectedness with one another through the church. He meditates with the church fathers (who were, at times, quite visceral in their descriptions of the physicality of Jesus’ birth and human experience) on how the incarnation itself “is God’s great yes to his creation, including human limits” (15). He reflects on some of the peculiarities of modern life that make it more difficult for us to find rest in these truths, including the push for self-creation of identity and the artificiality of time and expectations of “productivity” in a technology-driven world, and invites us to wait on our process-oriented God down the path of growth.
Where Has the Church Been?
It’s a simple message, really. God made us. God loves us. We are not God. Living within the limits God has ordained for us (embodiment, need for rest, daylight, lifespans, etc.) is not sin. But it’s not a frequently shared message, at least not in a well-grounded, full-throated way.
If mainstream American culture is defined by rejection of limits—both pressing against our own finitude and tempting us to enjoy economic, social, and political privileges at the cost of misuse or abuse of our fellow humans—there is also a steady drumbeat of dissidence. Whether that is the growing concern about the effects of wealthy countries’ energy and food consumption habits on our climate, the trend of minimalism in lifestyle and design (a la Marie Kondo), or the chorus of advocates for mental health and self-care, the world around us seems to be waking up to our need to work within certain “givennesses” of life. People seem to be waking up to what Wendell Berry wrote 45 years ago in The Unsettling of America, “The world has room for many people who are content to live as humans, but only for a relative few intent upon living as giants or as gods.”
From the one place in our culture that should know these things intuitively—the church—however, there is too much silence. The church is late to this renaissance of finitude. Within many theologically conservative and culturally evangelical congregations, in fact, something close to the opposite holds true. To hear as a person (let alone as a Christian) that I am valued inherently and able to serve God only from a place of rest in Him—not on the basis of works, lest I should boast, if you will—should be de rigeur in such congregations. Instead, it feels like revelation, at least to me.
Some of this is due, I’m sure, to family or cultural dynamics peculiar to my upbringing, but I fear much of it reflects an American Christian subculture that has preached personal piety and striving for missiological significance, emphasizing my responsibility in sanctification and “doing great things for God” as the telos of the Christian life. When that vision seemed hard or unattainable during my teens and twenties, I heard lots of sermons on becoming more disciplined and trying harder (as if that would help!), self-denial (which, for some of us who already have trouble speaking up for our own needs is a truth to be handled with great care), or more rarely (and on better note), union with Christ and leaning on the power of the Spirit. I don’t remember sermons or lessons on the limits of embodied lives, let alone that such limits are good. This is true of the churches I grew up in, the college I went to, and most of my adult Christian experience. Life on a human scale, with grace and patience toward our shared limits, was just not on our collective radar.
This is where Kapic’s book is most vital—he takes great care to separate the notion of humility (literally, being close to the soil from which we were formed) from our sinfulness and depravity. Because, he argues, many mainstream American Christians have neglected the doctrine of creation that leads us to see our finitude as part of God’s good design, we’ve been left to resort to a rubric of sin and repentance to describe our limitations. In this milieu, when we need rest or time away to care for ailing bodies and souls, we are not practicing dependence but need to repent of laziness. When we see brothers and sisters respond to the needs of the world in ways we aren’t able to, we don’t feel joy at their faithfulness but guilt at our lack of participation.
Too many believers move within a closed-loop church, school, cultural, and political environment that is effectively an evangelical-industrial complex. If there is one characteristic that defines this atmosphere it is marketability. Faithfulness in little things with great love is seldom celebrated. What matters is the big, the visible. This leads to cycles of boom (rapid growth with numerical and monetary success) and bust (collapses of moral failure or burnout) that we blow past without the lament or reflection that might lead to transformation. When you’re on a mission from God, you can’t be bothered to turn the ship around to pick up those who fell overboard along the way.
Kapic’s book is a gift that lifts these burdens, gently rebukes our errors, and affirms the goodness of holiness and mission as the calling of the church as a whole—a calling we are meant to share with our sisters and brothers across the ages and continents, not shoulder on our own. When we recognize our limits as a healthy thing, not a sinful shortcoming, we can see humility as an expression of love, and “love God by using our gifts in his service; …our neighbors by using our gifts for their benefit and by gratefully receiving the benefit of their gifts” (106). This, he shows, ought to be joyfully celebrated as an antidote to burnout: “Accepting our finitude and affirming our interdependence as the people of God move us from guilt to liberty, from being overwhelmed to being energized, from passivity to activity” (180). None of us individually is capable of fulfilling God’s mission, but all of us together in the church across time and space are doing just that.
In this, Kapic’s book offers a solid foundation and synthesis for valuable insights rising from various corners of the church of late—each of which comes at the same symptoms from slightly different angles. Books like O. Alan Noble’s literary and philosophical inquiry in You Are Not Your Own, D.L. Mayfield’s activist reflection in The Myth of the American Dream, Esau McCauley’s pressing into the goodness of cultural distinctions in Reading While Black, and the nature of embodiment in conversation with the suffering of chronic illness in K.J. Ramsey’s This Too Shall Last (and Kapic’s own Embodied Hope) make excellent conversation partners for You’re Only Human as it offers an anchor point for pushing back against the manifold problems arising from our rebellion against finitude.
Unlearning the destructive habits I’ve internalized and relearning new ones will take a long time, perhaps a lifetime. I can’t do the work of re-set by myself. In a culture bent on seeing people only as profit, problems, political power, or pests, we desperately need the church to be a place molded on the reality of God’s sustaining grace within good boundaries. Only the community of the Triune God has the full set of tools to truly be a place of dignity and rest. But will we?
Kapic uses his final chapter to urge the church to facilitate the following habits for all who call her home—1) embrace the rhythms and seasons of life, 2) recognize vulnerability, 3) express lament and cultivate gratitude, and 4) rest by honoring sleep and sabbath (193). These simple practices won’t transform us overnight, but he reminds us (with John Owen) that sanctification and creation are gifts of the same Holy Spirit, who redirects us toward the ends for which we were made in His good time.
I would perhaps add one more practice to this list of suggestions: absorbing wonder. Often, when I take those walks for reflection on my day, such as on the evening I wrapped up this review, I look up and am jolted out of my self-loathing cycle by the blinding beauty of the sunset. There is nothing particularly majestic about the little hilltop in suburban Tennessee I call home, but in God’s good order and the rotation of the earth, it is rendered glorious beyond words. All that He requires of me to receive it is to be present—in my frail, embodied, smallness—before the vast works of a Creator who also knows and loves and made me.