We live in an age of speed and overwhelm, where we often feel we are constantly expected to do more, move faster, work harder, brush past boundaries and limits, and shave margins. When we inevitably fail to meet all demands, we are left feeling not only exhausted and discouraged, but often disoriented and diminished.
But what if, instead of seeing our limitations as an impediment, we could learn to view them as a blessing, even a gift? In You’re Only Human, theologian and scholar Kelly Kapic offers a theologically grounded approach to understanding and receiving the gift of our human finitude.
On December 9th, the Trinity Forum invites you to join us for an Online Conversation with Kelly Kapic as he offers a way to find joy and relief in our incarnational limits and use them to foster greater freedom, spiritual growth, and deeper community.
Thank you to our sponsors for their support of this event:
Baker Publishing Group
Don and Rita Walke
Online Conversation | Kelly Kapic | December 9, 2022
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Molly. And let me just add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Kelly Kapic on the blessings of limitations. I’d also like to [add] my own bit of appreciation to our sponsor, Baker Publishing and Don and Rita Walker, for your generosity in making this program possible. We really appreciate you.
And we’re delighted that so many of you have joined us today. I believe we have over 1,100 registrants, which is great at this busy time of Advent, and just really appreciate the honor of your time and attention. And I’d like to give a special welcome to our first-time viewers. I believe we have more than 100 of you who have signed up, as well as our international viewers joining us from at least 21 different countries that we know of, ranging from Kenya to Canada, Greece to Guatemala, and Panama to the Philippines. So thank you for joining us from across the miles and across the time zones. And if you are one of those international visitors and you have not yet let us know where you’re coming from, please do so in the chat box. It’s always fun for us to get to see the range of people who are joining us today.
If you are one of those new or first-time people or are otherwise unfamiliar with the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space for leaders to grapple with the big questions of life in the context of faith and ultimately come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.
The topic we’re going to consider today, the purpose and blessings of limits, seemed an appropriate one in Advent as we anticipate the incarnation when God himself took on human limitations for the sake of relationship with finite and frail creatures. But it might also seem a surprising and counterintuitive idea. For while to be human is to be subject to limitations, we all seem to yearn for exactly the opposite. A quick Google search will reveal that the appeal of “no limits” is significant enough to serve as the title for a movie, a sportswear company, as well as quite a few foundations, nonprofits, and athletic organizations. And even more so, many billions are invested in finding ways of forever extending our productive capacity so that we can do more, achieve more, and demonstrate ever greater impact, functioning like finely tuned machines, relentless and untiring, always maximizing our output, eliminating inefficiencies, imposing our agendas at scale.
Our guest today offers a very different vision. In his new work, You’re Only Human, he argues that limitations are, in his words, “a gift from God and therefore good.” And in better understanding and embracing our creaturely finitude, our lives can actually become more expansive and full of love, friendship, joy, and creative interdependence. It’s a fascinating paradox, a hopeful prospect, and even a huge relief in an anxious and addled time. And there are few that have grappled with the topic with the theological expertise, much less the energy and enthusiasm, than our guest today, Kelly Kapic.
Kelly is a professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where he’s taught for more than two decades, as well as serving on the board of editorial consultants for the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care. And he’s also served as a contributing editor for Cultural Encounters, a journal for the theology of culture. He is the award-winning author, coauthor, or editor of more than 15 books, including Embodied Hope, which won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year award in theology and ethics, The God Who Gives, The Devoted Life, Becoming Whole, and, of course, his most recent book, You’re Only Human, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.
Kelly Kapic: Thank you. It’s fun to be with you. I like the Christmas tree in the back. We’re ready to go.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you here, Kelly. So I have to ask: all of us at various points have had to confront our own limits and our own finitude. But whenever this happens, when we first realize that—whether it’s due to exhaustion or anxiety or old age or just discovering that someone else is bigger, smarter, stronger, better, faster, whatever it is—rarely is the discovery a pleasant one or a joyful one.
Kelly Kapic: Yeah.
Cherie Harder: You have argued that our limits are actually good news, reflective of divine design, and you’ve called it ultimately good for us, both individually and communally. So what do you see as the blessings of limitations?
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, that’s, I mean, that’s a fantastic question. And the reality is we kind of all know about this reality that we’re not God. If we ask, “Are you God?”, we all say, “No, of course not.” But when you look at [these] unrealistic, unrelenting, kind of endless expectations we have, that’s where we run into trouble. And so I’m really interested in why is it that the way God made us with our limits is a good thing. And, I mean, finitude, we’ve thrown that word around, but it’s kind of a newer word for some people, even though it’s old. It just means limits in space, time, knowledge, and power. And the reality is we can only be [in one] place. We can only do so much. We can only know so much. So how is it that that is part of the good way that God made us? It’s not actually a result of the fall or sin. And so I’m interested in kind of trying to help us think through that a little bit.
Cherie Harder: Yes. And so what have you sort of encountered or discovered as the blessings that attend that finitude and frailty?
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, the simplest way to put it is love. Because the reality is we are— when we’re not coming to terms with the dynamics of our limits, efficiency and productivity become our highest goods. And love is kind of counter to efficiency and productivity all the time. I mean, I love efficiency and productivity. These are serious values for me. But you can see when they become the highest values, I tend to get isolated. It tends to undermine community. It tends to undermine the common good. And part of what you start to see is some of the good of our limits is that it is actually what fosters relationships with God, with others, even with the Earth. And that kind of healthy interdependence, not with God, but healthy dependance with all these other realities—God, neighbor, and earth—that’s actually the stuff of life. That’s actually where the good stuff is. And so our limits are not a bad thing. They’re what cultivate these relationships.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fascinating. So I want to dig into both love but also efficiency and also ask just sort of how you distinguish, both in the book and more broadly, between a healthy or even holy respect or reverence for limitation and perhaps just getting a little bit too comfortable with stasis or stagnation or not pushing ourselves—in that often there could be really a temptation to call a certain amount of sloth or self-indulgence as reverence for limits.
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, it’s a fascinating thing because it depends on who you are and what season of life you’re in. The reality, to be perfectly honest with you, is most listeners who are tuning in to the Trinity Forum on a Friday afternoon are probably realistically not people who struggle the most with sloth. They tend to be driven people. I could be wrong. These are stereotypes. But interestingly—
Cherie Harder: We’re a hardworking crew, Kelly.
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, interestingly enough, I feel the same thing. And I would say what I’ve discovered is I actually think it’s the same coin, where on one side is kind of this endless pursuit of productivity and not recognizing our limits and the opposite side of the coin of sloth. And actually, I think a lot of us struggle with both things, which is why it’s complicated. So you find a lot of us who are driven will just go, go, go. And then what happens is we turn to media, social media, binge watching, Netflix, etc. And it’s kind of— when we talk about these things, it’s interesting to me how often social media is to blame. Netflix is to blame. And I’ve kind of stopped thinking that. And I think rather than blaming social media and binge-watching shows, the more interesting question is why do so many of us do it? And it’s an indirect way of getting to your question, because I actually think we turn to those things because they’re basically socially accepted ways to numb ourselves about the endless demands. So in other words, a lot of us who are driven really hard all of a sudden find ourselves jumping into what might be sloth, but it’s almost a self-protection kind of thing. And so even high schoolers—it’s, you know, so frustrating for parents—but if you can—this is not an excuse—but if you can help understand that teenager is often trying to avoid the endless suffocating demands. So playing the video game is a way of escape. So actually, I think that sloth and the overwork are two sides of the same coin.
And the short answer, I would say, to figure out how to navigate it is you need community. Because I don’t think we’re the best judges of these things. We either think we’re letting ourselves off too easily or we’re pushing ourselves too hard. So I really do think friends, people that love you and know you, have to speak into that because we don’t just tend to struggle with one of them. We tend to struggle with both of them.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that is a fascinating point. It sort of reminds me, there was a quote I found from Wendell Berry. I’m going to read it. He’s like, “It’s easy for me to imagine the next division of the world will be between people who want to live as creatures and people who want to live as machines.” And as you were talking about, kind of like, as we sort of seek to numb ourselves, there’s a certain extent to which we choose some of this. We choose both to take on the extraordinary burdens, but then also numb out with social media as opposed to just, say, go to bed. There’s an appeal to some of this. And as a theologian, sort of curious, why do we long to live as machines?
Kelly Kapic: Well, it is fascinating. Obviously, that’s such a great but extended kind of question. And there’s all kinds of this historical and theological things. I mean, part of it is, when people are more connected to the land and to physical labor, some of these realities just come a little bit easier. But when kind of what we compare ourselves to is not a horse, but an iPhone—an iPhone just needs to be plugged in for half an hour, can go a lot longer, right? It’s just kind of endless. So I do think, you know, this kind of technological— One author argues the more interconnected we’ve become, the more life feels accelerated. And so there is this kind of everything feels faster.
There’s some fascinating studies in terms of, we all, by and large, a lot of us think we’re working more than people worked 30, 40, 50 years ago. But what’s interesting is there are some recent studies that have actually showed that’s probably not true. When you actually have people do the best way of keeping track, it’s not true. But the difference is we’re never done with work. It’s kind of always with us. And so what happens is now we create all these escapes throughout the day. But that means you could be at the soccer game with your kid and your phone’s buzzing and you have work. So you’re never done, even if you’re not actually necessarily working more. It just gets spread out. So that’s an example of some of the challenge there.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. It was interesting reading your book. I mean, your background is as a theologian, but you included quite a fairly extensive history on clocks, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting in your work. And, you know, often our instinct is, like, we must have a time-management problem. We’re numbing ourselves with social media. We’re clocking out. We’re getting distracted. Whatever it is. You actually argue, though, that the problem is not a time-management problem. You’ve claimed it’s a theological problem. What’s the theological problem behind our inability to manage our time well?
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, that’s great. It is this kind of relationship to time when you think about, you know, all these words we use when we greet people, like, “how are you doing?” I’ll say, “Well, I’m just so busy.” But think about the language we use like “I’m buried,” “I’m crushed,” “I’m overwhelmed,” “I’m stretched.” All of those—it’s actually physical. So many of those are physical. And so there’s this interesting discussion about our relationship to time and to the clock that’s kind of growing. And I didn’t plan on researching clocks, as you mentioned; it just became super interesting to kind of spend full time for six weeks or so just diving into the history of clocks because our relationship to the clock—and the clock is a later invention—does kind of affect things. It starts to wear— I mean, you always had clocks; you had like sundials, those kind of things. But all sudden, when you move from hour hands to, you know, days to hours, minutes, and seconds, and now we carry it on our bodies, there is this sense of ever pushing more and more to get more done because we tend to think of clocks now as about something— Even think about the term “managing time.” Like what in the world is that? That’s a crazy idea. Where did we start to think about that? Time is just this reality. That’s a larger conversation, but time is something that happens.
And so one of the questions is how do we relate to time? And a lot of the scholarship will tell you there’s what they would call a difference between contextual and noncontextual view of time. And let me just mention it real fast, because those of us in the West live in kind of this noncontextual view of time. What that means is tonight it could be Friday night. And you could go into your kitchen. It can be 11:00 at night, and you open up your laptop, you turn on the lights, the lights are on, your laptop’s buzzing at you, and you see emails and you think, “I have an hour of work to do, so I’m going to do it.” That’s noncontextual because it’s not taking into account your body chemistry, your blood sugar levels. It’s not taking into account there may be a baby crying in the next room. It’s not taking into account, you know, it’s dark outside. Whereas for most of the history of the world and for much of the world, to this day, they live in what we call contextual time. So when it’s dark, that affects our body chemistry. It’s time, you know— And I just think it’s a fascinating thing where stuff like the wonderful blessing of electricity has changed our expectations about how much should get done and changed our relationship to time.
So we do have—and the last thing I would just say on this is—innovation, as wonderful as it is, part of what they’ve shown again and again, whether it’s a vacuum or a washing machine, all of these “time-saving” devices, all that happens fairly quickly is increased expectations. And so we end up— that’s why after we get these things— you know, the iPhone was going to save us time and now we feel busier. The washing [machine], you know. It’s just one of those things. And I love the innovations, but we have to understand there’s a bit of a cost there.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You know, one thing I was curious about in reading your book, one of the things we do at the Trinity Forum is we try to provide space for leaders to grapple with the big questions of life in the context of faith. And most significant professional accomplishments are actually built around exceeding limits in some way. You know, there’s structural incentives around constant improvement. There’s Six Sigma management techniques to eliminate error. And virtually certainly any medical or technological breakthrough is doing something new, surpassing what we had assumed previously was a limit. And pursuing those goals inevitably requires focus, efficiency, sustained effort, and drive. So what counsel would you give to leaders who are driven to achieve or are captivated by a problem that they believe they can solve? What does it look like for a leader to embrace limits?
Kelly Kapic: That’s a great question because I can imagine someone hearing, especially if you haven’t read the book, you’re thinking, “What is this guy talking about?” I mean, if you’re an athlete and someone tells you “embrace your limits,” that’s a terrible thing to say, right? You’re never going to get faster. You’re never going to get stronger. You’re never going to get better. And, you know, if you’re going to get better at math or engineering or anything, we do constantly push against our limits. And I’m not naive. I’m fully aware of that. And that’s part of the goodness of growth. Right? So what we have to wrestle with is, in some ways, when I’m talking about limits, I’m just talking about what it means to be a particular creature with particular strengths and weaknesses and trying to figure that out. And so we do push ourselves and you want the doctor who studied— normally you want the doctor who studied more than the doctor who didn’t. Right. So those aren’t bad things.
But part of what we have to ask—it gets again to the community. What does this look like? And one of the things I would ask among leaders is, as you encourage yourself and others to grow, is this growth the only thing you’re thinking about? Because we’re holistic creatures. So if you’re so focused in one particular area that all of these other things are falling apart, this becomes a massive problem, right? So you have to think— it’s kind of like— You do have companies where someone will devote 14 hours a day to you, but in three years they’re gone. Right? So trying to think through this. Even in the book, there’s a section talking about stress and anxiety and the differences. And stress itself, stress is a good gift from God. You know, where if you hear a lion roar, you can run faster, right? If you’re going through an alley at night, you’re a little more attentive. There are these things that, you know, even physically we react. Stress is a good gift. The problem is when you take something that’s meant to be episodic and make it a lifestyle. And so for leaders, I would encourage them to think, how do you help create rhythms and seasons for your team that honor both seasons of pushing and of rest. Farmers have to work super hard at different times in harvest, but then they don’t at other times. It’s a different pattern. And the problem is now we just live constantly like it’s harvest. And we can feel it.
Cherie Harder: You know, speaking of rest and needing it, you drew a parallel or a connection that I thought was interesting between rest and rich relationship. How is it that rest and basically prioritizing that enables us to have deeper relationships or to love better?
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, that’s good. I mean, I think rest— There is in some ways— Let me take it in a slightly different way. I mean, rest is learning to be present. There is a sense in that. So we could talk about sleep, you know, even in light of some of the things we said earlier. And I think there’s this really beautiful theology of sleep we could talk about, where the reason we sleep is because God doesn’t. Right? And that is this ultimate rest of when you’re in war, you don’t sleep unless you have someone watching over you. Right. And then it’s safe. Well, Christians sleep because God never does. There’s something actually deeply important about the idea of sleep. There is this idea of God making us in this one-in-seven pattern. Abraham Heschel, this great Jewish author, had written a simple, small book called The Sabbath on the beauty of the Sabbath, or this one-in-seven pattern that the Hebrew Bible gives this cathedral in terms of time where we’re made to work and to rest.
And to get to your particular question, I actually think it’s related to the biblical idea of the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is not fundamentally about being scared of God. That can show up occasionally in Scripture. But fundamentally the fear of the Lord is just living in recognition of God’s presence and provision. That’s why it’s the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. And it’s interesting, in our day, I think we find being present—which is related to rest—being present so difficult, because we’re always thinking of the next thing or things we didn’t do. And, you know, think about these Christmas parties we’re going to. How often are you fully present there to the person you’re talking [to]? Or are we thinking about the next thing? And I think there’s something Christians can offer to this conversation where actually by cultivating a slowness and learning to recognize God’s presence and provision to be present with God, amazingly, it helps you to learn to be more present with other people. But you don’t tend to get that without times of quiet and solitude. That doesn’t have to be days and hours and hours. But I do think there’s something countercultural to Christians saying and other people saying, “slow down.” And you can, I mean, the mindfulness movement—I’m sympathetic because they can feel it. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you can just feel we’re not being present with people. We need to slow down. We need to be present.
Cherie Harder: Right. You know, that reminds me of something you said in your book that I thought was quite fascinating. You know, many of our inherent limits are fairly obvious to us. We know about time. Our bodily limits are very vivid to us. But one of the limitations that you talked about is that of our own self-knowledge, which I thought was quite interesting, in that you’ve argued that, paradoxically, knowledge of our own identity or a kind of gestation of it, like living into our gifts, growth, is often something that we cannot do entirely for ourselves, that we know ourselves better in community. And it’s often others that first see and then later call forth who we were made to be. And I’d love for you to talk about this a little bit more and how our own limitations and finitude actually can be related to our own growth and flourishing and identity.
Kelly Kapic: Yes. Thank you for asking. You know, it’s funny, it’s one of these things where we’re pretty comfortable with the idea, whether or not we practice it, that other people can help us see our blind spots. This is part of the goodness of diversity where we’re saying we need to cultivate diversity in our communities and our workplaces and our churches because they help us see blind spots. And that’s true. And we need to celebrate and cultivate that. But I think it’s actually the similar principle, not just other people help us see our blind spots or the negative part, but they also help us see gifts that we have that we don’t recognize. And I think that surprises people because they think, no, no, no, you know what you’re good at. But actually, often our gifts are what— It’s not that you don’t have to work at them, but they come more naturally. And because they come more naturally, one of the great challenges is we assume everybody else has it. We just think that’s part of being human, right? Which makes us judgmental of others and those kind of things. So it actually can be very helpful to have other people speak into our lives and say, “Hey, I really see this in you. I can’t believe that, you know, when you walk up into a group, just so you know, everyone kind of relaxes. You have the gift of hospitality. And I don’t know if you realize that.” Or, you know, “You look at a problem in a different way than the rest of us. And it’s so good having you in meetings because you see things the rest of us don’t.” There’s something about speaking that into other people’s lives that’s a tremendous gift and can bring some confidence. We’re so worried about making people arrogant, but actually it’s so affirming. Right? There’s something beautiful, especially with all this pressure in our culture [to] “know yourself,” “be yourself.” The internal world is a lot more complicated than that. So we need ourselves and others to navigate this.
Cherie Harder: You know, as you conclude your book, you give several different suggestions or guidelines for what you call living faithfully within finitude. And they’re excellent, but I wanted to ask you about one in particular, which was lament and gratitude. And you encouraged your readers to practice both simultaneously rather than picking between the two of them. And so I wanted to ask you what lament and gratitude have to do with living faithfully within finitude and better loving others.
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, that’s good. I think as Christians we are constantly tempted to lie. I think we’re constantly tempted to lie primarily about two things. One is how hard or complicated things are. We’re tempted to just make it “it’s all great and plastic” or “it’s all terrible.” We’re tempted to lie about how things are, and we’re tempted to lie about how good God is. And part of being a creature, part of being finite, is recognizing these limits of knowledge and all of this kind of stuff. But what this looks like in a healthy kind of way is learning to cultivate this sense of when you see hard things, you talk to God about them, you lament them, because it is hard or bad. Sometimes it’s just wrong. It’s injustice. And you need to lament it and not act [like] just because God is sovereign that what you’re seeing is a good thing. But at the same time, cultivating this sense of gratitude for God’s provision and his kindness.
And you probably know, in psychology in the positive psych movement, where they’ve responded historically to psychology was good for showing things that are bad, but not that are good. And anyways, you know, Bob Emmons, Robert Emmons, at UC Davis was one of the leaders on gratitude studies. And they’ve just shown—and this shouldn’t surprise us as Christians—cultivating a sense of gratitude, even making a gratitude journal of, you know, 5 to 10 things every day for a month, has all these physiological benefits. People tend to sleep a little better. Their blood pressure goes down. It’s all this kind of thing. But I think we choose between those and that’s where we get into trouble. You know, it’s kind of like my wife is thankful for her job and, you know, all these things she gets to do and her tremendous gifts and responsibilities. And so she’s thankful. But there’s still so much sexism in our world. And she should be able to lament that and when it affects her—and say the good things. She doesn’t have to pick between those. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to argue for. That is a way of recognizing our creaturely finitude is we don’t solve it, we don’t know it all, but we do go to the one who does.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. Well, there are quite a few questions that have come in from our viewers. And for those of you who are joining us for the first time, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So they’ve lined up here. One question from Derek Sherman, and Derek asked, “In what ways does technology shape or misshape our notion of creaturely limits? Is there a way that technology might actually help us with accepting and living within our limits?”
Kelly Kapic: Yeah, that’s great. You know, technology is a funny thing because when we use the word “technology” now, we tend to think of like digital things, right? iPhones or whatever. But, you know, creating a hoe, creating a hammer, any of that, these are technological. A pencil is a technological innovation. So technological innovations are tremendous gifts. And even those employing them, recognizing that how they’ve been given to us, how they can help us, I think those are great. But he’s right about this question of how they are shaping or misshaping us. The question is, are we recognizing it? And I do think unintended consequences are things we need to try and think about as they’re happening so that we’re more aware. And I would say, you know, without getting into a long thing, one of the simple questions is do you find your use of a particular technology makes it more or less difficult to be present with people? Right. If you’re finding that it makes it more difficult to be present with people, then you’re probably being misshaped by it. Those kind of things. Does it foster relationship? Well, even a better word than “relationship” is “shalom.” Does this technology help with shalom or not? And sometimes the same technology for some people can be beneficial and in others a negative. And I think we need to acknowledge that. I think simple black-white answers are often not very helpful. So what is an individual in a community, how does this technology affect them? And is it fostering shalom or undermining it, is the way I put it.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Our next question comes from Timothy Gulick. And Timothy asks, “Why do you think that community is so desired but not experienced as much now as it’s historically been?”
Kelly Kapic: It is fascinating how community is desired and we long for it. And you know, what was that? Oh, it’s not Bobos in Paradise, but the sociologist who wrote the book Bowling Alone. Right? Yeah. This idea of there has been this cultural shift where you used to go to bowling leagues, you used to be part of Kiwanis Club, you used to do these kind of things and you had community. And one of the most stable of those were religious organizations. And that has become less and less. It is fascinating that since COVID, there is this sense of both the desire to be alone and a sense of the problems with isolation. Both of those. And I do think humans, we are made for [community]—even introverts. I’m not trying to make light of it. I don’t think we all need to be extroverts. But even introverts need other people, right? There’s something about that. Just before you and I came on, I was watching the World Cup, and it’s amazing kind of the significance of these communal kind of things. And you and I were talking about, in Croatia, everybody’s leaving their house right now to celebrate because they want to be with others. They don’t want to do it alone. But so many people, there’s something about us humanly, and I think that’s the way God made us. I mean, we do need solitude and we do need community. And when we only have one of those, we have this internal sense that something’s a problem and something’s off.
Cherie Harder: Makes sense. So an interesting question from Rachael Sowinski and Rachael says, “I’m deeply involved in disability rights advocacy following a 1997 disabling motor vehicle collision. I’ve often thought of disability as a consequence of human sin in general. An emerging trend among disability rights advocates is promotion of disability as a natural biodiversity to be embraced among all human diversity. Please share your thoughts on the diversity of human disability.”
Kelly Kapic: That’s a fantastic, really hard question. Because my views on some of this have evolved, have changed somewhat over the last 10 to 15 years, particularly because my wife dealt with cancer and then has dealt with chronic pain since 2010. And I ended up writing a book called Embodied Hope on pain and suffering. And in the research on that, like she mentions, I ended up digging into a lot of kind of Christian ethicists, even friends, that have really thought carefully about what’s often called disability and thinking through that. Because there has been a temptation sometimes in Christian theology to confuse difference with problem. And so insofar as that’s the case, I do want us to be very careful. Right. It’s kind of like dyslexia and dysgraphia are serious challenges when you’re living in a Western world that puts so much emphasis on reading and writing. But for most of the world in the history of the world, that’s not a problem at all. Right? And often people who have these issues had other kinds of gifts that were so, so needed. So it was just difference. So the one thing I would say is I do think it’s difficult to navigate that. And I want to be careful about confusing difference with a problem.
But I would say Jesus really does come and bring physical healing. He brings sight to the blind, right? The lame walk, the deaf speak. So you get this healing, and this promise of God in the end is that there will be no tears, no pain, and no suffering. So the one thing I’m very certain of is whatever that difference looks like, if it involves pain, tears, suffering, that will be made right. And that does tend to therefore point to aspects of the fall, even if it’s not sin-related, like “this happened because of this.” It’s just we live in a broken world.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So a question from Chuck Olson who asked, “Not only does electricity, etc. change our concept of time each day, it also changes our perceptions of the seasons. Should we be trying to live differently during cold short days like now rather than during warm long days? Is there a human cost to denying the seasons?”
Kelly Kapic: Oh, I love it. Yes. I mean, I don’t know how we do it. But I absolutely do think that it’s fascinating to recognize these things. I mean, one example I use sometimes is people— It depends on clearly where you live, how long the sun is out during the day, and how long it isn’t, and it changes during seasons. Sometimes I think about, you know, reading these books of old saints and you’ll hear about this saint who got up at 4:30 in the morning to pray every morning. And it could be very godly, but it also could be because they went to bed at eight at night. Right. And so when you’re thinking in a Western mindset, you were up till 11 because you had all this electricity and then you went to bed, but you should get up if you’re really godly at 4:30. This is apples and oranges, right? Because at 4:30, sometimes it’s actually getting light some places and when you don’t have electricity—. So I do think there is something about getting some connection to the earth. And for me that has started to look more and more like simple things, like even going for longer walks outside. I used to work out inside and just some connection to being outside in the different seasons has been really helpful to me.
So I like the question. I’d love to hear what the person had to say in terms of suggestions, because I do think, you know, part of it, where you have a Christmas tree, that’s part of why we do these things for different seasons to recognize that. The problem is with consumerism. Now we’re making everything a season to drive consumption. And so you never get the down part. You only get the up part, right.
Cherie Harder: So Tammy Peterson asks, “I’m fascinated to hear more about how to disciple young people in finitude and growth. Your comments about exceeding limits is the air they breathe in education, athletics, and the arts. Is there a vocational discussion we can have about the rhythms and seasons of childhood and adolescence?”
Kelly Kapic: Oh, yes. Yeah. And, you know, in the first chapter, one of the big illustrations is just—I didn’t plan on doing research on high schools. But it’s amazing, you know. And when I go and speak to high schools now, you talk to these kids and they are starting, you know, 7:30 they’re leaving the home or earlier. They finish at 3:30. They change. They do an extracurricular till six or seven. They rush home, quick food, and then they’re basically shower and homework till 11 or so. Interspersed with other activities, church things, other things, and distractions. But they never stop. And basically we’re catechizing them. That’s what’s happening. And we’re baptizing it in Christian circles as “this is a good work ethic.” So actually what happens is by the time you finish college, if you’re not running hard until about 10:30 at night, you’re slothful. So I do think we need to think about it. And I hear legitimate stories—I was talking to someone not long ago who lives near UVA and just said they have a little girl and they said literally in first grade there’s pressure to get them into the right school. So I do think there are these very important conversations.
I’m an academic. I have Ph.D. I really care about education. But we’ve got to remember, education is not the highest goal. So, yes, there’s all kinds of conversations that need to be had. But I will tell you what school administrators tell me is the people who put the most pressure on schools and students to do more homework, as if there’s not enough, is the parents. So it’s a complicated conversation and it’s worth asking: what do we actually think the good life looks like? And what are we communicating to our children, either intentionally or unintentionally, what the good life is? Because I think it’s actually often very different than what we think we are communicating.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You know, that sense of never being done that you mentioned is something that our next questioner picked up on. Susan Fertig-Dykes asks, “Computers mean that there’s no finish to anything. We have the ability to endlessly edit. What has all this done to our expectations of perfect and final?”
Kelly Kapic: I love how the question ends because it’s not where I thought. I do think it has this— It challenges our expectations again. But I like the word “perfect.” One of the chapters in the book where it’s, you know, about God: why doesn’t God just instantly change me? And the way I wanted to start the chapter but didn’t have the guts was to say that God didn’t make a perfect world. He made a good world. Now, I actually believe that. I think theologically and biblically that’s true. But you would have to so explain it to people so they don’t panic. But the reason I mention that here is what we mean by that biblically is the word “perfect” biblically means “full” or “complete.” And God creates a good world. But that world always, even before there’s sin, is going somewhere. It’s kind of like when you read in Hebrews that Jesus, through his suffering, became perfect. You’re like, “Wait, wasn’t he always perfect?” Well, he was always without sin, but he’s becoming fuller, complete in this particular task and calling. And so all of that— I do think we struggle to understand process and development in time. And so it does make it difficult to ever say, “That’s good, even if it’s not final,” or something like that. So I don’t know if that’s— As an author, this stuff haunts me because you can— you know how it is. Like, nothing’s ever done. I love mowing my lawn because it’s something I’m like, “Oh, I finished.” So, you know, this is a job-specific kind of thing.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Perry Hughesman, and Perry asks, “Geneva, Switzerland, is the watch capital of the world. It isn’t by coincidence that this happened to be the center of Calvinism, with its emphasis on being responsible for time as a gift of God, thus the development of the individual watch. Isn’t there also the aspect of responsibility before God for the gift of time?”
Kelly Kapic: Yeah. I mean, oh, man, I love that kind of example. So there’s debate, even with Weber’s thesis about, you know, the Calvinist who think that their productivity earns them favor with God and so they have this endless work ethic, and there’s real debate about how well historically he’s representing things. But clearly in the Calvinist reformed tradition, one’s use of their time matters. Right? But it is also an example of where we’ve gotten to, I think, does contribute to a misunderstanding of Scripture. So think, for example, when we hear the biblical text “redeeming the time.” I think we tend to all think that’s about time management. And there’s real reason to say that’s not what that biblical text is primarily about. But it is in our world of efficiency and productivity, we’re bringing that to the biblical text and now using that as a text to justify and cause guilt and shame about how productive you are. And so that’s a massive kind of issue for us to think about.
So, yes, we need to use our time with care. But I’ll just give you one example. I think, you know, you ask most Christians, do you think we should pray more? We all say yes. And then I say, Do you feel guilty for not praying more? They say yes. But actually, I think there’s a strange thing where you have to have the courage to pray because praying feels so inefficient, so nonproductive. And the truth is, we don’t think it’s doing anything. So we know we’re supposed to do it. We do it, but it’s not doing anything. And if you’re supposed to redeem the time, you better, even if you’re praying, then that better be a checklist. It better be— It’s not about cultivating this communion with God. Yeah. So I have just found that kind of push to “redeeming the time” tends to get justified in terms of tasks done, not people loved or shalom fostered.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. Layne Wetzel asks, Layne says, “Hi Kelly, I am 28 and often conflicted between the amount of things I want to accomplish in my life and allowing myself grace that they don’t have to be done right now because hopefully I have many more years left in my life to do them. How do you balance these two?”
Kelly Kapic: Great question. As a college professor, one of the wonderful temptations we have is you can get a 20-year-old, 18-year-old, 22-year-old, and you can get him going. It’s exciting. You’re like, “You can change the world!” And this is, you know—and it’s wonderful. And there’s some truth to that. And you can get them really fired up. And then they go out and by the time they’re 28 or 30, they’re about to die. And then they often are bitter, burned out, and frustrated. So part of it is this challenge of recognizing our lives genuinely matter to God and to others. We really do. And we really can and do make a difference. But we’re also just particular people with particular strengths and limits. And so I do think there is something about embracing this kind of “28 is different than 18, but it’s different than 48 as well.” And again, I keep going back to community. I think we need to cultivate these communities that allow us to speak about these things. Like, “I really want to do this and I want to do that,” and others can help us think through “why don’t you do this? But doing this is not doing that.” So I think one of the things we struggle with is the unspoken, because by doing one thing, we’re not doing something else. And none of us want to say that. So we just keep adding. Right. And you can’t. So the maturity comes when you realize “I’m going to do this, and that means I’m going to close the door on this thing.” And that’s okay. It’s not bad, but that’s hard.
Cherie Harder: So I’m going to ladle two questions on top of each other. One is from Gordon Cloak and Gordon asks, “How do Sabbath observance and related spiritual practices and liturgies help us live within our limits and structure our time and priorities?” And somewhat relatedly, Emma Osburn asks, “How does your thesis on limitations and finitude differ from Christian humility?”
Kelly Kapic: Oh, yeah. Well, let’s do the first and then talk a little bit about humility. It’s interesting, if you talk about Sabbath in certain Christian settings where they have a history of legalism with Sabbath, as soon as you mention the word or “the Lord’s Day” or “day of rest,” there’s just like this dread, like, “Oh, you’re just adding.” But when you talk in other Christian traditions who aren’t familiar and you just tell some Christians, especially in the Western world, like, “Do you know that God kind of made us with this rhythm of one in seven, and one day a week you don’t need to work? You go worship with God’s people. You take a nap, enjoy feast. Enjoy God’s creation.” And honestly, it’s like, “No, that’s too good to be true,” right? And people think I’m joking, but as a college professor at a Christian school, you ask a lot of students, they feel guilty if they’re not studying on Sunday. They don’t actually— this invitation of genuine, like, one-in-seven rhythm is important to our humanity, is, I think, key.
The question about humility is, you know— there’s a whole chapter on humility because humility for me became really important. And so what I would, just, the short version is: I think as Christians, we have often based the idea of humility— the reason we should be humble, we often think, is because we’re sinners. And I think we’re sinners. And that can contribute to our humility. But I think when you build the idea of humility on the problem of sin, it distorts the whole thing and screws it up. So actually, Adam and Eve before the fall are meant to be humble. And by that, what we mean is they’re meant to depend on God, to depend on their neighbor, to depend on the earth. That dependence is humility. And that’s a good part of creation.
So if you embrace that view of humility as part of our creaturely finitude, then actually, rather than saying, you know, when Christians say, “I want to grow in humility,” what tends to get communicated is, “Well, focus on what a bad sinner you are.” Well, that can lead to all kinds of self-hatred. And, you know, I think we need to be sober about our sin and acknowledge it and repent of it. But another way you can cultivate humility is actually by learning to celebrate other people, by not viewing everyone as a threat or as a competition, actually looking for their good and celebrating what God is doing. So I actually do think these things are related. Affirming our finitude allows us to celebrate others in a different way. Bonhoeffer, the way he said it, is our dependence is part of the goodness of creation. What sin does is distort those dependencies, twist them. And so now we view each other as someone you need to dominate or to ignore. So Christian humility is the pushing back against that and celebrating honor in others.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So a question from Emily Ahearn and Emily asks, “How can we embody this posture positively in ways to change the culture at large? So much of this is against the grain, especially the idea that knowing the self is only best accomplished in community. What are some ways we can convince secular people?”
Kelly Kapic: It’s a great question. And the hard part of the question is, if we’re trying to convince kind of a big group, it tends to go badly. It tends to undermine the very thing we’re trying to do, right. It’s interesting and I like how you put it. So Alexander Schmemann was an Eastern Orthodox theologian. He has this book where he talks about secularism, and he talked about this decades ago. But part of what I found interesting about his definition of secularism was that actually what secularism is, is the absence of worship and the absence of worship of God. And he goes on to basically argue, Christians can be secular in this way because secular in this sense is living by ignoring God’s presence throughout the world, that kind of thing. And so I think rather than being weird, weird Christians and saying weird things and always, you know— but just this authentic naturalness of our lives are lived before God. It’s not weird to mention God. You don’t have to be strange about it. But also the kind of choices we make.
And this is one of the challenges Christians struggle with is, when power seduces us, this vision doesn’t work. But right now, including in a lot of our Christian circles, the way to change is to grab power. And so it really has distorted Christian understandings of the virtues and classic virtues like humility. I just read the other day—just yesterday, actually—of a pastor I kind of respect who belittled someone I know for publicly apologizing about something. And I thought, what has happened to us? But it’s a platform and it fits with a particular narrative. And so I think we’re just being hurt by this. So the strange answer is smallness in some ways is better. I mean, change is small.
Cherie Harder: Kelly, thank you. This has been rich and fascinating. And in just a moment, I want to give you the last word. But before that, a few things to share with each of you. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending out a feedback form to all of you who registered. We really welcome your feedback. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate the suggestions to make these programs ever more valuable and rich. And as a small token of our appreciation for your thoughts and opinions, we will give you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. There’s quite a few titles that I think pick up on this theme and allow one to go even more deeply into it, including Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Madeleine L’Engle’s “Bright Evening Star.” I think Bonhoeffer was mentioned earlier by Kelly. Our brand-new reading is “Who Stands Fast” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So we encourage you to fill out that form and just thank you in advance for your input.
Also, we will be sending around tomorrow an email with a link to the video of today’s Online Conversation, as well as a list of additional readings and resources. If you want to go deeper on the topic, we want you to be alert to that and also would love for you to share that video with others and start a conversation about the conversation we’ve had here.
Finally, I would love to extend an invitation to all of you joining us to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who wish to further the mission of the Trinity Forum to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership for the common good. There are quite a few benefits involved in being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, access to other programs like the one today, as well as our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations. And as a special incentive to all of you watching with your membership or gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Kelly’s book You’re Only Human, so [we] encourage you to avail yourself of that opportunity.
A few things coming up just to let you know about: same time next week, we’ll be talking with Hannah Anderson on her new book, Heaven and Nature Sing on renewing the joy of Advent. And we’ve also launched a new Advent podcast series where you can hear from folks like Curt Thompson on hope and healing in hard times, Jamie Smith on inhabiting time, Andrew Peterson on incarnation, and many others. So I hope that you will avail yourself of that as well.
Finally, as promised, Kelly, the last word is yours.
Kelly Kapic: Thank you. This has been a delight to be with you all. So thanks for taking the time. Yeah, I think the last word I’d like to encourage us with is a simple reminder that the goal of the Christian life is not to be superhuman. The goal of the Christian life is just to be truly human. The goal that we’re about is not something bigger, greater, grander. The God of creation loves what he made and doesn’t love the sin that distorts it. But he doesn’t hate our bodies. He doesn’t hate the earth. The goal of the Christian life is that we might become truly and fully human lovers of God, lovers of neighbor, and lovers of the earth. And so I think it’s actually, in our day, discipleship needs to be framed in terms of this vision of being truly humane in an inhumane world. So I hope that’s worth thinking about.