“Sin,” Augustine says, “refers to the willful misdirection of the love that is fundamental to the life of the soul.” We were made to love (i.e., to be in positive relation to the other); sin is a form of rebellion because it rejects these good designs of our good Creator. Sin is a problem; being human is not! Love, not escaping or overcoming one’s creaturely limits, is the goal of life. Sin undermines our true humanity, our true selves, because it distorts all of our relationships by disordering our loves (Kindle location 1611).
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What do you feel when you hear or read the word “finite”? How about the word “limits”? Do they awaken anxiety in you? FOMO? A rebellious impulse to push against the boundaries implied? As someone who has lived decades with disabling chronic illness(es), the first feeling I associate with those words is shame. My limits brought us back to the States from the mission field after only one year. My limits constrain my husband’s employment options. My limits have kept us sheltered at home when most friends and family are back to normal life (if normal even exists in 2022). My limits have often prevented me from rendering needed help to loved ones. My limits dictate what, when, how much, and how fast I do what I do and often require adapting the way normal people would do a thing to accommodate this broken body. When I meet someone for the first time, my limits cause me to break eye contact when asked, “Do you have kids? No? Then what do you do?”
Human limitation, or finitude, is the subject of the new release You’re Only Human, by Dr. Kelly Kapic of Covenant College in Georgia. Dr. Kapic thoughtfully and compassionately examines what the Bible and Christian thinkers past and present have to say about human limits, and I find his words gently corrective and healing. Dr. Kapic writes in a friendly, sometimes self-deprecating, and kind pastoral tone, but his thoughts are radically counter-cultural in 21st-century America and at the same time full of the old-fashioned front-porch wisdom my grandmothers would have considered common sense.
If you read nothing else from this book, this foundational paragraph is worth the price of admission:
the following central concepts will guide my reflections: 1. We are not under any requirement to be infinite—infinity is reserved for God alone. Rather, in and through our creaturely limits we are called to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In other words, loving both God and neighbor falls completely within the range of creaturely finitude. This takes us to my second guiding observation. 2. We need to stop asking (or feeling that we should ask) for God’s forgiveness when we can’t do everything, and we need to ask forgiveness for ever imagining we could! These and other reflections throughout the book are built on some basic theological assertions: God is the good Creator who designed us as good creatures. Part of the good of being a creature is having limits. The incarnation is God’s great yes to his creation, including human limits. God designed the person for the community and the community for the person. The Creator is also the Sustainer and Redeemer. We are never asked to relate to God in any way other than as human creatures. God’s goal for humanity is for us to become lovers of God, neighbor, and the rest of creation (Kindle galley location 271).
Here are a few more takeaways from my first reading of this rich book.
- Finitude does not equal sin unless one worships at the altar of productivity. Human limits were part of God’s design even before the fall of man in Genesis 3.
…we must rediscover that being dependent creatures is a constructive gift, not a deficiency. Clever readers might even notice that using “dependent” as an adjective for “creature” is basically redundant—there are no creatures who are not, by their very nature, dependent beings. Our dependency does not merely point to abstract ideas of divine providence, but takes concrete form when we rely on others, on the earth, on institutions and traditions. We must learn the value and truthfulness of our finitude, eventually getting to the point where we might even praise God for our limits (200).
To start affirming our creaturely finitude as a good quality rather than an evil to be overcome, we must confess that God loves me and not just Christ instead of me. His love is not driven by ignorance (e.g., “He doesn’t see you”), but by delight and purpose (seeing you as his own lost sheep in need of a Shepherd): he likes how he made you, and his overflowing love now pours out toward you, his particular creature; he is about rescuing and renewing you. Holding together creation and redemption allows you to make sense of this dynamic, a dynamic employed by the apostle Paul (502).
- God likes you, the unique and particular you, not just Christ in you. Yes, Jesus loves you, but the Triune God also likes and enjoys you. He doesn’t love out of duty of obligation but with delight. Intellectually, I know this, but it may take my lifetime for it to sink in emotionally.
The fact that my identity must be in Christ doesn’t change the fact that I am this person and not that one, that I am from here and not there, and that I have this history and these relationships and not those. We also tend to mistake our natural human limits as faults we must overcome. But when our search for identity in Christ includes a healthy view of creaturely finitude and particularity, then we see something truly beautiful and unique take shape. The church starts to look like it was meant to look: diverse, united, gracious, and most of all, loving. All in and around Christ! (1381).
- Dr. Kapic points out human tendencies either to make the physical body ultimate and constantly stretch one’s limits or to deny the value of our physical bodies, as if our spirits alone matter and can be separated from our bodies (ancient gnostic dualism rearing its ugly head even now). He distinguishes the Christian doctrine of bodies from both of those alternatives.
The countless needs of all human bodies are intentional design elements to the way we were made—not to be independent loners, but connected to each other in a web of interdependence and relationships; not ghostly, disembodied souls, but dust-derived, spirit-breathed creatures. And this is good! Our physicality opens us up to interactions with each other and with the world around us. And even the limitations of that physicality become elements of our creativity. Being human has always been an embodied state, and that has always been a good, not a bad, thing. Even dependence, contrary to the individualist philosophy of our culture, is part of the blessing of human existence. The first creation account (Gen. 1) describes the entire material world as ‘good,’ but the second account (Gen. 2) examines the creation of humanity in two parts. When it considers Adam as a creature to himself, ‘alone,’ the text declares this ‘not good’ (Gen. 2:18). Adam’s body is not bad; his aloneness is the problem (1006).
- Related to the previous point is a fascinating discussion of the theology of belly buttons as witnesses to our interdependence and communal identity.
- Kapic spends a chapter examining humility and contends it is grounded not only in our sinfulness but first in our creatureliness. He also asserts that “pusillanimous” hiding and hoarding of God-given gifts is just as opposed to Christian humility as boasting about them without giving honor to God (another idea that will need some time to steep).
Humility consists in a recognition of (and a rejoicing in) the good limitations that God has given us; it is not a regrettable necessity, nor simply a later addition responding to sinful disorders. Even if there had never been a fall into sin, humility would still have the essential character of gratitude for our dependence on God and for his faithful supply of our need. Humility is built on the Creator/creature distinction; its response to sin emphasizes our further need for God to restore us to the fellowship that he always intended us to inhabit. What difference does this make? Building on creation rather than sin avoids distortions like un-Christian self-hatred (I’m so terrible I am not worth anything) and self-absorption (look Mom, I’m humble!). While our struggles with sin and the ways sin distorts our lives can, of course, reinforce the need for taking a posture of humility before God, his actions of creation and redemption alone (not our sin) are the solid foundation on which we can build our doctrine (1952).
Christian humility 1. recognizes God as our Creator and Sustainer, 2. delights in the gifts of others, and 3. gratefully participates in communal life, exalting the needs of others over one’s own (2118).
- Finally, returning to our cultural idolatry of productivity, Dr. Kapic examines the history of human relationship to time and timekeeping. In so doing, he exposes how relatively recent and geographically limited is our governance of life by schedules and clock time. In this chapter, I especially appreciated the sensitivity to cultural diversity and people with disabilities.
When productivity alone reigns, we cultivate idolatry rather than worship, isolation rather than community, and selfishness rather than love. It pushes away our awareness that God is with us and inviting us into his fellowship, even if, in my mind, I still affirm God’s existence. Despite knowing better, how often do I use productivity as my chief measure of value? Until we admit and reject that habit, there is no healthy way to address stress and anxiety. Our current harried state obscures the Spirit’s presence and deafens us to the divine benediction whispered to us throughout the day (2285).
There’s so much more I could say, but I expect I have already reached or passed the limits of your attention (pun intended). This is a meat-and-potatoes book of accessible theology. It is not a quick read but one to ponder and apply for a long time yet. The breadth of research and depth of thought are worthy of multiple readings and consideration for use in the classroom, but Kapic avoids technical theological jargon and clinical academic prose. This book could also generate rich conversations for a small group for church, college, or seminary. It’s only January, but I anticipate that You’re Only Human will be at or near the top of many “Best of 2022” Christian book lists.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary electronic copy of this book. The thoughts above are my own.
Another disclaimer: Amazon link is an affiliate link that will yield a small commission to me at no additional cost to you, should you decide to purchase this book.