We live in an age that values productivity. There is an entire cottage industry of books and resources to help us manage our time, organize our lives, and squeeze every last second out of the day. As a proponent of time management processes (though not always the best adherent), I find these useful tools. However, in our pursuit of doing more, we are often saying with our lives a lie that we would likely never utter with our lips: “I am god, and I am unlimited.”
However, as theologian and author Kelly Kapic reminds us in his new book, You’re Only Human, our limits and dependencies are a good gift from God, not the result of the brokenness of the world. He was kind enough to join us for an interview to discuss the reality of our limits, our need for rest and humility, and why we struggle to see all of this as an essential and good part of our nature as created image-bearers.
Alex Ward: Our limitations and finitude are something that you say we often run into through our encounter with the harsher parts of reality — a child’s sickness, an overwhelmed schedule, the loss of a job late in life — rather than an idea and concept that we meditate on as a comfort. Why is it that so often it takes these harsh moments for us to realize our limits?
Kelly Kapic: None of us would call ourselves ‘god,’ but when we start to explore our deepest assumptions and how we approach life, what we often find betrays hidden beliefs: we assume we are or at least should be in control. And that is how we try to conduct our lives. Until there is a serious problem, we tend to assume the problem is something we can solve, and so we just try harder, get more organized, and then we assume the challenge can be overcome.
But often it is only when things start to fall apart that we realize we can’t make everything all right. As the curtain is lifted, if we have the courage, we start to realize how little we were ‘in control of’ in the first place. And it is during those times we finally start to consider our finitude.
AW: Especially in our current American context where we can have almost anything easily and quickly, why are limits a good thing? How do they help us see God better and our relationship to him?
KK: Limits are a good thing because God created human creatures, and to be a creature is, by design, to have limits. Finitude doesn’t necessarily imply talk about death: it is just a fancy term that means we are limited by space, time, knowledge, power, etc. In my book, when I am talking about ‘finitude,’ I am talking about these limits. We have a particular body, a particular brain, we come from this family and not that one, we live here and not there, we have these neighbors and not those. All of those particulars situate us, both opening up opportunities for us but also making claims on us, inevitably limiting us in various ways.
One of my concerns is that Christians have too often confused finitude with sin, and so we start to believe we must overcome all our limits. We feel guilty about our limits, treating them like sins that should be resisted and overcome.
Without realizing it, this confusion often breeds unhealthy guilt among God’s people when we constantly feel that we should be doing more. Do we allow ourselves to go to bed at night knowing that in our smallness God has been honored and that he delights in us even in our small world? Put differently, does faithfulness require that we sign up for every legitimate volunteer opportunity, or attend every meeting, or give to every noble cause?
Here is the big surprise: God created us as finite, which means we are made to be dependent. Healthy dependence or interdependence is part of the good of God’s creation, not the fall. What sin does is distort and undermine healthy dependence, but it did not create it. The fact that we think of the word ‘dependence’ in purely negative terms says a lot about us as a culture and as individuals.
AW” It’s not uncommon for people to create new schedules or plans at the beginning of the year to try and squeeze more time out of their day, whether that’s because they want to read more, workout more, or just spend more time with family. So how should Christians approach these productivity hacks and attempts to redeem their time? Is it ultimately just a futile quest?
KK: Personally, I love ‘to-do’ lists and ‘time management’ suggestions, but I also think they are dangerously seductive. And I think we need to be asking a different set of questions.
I am arguing that ultimately we are not dealing with a time management problem, but with a theological one. We have misunderstood God, how he created the world, and what he expects of us. Until we deal with this underlying problem, we will always feel exhausted, defeated, guilty, and frustrated. Sadly, the Church often tries to deal with these feelings in the same way as the world, through better “time management.”
Even the language of ‘managing time’ or ‘organizing time’ often gives us a false sense of control. We can make plans, but actually time is not something we can control or manage. It is not within our power. This is why we — including me — get so easily angry when our perfectly planned productive days go sideways. Part of what happened is we imagined we had more control than we actually did, and until we are more honest about how these assumptions affect us, we won’t address the anger, frustration, and despair that so easily starts to permeate our lives because we are not ‘getting everything done.’
Without launching into a much larger discussion here, I will just give one suggestion: be more realistic. I know, for example, that my ‘to-do’ list for Monday is really not a to-do list for the day but will likely take me a week. When I don’t realize that, it easily produces what one writer calls ‘productivity shame.’ We set ourselves up for failure.
As Christians, we don’t need to feel guilty about our limits, but we need to have the courage to be more honest about them. And that includes how much time is required by the relationships that God puts into our lives. We can’t do everything, nor does God call us to.
Similarly, we should ask, in this particular season of life and in this particular place with my particular gifts and limits, what does faithfulness look like for me here and now? Try to be honest with yourself. It will take courage to allow yourself to do less.
When we add too many things to our schedule and we are driven by productivity as our highest good, then we end up with little margin. And experience tells me that love takes place in those margins. Therefore, as Christians we need to slow down in order that you can be present and able to really love others as God gives opportunity. A test case: love inevitably makes demands, so when opportunities to love arise in our days, do we find ourselves getting bitter and angry inside, or grateful for a chance to care for another person?
AW: We live in a society that prizes individuality and the ability to present the best version of yourself, whether in business or social media or just personal interactions. But you remind us that humility should be central to how Christians interact in the world. Why do we need a theology of humility, especially now?
KK: I believe humility is central to a Christian vision and life. But, as I discuss in the book, I worry that we have too often built our understanding of humility on the foundation of sin, on the idea that we should be humble because we are sinners. While I think our sin does add weight to the call for us to be humble, I don’t think that is a good foundation for humility. And when we build humility on this as the foundation, we shouldn’t be surprised when we get so many unhealthy views of humility.
But biblically, we should be humble simply because this is a realistic recognition that we are limited creatures. Humility is the joyful affirmation of reality, the reality that as creatures we were always made to be dependent upon God, others, and the Earth. Even if there were no sin and fall, humans were to be humble. Humility both fosters worship of our Creator God, and it liberates people to delight in others without always having to compete with them. Humility doesn’t just say “I’m sorry,” but “how should I do this?” and “what do you think?” At its best, humility comes out in sincere questions and gratitude, not self-loathing.
AW: One element of our finitude that seems to create such tension is how we relate to time and the demands of our life. You note a helpful distinction between stress and anxiety. Especially with all the recent studies and reports about the overwhelming sense of anxiety that have been produced by the pandemic and our isolation, how should we think about these concepts? How should we respond to stresses in our lives?
KK: That is a great question. Since I can’t unpack this like I do in the book, I will just say that I think anxiety is often a distorted relationship to time. And so in order to address some of the deeper problems, we have to explore things like expectations. As I explore in the chapter on this topic, I came to believe that the way to navigate this high level of stress and anxiety is through a renewed appreciation for the ancient Hebrew understanding of the “fear of the Lord.” I will just say here, I think at its root this points us to the idea of learning to recognize God’s presence in our lives and in his world. He is always present, but do we recognize him? And I would connect learning to be present with God with learning to be more present with others — and I strongly think one of the reasons we have a rise in anxiety is related to our inability to be truly present with each other, even when we are physically together.
AW: In previous generations, if I wanted to learn something it might have taken weeks or months to get the right books and go through the right coursework, whereas now I can just google an answer. Similarly, I might have needed weeks for a package to arrive and now can have it in a matter of hours if I’m close enough to an Amazon hub. How has this distorted our understanding of the progressive and long-term process of God’s work in our lives?
KK: I think what you describe above is real and it does affect us. And when you put into that situation a Christian who recognizes the sins and weaknesses in our lives, we end up with a potent question: why doesn’t God just instantly change us, since he doesn’t want us to sin? Behind these questions and concerns is often our sense that God wants us to be perfect immediately. And yet even in the creation narrative, God takes his time. He values process. One day to the next, things unfold, build upon each other, grow and develop. God has always been comfortable with process, and we need to rediscover the good of process. This can significantly transform our Christian lives and give us a renewed sense of hope and courage. It really is true, he who began a good work in us will continue it to completion. And if he is okay with not instantaneously completing his work in us, then we should not lose heart that our growth often takes time.
AW: If I’m looking to develop this proper theology of my limits, what are some practical steps that I can take? What is a good place to start? What practices can I build into my life to help with that?
KK: In the last chapter I suggest four perspectives that can help us return to a healthier relationship with our limits: rhythm, vulnerability, gratitude, and rest. Obviously it takes me a long chapter to unpack these four, but let me just give a sentence or two for each.
We would do well to learn to honor different seasons of life and adjust our expectations about what faithfulness looks like as we live within the rhythm of each season of life as we go through it. Being 18 is different from being 58, and having a newborn is different from being an empty nester; appreciating the rhythm of decades, years, months, and days can give us a healthier view of opportunities and limits.
Cultivating an awareness of our vulnerability (which in the book I explain is different from being ‘fragile’) can help us learn to appreciate the healthiness of our dependence upon God, neighbor, and the earth. This helps us grow more comfortable in our relationships, admitting our needs as well as being more ready to offer our gifts for the good of others.
I believe we need to learn both lament and gratitude as expressions of our experience of the world and of our dependence on God in it. We can’t control everything, and so when tragedy, pain, and suffering happen, we should lament. But we can also learn to be grateful, not for evil, but for God’s presence and care which are always active. Rather than pick between lament and gratitude, we need both, sometimes simultaneously. And when we practice them, I think we end up with a healthier relationship to our own finitude and to God.
Finally, rest. It was fun to talk about a theology of sleep in the book, and why sleeping can be an act of faith. Simply put, we can sleep because God never does. That can be especially hard for us when anxiety swirls all around us. It’s hard for me. I also encourage us to rediscover the joy of a regular day of rest, which is set aside for worship, a different pace, and a release from doing our normal labor. It has become radically countercultural to set aside one day in seven for this kind of rest, but this is fundamental to how God made us. This is not about unthinking conformity to a legal code; instead, God uses our worship and rest to root us more deeply in human flourishing and to give us a vision for life much greater than an endless list of to-dos.