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What Does It Mean to be Human? Dr. Kelly Kapic

Home » What Does It Mean to be Human? Dr. Kelly Kapic

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Kapic on how to understand the limitations that come with being human.

Topics of conversation include:

  • How our limitations as humans are not sinful
  • Why unrealistic expectations cause guilt and anger
  • The misunderstanding of humility, rest, and identity that leads to resisting dependency
  • How community helps to balance work and limitation
  • Further resources for thinking through this issue

Dr. Kelly Kapic serves as professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College. He is the author of several books, including The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story (Zondervan Academic, 2018), Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering (IVP Academic, 2017), and You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News (Brazos Press, 2022).

 


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:18):

Do you ever feel like you just can’t get it all done? Things are piling up, and no matter how much time you give them, it just won’t all get done. Do you ever feel like you just don’t measure up? Well, welcome to the club. We all feel like that. But why is that? Well the answer is that we’re human. Being human means a lot of things. It means that we’re made in God’s image and we’ve been given dominion over creation. It means that we have enormous capacity and have great ambition to make this world better. But it also means that we’re finite. God didn’t create us to be infinite. He created us to be in dependence on him. Well here to help us understand what it means to be human, especially in our limitations, we have with us Dr. Kelly Kapic. Dr. Kapic is professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He has written books on a variety of theological topics, ranging from the theology of John Owen, to theological anthropology, to various issues in practical and pastoral theology. Some of his books include The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story, and Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering. Most recently, he has written You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News, which released back in January of 2022, and is the topic of our conversation today. Dr. Kapic, welcome to the podcast.

 

Kelly Kapic (01:35):

Oh, it’s great to be with you. Thank you for having me.

 

Brian Arnold (01:37):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today that question is—what does it mean to be human? So let’s just start off there. What makes a human, human? Especially in, you know, differentiating that between animals or the rest of creation?

 

Kelly Kapic (01:52):

Yeah, well obviously that’s a huge question. For us, part of what I’m trying to explore as Christians is to understand—to be human is to be a creature. I think that makes us nervous. I mean, we could get into the theological idea that we’re made in the image of God, which is absolutely vital to us. But part of what I’m trying to help us understand is—we were made to be human, and to be human as a human creature is not a problem. It’s a benefit. And we could explore…I actually think to understand what it means to be human, we should look…we should spend less time comparing humans to animals, and more time comparing ourselves to Jesus, who is the image of God. We’re made in his likeness. And so if you want to know what it means to be truly and fully human, we look to Christ. And that raises all kinds of interesting questions. But yeah, I’m interested in exploring—what does it mean that we’re creatures? And to be a creature, even a human creature, is not inherently sinful. Sin is a later problem, but just being human isn’t a problem. Does that make any sense?

 

Brian Arnold (03:02):

Absolutely, it does. And I’m looking forward to unpacking that. And I love even just setting our focus on Jesus as the ultimate human. He is what humanity is meant to be, right? In his even sinlessness. But I wonder how often people get some of the finitude issues confused with sinfulness issues, right? So we’re created to be finite, but sin enters the world. So how do we understand all that in terms of—was Adam…did he have more capacity than we had, or is finitude more of an issue of the fall? How do you walk people through that?

 

Kelly Kapic (03:40):

Yeah. And that’s great. And you know, the word finitude or finite is not a word we use a lot. So just to make sure people are tracking with us, it’s just a fancy word for meaning creature, having limits—space, time, knowledge, power. And so, even though…Christians, we talk about having eternal life. Actually, we have a beginning, and we are always dependent on God. So we are…only God is infinite, and by definition, all of us are finite. And so finite’s just a fancy word for creature. Let me just jump to really a pastoral implication of this, to help us understand what we’re actually trying to get at. So many of your listeners will probably be like me, where, when I put my head on the pillow at night, I feel—not just tired, but I feel often a wave of guilt come over me.

 

Kelly Kapic (04:30):

And what’s interesting is when I explore that, it’s not always that it’s because I’m reflecting on my day, and I think, “Oh, I was cruel to that person” or “I was greedy in that case” or I…you know, sinful things. But what’s interesting is often the wave of guilt, when I analyze it, it’s actually, “Kelly, you didn’t do enough—why didn’t you get more done?” And that’s fascinating, because I think it’s an example of where, in my own heart and life, I have confused finitude and sin. And so I feel guilty all the time, but as a theologian, as I’ve explored it, I have felt guilty for actually just being a creature. And so in this book I’m trying to help myself and others work through the theology of it—to recognize God never intended us to do everything. And so we’re living with…we have plenty of sin in our lives we need to deal with, but doing more is often not the problem.

 

Brian Arnold (05:26):

Well in this world, in this day and age, we’re encouraged to do more and more and more. We are so measured by our output—you know, are you a high capacity person or a low capacity person? Are you the kind of person we want to hire and promote and place a lot of responsibilities on? And if you do, you have high worth. If you don’t, somehow your worth is decreased. And that has crept its way into ministry. So you know, there’s a lot of pastors who might be even listening. So how have you seen that, you know, come into the church? And what even word of encouragement would you give to pastors who feel that guilt, just simply because they’re finite?

 

Kelly Kapic (06:07):

Yeah. Well, for a long time we’ve tried to make machines like people, and what’s happened is—we’ve actually made people like machines. And Christians…we’ve even baptized this. And so, we have elevated efficiency and productivity as the greatest values. And that even creeps into the church. So you know, well-meaning business people will get in the church, and they’ll realize how inefficient the church is. And they’ll come in and they’ll want to fix it. But here’s one of the reasons why a lot of pastors listening feel constantly frustrated. You have a good plan for your week, you know how much you want to get done. You know—this is what you’re going to do. And then Monday, Aunt Susie dies, and now you’re dealing with a grieving family and a funeral. And then Monday afternoon, you’re dealing with someone whose child is dealing with an addiction. And you haven’t even gotten to Monday evening, and your entire week is shattered, right?

 

Kelly Kapic (07:03):

And I can help the pastor—as long as you don’t love anybody, you can get everything done. And so what I want people to realize is God’s value is not efficiency or productivity. It’s love. But that then means we need to reevaluate our lives, our values, and some of those things. There’s a lot more to say on that, but I would just say to pastors—part of the reason why those of us in ministry feel guilty all the time, is because we have baptized time is money. We commodify it, and that actually isn’t a path that tends to make space for love. Love happens in the margin. And we try and max out our lives, and so there’s no margin. And so to help and serve people actually makes us angry. So you have a lot of ministers and Christians who are smiling, but deep down they are enraged. And these are all larger conversations.

 

Brian Arnold (08:03):

It is. But I want to press in a little bit more there. I was telling my wife even recently—somebody’s got to do some more work on why pastors are so angry. I see it, I talked to…I was having some conversations recently with guys whose dad was a pastor. And they said, you know, “I know my dad loves the Lord, and you know, he was never sinning against us majorly, but he was just an angry guy.” And then they started seeing that in their own life. And the busier I become, I see that more in my own life. And I think it would surprise a lot of people to realize how much their pastor, or somebody leading in ministry, is dealing with anger behind a facade of the slapped-on smile, like you said. So let’s pierce a little bit deeper into that issue. Because I think it’s under-talked about in the churches today.

 

Kelly Kapic (08:58):

Yeah. Because part of what’s going on are expectations. Expectations from the church, but to be honest, I often find that pastors themselves, we…you know, those in ministry, those in nonprofit ministry and leadership, very few have as unrealistic expectations of those leaders as they have of themselves.

 

Brian Arnold (09:18):

It’s self-imposed, absolutely.

 

Kelly Kapic (09:20):

Yeah. And what’s interesting is if I ask—do you think God expects…we don’t tend to blame God, but when you…if you can slow down and ask, and sit with honest questions, the reason why we feel guilty, the reason why we feel angry, is actually we do think God expects all of it of us. He expects us to be everywhere, to do everything, to know every answer. And in our heart we know we don’t, and can’t, and so we’re just angry. Because it’s being given a task that’s impossible, and yet to pretend like if we just tried harder, we could. So we need to have pastoral care for pastors. And this is just…it’s not a small problem. It’s a major problem for us.

 

Brian Arnold (10:05):

It is. And I love how you even…you know, we’re talking about the self-imposition of it, and the weights that we put on ourselves. And it’s really then a fear of failure. Like, I feel like anger comes out of—I’m going to fail at this. I can’t be successful at this. And I want to succeed. I think a lot of people in pastoral ministry have been those who have succeeded in a lot of things in life, and they get accolades for that. And then feel like—if I’m not doing that, then I’m failing. And if I’m failing, ultimately I’m letting God down. You have this quote in your book, or this quotation, let me read it—”The Creator God is not embarrassed by the limitations of our bodies and his material world, but fully approves of them, in and through the Son’s incarnation. Only when we appreciate this can we clearly see how our human limits should not be confused with sin, but rather seen as a positive aspect of our humanity.” So there’s something actually glorious about our limitations. God is not embarrassed by those. And he’s actually in this position of—when he sees us trying to act like we don’t have those, he knows things are going to break for us.

 

Kelly Kapic (11:08):

Yeah. Yeah, it’s huge. So do you mind if I take us in the direction of talking about humility for a second here?

 

Brian Arnold (11:15):

Absolutely.

 

Kelly Kapic (11:15):

Because that’s…so part of the argument I make in the book, it’s framed around different questions, and one of the questions is—have we misunderstood humility? And I think we have in some pretty profound ways, historically and even in the contemporary church. So if you ask a Christian—why should we be humble? Our immediate answer is—well because we’re sinners. And I’m a theologian, I think we are sinners. We need to repent of sin. And our sin should foster in us a humility. But actually, if you build the foundation of humility on sin, that then distorts the whole structure. Which is why people think…we know we should be humble, but then we try and achieve it by just thinking worse and worse of ourselves. Right? But if—and I’m gonna circle back to your actual question—if you build humility, not on the doctrine of sin, but on the doctrine of a good creation, then everything changes.

 

Kelly Kapic (12:11):

So here’s the question—even if there were no sin or fall, should we, as human creatures, be humble? Right? And the answer is yes. Because even before sin and fall we were, by our design, dependent upon God, dependent upon our neighbor or others, dependent upon the earth. And in those dependencies—that’s all part of the good of God’s creation. Think about how the word dependence, even me, it strikes us as such a bad word in our culture. And I know that there are problems, like inappropriate dependencies. But the good of creation is these kind of dependencies…sin doesn’t make us dependent, sin twists those dependencies. So all of that to say, learning to say, not just “I’m sorry,” but “I don’t know,” or “Can you help me?” Those are humble questions that are not…they’re not at even admitting sin. They’re just part of the good. And then we get to celebrate other people, rather than compete with other people. So that’s a lot, but a way to start to think through some of those.

 

Brian Arnold (13:22):

Well, and even kind of bringing some of those themes together is the idea of sleep. I mean, the fact that we were created…I’m imagining that Adam was sleeping his eight hours a night before the fall. And, I like to imagine, unmolested by mosquitoes, out in the Garden of Eden, enjoying some really deep rest. And God tells us he doesn’t sleep. So like—he’s the one who can be awake and handle those things. But even the fact that we need sleep should remind us of our humility, should remind us of our finitude, should remind us that we can’t do it all. That God is the one who’s still at work, even when we can’t.

 

Kelly Kapic (14:02):

Yeah, no. And it was fun to kind of…there’s a section on a theology of sleep, and realizing, exactly as you said—the fact that God doesn’t sleep is why we can sleep. Right? But when you’re in war, if there’s no one to watch your back, you can’t go to sleep. But we can sleep, because God never does. Right? And just kind of thinking through that. And even a one-in-seven day of rest, these kind of biblical experiences that much of the church, and definitely the world, has forgotten is one of the reasons why we’re all exhausted. And it’s really hurting us.

 

Brian Arnold (14:38):

Exhausted, and then what we said before—exhaustion, and the feeling that you can’t get it all done, leads to anger. And we see plenty of that in our world today. I wonder how much of those are just connected. And if we were a people who, again, in humility, put more on the Lord than on ourselves, we would…

 

Kelly Kapic (14:55):

Yeah. Just one thought on that. So for example, you know, when we start to think about our lives—and we can all feel how stressed out we are and how much—it’s often then that we say, “Well, look at how much Netflix people watch,” and “Look at how much time they spend scrolling on their phone, on Facebook or Twitter,” or whatever. All of those things are true, but where I’ve come to is I no longer…we tend to blame those things. And I now think they’re a symptom of a much deeper malady. In other words, I don’t think we have a time management problem. I think we have a theological problem. I don’t think we actually know what…not just what good work looks like, but what good rest looks like, what pace looks like. And part of that’s just because we’d have to talk about time, and you know, what is time, and how we have started to think about time, and how it’s really not just smartphones, it’s the fact of electricity, and at 11:30 at night you can turn on your computer and start working for an hour. And we act like that hour is the same as your body at nine in the morning. And there’s all kinds of factors that it’s not the same, but we have decontextualized time, and it’s really affecting our bodies, our relationships, all kinds of things.

 

Brian Arnold (16:11):

It’s a complex of issues. And we’re kind of in the middle of lots of different attacks on that, that is complicating everything. And I know I feel that, you know? Like when I…in Scripture it’s pretty clear that we have a Sabbath rest. Like God knew that we would have a tendency to want to overwork ourselves. But he wanted, you know…Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. And you know, so many people—and myself included. I mean, I am…this is a really helpful conversation for my own heart and soul of thinking how much space I give to work and things that just have to get done. And the list just keeps getting longer. And what you feel like you can accomplish gets less. And so you rest less. And then you’re in this cycle of constantly trying to do more.

 

Brian Arnold (16:54):

You know, one of the areas you even take that in your book, is in terms of identity, right? That we can find our identity wrapped up in who we are, what we accomplish, the what you do of life, right? When you first…women this is true of too, but I feel like it’s especially true of men, of asking that question—what do you do? And that becoming the totality of our existence. And we want to justify that by then how much we get done, to demonstrate how much worth we have. So how have you seen identity come into the question of finitude in our day?

 

Kelly Kapic (17:28):

Yeah. I think there’s a lot of confusion on identity, both…coming in different directions, the right and the left. I hate using those terms. But it comes in different ways from both sides. So, for example, people don’t even tend to realize how contemporary it is that when you say, “Who am I?” or “Who are you?” we try and answer that question by simply looking inside of ourselves for an answer, right? Through a psychological evaluation. We say, “Oh, here is who I am.” Whereas for much of the history of the world, and through much of the globe today, if you ask someone who you are, who are they, they will tell you about their tribe, their land, you know, their family, their DNA in that sense, or even their vocation, what they do. And it’s interesting—biblically, there’s something about both the external factors and the internal factors that help us understand who we are.

 

Kelly Kapic (18:24):

And so I think identity is pretty complex. And so, in Christian circles, we rightly tell people to have their identity in Christ. And I absolutely think that’s true. But here’s a bit of a problem on the right side (the other one is on the left), is we tell people—have your identity in Christ. Absolutely true, because that relativizes all other identities. But the reality is—the fact that I am from this family, and this land, and have this history, and this biology, that’s not insignificant. It’s part of my identity. And to be a Christian doesn’t mean none of those things matter. It just means none of them have ultimacy. So we can honor people’s particularity without letting any of it have an undue power or destructive force, right? So I do think identity is partly related to what we do and everything, but it’s ultimately in Christ. But we can value and honor one another’s differences, even as we’re united in Christ.

 

Brian Arnold (19:25):

That’s fascinating. I might have to have you back on someday to talk more about that. Because I think that gets into a lot of the complex issues even of our day, and how those things are being teased out, like you said…and left and the right, and from all over. Let me ask you a kind of a question on the other side. So, you know, I’m a seminary president, and I served as a pastor, and wanted to see our church, you know, really impact the community, and grow, and see people get saved. And so I don’t really struggle with being driven or having ambition. And so I’m tempered by what you’re saying on the side of—I need to recognize my finitude more, and rely more on God. But could it be a license for some people to excuse laziness? So how does drivenness and ambition kind of fit into your thinking of this book?

 

Kelly Kapic (20:14):

Yeah. And, I do…it’s interesting, I do get versions of that question. I think it’s a legitimate question in the sense of, you know, are we just telling people to be lazy? But the answer is no—to be human is…part of it is actually, work is a good thing, using our…now work, when I say the word work in our culture, we instantly think paid. That’s not what I’m talking about. Right? But the use of the good gifts God has given us, paid or unpaid, is all reputable. But the short answer to a longer conversation would be, I think, whether you struggle with…you know, probably you and I struggle more on the end of overworking, and then you have some people struggling on sloth, is part of what I would argue—and do argue in the book—that we need communities.

 

Kelly Kapic (21:00):

See the problem is we’re not the best judges of these things. So we do need spouses. We need friends, we need the church. We need others to help us navigate our lives, because we do tend to go to various extremes. And sometimes the appropriate pastoral word is—you have gifts that you’re not using, you’re neglecting, and you need to get busy. Right? And to others it is—you think you matter too much. And so I think that doesn’t tend to be something we’re very well equipped to answer on our own. We tend to need others, and that gets hard, because we need to trust others. But that’s…part of the book is to try and help, not just individuals, but communities try and figure out—how do we live in a countercultural way that actually can be a light to the world? And the final thing I’ll just say is, an Eastern Orthodox theologian I read not too long ago said—the problem in our day with the secular world is not just that people have forgotten that God exists, or something like that, he said—people have forgotten what it means to be human. And I think he’s right. And I think part of the church’s witness to the world is to present a humane way of living. And in that, we can start to point them to God again.

 

Brian Arnold (22:23):

Well, I think this is one of the more important books of our day. I see a huge need for this—in my own life, and I just…I talk to a lot of pastors, and I see how they are running themselves ragged, and not really leaning into remembering their finitude. One of the things that really impressed me with your book is just how many sources you’re pulling on. What would you recommend to our readers, in addition to your book, that really helped you think through these issues?

 

Kelly Kapic (22:56):

Oh, goodness. That’s a great question. Dead people. People from different times and different cultures are definitely the way to go on this. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is absolutely brilliant on some of this stuff in his book Creation and Fall, for example. Augustine has had a massive influence on me. And in the book, they’ll see like Aquinas and Calvin, but Bonhoeffer is very readable. And Augustine’s great. But yeah, those would be some places that I think of immediately.

 

Brian Arnold (23:28):

Well, as a church historian, I like it when people say “read dead people.” Because, you know, it’s like C.S. Lewis’ famous thing—it’s “the clean sea breeze that blows through our minds.” And they’ve kind of run their race, so they’re not really going to disappoint us at this point in who they are. But Kelly, really, thank you so much for your book. I really encourage people to read it, and to take their time thinking through it, meditating on it. Because I think it can be transformative for our lives. It’s definitely the right word in this moment, for where we’re at—especially in American Christianity. Again, it’s You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News. Kelly, thanks for the conversation today.

 

Kelly Kapic (24:11):

Oh, it’s been great. Thank you so much.

 

Outro (24:13):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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