Embracing our Finitude
By Melissa Morgan Kelley

Illustration by Isabel Albertos

Longtime Covenant College professor Kelly Kapic is known for sharing deep theological truths with warmth, compassion, and humanity — both in the classroom and through an impressive catalog of academic and mainstream writings. His book “Embodied Hope” (InterVarsity Press, 2017) won the 2018 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in Theology and Ethics.

His new book, “You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News” (Brazos Press, 2022) explores a topic he has been studying for the past 25 years: finitude, the state of having limits or bounds. Kapic’s book teaches that human limitations are not a design flaw, but are in fact a good gift given by God.

It is a topic he has pursued through decades of research, extensively studying John Owen’s theology alongside many others. But it also has been informed by his own life experience. 

Joe Novenson, a pastor of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church in Tennessee, became friends with Kelly Kapic several years ago when Kapic and his wife, Tabitha, began attending his church to reduce their commute as they managed Tabitha’s chronic pain. (Kapic’s book “Embodied Hope” describes how Tabitha’s onset of pain 10 years ago deepened their understanding of God’s goodness in the midst of suffering.)

While Novenson has appreciated Kapic’s rich theological insights as a Sunday school teacher, he is most drawn toward Kelly and Tabitha’s “defiant hopefulness,” observing the way they steward their own limitations and quietly seek out and walk alongside others dealing with difficult circumstances. 

“Most of us think we’ve done it if we’ve said it, especially on a podcast,” said Novenson. “But Kelly and Tabitha not only express these ideas about finitude — they embody them. There’s a momentum to truth lived out that is different than the expression of it.”

Kapic’s book urges us to “learn the joy of being creatures, the freedom of resting on the promises of God.” What would it look like for us to begin viewing our limitations as gifts? How might we grow in humility toward that end? And how might embracing our finitude lead to a deeper, more resilient faith? 

The first step is examining our view of limits. 

Seeing Finitude As a Gift

Kelly Kapic’s book “You’re Only Human” holds a mirror up to harried 21st-century life, revealing how often we overcommit ourselves and how rarely we are content. 

Through his role as a theology professor at Covenant during the past 20 years, Kelly Kapic has seen a consistent theme: stressed-out students who feel they can never read enough, study enough, or prepare enough to succeed in the classroom. Kapic also sees this trend in conversations with friends ranging from CEOs to stay-at-home moms — none of them feel they are accomplishing all they should.

“You’re just never done,” said Kapic. “We live with a level of constant guilt and shame. It can be crushing.”

He notes that our culture exalts busyness and efficiency, which makes it tempting to reject our God-given limits as we pursue productivity. We are even tempted to consider these limits as sin.

This greatly impacts not only our faith, but our humanity. “You’re Only Human” opens with a devastating quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “The result of busyness is that an individual is very seldom permitted to form a heart.”

Human limitations are not a design flaw, but are in fact a good gift given by God. Humility recognizes that our limitations do not threaten us but liberate us to worship God and cherish others.

But there is good news, Kapic says. God’s highest value is not our highest value. God’s highest value is not efficiency, but love. “God is more interested in beauty than speed of process,” he writes. “He is more concerned to lift our gaze, to provoke song, to stimulate our imaginations than He is to just get things done. God is not wasteful or negligent, but purposeful and wise, patient and intentional as He works.”

Kapic paraphrases Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this topic: God is very comfortable being God, and we need to become comfortable being creatures. We were never meant to be anything but dependent. We were never meant to have unlimited powers and responsibilities. 

This is a simple concept to grasp but remarkably difficult to live out. Our secular culture consistently demands that we become better, faster, stronger. And on top of that, many Christians struggle with nagging doubts about God’s disposition toward them. There is innate skepticism that God loves and likes us for who we are, not merely because He paid the price for our sins.

“Unless we understand the gospel in terms of God’s fierce delight in us, and not merely a wiping away of prior offenses, unless we understand God’s battle for us as a dramatic personal rescue and not merely a cold forensic process, we have ignored most of the Scriptures as well as the needs of the human condition,” writes Kapic in “You’re Only Human.”

In fact, Kapic explains, God places high value on the humanity unique to each of us, as expressed through the doctrine of the Incarnation. 

Galatians 2:20 says: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Kapic explains that Paul shows who the real “me” is so we might see ourselves more clearly. “All of God’s action in creation and redemption embraces me, the real me that is set free from the distortion of sin,” writes Kapic. 

Such news seems too good to be true: Our sin is not the truest thing about us. God delights in us as He designed us to be. He is committed to freeing us from sin, Kapic explains, not from our creatureliness. Our goal is not to become superhuman or attain some romanticized ideal, but to be a particular people lovingly dependent upon God and others while making meaningful contributions. Living within our limits this way will naturally lead to greater freedom and joy.

These truths are gifts to all believers in Christ, transcending denominational lines. Bishop Julian Dobbs of the Anglican Diocese of the Living Word believes that Kapic’s teaching on finitude speaks to all believers: “Kelly’s book helped me grapple personally with the limitations of who Christ called me to be. I recognize I am more likely to bring glory to God by recognizing who He has created me to be rather than developing a misinformed image of who I want to be. Kelly has a beautiful way of enabling people to ask that question for themselves.”

Embracing Humility 

We are better able to yield to the limits God has given us once we understand how we were created. Many of us forget the essence of the created order: God is the Creator, and we are His creatures. From that reality should flow a logical acceptance of the limits He has placed upon us and the world around us. This growing “awareness of what is” naturally leads us into deeper submission and humility.

Humility is a distinctly biblical virtue, writes Kapic, because it acknowledges that there is a good Creator and we are the finite creatures made to live in fellowship with him. “Everything from the air we breathe to the water we drink, from our eyes to our taste buds — everything goes back to this gift of blessed existence,” Kapic writes. “Our being itself comes out of the overflow of divine love and creativity.” 

Even if there had never been a fall into sin, we would be called to humility because it simply recognizes that we are dependent creatures — dependent on God, others, and the earth.

Kapic recommends thinking of humility as a stance of openness toward our Creator. This equips us to understand our place in the world, helping us become more patient and less anxious. And when we know our limits, we also become free to serve others. This is the path of humility, the path of being truly human, says Kapic.

So how do we cultivate humility? Is it by dwelling on our inadequacy, our sin, or striving to do better? Those methods only increase our self-focus and defeat the purpose.

Rather, Kapic notes the example of Mother Teresa, who gave her life away by serving others and developed profound humility in the process. What we find scripturally and in practice, he says, is that God shapes our motives and character as we take action through humble obedience.

Interestingly, God values the process of our growth and the work involved in it, not just the final product. “For example, the practice of gratitude will make you a humble person because you’re becoming more aware of things,” says Kapic. “You’ve always been dependent on others, but you hadn’t acknowledged it. So gratitude is cultivating an awareness of what is the case.”

We also cultivate humility by embracing our limits and joyfully celebrating the gifts of others. Humility recognizes that our limitations do not threaten us but liberate us to worship God and cherish others, writes Kapic. He quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in “You’re Only Human”: “Humility is not thinking you’re small. It is thinking that others have greatness within them.”

This powerful shift in perspective inevitably flows out toward those around us.

As a Covenant College resident director, Hannah Bloomquist has observed Kelly Kapic in many roles on campus: theology professor, chapel speaker, author. But she most appreciates the way he has actively mentored her and other students. 

As a woman studying theology, Bloomquist has questioned her future in ministry. But she is deeply encouraged by Kelly’s affirmation of her gifts and his recommendation that she pursue further graduate work. “It is hopeful to hear that there is a place for my gifts and talents, and that I’m not outside of Scripture.”

When she expressed concern about not being prepared enough, he reminded her of both her abilities and her limits: “The reason you go to graduate school is to gain and increase knowledge — you are right where you need to be.”

Biblical Realism and Resilient Faith

Valuing the gifts of others is just one benefit of embracing our finitude. Another is an increased capacity to live in a broken world while maintaining our faith in Christ. We become equipped to hold two conflicting realities in our hands at the same time: the problems and frustrations of life and the goodness of God.

Both realities point to the same truth, says Kapic, that we are dependent on the God who rescues us. In his book Kapic calls this biblical realism: “This posture allows us to express both lament and gratitude, each a genuine part of our experience and neither canceling out the other.”

He marvels at how often Christians are encouraged to downplay the difficulties of life, to in effect lie about them. “That’s offensive to God,” said Kapic. “He knows how broken the world is. Biblical lament gives us space to speak about these things honestly. And gratitude allows us from a Christian perspective to see the world as broken, but also to see God’s mercies in the midst of it.”

Believers who learn to hold fast to Christ in the midst of both joy and hardship are able to offer real encouragement to others. This provides a powerful picture of the church at work —restored believers growing in love and communion with God, our neighbors, and the rest of creation. 

It also reflects a key aspect of God’s design for humanity, writes Kapic, explaining that God intentionally created us to be connected in a web of interdependence and relationships. “Even dependence, contrary to the individualist philosophy of our culture, is part of the blessing of human existence,” writes Kapic in “You’re Only Human.” “What is impossible for the particular Christian becomes possible for the church as Christ’s body.”

Our finitude drives us back together, deepening our dependence on a good God who faithfully provides for His children.

The 23 pages of citations in the back of “You’re Only Human” convey the breadth of Kelly Kapic’s thinking and reading on finitude during the past 25 years. They reveal an author deeply interested in his subject, closely tethered to its material.

“It is like a little library in itself, drawing on so many great thinkers and writers across time and place,” said research professor Karen Swallow Prior of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

The book’s final sections focus on spiritual practices that slow us down to help us grasp God’s sufficiency in the midst of our limits. Solitude, community with others, and making time for rest all usher us into God’s presence and remind us of His provision. What does this kind of faithful life look like? “My guess is that it is much slower, more ordinary and earthy, but also more beautiful than we anticipate,” writes Kapic.

For Joe Novenson, it looks like the kind of embodied, relational truth he has seen the Kapics radiate out toward those around them at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church. It looks like stewarding limits to make the beauty of Jesus known. 

“It’s magnetic,” he said. “We need it now more than ever.”

Embodied Theology

Author and therapist K.J. Ramsey is a former student who met Kelly and Tabitha Kapic in her sophomore year at Covenant College. As she took theology classes from Kelly and joined a Bible study led by Tabitha, a friendship formed. She babysat their kids, did laundry at their house, and spent hours talking about theology and life.

“They cared about me as a person,
gave me room to ask questions, and made me feel like I mattered,” said Ramsey.

Neither could know that their lives would change dramatically during the coming years as Tabitha and K.J. both developed pain disorders that would impact their ability to function. K.J. now lives with ankylosing spondylitis, and Tabitha has been diagnosed with connective tissue disease and erythromelalgia.

The once-theoretical question of living with limits and valuing dependency on Christ and others has become increasingly real. 

K.J. Ramsey’s book “This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers” (Zondervan, 2020) details her struggle with debilitating pain even as she experiences God’s grace and provision more deeply. She says Kelly Kapic’s teaching prepared her well.

“These weren’t just words for him,” said Ramsey. “All along he has taught us to embrace faith that can hold doubt and light together, to hold the sorrows of life alongside God’s kindness.”

The defiant hopefulness at the heart of “You’re Only Human” is the culmination of many years of Kapic’s teaching at Covenant. And that teaching has had a ripple effect on his students and those around them, according to Ramsey, especially those who have weathered significant hardship. 

“So many Covenant grads I know say they are still Christians because of the way Kelly taught us to approach God,” said Ramsey. “It’s beautiful to hear how he has helped so many of us embrace a faith that includes mystery.” 

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