While many have analyzed the self-centered and even narcissistic tendencies of recent Western societies and especially in America,For example, Chuck DeGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020). I would like to consider briefly one consequence, freshly revealed in the COVID crisis, that deserves our close attention. In the modern version of the American dream, we are constantly tempted to live in denial of the fact that we are finite creatures. That denial, that pursuit of endless accomplishment, produces self-destructive exhaustion, overcommitment, and self-absorption. Facing a global pandemic gives us a fresh opportunity to be reminded that our finitude is good, to pursue a healthier relationship with God, others, and even the earth.For more on this topic, see Kelly M. Kapic, You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, forthcoming). Let me explain.
“Finitude” sounds like an intimidating technical or even philosophical word. We often assume that it relates specifically to death, but it doesn’t. Even before Adam and Eve sinned, they were always finite creatures. As the Cambridge Dictionary states, finitude is “the state of having a limit or end.”https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/finitude.[/note God designed human creatures with limits, and he called his needy and dependent creatures “good.” The vast majority of our limits have nothing to do with death, nor need they be conceived in negative terms. God gave us good and appropriate limits when he made us. We are not omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent: these are attributes true of the Creator alone, not his creatures. So, having limits is part of God’s good design for us as humans. We were never intended to know everything or to be everywhere. Our emotional apparatus was never meant to absorb or feel everything, nor were we designed to have energy levels that never diminish. We only and always relate to God as creatures with needs and limits. Unfortunately, we have often pretended that we can ignore our creaturely limits. Through a combination of technological innovation, growing consumerism, and mounting unrealistic expectations, we have increasingly tried to live at an impossible, inhumane pace. Our bosses gave us laptops and smart phones, which seemed wonderful until we realized that our jobs no longer stop when we go home but can now pursue us at any hour of the day. It may be 11:00 p.m., but the glowing screens remind us of the emails we have not answered, the reports we have not finished, and the vacation that remains to be planned. Then, we check Facebook or Twitter again to distract ourselves from the never-ending demands—and still the rest I so long for escapes me. Parenting now includes signing up your children for multiple sports and piano, for Mandarin and robotics, for tutoring and theater: we don’t want them to miss anything and we push them to do enough to get into the college and career we want for them. So, from the time they get up to the time they go to bed we keep them busy, whether they are in fifth grade or the last year of high school. Taking time to sit together at a family meal or in extended conversation feels like a rare or even laughable luxury—or one more impossible burden. We try to recharge by binge-watching Netflix because we are too exhausted to do anything else, including taking time to develop deep friendships. Sleep is clearly optional. We load up our lives because we are denying the reality of our limits, of our need for rhythm and rest, and so we constantly try to do more, to be more.
To further complicate things, Christians in particular have so baptized busyness that we confuse finitude with sin. That is, many Christians constantly feel guilty about how much they are not doing. We could always volunteer more with Church, spend more time in scripture and prayer, be better and more productive employees. When do we ever feel that we have done enough in all the spheres of our lives, at school, work, home, Church, exercise, evangelism, feeding the poor, and so on? Christians with a tender conscience are especially susceptible to a low-level sense of guilt about how much they are not doing, even if they already are overcommitted and constantly exhausted. Our theologies may deny that we need to do more for God to be pleased with us, but our actions betray a different set of beliefs.
Then comes COVID with its lockdowns. Although people’s experiences differ, most of us were forced to radically slow down. The shutdowns and restrictions have been difficult for countless reasons, but they have also brought a rare opportunity for us to examine our lives. They have allowed us to see how busy we had become. As Dallas Willard memorably said and John Mark Comer recently popularized, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life…. Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day.”John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2019), 19. I would add that one of the theological roots feeding so much of our hurry is that we largely fail to appreciate the good of our finitude. We have been pushing against our creaturely limits in ways that actually hurt us. Although we often interact with loads of people, many of us have discovered we don’t actually have anyone we consider a close friend. We continually run from one thing to the next because we find sitting in silence deeply unnerves us. The lockdowns have revealed just how lonely many of us are and just how sad we have become. Denying our finitude has helped create this unhealthy situation.
And so, for many people, the restrictions from COVID that forced us to slow down came as a shock. For some, this was immediately welcomed as a gift—like receiving an unexpected snow day when you were a kid in school. For others, however, it brought the challenge of becoming comfortable with a slower pace of life, learning to be okay with going fewer places and getting fewer things done. Before this crisis, we often said we needed to slow down, but now that we actually can, we find it surprisingly difficult. The added silence and reduction of obligations have discomforted many people, adding stress and boredom. Shouldn’t every minute be spent doing something? We have equated being busy with that sacred word, “productive.” This failure to be busy has brought many of us a sense of self-condemnation, revealing just how tightly we had unconsciously tied our sense of worth to productivity—or, more accurately, to busyness.
We can and should use COVID as an unexpected opportunity to acknowledge and even embrace our limits as a healthy and good aspect of being truly and faithfully human. COVID has forced us to slow down. Now we can step back and ask afresh,
Do I need to be doing all of those things? In what ways have my over-commitments, even to good causes, been detrimental to my soul and my relationships to God, to others, and to the earth? Have we even started catechizing our children to see this inhumane pace of life—which belittles rest, quiet, mutual dependence, and overall healthy limits—as normative?
God created us in four relationships: with him, our neighbors, the earth, and even with ourselves.For more on this, see Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream (Chicago: Moody Press, 2019), esp. 37–50. In each of these relationships, we are always finite creatures. True human flourishing, therefore, can only happen within the matrix of our finitude and never outside it. God’s goal for us is not to become superhuman but to be fully human. And part of that is to understand our dependence upon God, others, and the earth. COVID reminds us that even our relationship to creation cannot be ignored without serious consequences. It is an opportunity for us to think afresh about the good of our limitations, of the goodness in being dependent creatures.
Maybe God doesn’t expect us to get so much done every day. Maybe God doesn’t want our kids to participate in endless organized activities or our teenagers to work from 7:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. every day. Maybe God is okay that I am not the strongest, brightest, or most beautiful person. Maybe God made me to be me, a particular, limited, joyful, dependent human creature. My task before God, others, and the creation is not to do everything but simply to be faithful. Learning to be faithful often requires that we say “no,” that we do less, that we relearn humane rhythms and expectations. Resetting our expectations to a more godly, patient focus can teach us a more faithful walk in which we can also point the watching world to a good Creator who loves us enough to let us be what we are: finite creatures. O Lord, teach us what we do not see.