Unspeakable Hope: Kelly & Tabitha Kapic
Drawing on his own family's experience with prolonged physical pain, author and professor Kelly Kapic and his wife Tabitha reshape our understanding of suffering into the image of Jesus, and bring us to a renewed participation in our embodied hope. Don't miss this conversation with the author of one of Christianity Today's books of the year.
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Drawing on his own family’s experience, professor Kelly Kapic and his wife Tabitha reshape our understanding of suffering into the image of Jesus.
Unspeakable Hope: Kelly & Tabitha Kapic
Tabitha: Six years in, I got into a really bad place, where my name for God became “the God who could but does not.” I just laid my head on the pillow at night, when I would normally just naturally start praying, and I didn’t.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: You know the important and famous phrase in the marriage vows. As a pastor, I’ve done hundreds of weddings. Every time I have a couple repeat these vows, I think to myself—married 43 years—“They have no idea what they’re saying.” You know, “For better or for worse.”
Every couple—not every couple, but most couples—thinks, “This is going to be better. There’s going to be very little worse.”
Ann: The other one: “…in sickness and in health.”
Dave: Right. They think it’s going to be mostly health—
Ann: —until we get old, maybe. [Laughter] When we get really old, we might have a few health issues. But the reality is—
Dave: —suffering is coming to every marriage in one way or another.
Dave: We started a conversation yesterday with a couple that’s been through suffering and is still walking through suffering. Welcome back, Kelly and Tabitha Kapic, to FamilyLife.
Kelly: It’s good to be with you guys.
Tabitha: Thanks so much.
Dave: Again, we’re not going to give our audience your whole story again, but [you are] a professor of theological studies, right?
Kelly: I teach at Covenant College.
Dave: We’re diving in a little bit to the theology of suffering. Your book, Embodied Hope, is a theological meditation on pain and suffering. But again, as we said yesterday, this isn’t just a theological mind thing for you; this is real.
Dave: I think it’s doubly hard—you tell me, because you walked through it—when you think you’ve gone through a valley and it’s over; like you went through cancer, and you won.
Ann: It’s like, “Okay, we’re good now.”
Dave: Then you get—I can’t even say the word—
Tabitha: Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease is what that’s called. [In] some people, that takes the form of MS, Lupus. You don’t really cure those diseases; you learn to manage and live with them.
Ann: Let me ask you. You had a cancer diagnosis. Then they said, “You’re cancer-free.” Which is harder to walk through, a diagnosis that’s cancer that could be possibly healed, or something that will linger with you possibly for the rest of your life?
Tabitha: The cancer diagnosis just took a couple of months to get. Then they said, “We’re going into surgery right now,” so it was very quick. Chronic pain, as many people listening will know, takes many years often to diagnose properly. [There are] a lot of stories of fighting for your worth when you are seeing different doctors and specialists and poking and prodding. It is a hard road.
Ann: Did you feel like, “I must be a crazy person, because they’re not finding anything”?
Tabitha: I got told that.
Tabitha: I was told, “The only thing we can do with you is refer you to a psychologist.”
I [thought], “Okay, I hear what you’re saying, but I have a good support system; I have a good marriage.” There are a lot of things that war against you. It’s not just the physical pain.
Ann: Kelly, is this what made you write on this topic—all of what you suffered?
Kelly: Yes, it did.
Ann: Because you suffer as a couple.
Kelly: Yes, for sure. Tabitha really was encouraging, because I don’t know what I think until after I have to wrestle through it and write about it. [In] 2013-2014, she said, “I think it’s time for you to—it will help you, and it will help others.” It really was me working through my stuff and working through it with you, working through listening to you a lot, and listening to others in pain.
Tabitha: Yes, it prompted you; because you wanted to understand what this looks like from God’s perspective.
Kelly: To be honest, a lot of what I was reading was not helpful. A lot of Christian authors, when they deal with suffering, it becomes very philosophical and abstract. But it was amazing to me, in all these books from Christians writing about suffering, how little actually talked about Jesus.
The fact that the eternal son of God takes on real human flesh and blood, and not just His death on the cross, but His whole life is entering into—He’s sinless but it is a sinful, broken world. He’s experiencing pain and suffering, culminating in His death.
Letting the life of Jesus reshape our understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to suffer was really helpful and surprising to me. Anyway, just concentrating on the solidarity of Jesus with us, that culminates on the cross, but His whole life, His weakness, was really helpful.
Ann: Was that helpful for you, Tabitha, to look at the life of Jesus?
Tabitha: Yes, I think there’s—that brings up a couple of thoughts. I remember being pregnant with my son, our first of two children. I am not good with needles. [Laughter]
Kelly: That’s true!
Tabitha: That’s like my thing, since I was a kid. I said, “Whatever we have to do, just don’t put the IV on me,” because I shut down.
We did natural childbirth. Not everyone gets the opportunity to be a mother through childbirth; but it felt very Christlike, this idea of facing a thing that you knew was going to hurt and be messy and bloody, but that there was life coming after it. I felt like that even taught me to relate to Jesus in a unique way that maybe people who haven’t experienced having children, maybe don’t have that—that sort of pain and mess.
Then cancer was another thing of experiencing that kind of physical weakness; relying on the church. I’d say the big thing that, spiritually, I learned with cancer was, not that I was a fighter, but that the people around me were; and that the church and others prayed for us when we couldn’t, and they read the Word for us when we couldn’t.
Chronic pain was a totally different thing. Six years in, I got into a really bad place where my name for God became “The God who could but does not.”
Tabitha: I couldn’t get away from that title. I stopped praying. I just laid my head on the pillow at night, when I normally would just naturally start praying, and I didn’t. It was dark, and I felt bad. [I was] married to a theologian, right? This whole faith thing; I knew how serious it was, and this was our whole life.
Dave: I don’t know where you were at that time, Kelly, but how does a spouse navigate that with their spouse?
Kelly: It was dark. I had my own dark times. They didn’t always correspond, thankfully. But I do think the reality is, in that time, there was a sense in which my role and the role of the church was to believe for Tabitha. What that looks like practically is, we pray when she couldn’t pray.
My understanding of faith became much more communal.
Dave: Did you see that, too, Tabitha, when you were walking through that?
Tabitha: Not at that time.
Dave: You didn’t feel shame though. There wasn’t, “Get your faith. God is good?” Was there any of that?
Kelly: Oh, I see what you’re saying.
Dave: Like he was trying to convince you?
Tabitha: No, I think he was letting me lament. I didn’t even know that that’s what I was doing. I just—it’s not that I didn’t believe in God. He just had this name that I gave Him.
Two things I’d mention about that time: It was his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and they wanted all their kids and grandkids to go to Alaska together. I remember, we got to do this whale-watching thing, which I love. It’s incredible. That natural world, again, was a comfort to me because I thought, “I might not be doing what I was created to do, but these whales are.” There was something about that that was deeply comforting to me in physical pain; that the whole world isn’t broken. There are still things doing what they’re supposed to do.
But the real turning point was in December of that dark year. Our pastor, Brian Salter—who is still our pastor—challenged the church to read through the whole Bible together that year, the next year coming up. I was [thinking], “Well, it’s worth a shot.”
I did that; and I have read through the Bible probably twice a year ever since. What that does is “the God who could but does not” became the God who sees, the God who hears, the God who knows, the God who rescues. I need that constantly in my head. It’s just like an IV drip to me of the God who sees, the God who hears, the God who knows, the God who rescues.
Kelly: One of the things that changed for me through this is the book of Job with suffering. The beginning and end of Job is what we focus on, but actually there are 30-something chapters where everyone is wrestling with each other and God.
Dave: I just read it. It’s a long—
Kelly: It’s a long—and the fact—and we ignore that. But that, first of all, tells you God gives a lot of space for the wrestling. But then the other thing is, God doesn’t answer Job’s questions, but He is present and absorbs them. But the “a-ha” moment was to realize “God doesn’t answer Job for hundreds of years. God’s answer to Job is that God in the Son becomes Job. Jesus is Job. Jesus is the One who takes on all of the lament; all of the suffering unto death.
God’s answer to Job isn’t a sentence; it’s a person who actually dies. That’s that profound solidarity. Then He rises. So, He does really relate to us in our pain and suffering all the way into the grave, and then He rises, so there’s hope.
But it doesn’t belittle our pain and suffering. It shows honor and solidarity with it, and then hope. But there is something to that that I think is very helpful: God’s answer isn’t a sentence; it’s in a Person.
Ann: One of our good friends, Jamie Winship, says that a lot of people in pain and suffering and hard times ask the “Why” question—
Ann: —saying, “Why, God?” He said, “I’m not sure God ever answers the “why” question, but He will answer the question of, “God, what do You want me to know about this suffering?”
Do you feel like God is giving you a glimpse of that, if you asked Him that, Tabitha: “God, what do you want me to know?”
Tabitha: Take my pain away right now. I would be perfectly happy.
Ann: Everybody would say that.
Tabitha: But in terms of what I’ve learned, when cancer came, we were in one of the hardest parts of our marriage, and I had a very international life and was burning the candle at all ends. I felt like that was kind of a rescue because I was never going to stop. But, yes, in terms of what I know, I feel like I know God more. That is precious, because I didn’t sound like this 20 years ago. I’ve changed and my family has changed.
I remember we were in Lego Land when the kids were little. I couldn’t hold their hands. They grabbed my hand, and I had to let it go because that hand was so hurt. I switched them. Sometimes I would hold a pinky with them. [It was] just awful, letting go of all those layers of what I thought our family would be. I love our family, but, man, our whole family was called to it. Your whole community gets called to these types of things.
Dave: You mentioned yesterday a couple of things that I want to try to draw out again, because we didn’t complete it; your identity not being in your pain and in your suffering, but being in Christ. What does that mean? How do you live that out?
Tabitha: Feeling good physically is not an idol. That’s a good thing to want; that’s how we were made. Being able to do good work; not an idol. God’s a worker; He made us to work. Having whole families; not an idol. Now, we take everything and we twist good things a bit.
I’m not saying that having an identity of a physically whole, not in-pain person, is wrong to want. That is fine to want; but I can’t have that right now. It really does force you to say, “Okay, elementally, at the very base, I am beloved.” I struggle to believe that. I know it’s true, but to believe it in the midst of our lives is really tough.
“I belong to God.” That one right there. I think all the time I act like I don’t. For me, that’s what I mean when I say, “identity in Christ”; that I’m His kid, I’m beloved, I belong to Him, [and] He’s for me.
Dave: Even when He doesn’t take the pain away.
Tabitha: Even when.
Dave: Is that what you’re saying?
Tabitha: That’s what I’m saying.
Kelly: I think we’re constantly tempted to lie as Christians. The two main things I think we’re tempted to lie about are, either to lie about how hard things are, and so, we sugar coat it. It can’t be that hard. “We’re going through cancer, but here are all these good things that happened!”
It’s not wrong, as a Christian, to tell the truth about how broken the world is. It’s not wrong to say, “This is terrible.” Sometimes—I’m a reformed theologian, if that means anything to some people in your audience—we’re talking about the sovereignty of God, but you read in the Bible that God is over all things. But that same Bible also has God saying, “Oh, this is bad. I wish that didn’t happen,” right? You have to hold these things together.
On the one hand, you have to be able to say to God, “This is really bad! This hurts; this is terrible. Why?” So, don’t lie about how hard the world is. But the other side is then don’t lie about how good God is, because God is actually good. His goodness is not dependent on what we’re feeling at the particular moment. That’s where, if you don’t think about—to circle the back door where we started; if you don’t think about—Jesus in this conversation, then you do think, “This form of abuse happened to me,” or “This kind of cancer happened to me.” What does God think about it? “Well, He’s just a mad scientist in the sky.”
But if you want to know what God thinks about it, you look to Jesus on the cross, weeping and bleeding. That is what God thinks about your pain and suffering; that’s what He thinks about the abuse you went through. He’s not a mad scientist saying, “Let’s just see what’s going to happen now.” He is the God who goes into the fire with you. This still is a broken world. It’s not glory yet.
We live in light of both cross and resurrection, but pain and suffering are real, and we have to be honest about it, and honest about how good God is. The only way we can make sense of how good God is in light of the brokenness is looking at Christ.
Dave: That is such a rich viewpoint on that. In some ways, even as a pastor for 30-plus years, our tendency is to preach to the resurrection. We have a theology of victory.
Dave: We forget the cross. Not that we [really] forget it, because it’s so critical to any preacher.
Dave: But we don’t stay at the suffering at all. We try to move past it quickly to tell you, “You have victory in Christ,” which is all true.
Dave: But one of the most beautiful things about Christ is the cross, the suffering, the pain that He experienced. He didn’t just get victory. It was the “J-curve.” As Paul Miller says, “You go down before up.”
When you walk through what you’re walking through, Tabitha, you’ve got a Savior who did, right? So, it’s both/and.
Kelly: We were talking about this in class the other day. I was talking about the shame of the cross; biblically the language.
It was interesting; the next time we got together—I often [say], “What did we talk about last time?” It’s interesting to hear. There was a girl in the back. She said, “I’ve never thought about the shame of the cross and His nakedness.” You want to talk about vulnerability!
Dave and Ann: Ahh!
Kelly: But it resonated with this person who has been through a lot of pain and suffering. You think, “Wait, that’s the Son of God who has taken on shame—”
Ann: “—for me.”
Kelly: Yes, “for me!” And “identified with me and for me in order to overcome it.” But this is a God who’s not embarrassed of us but has entered in in beautiful, beautiful ways; way better than we know.
Dave: Tabitha, you mentioned yesterday that you wrote a poem. Was it—well, you have to read it to us, because I wonder if it was what we were just talking about? Is it not lying to God? “I’m not going to lie.”
Tabitha: Okay, just to be real, I haven’t read this in many years, so we don’t know what we’re going to get right now.
Ann: You wrote it when you were in the midst of—
Tabitha: —cancer; when I was going through the treatments. Where we live, between Tennessee and Georgia, we’re near one of the largest Civil War battle fields, Chickamauga Battlefield.
Ann: I’ve been there.
Dave: We’ve been there.
Tabitha: Oh, you have! Okay, so you can picture the rolling green fields and all the monuments.
Dave and Ann: Yes.
Tabitha: That’s what this poem refers to.
It could be pastureland, but it is not.
Nothing moves, nothing grazes.
Out of respect perhaps,
There is only breeze and grass and hush.
It is a battlefield.
Years have seen tall grasses
cover blood and mud and metal and wood,
A subtle and complex cloak laid over violence and pain.
It is a location, a plain on which things happened, unspeakable things.
Things that should not be.
It was not always what it became.
It had been a forest or a meadow.
A simple stream or hilltop of some other name, some other purpose.
But then forces met for hard impenetrable reasons.
It made no choice; it was only there,
yet its involvement was nonetheless intimate.
How did it hold both enemy and friend?
Years heal and cover with verdant grasses
places that embraced desperate human struggle and death.
It has the look of peace, but it can never be what it was before.
Dave: What do you think when you read it now?
Tabitha: I think I’m talking about myself when it says, “It was not always what it became.” I am very changed by all the years of pain, and so are many people.
Ann: I’m going to say as I look at you, there’s a depth of love, of knowing—you know now the good, the hard, the beautiful, the ugly, and you are beautiful in every way. There’s also such a beautiful realness that’s like a cloak has been taken off, and what I see is the beauty in the midst of pain.
Thanks for sharing that with us.
Tabitha: Thank you.
Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Kelly and Tabitha Kapic on FamilyLife Today. That’s such wonderful encouragement from Ann. I felt like she was talking to me in that moment as she was talking to Tabitha.
If only we could speak words of life and encouragement to the people in our lives who are suffering, what kind of relationships would be formed and how much love could a sufferers see when we do? A love not only from you, but from God. That’s God’s love coming through you to other people.
Kelly Kapic has written a book called Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering. You can get a copy of that at FamilyLifeToday.com. Click on the show notes there to get a copy.
I’ve got two kids in both middle and elementary school and, apparently, Dave and Ann Wilson feel for me.
Ann: I don’t know about you, but I am glad I’m not parenting kids today. [Laughter]
We have kids, but they’re not young.
Dave: I’ve said that many times. It’s scary. We thought it was scary 40 years ago. I think it’s 10 times harder today. We have a generation walking away from their faith. We raised them in the church, we raised them to believe, and then they hit teenage years and beyond, and they walk away in numbers.
You talk about scary. Parents are petrified right now: “How do we help our kids?”
Ann: Are you feeling this as I am today? The urgency to get biblical principles and help to our families? Because this is what we’re about. We have faithful givers that gave 40 years ago because we thought, “This is so important.”
It’s even more important now.
Dave: We cannot lose this battle.
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I want to ask you to pray for all the Weekend to Remember® marriage events that are happening all throughout the country starting today, on into Sunday; places like Little Rock and Charleston. With over 40 events across the country still happening between now and the spring, there’s still time to find a location near you. You can go to WeekendtoRemember.com.
Now, coming up next week, Lysa TerKeurst is going to be here with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about good boundaries and the importance of setting up boundaries in various aspects of life. That’s next week. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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