The first time I (Michael) really began to understand the power of vulnerability, was also my first time going to a church small group/Bible study as an adult. Let’s call the leaders of the group “Rob” and “Shelly.” The group was for young adults who were too old for youth group, but didn’t want to go to their parents’ small groups. “Rob” was a very new and immature Christian, but willing to serve. He was everything I needed to see in a leader, and yet likely everything that would have kept many from placing him in leadership. I can remember coming to small group waiting for Rob and Shelly to come downstairs so we could start the evening, and Rob coming down and saying, “Shelly and I just had a big fight and aren’t doing very well. Can you guys pray for us?” I was shocked, but I also was impressed with the level of vulnerability that took. This experience made me trust and connect with Rob even though we had very little other than our faith in common.
I would experience the healing work of vulnerability a couple of years later in the first weeks of my DTS. At this time, many of the guys in that school, including myself, intentionally shared those secret sins we love to leave in the dark, and, even though we had no reason to believe we were safe to share, brought them into the light. I was one of the first to speak because I had seen vulnerability modeled in Rob and Shelly and knew its power. That night a dozen or more young men shared things big and small, from intentional sins, to hurts committed against them. As we shared, we didn’t focus in on their failures with judgement, but incarnated the forgiveness given by the work of Jesus on the cross as we spoke new truths of freedom and grace over each one.
I recently was reminded of the impact of vulnerability through a TedTalk by Bréne Brown. It is from 2010, but to me, it was new. I have some friends who have read her stuff and I imagine other friends who would write her off as a liberal new age Christian, but all that aside, there is honest beauty in what she shares about her academic research and her personal awakening to the power of vulnerability in our lives.
A couple of things were new to me in Brown’s talk on vulnerability. One of these things was her description of what she calls “whole-hearted” people, and what they have in common:
“What they had in common was a sense of courage. And I want to separate courage and bravery for you for a minute. Courage, the original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language — it’s from the Latin word cor, meaning heart — and the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connection, and — this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection.”
This definition of courage was new to me. I tend to associate “courage” with “bravery.” I connect courage with bravado, not imperfection and compassion.
The second big thing that stood out was when she spoke of how these “whole-hearted people” embraced vulnerability.
“The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”
The description of vulnerable acts really hit me. Vulnerability is not hanging all your dirty laundry out for the world to see; it’s possible to do that in order to shock people, which is really the opposite of being vulnerable. No, embracing vulnerability is risk-taking with your heart, knowing that by managing the risk, you are not really living.
Finally I was challenged by Brown’s suggestion that we numb vulnerability, and by doing so, also numb ourselves against feeling a spectrum of life-giving emotions as well.
“You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”
God calls us to experience life in this current age of tension, to the full. This means we will experience not only fullness of joy, but grief and lament. The Psalms are full of emotion, but as much as there are Psalms of praise, there are laments. There is a full expression of the human experience. Even God incarnate embraced the full emotional experience of being human in this broken age. Time and time again I meet young people who come from a heritage of faith, but they are often so unwilling to be vulnerable. Their impression is that the victorious Christian life is not one of imperfection or pain. Jesus said that a servant is not greater than his master; if Jesus experienced the full range of the human experience, why is it that we directly and indirectly communicate that Christians should have a different experience than the Lord?
Many of my greatest regrets in relationships have been that I was not more vulnerable, and missed out on connecting with others in a deeper way. In favor of momentary comfort, I sacrificed deep connectedness. As I move into leadership, I am challenged to find ways to continue to be vulnerable with those I lead. Holy Spirit, give me wisdom in walking in vulnerability.