Vulnerability: The Strength of Weakness

Aristotle wrote, “One … who [does not need others] … is either a beast or a god.”1  Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, writes, “Connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”2 The Bible, our greatest source of authority, describes Adam in full fellowship with God and animals.  Yet still God says “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).  Even communion with God and creation left something lacking in Adam.  We are created for communion with other human beings.  Like Adam needed Eve for community so we need others.

But how do we create community?  In a word: vulnerability.  “Vulnerable” comes from a Latin word meaning “to wound” and is defined as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” 3  As scary as that sounds, it is necessary.  I want briefly to suggest two ways in which vulnerability helps to create community, both of which have a comparison to our relationship with God.

 

Give Up Control
First, in order to create community we must forfeit the attempt to control others.  We often try to control others by verbal manipulation and sometimes by force.  We do so in order to assure that things go our way, that any annoying habits or silly ideas others might have are quickly snuffed out so that we can go on enjoying our lives as we intend them.  Ultimately this is to create the world in our image, to coerce others to be like us.  This, however, assaults and offends the personhood of others and as a result will cause them to withdraw—the very opposite of community.

Should we expect anything different?  We only have communion with God when we allow him to be himself.  The biblical word for attempts to control God and fashion him in our image is “idolatry” (cf. Deu. 4:15-19), and idolatry precludes communion with God as he is.  On the other hand, if we allow God to be himself then we can have a relationship with him.  This requires vulnerability on our part.  There is no doubt that letting God work in our lives is, at times, uncomfortable, perhaps even involving mourning and weeping.  But when we relinquish control and “draw near to God” he will draw near to us (cf. James 4:8, 9).  That is communion.  And it begins in vulnerability.

The same vulnerability is necessary when dealing with people.  Allowing them to be gloriously “other” than us may involve some pain.  There may be quirks and habits that we do not like which cause discomfort when we invite them into our lives.  But only when we refuse to control them do we communicate our genuine love and respect for their personhood.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he receives from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.”4 When we create others in our own image, requiring them to be and act just like us, we are making idols of ourselves.  We destroy the “other” in a person and replace it with an image of “us.” By a work of self-centered alchemy we transform their brilliant “Thou” into a banal “I.”  So long as another’s behavior is in accord with truth and goodness we must allow him to be himself and appreciate him as an individual, like us, created in the image of God (cf. James 3:9).

Give Up “Perfection”
Second, in order to create community we must be willing to share our faults.  One study concluded that all parties involved in relationship must be willing to share their true selves in order to produce feelings of closeness and intimacy.5  If we are not willing to share ourselves we cannot be surprised if we do not feel close to those around us.  Holding back for fear of “committing too soon” obstructs the creation of intimacy. The fear of getting hurt may be the very thing which hurts us by leaving us lonely and withholding the one thing which can connect us to others. The tendency to put on a “Sunday face” and maintain our ideal image in the face of others inhibits the generation of genuine community.  To hide our broken selves is to give up all hope for intimate connection.

Again this is true in our relationship with God.  So long as we put on a show for God we can have no genuine communion with him.  The Pharisee who wore his “goodness” on his sleeve was not justified (cf. Luke 18:9-14).  The Israelites who “played church” were condemned (cf. Isa. 58:1-5), because “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6a).

But, thank God, he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b).  When we genuinely share ourselves with God by confessing our imperfections He condescends to us and makes his home with us.  “Whoever conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Pro. 28:13).  It is the “contrite in spirit” that God looks upon with favor (Isa. 66:2b).

It is the same in our relationships with others.  In my own experience with vulnerability I can attest to the sometimes physical response of those to whom I confess.  After sharing some fault or struggle of my own with a trusted friend there is often a release of tension in the shoulders, a visible sigh of relief when he realizes, “You struggle with that too?!”  Our vulnerability gives others the permission to be vulnerable and, most importantly, to experience God’s mercy and grace through us.  Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, “You can’t win; if you tell lies people will distrust you.  If you tell the truth people will dislike you.”  That is a lie that we (myself included) have often bought into.  If we hide our faults we can always justify the deception by telling ourselves, “I just want friends, and no one would like me if they knew the real me.”  In fact, it is only by taking the risk of sharing our(broken)selves with others that we offer them the opportunity to know and, finally, to love the “real us.”  Only then can we experience God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our brothers and sisters.  That is real community.

Conclusion
The church is a community created and sustained by nothing but the love of God (cf. Rom. 8:35-39).  Only when we “bear with one another in love” do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).  But this requires vulnerability for, as C.S. Lewis put it, “[t]o love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.”6  One might ask, “Isn’t that scary?”  The answer is: yes.  Absolutely.  It’s terrifying.  But there is no other way.  The call to love is a call to vulnerability.  We need courage to allow others to be themselves, and we need courage to be and to share ourselves.  That is the vulnerability necessary to create community.  And so, praise God that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  The strength of love springs from the weakness of vulnerability.

 


1. Aristotle, Politics, Trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Book I.2.
2. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 8.
3. “Vulnerable.” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. 2010.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954), 36.
5. Aron Arthu et al., “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings”, 364. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23.4 (1997): 363-377. SAGE Social Science Collections. Web. Accessed 16 December 2015.
6. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves: 2 Works, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 316.

To Thine Own Self Be True

 

There is a lot of concern today with identity.  People go on long trips to “find themselves.”  Teenage years are filled with angst over “figuring out who I am.”  And this is applauded.  Authenticity, i.e. “being true to one’s self”, has become one of the highest virtues with the authority of the likes of Shakespeare behind it.  “This above all: to thine own self be true”1 Problems arise, however, when “who I am” turns out not to be so good. The drunk says to his battered wife when she asks him to quit drinking, “Get off my back! This is just who I am.” The promiscuous son retorts to his disapproving parents, “I thought you were supposed to accept me for who I am?”  And the liar confesses when asked why he can’t “just tell the truth”,  “I don’t know.  I guess it’s just who I am.”

Another similar thing happens whenever a person makes a mistake and responds, “Well, what do you expect?  I’m only human.”  Addiction, sexual promiscuity, and lying are now identities and making mistakes has some how become synonymous with what it means to be human.  But the Bible tells quite a different story.

Man was not created for addiction and injustice, but for freedom, service, goodness, and creativity.  That is what it means to reflect the image of God into the world.   That is “who we are” and that is what it means to be “human.”  Whenever we fail to do and be these things we are being something other than what we were created to be.  Imaging God into the world by extending his dominion over creation is part of Man’s “glory” (cf. Ps. 8:5-8) and falling short of this sacred charge is the very definition of sin.  “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  This means that I am “myself” when I live out God’s goodness in the world, not when I am giving into to my base impulses and fulfilling my carnal passions.  I am most “human,” not when I err from God’s glory, but when I fulfill it.

This is why Jesus, the True Human Being, is in fact sinless.  Or rather, because he is sinless he is the True Human Being, he is “the image of God” (Col. 1:15).  Therefore, if we would know what it means to be truly ourselves, indeed truly human, we must deny “ourselves” and follow Christ.  He will show us the way. By his own admission he is the Way (cf. John 14:6).

C.S. Lewis describes this marvelously:

“The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become … It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him … Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.  Lose your life and you will save it”2

With qualification, then, we agree with Shakespeare:  “To thine ownself be true.”  But we must know that being true to ourselves does not mean giving into our weaknesses, quite the opposite.  And “finding ourselves” or “figuring out who we are” is not as much an inward journey as it is an outward one.  We do not find ourselves by following our inward impulses but by looking beyond ourselves to the roads of Nazareth and Jerusalem where walked the True Human Being, to the cross where he was crucified, and to the tomb from which he arose.  He will show us who we are, if only we are willing to follow him.  So, join me in being simply human.  You were born to.

©M. Benfield 2016

 


1. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1 Scene III 78-82.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 225, 226.