So much about vulnerability can be understood by the very word we have used to describe it.
Vulnerability is becoming a more prominent theme in American culture today. Dr. Brene Brown, a noted researcher in the field of shame and vulnerability, functionally defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (Daring Greatly, p. 34). In a word, vulnerability is openness: the willingness to be open to at least some people and experiences.
Yet “vulnerability” ultimately derives from Latin vulner, a wound; to be vulnerable, therefore, involves the ability to be wounded. And such is generally how we view openness: we view the opportunity to become open to people or experiences with apprehension and concern because we might be wounded in the process. Our thought processes and actions often attempt to insulate us from such wounding.
Such insulation goes by many names: retreating into our shell; putting on our armor; raising up shields; putting on the performance. We fear the openness of vulnerability as weakness and something which can be exploited against us; we find it better to present ourselves as invulnerable. We harden ourselves against other people; we try to position ourselves so that we may be able to help others, but do not want to be in the position where we seek help ourselves.
It was not always this way. We all learned to become invulnerable because of personal experience and cultural expectations. We can all probably remember that one time where we wanted to showcase something we felt was special, only to find ourselves mocked, derided, or teased when we opened up and showed it to the world. We thought we learned a most important lesson in life that day: better to hole up than to expose ourselves. Better to put on the armor, play the part, lest we get shamed or teased. We absorbed the lessons culture would have us learn: show no weakness. Look strong. Keep it together.
And yet we find ourselves alone and isolated. We wonder who we are and why we are here. Our relationships often prove superficial and unsatisfying; even in the midst of a lot of people, we can feel alone. Far too many seek solace in destructive behaviors.
All of these things flow from our posture of invulnerability, for it cuts two ways: if no one can hurt us, no one can really love us, either. If we close ourselves off so that we are not harmed, we also cannot be healed. To put on the armor of invulnerability is to prepare oneself for loneliness and alienation. When we cut ourselves off from people, we cut ourselves off from the life sustaining strength we gain from one another.
Vulnerability, and especially the lack thereof, represents a major challenge for followers of Jesus in the modern Western world. As in all things, we must look toward the example of Jesus, and He has manifested His vulnerability to the world.
By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24c ESV).
We must deeply imbibe the meaning Peter’s quotation of Isaiah 53:5. We often seek to present ourselves as invulnerable precisely because we wish to avoid the shame, the pain, and the suffering which comes from being wounded. And yet Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh, dwelt among mankind, and deeply felt for their pain and anguish (Matthew 9:36). He suffered the depredations and degradations of the cross and absorbed the insults and derision of those who crucified Him (cf. Matthew 27:27-44). He endured the cross and despised its shame (Hebrews 12:2). And He did it all precisely for those people who were mocking Him and killing Him; He did it so all men could be restored in relationship with their God (Romans 5:5-11)!
The openness inherent in vulnerability makes wounding inevitable. Those who would be vulnerable will be wounded by others, however intentionally or otherwise. And yet relationships cannot flourish and thrive without vulnerability.
Jesus pointed the way. After all, we have all sinned against God (Romans 3:23); God would have every justification to turn away from us or lash out against us for our rebelliousness. And yet God, in Christ, absorbed the suffering and loss and proved willing to take on the wound in love, grace, and mercy, so that we might be restored in relationship to Him. When God had every reason to turn away from us, His Son became flesh, dwelt among us, and died for us.
If we would be godly in Christ Jesus, we must prove equally willing to be vulnerable toward others. We will experience wounding. Parents and children know just how to hurt one another; spouses can lash out at each other. Friends sometimes have hot disagreements; churches are full of people who are at different stages in life and who act and project just as much based on their inadequacies and failings as much as their strengths. We will be hurt. We will open up and suffer betrayal in some form or another. We will welcome people into our lives that will leave us soon afterward. We will be tempted to give up and to retreat into our shell: to play the game, put on the act, and keep people at a distance.
If we give up, we will give into the alienation and hostility among people which is a hallmark of the god of this world. The Lord Jesus will give us the strength to follow His example, if only we would trust in Him to do so. We must open up to one another despite the hurt and betrayal, recognizing that we would want people to remain open to us despite our own inadequacies and failures, and ever mindful of how God proved vulnerable on our behalf.
By Jesus’ wounds we are healed; healing can only ever take place when we open up and allow whatever “treatment” or “medicine” need apply. We must open up to God and to His people if we wish to be saved, just as God opened Himself up in Christ to save us. May we recognize the greater way of love in vulnerable openness, and encourage one another in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry