Dr. Brené Brown, a popular Houston-based writer and researcher, studies how people experience and deal with shame. She defines shame as the fear of disconnection. “Is there something inside of me, that if other people know it or see it, that makes me unworthy of connection? Am I good enough?”
Brown says that, among the people who she has interviewed, those who are able to relate to others who feel shame are marked by a strong sense of love and belonging in their lives. Specifically, she found that these people who excel in this connection feel they are worthy of being loved.
Intrigued by this finding, Brown looked more deeply at all the interviews where she saw this self-worth at play. She found that the people who felt worthy of being loved tended to have the courage to be imperfect. They all had the compassion to be kind to themselves. And they all were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were. In other words, what they had in common was that they embraced vulnerability.
Dr. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” In her book Daring Greatly, she writes:
“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 a doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.”
Brown noted in a public lecture that many people hear ‘vulnerability’ and think ‘weakness.’ She then asked the audience, who had just heard many speakers share stories about deaths in their families, intimate moments in their lives, or their own weaknesses and personal failings, “How many of you thought they were brave for doing that?” Most hands shot up.
Actual, genuine vulnerability is hard. It takes courage and boldness. But, as Dr. Brown notes, being vulnerable is the beginning of true connection between people.
I dwell on these insights because I am finding that there is power in vulnerable love—toward oneself and towards others. Yet, while many theologians have talked about love in terms of sacrifice, or in terms of “power in weakness,” few have made an explicit connection between the transformative power of vulnerability and faith in a God who is vulnerable.
Think of the New Testament issue of Gentile and Jewish Christians struggling to live together. The Jewish Christians, Paul writes, have to welcome Gentiles into the church as Gentiles, not force them into Jewish identity through circumcision. And Gentile Christians have to allow themselves to be changed and formed by the lifestyle and virtues of the Jewish Christians, rejecting the values of Roman cults.
There is a level of vulnerability that comes when people have to truly learn how to live with one another. Jew and Gentile both had to risk being changed. Jew and Gentile both had to learn from one another and be influenced by one another. Paul is not telling them to simply tolerate each other, but also to open up to each other in a way that risks uncertainty and emotional exposure.
In 1 John we are told, “God is love.” Amidst the many layers of this verse’s meaning is a statement about vulnerability. In God there is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the very being of God, there is a loving relationship, an ever-dynamic vulnerability and connection. God is love. And the central story of Scripture is God opening that love to us.
What we cannot miss is how vulnerable God is in this invitation. The first chapter of the Gospel of John says the Word “came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.” We often hear this verse and focus on our sin. But it is also about God’s vulnerability. God comes in Jesus Christ and is rejected by God’s very own people.
God does not just create this world, but God loves this world with an abandon that leaves God vulnerable to pain. God creates a garden of life, and Adam and Eve betray God’s trust, grieving God. God rescues Israel from oppression and slavery in Egypt, and the first thing they do is build a golden calf to worship.
In the Gospels, God the Son says, “‘I have a dream for this world, where the poor are taken care of, the sinner is accepted, the marginalized and foreigner are welcomed.’ And humanity rejects this dream.
And yet, despite all the ways we reject God, God keeps loving us. And we know this because of how far God went to be with us. We don’t truly start to grasp the Christian message until we see that the height of God’s power is Jesus’s vulnerability on the cross.
This is what true power looks like: Jesus suffering on the cross so that those who suffer would never be alone. Jesus dying the death of a criminal so we would have a life of liberation.
The power of Christ is the power of vulnerability. We can only be vulnerable with one another because God was first vulnerable to us. This is where the traditional language of falling to our knees and surrendering to God has the most power. We must make ourselves vulnerable to God.
This will mean being vulnerable with ourselves, acknowledging all of our parts we try to hide. That, I think for many of us, is the hardest part. But it’s the only way we can give our whole selves to God.
It will not be easy to admit to ourselves our faults and weaknesses, and then give them to God. But it is necessary if the church is to be a family bound by Christ and by love of one another. This vulnerable love is essential when thinking about how people can truly join and connect with each other. It is not as easy as saying “let’s just emphasize what we have in common,” while ignoring divisions. There is risk. We are going to have to risk being wrong, or maybe risk being right. Risk having to be the bigger person, risk the hard work of changing policies and hearts, often at the same time.
But God already knows all of our faults, all of our mistakes, all of our worries, and all of our pain. And if we come to God with our whole selves, God will not reject us. It is precisely as we are at our most vulnerable that God’s power can be the most present. And it is then that we are enabled to be vulnerable with others.
The Distillery, Season 1
Chris serves as Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, NY. Prior to First Church, Chris served as the Director of Christian Formation at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, overseeing children’s, youth, and adult Christian education.
Chris is the American-born son of Filipino immigrants and a New Jersey native. A fierce atheist for much of his adolescence, he came back to faith during his time at Rutgers University. Chris worked for a number of years at The Star-Ledger newspaper in New Jersey, as a reporter and then a web editor. During this time, while serving as a lay leader for the high school and outreach ministries at Park Church in Red Bank, NJ, the call to church leadership became too strong for him to ignore.
Chris graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity. He has also served in ministry leadership at Kingston United Methodist Church and Rutgers Episcopal Campus Ministry, both in New Jersey.
He and his wife, Amanda, have a 4-year old daughter, Amelia, and a 1-year-old son, Jasper.