*I would like to thank the Louisville Institute for generously providing a Pastoral Study Project grant which supported the writing of this reflection.
Our Vulnerable God
In the spirit of being led to see old words with new eyes, let’s explore what the the nature of God that is shared in the Bible (and thus our theology) that perhaps because of our cultural lens or what we were taught to see in Scripture, we have missed. God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. Immanuel, “God with us.” Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human. The cross. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob models vulnerability. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as, “risk, emotional exposure, and uncertainty.” Research into vulnerability has increased. People talk about vulnerability now.
While there are many misunderstandings about what vulnerability is, at its core vulnerability is about connection, intimacy, and belonging. Vulnerability is how we are known. Deeply and fully known. God wants us to know this about Christ in Eph. 3:14-21 to know how wide and long and high is the love of God in Christ. “The imagery of the Bible’s story of vulnerability is set apart from the world’s story in that the biblical narrative tells of a God who is with us in this process of exposure.” (Thompson, 126)
Consider these in the biblical case for vulnerability:
1. God is relational. God wants a relationship with us. A real honest, open relationship with us. Think of God and Moses talking (text), Jesus listening and engaging in conversation with the woman at the well, (text), even the Apostles traveling to the distant reaches of the known world to proclaim that in Jesus Christ, God has come to dwell with us. “and he shall be called Immanuel” God with us. Consider what Curt Thompson offers, “. . . absolute joy must eventually include my being completely known, especially those parts that in subtle, hidden ways have carried shame, often without my conscious awareness. This is the language of the new heaven and new earth. This is the work that God alone has initiated and in which he longs for us to join him. For God longs to be known by us as much he he longs for us to be known by him. He desires us tho join him in his trinitarian life of being known” (Thompson, 126).
2. God is open to being wounded. Vulnerability opens us up. The Israelites wanted a king because their neighbors had kings. This wasn’t what God wanted for the people yet God is willing to let them have a King. Think of the prophet Hosea, speaking for God in longing tones of a rejected lover.
3. The Incarnation: God takes on a body! God could have brought salvation any way He wanted but Jesus comes as a dependent baby who needs someone to take care of him, to burp him, to comfort his infant cries and quickly he becomes a refugee; one of the most uncertain modern day situations we can think of.
4. Creation and continued co-creation with God - (XXX) God’s creative action isn’t finished in the world. And we are invited to be part of God’s saving work in the world! God chooses to work through broken humans to share the Good News of Jesus with other broken humans.
“Faith communities believe that God has dreams for our world and that God, through us, attempts to bring those dreams into embodied reality. Our commitment to God’s work in the world provides the motivation to understand what God is trying to do through us. We are one of the vehicles through which God works.” (Sellon and Smith, 32).
“The Judeo-Christian tradition says that God is active in our world, continually creating and recreating. Humans can either participate with that creative effort or hinder it” (Sellon and Smith, 33).
5. Forgiveness: To forgive is risky. To be forgiven is vulnerable. To own our mistakes and trespasses, to truly with a penitential heart confess our sin, to live differently is vulnerable because it is exposing to say I wronged you or I benefit from a system of oppression.
There is boundaried vulnerability that includes self-care and accountability. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse abuse of power-over or require us to be doormats to our own detriment. This misunderstanding of “Turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) has caused grievous results throughout history. You are also God’s creation and you are to be treated with honor, respect, and love. Do you not know, you too, are God’s beloved?
“It’s important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning bad behavior, or that we need to interact with people who have hurt us. Discriminating wisdom clearly sees when an action is harmful or maladaptive, and when we need to protect ourselves from those with bad intentions. However, it also understands that all people are imperfect, that we all make mistakes” (Neff, 199).
Consider Rev. Desmond Tutu and Rev. Mpho Tutu’s deep wisdom, drawn from their own lives of living under apartheid in South Africa and then through the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s work in South Africa,
“When people are hurting, they cannot be cross-examined out of their pain. We all want our pain to be acknowledged and understood. We all want to feel safe to express our hurt feelings in all their various forms and textures. If you argue with the person you have harmed, that person will not feel safe, nor will that person feel understood. When someone is hurt, that person wants his or her pain to be understood and validated. Without that understanding, the forgiveness process will stall and you will both remain trapped in an endless loop of telling the story and naming the hurt. Empathy is the gateway to forgiveness for you and for the one you have harmed” (Tutus, 178-179).
6. The crucifixion: Crucifixion was a humiliating way to die. There is total exposure with the intend of shaming the one being executed. Some of those who stood at the foot of the cross added to this humiliation by mocking Jesus with his own actions as ammunition. “You saved others, save yourself.” (Matthew 23:37). They didn’t know all that the disciples knew, that Jesus had to die; that the cross was always looming on the horizon. And so instead of seeing the cross as a horrible, awful step Jesus obeys to take toward the resurrection, they see it as failure. They do not know that resurrection work is always hard work. They do not know God through Jesus brings life out death.
A core tenet of the Lutheran faith can point to vulnerability when you think about it. Theology of the cross says that, “GOD MEETS US IN OUR DARKEST PLACES.” God meets us in our suffering.
The Christian life of metanoia - turning back to God, is a process of revealing that which is death dealing and seeing what brings life; God’s grace. Growth, new life, new beginnings. These are the things we sing about on Easter morning and the largest season in the liturgical year is The Season after Pentecost marked with the color green to represent growth. “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation, the old has past away, the new has come” (II Cor. 5:17) invites us to consider that in this growth God models vulnerability. Christians who live under persecution, Christians who struggle to separate out what is Christ-centered living and what is cultural nationalism, Christians who are honest with their wonderings and doubts, Christians who are weary of all the in-fighting, Christians who listen to the holy rumblings in their hearts know vulnerability.
We know vulnerability because we are alive. God created us for vulnerability . . .
And God shows us how to be vulnerable.
Neff, Kristin. Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: William Morrow, 2011.
Sellon, Mary K., and Daniel P. Smith. Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening
Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation. Herndon, Va.: Alban Institute, 2005.
Thompson, Curt. The Soul of Shame. Downers Grove, Il.: IVP Books, 2015.
Tutu, Desmond M., and Mpho A Tutu. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.