The Importance of Vulnerability
"Hey man, I'll watch my language next time I'm around you"
"I only drink occasionally when I'm with friends"
"My wife and I grew up going to church, but this is just a busy season"
These are the kinds of statements that I hear when people find out that I'm a Christian, or worse, a pastor. I hear these statements regularly, and it's been my experience that these statements are more common in the South than in others parts of the United States. You might think that I list these statements in order to criticize people for being "name only" Christians or for making excuses, but that's not at all the point of this post. When someone finds out that I'm a Christian and says to me, "I used to go to church, but this is a busy season," I'm mainly interested in knowing why that person believes that going to church (or not drinking or cursing) is the main criterion for being a Christian. That kind of thinking does not come out of thin air. The more I've considered this "why" question, the more I've come to believe that the statements I mentioned at the beginning of this post uncover something significant about the impact of religiosity without vulnerability.
I am concerned that there is a tendency for Christians to present their Christian faith mainly as a behavior modification tool. How? We do this by publically promoting our religiosity more than our faith journey. We let people see our church attendance, our convictions about social and moral issues, and our reluctance to watch "R" rated movies, but we don't let people see our internal struggles with sin, the difficulties of living obediently in the midst of a broken world we don't completely understand, and the beauty of God's grace. We talk about outcomes without describing the process. We talk about our Christian behavior without being vulnerable about our sin and our desperate need for God's grace. This is not surprising. Honesty and vulnerability are, to say the least, intimidating and risky. We fear disapproval and social ostracization, mainly because "being desperate for God's grace" is antithetical to popular cultural values.
The consequences of this Christian tendency are grave. At its worst this tendency separates spiritual fruit from its cause, namely God's grace and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, it's a wonderful thing when those who experience God's grace desire to be part of a church community and work to clean four-letter words out of their vocabulary. But for those who encounter Christian fruit without understanding the grace behind the fruit, there are (at least) three dangers:
1. Those who desire to be Christians take it upon themselves to modify their behavior and therefore "become more Christian" (rather than pressing into God's grace). They often become discouraged and resent Christianity in the long run.
2. Many people understand Christianity to be a "tips for living well" philosophy that is no more significant than maintaining good hygiene. Since there is little or no understanding as to why Christians live the way they do, Christianity becomes one of many possible options for improving your lot in life.
3. The Christian faith loses its potency and becomes a cultural oddity that is nothing more than something to be "put up with." In the end, Christians become a zoo exhibit that people are careful not to agitate (e.g. "Don't swear around the Christians - we don't want to offend them!").
As Christians we must grow in our willingness to make the grace of God a critical part of how we represent our Christian faith. This is where vulnerability enters the scene. The best way to speak powerfully about God's grace is to talk about the work of God's grace in our own lives. The best way to talk about the work of God's grace in our own lives is to speak honestly about our sinfulness, our fears, our doubts, and of course God's grace at work in the midst of it all. The Apostle Paul gives us an encouraging example of Christian vulnerability. He spoke openly and often about his sinfulness, weaknesses, and shortcomings (e.g. Rom. 7:7-25; 1 Tim. 1:12-17), and goes as far as calling himself the "foremost" of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
When we dare to speak openly and honestly about our sinfulness and weaknesses, this demonstrates that we actually understand God's grace. We understand that the approval of others is of no eternal value, and that Jesus secures our approval in the eyes of God. This allows us to take a "risk" by being vulnerable with others.
Christian vulnerability requires discretion and faithful presence. We should prayerfully consider how we express our sinfulness and weaknesses, keeping in mind that our sin directly impacts others in a way that requires us to be sensitive and considerate. The extent to which we are vulnerable also depends on relationship dynamics. For example, I share some things with my wife that would not be appropriate to share with other women (or men). Regarding faithful presence, it is obvious that we can be more vulnerable with people who actually know us well. I am not going to walk up to a stranger on the street and immediately talk about sin issues. This makes it all the more important to build intentional relationships with people so that it is possible and natural to be vulnerable.
Vulnerability will help Christians help others connect Christian fruit with its cause - the grace of God as experienced through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. Let's be praying that, by God's grace, people would reckon with more than the externalities of the Christian faith. Vulnerable Christianity is a step in the right direction.