The Saving Power of Vulnerability

By: Noah Van Brenk

I think it’s fair to say that watching the news this past summer felt akin to being forced to ride a very fast roller coaster in complete darkness against my will.  Twists and turns seemed to materialize out of thin air, and at times the news coming from the United States seemed almost too bizarre to be remotely true. And yet, despite the plethora of media attention devoted to unpredictable matters south of the border, there is a singular image which has remained in my mind from the summer’s events, and it might not be what you expect. In my attempts to keep up with world events, I stumbled across a VICE News video reporting on the campaign to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS control. The last shot of the video, the shot which continues to lap at my thoughts, was of a man crouched against the wall of a cemetery, almost hidden from view by large mounds of dirt. He was weeping. He had just buried both his uncle and his father who were both killed when a mortar strike landed in their backyard, and was preparing to cross treacherous territory to return to and care for his family. This scene suddenly and horrifyingly seemed to embody for me the stark report of Genesis 6:11 that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.” The Hebrew word translated here as “corrupt” literally means “destroyed” – in other words, the earth and all its inhabitants are so wicked that we render ourselves self-destroyed. Viewed through this lens, it was as if that man was weeping not only for his slain relatives, but also for all of humankind. What image of human self-destruction is more apt than a graveyard where people exterminated by other people are buried in droves? His tears seemed to whisper, what have we done? What do we continue to do?

Moved, and more than a little disturbed, I began to reflect on the gravity of our wickedness as humans and how our inherent self-destructions manifest themselves. I thought of Yehiel De-Nur, an Auschwitz survivor called to testify at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who broke down when he saw Eichmann in court. When asked why he fell apart, Yehiel replied, “When I walked in and saw him I suddenly realized he was no demon or superman, he was an ordinary human being exactly like me. And I suddenly became terrified about myself, I saw that I am capable of the very same things.” How often are we afraid of ourselves, of what we’re capable of? How often, when we feel threatened, do we turn on those around us, violating others with our words and actions in order to protect ourselves? Worse yet, how can we ever expect to break our cycles of self-destruction?

And yet, in the midst of all of these difficult reflections, I am reminded that the person of Christ presents the solution to our despair, albeit a counter-intuitive one: vulnerability. His willingness to make Himself helpless for our sakes is what ultimately saves us from our fallen conditions. What’s more, the cross demonstrates that the Lord’s vulnerability is both limitless and completely effective in its purpose – He was willing to subject himself to torture, humiliation, death, and even separation from Himself in order that we might be reconciled to Him and freed from our self-destruction and self-contradictions. What could be more vulnerable than such a sacrifice? What could be a better triumph?

It seems to me that if we are to have any chance of living life to the full as Jesus promises, we must follow His example by working to be vulnerable with each other and with God. I will admit, I find this as sobering and daunting as anyone, and perhaps even more so — to be vulnerable is to risk being wounded, and possibly even destroyed. Crucially, however, this destruction is by no means inevitable; Genesis 6 makes it clear that the non-vulnerability of self-seeking violence guarantees destruction, while the risk of destruction in vulnerability can very well lead to restoration and healing.

Thus I am becoming increasingly convinced of the utter essentiality of vulnerability for living, a conviction that is ever so slowly overcoming my fear. We live in an age where angry rhetoric has reached intense heights, and violence of all kinds erupts across racial, intellectual, and social lines. It is brutally difficult to be vulnerable. Yet I am comforted by the thought that Christ was raised wounded, meaning that He continues to suffer and be vulnerable on behalf of the world. Just as He fulfills our human side of the covenant agreement for us, so too is He vulnerable on our behalf when we can’t be. The psalmist recounts how the Lord collects each of our tears in a bottle and records them in his book (Ps 56:8) — plainly our vulnerability is precious to him.

So as you continue on in your studies or work this semester, I encourage you to make attempts to be vulnerable with God, with yourself, and with others, even if it seems impossible or incredibly perilous. I have no clear idea what this kind of vulnerability looks like for each of us. We certainly do not need to submit to crucifixion — Christ has already done that — but I have some sense that it involves sharing the depths of our hurts with each other instead of lashing out in anger and self-protection. Christ promises that if we lay down our lives for Him, if we make ourselves vulnerable, we will find our lives more liberating and filled with joy than we could ever imagine. It’s because He has been so limitlessly vulnerable for us that we can begin to be vulnerable with ourselves and each other, and in doing so experience and enjoy abundant life. Let’s attempt to be vulnerable — what do we have to lose?