I wrote the above statement a few months ago, while puzzling over the mystery of vulnerability. I was trying to express how near impossible the effort of it seemed to me. I had been moved as I witnessed the faith of friends who had been praising God right in the middle of incredibly difficult times. How courageous to open oneself up to such a relationship with God, I thought; how courageous to be so vulnerable!
Have other Christians found this posture of vulnerability toward God a challenge? What I learnt about vulnerability made me think that some must. The concept that I wasn't vulnerable to God, even as a Christian who has been on my knees since the age of five, was a relief to me rather than a worry: a freeing diagnosis. Just as it was when I realised that although my life felt full of love, I didn't know God's love in the way I needed, in order to share Him with others in the way I wanted. It was only on this road to seeking the fullness of God's love that I found myself having to first embrace the stance of vulnerability.
I think what hardens our hearts toward God can be when we've been disappointed by Him; when we've lost trust; when we no longer feel safe to be vulnerable.
I struggled with relentless pain and chronic fatigue for four years as a late teen/early adult. During this time the diagnoses I received were conflicting phrases like: "God is using this to teach you something" and "God's desire is never for sickness – there must be something blocking your healing". It was a lot of hard work to get fully better again, and when I did, I wasn't praising God for bringing back my health - I was left struggling to know why he had left me to despair for so long. I knew I wouldn't have made it through without the hope and purpose I had in Him, and the love of my friends and family, but it sure didn't feel like I had much of His graciousness in my life.
Perhaps this disappointment was built through a comparison of what I thought my life should have been like this side of the grave – a lifetime of "life in all its fullness" (John 10:10). I was unaware that "fullness" doesn't always mean a bed of roses (or perhaps that when there are roses, there will also be thorns). The advice, "God sends us trials to refine our faith," didn't always go down well with me when trying to understand God as all-encompassing love in the middle of such traumatizing pain. But then the idea that "God promises you a fantastic and happy life if you die to Him – just sign on the dotted line!" doesn't achieve any better results. As trials do come, and we can be left disillusioned about God and His role in our wellbeing.
Gentleness before vulnerability
One lovely lady put a book into my hands shortly after praying for me at Church a few months ago - a book called Hinds' Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. She told me the book was an allegory of sorrow and suffering. As I read it over that month, I came to know it as an allegory beyond words, not only of sorrow and suffering, but of joy and peace, grace and glory. I joined the main character Much Afraid on a challenging journey, through which her crippled feet were transformed into 'hinds feet' so she could ascend the mountains with the Shepherd.
I witnessed the gentleness of the Shepherd amidst this difficult journey, and started to see how my own heart had been hardened through a season of toughing it out. I hadn't wanted to risk softening my heart to God when I still felt so bruised by what He could have prevented. I came to understand that although my own Spirit was soft and open toward others, in many ways it wasn't soft and open toward God. The trauma of my past pain hadn't yet been wrapped in the love of God and healed. I was protecting myself from Him rather than going to Him as my source of loving comfort.
Much Afraid, who eventually took on her new name of Grace and Glory, knew the Shepherd's gentleness, even in the "terrible fire of his love". The Shepherd was always so present and compassionate, and I was reminded of how He has always remained so near to me throughout suffering. I was in awe when reading the refrains of God's goodness and gentleness throughout Hannah Hurnard's book, and I started to learn that it isn't courage that leads to possessing vulnerability toward God, but a true knowledge of his gentleness. What leads to a heart open before God is an understanding of his goodness and character - even within sorrow and suffering.
"Arriving" at vulnerability
Vulnerability with God and vulnerability with man are very different concepts. However through our vulnerability with others, I hope that we can be encouraged and encourage others to open up to God and into His gentleness. I've witnessed this gentle and loving support through hardship time and time again in amazing ways. A friend who has been through cancer, and one of my best friends who passed away with cancer, have been loved with gentleness in the most beautiful ways during their illness. Pampers, shopping sprees, even holidays overseas – my heart rejoiced in the goodness of God that allowed them pockets of gentleness through such trauma.
Showing goodness and gentleness to others in hard times, coupled with real and honest conversations about where God may be in sorrow and suffering can help maintain and reclaim an awareness of God's own nature of gentleness. I'd like to think I would be patient journeying with a friend over a whole lifetime if necessary, to help them open up to the gentleness of God.
I've never met anyone with a 'perfect life' or anyone who hasn't been given the chance to mistrust the goodness of their creator. We look to a perfect God and yet are surrounded by the imperfection of this world; some of us with promises echoing in our ears of 'the good life' this side of heaven. There are plenty of opportunities for an understanding of God's true character to be desperately needed by those around us.
Vulnerability that leads to courage and love
Being vulnerable can be a journey that seems impossible for God to ask of us. I've still had challenges left, right and centre since my recovery from illness almost five years ago, but far more than that – I've had incredible blessings and an abundant life. However it is only in the last couple of months that I have begun to open up to God in this truly trusting way again. I believe it is in vulnerability with God that I will be able to praise Him through whatever comes.
A best friend of mine just lost her little baby girl. We read Hinds Feet on High Places together, while in separate cities, in the month leading up to the tremendous loss for her, her family and her community. My heart is moved by faith like hers, but I know now that it isn't only courage that leads her and her husband to be vulnerable, to run to God with praise, trust, and faith in His goodness within pain. It is in knowing Him. It is in knowing His gentleness, His compassion, His love, and the mystery of His goodness despite the sorrow in this life.
May we all fit God in, around, and outside of our worldview in a way that affords us to be vulnerable, and may we love ourselves and each other with the gentleness that truly portrays His heart.
Janetta Hayden is a Social Anthropology and Visual Arts graduate from New Zealand, based in Perth with her Design Engineer husband Ryan. Janetta works and volunteers in film and community development, with a business idea up her sleeves.
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