Shame: The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
As Christians we believe that we—and this world—are flawed. We see evidence of brokenness all around us. This is the reality of living in a fallen world. But the next step, after the “therefore” in the definition of shame, is what is most destructive—and untrue. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. This is a direct opposite of the way Paul follows his statement of the universality of sin in Romans 3:23-24: “… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”.
Shame makes it tremendously difficult for us to live out our belief that we are God’s beloved children, and that He loves us just the way we are. We have worth not because of what we do or don’t do, but simply because God created us in his Image. We have been redeemed by God’s grace, through Christ’s death and resurrection while we were still sinners, and God partners with us in His plan of redemption. As Reformed folks, our covenant theology emphasizes that God acts first, and that we respond to His sovereign grace out of gratitude. It sounds simplistic, but we cannot love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t believe we are valuable, worthy of love and belonging, from God and from others. And this is not simply an individual, psychological concern; our shame and disconnection from God and others also inhibits our ability to embrace our callings as children of God, as co-workers in God’s Kingdom of reconciliation, because it stymies confidence and risk-taking. If we don’t believe we are worth anything and that we will fail at anything we attempt, why would we believe we could or should try to live obedient lives of service? I see this lack of confidence and resistance to following God’s call in our lives all the time in campus ministry, and it is destructive not only to individuals’ personal lives, but also to their ability to fully embrace their God-given gifts and use them for his Kingdom.
If shame is knowing we are flawed and therefore feeling unworthy of love and connection, then one way back to a wholehearted, flourishing life of service as described in the last paragraph of question and answer one of the Heidelberg Catechism (“Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him”), is by breaking that presumed connection between our being flawed and our therefore being unworthy, unvaluable, and unlovable.
This is where vulnerability and (Christian) community come in.
Vulnerability: What is it, and perhaps more importantly, what is it not?
The definition of vulnerability I will be working with is the following, borrowed from Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly: “Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”1 “According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin word vulnerare, meaning ‘to wound.’ The definition includes ‘capable of being wounded’ and ‘open to attack or damage’.”2
So doesn’t this sound like embracing vulnerability in our lives is essentially just being weak, and allowing ourselves to be hurt? Not at all. Listen to the Webster’s definition of weakness: “The inability to withstand attack or wounding.” To be vulnerable means we are open to attack or damage, and embracing a posture of vulnerability means we need to be aware of the areas of ourselves where we are weak or capable of being wounded. This awareness is in fact a prerequisite for strength, not an embracing of weakness; if we don’t know where we are tender or vulnerable to attack, we are actually much more likely to be hurt or wounded. Whereas weakness means we are unable to withstand attack, vulnerability enables us to become aware of and to protect areas of ourselves that need special attention. This makes us LESS prone to the damages inflicted by those who would attack and shame us.
Given this contrast, it becomes clear that–counter-intuitively—to embrace vulnerability is actually a profound act of courage, and requires strength rather than weakness.
Vulnerability is neither always good nor always bad. I’m not saying that embracing vulnerability is always comfortable – far from it. It is often scary. But it is reality. “To FEEL is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe feeling is weakness.”3 We are created by God with feelings. It may be more or less socially acceptable for us to express our feelings, or to let it be known that we HAVE feelings, depending on our gender, age, social position and the like, but this doesn’t negate the creational reality: we are created with emotions. We cannot escape the reality that we are vulnerable. “We’ve confused feeling with failing and emotions with liabilities.”4 Instead, vulnerability sounds like truth, and feels like courage.
We implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledge our uncertainty and risk (parts of the definition of vulnerability) in the ways we often understand a life of faith. We acknowledge that for now, we see through a mirror dimly, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13. We understand intellectually that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) – hoped for and unseen things are not certain, outside of taking a “leap” of faith, so to speak. In my work as a campus pastor with young adults, I have observed a need for the embrace of true vulnerability if we are going to foster dynamic communities of faith that encourage and launch young adults into lives of faithful service.
Hear more from Sara Gerritsma DeMoor at Dordt College’s First Mondays Speaker Series on Monday, October 6th at 11:00 am in the BJ Haan Auditorium as she shares more about shame, vulnerability, and faith in a talk entitled, “Vulnerability, Discipleship, and Community: Embracing Risk and Flourishing Together.”