Stepping Into the Open.
There is no intimacy apart from vulnerability. Vulnerability is the decision to disclose my true thoughts, emotions and intentions despite fear of rejection, and it's a critical spiritual practice.
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I want you to think about a time you’ve felt most exposed.
Maybe something you once kept secret came to light.
Maybe you were put on the spot in an uncomfortable manner in the classroom, or a meeting.
Maybe you had to stand up and speak publicly.
Just think about a time you felt most exposed and more specifically, I want you to think about the emotions that accompanied that experience.
I immediately think about a reoccurring dream I had as a teenager. On a semi-regular basis I dreamed I was standing naked in my high school hallway. Now, I understand this to be a common dream for people, but mine was unique because it usually didn’t involve being completely naked. Instead, I was what I can only describe as “Donald Duck” naked. For me that meant, t-shirt, no pants. That’s what I was working with.
It was horrible. Even though it wasn’t real, I can tangibly remember the emotions that accompanied it. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I was afraid and confused. In short, that feeling of being totally exposed, was horrifying.
Psychologists aren’t certain what these dreams represent. Some believe they’re an expression of one’s insecurity which would make sense. But regardless of what dreams like this mean, they leave us very much aware of what it feels like to be exposed.
So think about a time you felt most exposed and pay attention to the emotions that came along with it. Those emotions that accompany the experience are what so many of us work so meticulously to avoid. But here’s the problem: Many of the means we employ to avoid ever feeling exposed - and by “exposed” I mean truly and deeply known - are the same means keeping us from experiencing intimacy with God and one another. As we’ve explored over the past few weeks, until we choose the courage and strength to come out of hiding, we’ll never experience the connection and intimacy for which we long and were created to experience.
Just to review, we’ve already looked at the effects of shame in our lives (it drives us to hide) and we’ve looked at God’s response to us in our shame (he patiently pursues us). This week I want to talk about what it looks like to begin coming out of hiding by cultivating the spiritual practice of vulnerability. Let’s discuss…
Stepping Into The Open.
Genesis 32 contains a story involving a man named Jacob. If you aren’t familiar with his background, Jacob was what can only be described as a hot mess. It’s important to be honest about this, so that we don’t whitewash the men and women who make up the stories contained in the pages of Scripture. When we do that, we make them almost super human and thus completely unlike you and I. But the truth is, they were deeply flawed people used by a perfect God. In short, they were just like you and I. Jacob is no exception.
Jacob was a father of the nation of Israel and he was deeply flawed. Jacob was fearful, insecure, manipulative and deceptive. He also had an older twin brother named, Esau. When their father, Isaac, was dying, Jacob deceived him and stole his older brother’s birthright. This was a massive betrayal because in their culture, birthright was everything. It meant authority, property, money, and the legacy of the family name. So when Jacob stole that precious gift that rightfully belonged to his brother, Esau was understandably irate. He was so angry, that in Genesis 27:41, Esau vows to kill Jacob. So Jacob runs away to his uncle Laban’s, where he continues his pattern of cheating and manipulating for 21 years.
Genesis 32 is the story of Jacob’s epic return to finally face his brother Esau. But even more than a story about Jacob’s return, it’s an example of God’s determination to draw His people out of shame-driven hiding and into the open. For the sake of time, we won’t look at all of Genesis 32, but let me just summarize what leads up to the verses we are going to focus our attention on.
Jacob and Fear.
If there is one emotion that dominates Jacob throughout this story, that emotion is fear, and for understandable reasons. Remember, the last time Jacob had interacted with his brother, Esau had vowed to kill him. Grudges like this often don’t fade with time, so Jacob has good reason to believe that Esau still hates him and has even had 21 years for that resentment and rage to calcify in his heart. For all Jacob knows, he’s marching toward at best relational rejection by his brother and at worst, his own death. It doesn’t take long for circumstances to reinforce this fear.
Still trying to manipulate and control this situation, Jacob sends messengers on ahead to inform Esau of where he’s been, how much success he’s had, and to seek Esau’s favor. These messengers come back and say, “We spoke with Esau, he’s on his way, and has 400 men coming with him.” As a result, v7 says “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.” Which makes sense when you consider that 400 men also happened to be the size of the standard militia. Obviously, this was not the response Jacob was hoping for. So as we come to v24, I want you to just imagine Jacob’s emotional state. It’s the night before this massively important reunion. Every aspect of his future hangs in the balance, so he’s afraid, stressed, and feeling deeply insecure.
Imagine the way you felt the night before some important event in your life where the stakes were high. One that comes to mind for me is the night before Tami and were assessed for church planting. We were in Seattle in late 2008.
Up to that point, I’d been a worship pastor.
I had little preaching experience.
I’d never been to seminary.
We weren’t being formally sent by another church.
It was just us, a few friends, and a simple vision to start a healthy church. Because of all that, I wanted to ask others with some experience to speak into our fitness for this task that has over a 70% failure rate.
So Tami and I flew out to Seattle with Ava who was not even a year old months old, to be assessed by these people with whom we had no relationship, knowing that if they said we weren’t ready, we were going to trust them and the whole venture would be over before it truly started. So to say we were stressed the night before is an understatement. Tami kept telling me for months leading up to it that she wasn’t even going to go. Anytime I brought it up, she’d just say, “Yeah, I’m not doing it.” Even as we were leaving the hotel to head to our assessment, we were walking to the car and Tami kept saying, “I’m not doing it.” Obviously our assessment went great and Tami was a amazing and made all four of our assessors cry with her beautiful story of coming to faith. All of that said, here’s my point: Anxiety, fear, and stress are natural emotional reactions to an impending, high-stake event in one’s life.
And that is exactly what Jacob was experiencing. As we come to v.24 Jacob’s emotional state is compounded by an unexpected and unbelievable encounter…
24 Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not defeat him, he struck Jacob’s hip socket as they wrestled and dislocated his hip.
-- Genesis 32:24-25 (CSB)
This is exceptional on a few fronts.
First, there is absolutely no mention of how this wrestling match started, which seems to imply Jacob was ambushed by this mysterious assailant.
Second, it’s worth noting that at this point in Jacob’s life, he was roughly 96 years old. Just think about that! The text says, he wrestled until daybreak and still, Jacob’s opponent could not overpower him. At 96 years old! I’m 42 and feel like I need a full yoga class for my body to function when I climb out of bed in the morning, so this is one strong old man we’re dealing with here.
Third, when his opponent realizes that Jacob will not relent, he strikes him so hard in the hip, that he puts it out of socket. The hip is one of the strongest parts of the body, so to put it out of socket, means Jacob got hit hard.
But most significant, is that somewhere throughout the night, Jacob realized this was more than a mere man he was wrestling with.
26 Then he said to Jacob, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 “What is your name? ” the man asked. “Jacob,” he replied. 28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” he said. “It will be Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he answered, “Why do you ask my name? ” And he blessed him there. 30 Jacob then named the place Peniel, “For I have seen God face to face,” he said, “yet my life has been spared.” 31 The sun shone on him as he passed by Penuel — limping because of his hip. 32 That is why, still today, the Israelites don’t eat the thigh muscle that is at the hip socket: because he struck Jacob’s hip socket at the thigh muscle.
-- Genesis 32:26-32 (CSB)
At some point in the night Jacob realizes, he’s having an encounter with the living God. This is an example of what scholars call, a theophany. A theophany is an OT instance of God the Son, appearing in the flesh as an anticipation of His coming incarnation. So Jacob had been wrestling with Jesus Himself! He experienced the divine and understandably, he desperately demands a blessing.
The means through which this blessing comes is significant. Notice again in v27, Jesus’ response to Jacob’s demand is a question: “What is your name?” This question strikes me as curiously similar to God’s opening question to Adam in Genesis 3. God said, “Where are you?” Remember, God was inquiring of their inner condition, not their literal location. Similarly, Jesus isn’t asking Jacob’s name so that He knows how to refer to him. To be asked your name in this culture and in this manner, was to be invited into an act of self-disclosure, confessing your deepest identity. He’s asking Jacob to acknowledge the shame of who he HAS BEEN, so that he can rename him with the promise of who he WILL BE. The blessing Jacob desired demanded facing the very shame he was carrying.
When Jacob is asked, “What is your name,” he’s being invited into the spiritual practice of vulnerability. The word “vulnerability” carries with it some description of the practice itself. It’s derived from a Latin word meaning “to wound.” The condition, or state of being vulnerable means to be susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm. Which is why we avoid it the way we do. The problem is, like we saw in the example of Adam and Eve, our attempts at avoiding vulnerability with God and one another sever us from the very intimacy we long to experience.
I’ve struggled to find a simple definition of vulnerability that is descriptive of the practice itself, so I wrote myself. Here’s my working definition of what I would argue is one of the most necessary, but most neglected spiritual disciplines:
Vulnerability is the decision to disclose my true thoughts, emotions and intentions despite fear of rejection.
In short, vulnerability means stepping into the open and being truly known. This is why there is no intimacy without vulnerability. Remember, at it’s root, shame is the fear that if we were truly known we would be rejected. Shame says, “I’m so bad that if anyone truly saw me, truly knew me, they would disengage, disconnect from, or reject me.” We then place this deeply felt conviction onto our relationships with one another and most destructively, we place this on our relationship with God. In order to avoid this disconnection we so deeply fear, we hide. We hide behind false-selves we believe will be more palatable and more acceptable than our true selves. And while this hiding makes us feel safe, it also isolates us.
Vulnerability invites us to choose the courage to step into the open. Vulnerability invites us to disclose our true thoughts, emotions, and intentions in the face of that fear of rejection.
All of this being said, there is an uncomfortable reality I don’t want you to miss:
Fear is the field on which vulnerability fights.
I bring this up because for a long time, I confused transparency with vulnerability. The truth is, you can’t have vulnerability without transparency, but you can be transparent without being vulnerable. Here’s what I mean. If our opening up doesn’t demand courage and trust, we’re not practicing vulnerability. Let me explain.
A fear years ago, I was prepping a series on emotional health, fully believing I was one of the most emotionally healthy people I knew. I believed this because I equated mental resilience with emotional health. As part of my preparation, I was reading “The Emotionally Healthy Leader” by Pete Scazzero. In that book, he has a self-assessment meant to help you measure your own emotional health. I took the assessment thinking, “I’m about to score higher on this assessment than anyone has ever scored.” I answered every question honestly and and guess what happened? I scored painfully low in one particular area: vulnerability.
I have tell you, I think I experienced all five stages of grief in response.
First was DENIAL: “I’m super open about failures and flaws, so there’s no way I’m not vulnerable.”
Then came ANGER: “This assessment is stupid and I hate it.”
Then BARGAINING: “What if I take it again and answer differently to get a more accurate score.”
Fourth came DEPRESSION: “I thought I was so self-aware and really knew myself, but apparently I’m a fraud.”
And then finally ACCEPTANCE and I’ve been in therapy ever since.
Now, in all seriousness, here’s why I was so confused. For years as a teacher, I’ve been complimented for being vulnerable because I work hard not to be the hero of my own illustrations. I’ve always tried to be open about my faults and apologize when I’m wrong. So people have listened to me do that over the years and thought, “He’s so vulnerable.” But I’ve learned the real reason people thought I was vulnerable was because for them to do what I so often do would demand vulnerability from them, even thought it doesn’t really demand it from me. Most people would rather die than speak publicly period, much less stand in front of hundreds of people over the years and openly talk about their own life and confess their own failures. So for them to do what I do would demand deep vulnerability. But here’s the thing: For whatever reason, none of that makes me feel vulnerable. Just because I was transparent, didn’t mean I was vulnerable.
Coming back to our story, the question put to Jacob demanded vulnerability. When Jesus asked Jacob his name, he could have recoiled in shame. He could have thought, “If I disclose who I am, where I’ve been, and what I’ve done, He will rightly refuse my request and reject me.” Instead, Jacob chose to come out of hiding. He chose to step into the open through the vulnerable act of disclosing his name. “My name is, Jacob. I cheat. I steal. I manipulate. And I’m afraid.”
I think there’s another transforming lesson in this story:
Rejection in response to vulnerability is far less common than shame says.
Notice, rather than rejection, Jacob is blessed in response to his vulnerability. He was given a new name. No longer will he be Jacob, the one who cheats, now he will be Israel, because he struggled with God and with men and had prevailed. His vulnerability resulted in a face to face experience with the Creator, Savior, and Sustainer of the universe that left him, objectively changed. Jacob was never the same.
So here’s the most important thing we have to walk away wrestling with this week…
There is no intimacy apart from vulnerability.
That’s true in marriage and dating. It’s true in friendship. It’s true of every expression of relationship we experience, including our relationship with God. Until we’re willing to face our fear of rejection and step into the open with God, until we choose to bring our true-selves to Him, we will always feel distant from Him.
Not because He isn’t near.
Not because He doesn’t delight us.
Not because He isn’t anxiously awaiting relationship with who we truly are, rather than all we pretend to be.
We have to understand that it isn’t God obstructing intimacy. It’s our allowance of shame to have the definitive word.
As we wrap this up, I want you to know God hasn’t called us to do anything He hasn’t modeled for us.
God modeled vulnerability in creation. He made Himself accessible. He created us for relationship with Him. And He also created humanity with both the will and the ability to wound and reject Him. But rather than hide from us, He pursued us. Despite the fact that we do reject Him, He didn’t hide. He pursued. He stepped into human history and experienced a life of rejection. Isaiah calls Jesus “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He was abandoned. He was betrayed. He was murdered. He made Himself vulnerable. And He did all that so you and I could step into the open and experience intimacy with Him.
This is going to demand a deep dive of sorts into your own soul. Rather than blocking our emotions, we learn to embrace them. Rather than running from our past, we return to it. Rather than project a prettier false self, we learn to live as who we truly are. It isn’t comfortable, or convenient. But it’s familiar territory for Jesus, so we can follow Him into it.
There is no intimacy apart from vulnerability, so let’s commit to stepping into the open today.
I have found a deep resonance in pursuing the difference between transparency and vulnerability. I continue to pursue it because of the work God is doing and the obvious ways He continues to bless it, but I am so often tempted to keep all of it to myself and BE the hero of my own story. 💔