The Strength of Our Vulnerability

Seeing the Unseen

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Attending the morning Thanksgiving service at our church has become a family tradition for us. Each year, four to five church members share their testimonies, and we long to hear them. Although we have known these faces over the past years, when they unfold the stories of pain, brokenness and healing before us, I am always awestruck about how much deeper our relationship with them can grow.

The church is a community of vulnerability. And God intends that to be our strength. This applies to our family life, too. I recall the moment when my husband and I returned from the hospital with our first-born baby son on a snowy January day in West Michigan. As new parents, holding the 3-day-old infant, strapping him in the car seat, driving with turtle-speed in a snowstorm, and standing in our apartment with no medical staff to assist with this fragile little one, we were terrified. We feared every possible harm that could happen to our new baby.

Why did God make us vulnerable? Compared to other mammals whose newborns can stand up and find food for themselves days after birth, our human babies need years and years of parental care before they can live independently and know how to protect themselves.

But I think it is this vulnerability that invites human parents to enter into a deeper relationship with their offspring. The moments of breastfeeding, diaper-changing, and tummy time shaped the rhythm of life for new parents. For families with children with special needs, the invitation of commitment into these frail new lives becomes even louder.

I tend to think this is why when God made the second Adam, Jesus of Nazareth, he made him a human baby instead of a grown man, like the first time with the earthly Adam. Mary and Joseph were invited to enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus through the latter’s vulnerability. They had to wrap, feed, cuddle, and carry the maker of Heaven and Earth.

The body of Christ ought to grow an organic life together through mutual vulnerability. It sometimes bothers me when people in the church rank each other in terms of spiritual hierarchy—pastors first, then seminarians, next elders and deacons. Congregants often expect their leaders to be “spiritual” strongmen/women. This culture of over-spiritualization tempts leaders to put on a mask of high-spirituality. With it goes authentic expressions of human vulnerability and thus organic community through sharing mutual vulnerability. It is hard for me to think a leader who closes himself or herself to others would open up to God.

Why do we fear showing ourselves as vulnerable beings with frustrations, brokenness, and pain in our lives? We fear because we do not want others to see the reality in ourselves. It is a common technique of self-deception and impression management. We fear also because sometimes in church politics, people will use our expressed vulnerability (especially spiritual struggles) against us. Sometimes we fear because churches are not safe places to be vulnerable, when it can lead to spiritual abuse by leaders. 

While on earth, Jesus walked with those who were evidently vulnerable—prostitutes and tax collectors whose lifestyles were so wrong that everybody could see it. They had nothing spiritual to boast about in their lives. But strangely, it was this vulnerability that drew Jesus close to them. Today, it is still the same vulnerability that draws God to us.

Every Advent season, I am reminded that God once was a harmless infant boy among us, unafraid to become utterly vulnerable and dependent on the help of human hands so that people around can be invited into a flesh-and-blood relationship with him.

About the Author

Mary Li Ma, Ph.D., is a research fellow at Calvin University. She is a member of Plymouth Heights CRC church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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