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Published Date: June 5, 2008

Published Date: June 5, 2008

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The Strength of Vulnerability

My older brother, Christopher, and I stood face to face on the top of a mountain in Edinburgh, Scotland. We had been traveling through Scotland for days together, weary and weak from extensive bike rides, long hikes, and the generally difficult time of finding adequate and cheap places to lay our heads for the night. In short: we were beginning to get angry and annoyed with one another. 

Our fight started when we were almost to the peak of the mountain, and Chris asked me as we walked, “So, how are you feeling — I mean, really feeling?”

Chris had lost his hearing when he was two years old, due to a disease called meningitis. It wracked his small and fragile body, and left him with a complete absence of sound from that point on. Therefore, Chris taught me early on in our brotherhood that when we spoke, I needed always to look him straight in the eyes. When I didn’t he would grab my chin and re-center it so that he could see my lips and read my words as the air caught them. 

Possessing an incredible desire to understand the truth of things — never satisfied with easy answers or small talk — Chris was now at it again. He wanted to know how I really felt. The problem was: I didn’t want to share those feelings with him. The truth was: I was angry — enraged even. I was tired, cold, exhausted, and just wanted to lie down and sleep for three days straight. Deeper than that, I was at a point in my life when I felt crippled by an intense fear that I would never measure up, that I wasn’t a good enough man, that I was failing God in my Christian walk, and even that I was a hypocrite by sinning in secret and proclaiming God in public. 

Chris could see right through my façade, and he challenged me to let him in on how I was really feeling. Let him in! What!? That is way too vulnerable. No guys do that. Such were the immediate thoughts running within my mind.

So I responded to Chris, “I’m fine, okay? Let’s just get to the top of this stupid mountain so we can come back down it and go to sleep.” 

I turned and began to walk away from him, moving faster now to get the whole hike over with. Chris simply remained still. After I sensed that he was no longer beside me on the trail, I stopped — growing ever more enraged now — and turned to him. 

“What!?” I yelled, and tried to show with a furrowing of my eyebrows and the gritting of my teeth how truly angry I was. Conflict had already descended on us like a bad case of food poisoning, and the last thing I wanted to do was have my stomach pumped. Indeed, as a male, I had been taught my whole life how not to deal with conflict.  

But then Chris did something that for me has become one of the models of authentic strength in my life — especially as a male, and because it was something I had never seen other male figures doing. Chris leveled with me, and demanded vulnerability, not bravado. 

“Luke, I love you so much as my brother, but I am going to challenge you right here, right now. You are afraid. You don’t let people in — like me — because you are afraid of what they will think. You have built up a persona that is false, and you’re trying to live through it rather than being honest with yourself and with others. You’re afraid, Luke, and that’s the truth.” 

I wish I could say that I responded in rapturous gratitude to my brother’s honesty. Instead, I became furious. I attacked Chris with everything I could drag from the past about him: I attacked him ruthlessly, called him the one who was really afraid and threatened to take the first train out of Scotland, alone

But like an authentic figure of vulnerable strength, Chris listened and allowed me to finish my rant before he calmly said, again, “You’re afraid, Luke. It’s okay though. You can admit it. I won’t judge you — I only want to hear what you’re afraid of, and why.” 

All of my anger morphed into tears. To put it simply: I wept. 

I fell in my big brother’s arms, and I wept. Here was another male who had truly shown me what it is to love another from vulnerability rather than through a mask. Here was a male who challenged me from a place of love and authenticity. Our trip in Edinburgh — and our brotherhood ever since — has been totally transformed. 

In our society today, images of masculinity flood our eyes and ears. They shout to us: Real men don’t cry! Real men don’t talk! Real men aren’t vulnerable! But in fact, Jesus Christ modeled the exact opposite of what our culture tells us men should do.

On numerous occasions, Jesus offered a soft word, forgiveness when others demanded wrath, and understanding when others demanded condemnation. Indeed, Jesus was incredibly adept at seeing to the heart of things — not settling for the surface of what people say and do. 

In John chapter 4, when the Samaritan woman went to the well to get water, she found Jesus there waiting. He modeled the height of vulnerability when he asked her, “Will you give me a drink?” According to the time, the woman was shocked — as Samaritans and Jews did not associate. For the moment, forget about association, and think about what Christ did: he asked the woman for a drink of water. Christ admitted need, and he reached out to a woman in vulnerability to allow that need to be provided for. As the conversation in John chapter 4 continued, we see that Christ gets right to the root of the woman’s life — speaking softly and truthfully — and that the conversation ends with the woman’s belief that he is the Son of God. What a far cry from how men act and are viewed in our culture! Instead of putting on a show of false dominance or overt “Believe or perish!” terminology, Christ first became vulnerable with the woman, and then ministered to her. This is authentic strength, and authentic relationship, too.

Recently, I watched a preview for the latest Rambo movie. I found the slogan used to attract a masculine audience severely troubling. It said: “Heroes don’t die; they just reload.” 

What!? The message such a slogan — and indeed, much of our mainstream media culture, and perhaps even many within our Christian family — sends is that real men are tough. To be masculine means that you are the leader, you are always right, and that if you are truly tough enough (a “hero”) you will have your way regardless of what others say or share. You don’t die, and you surely do not ever feel sad, afraid, or weak. You only need to reload your gun and then take care of business.

This message is fatally dangerous when it comes to resolving conflicts. For men, the key step is an inner change of belief about what it means to be strong. We need to learn to see vulnerability and openness as strength. When we do, our conflicts suddenly become more manageable, because now we are dealing with the real truth of what is happening inside of us, rather than on the surface. 

In place of the Rambo ethos of masculinity, we can look to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird for a very different proposition. At one point in the novel, Atticus Finch (a white lawyer who agrees to stand up and defend an innocent black man in a historic racist South), says to his children: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” 

Wow. Instead of advocating a masculinity that solves problems and conflicts by remaining silent (a common decision among men who say they don’t want to share their feelings) or worse, through violence or power, Atticus shares that real courage is delving beneath the layers and taking action on behalf of what is true. 

As Christians, the time for men to embody an authentic strength is now. We need to resist the easy temptation to remain incubated under the guise of toughness, invulnerability, fear, and anger. Instead, we need to throw off the power structures that so easily bind, and be more willing to talk openly about what is going on with us.

It is okay to be afraid. It is okay to feel unworthy, or like a failure, or even like a hypocrite. Indeed, this is what Christ came to save us from, men and women alike. What is not okay is hiding these honest emotions within us, and creating conflict with those all around us.

Jesus models what it means to see straight to the heart; it is high time we men take Christ at his word and model it for one another as well. I believe that when we do we will empower all of our brothers and sisters in this Christian faith to resolve conflicts with greater purpose and results, and ultimately to live in freedom.