The Vulnerability of Christ
I don’t know about you, but I am often concerned about getting things right, and often find myself thinking about, what other people might think if I make a mistake.
A few years ago, I went through a job transition where my entire department was reconfigured and after twelve years of working at this institution, my position was eliminated.
I was discussing my feelings about all of this with an insightful friend, and he asked me if this made me feel ashamed. My immediate response was to say, no, but to be honest, at that point I had never really thought much about the topic of shame.
Guilt is a feeling we have when we realize we have done something wrong and the feeling is directly connected to our own action. Shame is a more general feeling of failure or unworthiness that we can feel, even if we can’t point to a specific thing we have done wrong. If fact it is possible for someone to experience shame when they are merely the victim and have done nothing wrong personally.
Looking back, I most certainly was experiencing shame. The fact that I was eliminated and not the next guy left me feeling like I failed somehow, even though this reorganization was not a judgment on my performance. The problem is, that very often when feelings of shame are bumping around in our heart, we tend to make unhealthy choices.
Although the study of shame is a relatively new discipline in psychology, we have now learned enough to say that the cure for shame is vulnerability. I will unpack this more in what follows, but vulnerability is special kind of relational courage that has tremendous implications for both our personal and spiritual life.
Faith and FeelingsAre your feelings important to your faith? It seems clear that our feelings affect how we act, and even at times what we believe. If this is true, then our feelings have very important implications for both our life and our faith.
In Matthew 25, Jesus gives us a series of parables leading up to his description of the final judgement at the end of this chapter. This collection of teachings is about the journey towards eternal life. Heaven is pictured as a wedding banquet (Matthew 25:10, cf. Revelation 19:9) or entering the joy of the Master (Matthew 25:21, 23; cf. Luke 15:6, 9, 32), and ultimately as something which follows the final judgment (Matthew 25:46).
People often say that they find this series parables confusing. The parable of the virgins is about ten virgins, or young women, who are preparing for a wedding banquet. Five of the virgins are prepared for the banquet and five are unprepared. When five of the virgins are excluded at the end of the parable, they are not told they failed based on their works, but instead they are told, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12).
In the next parable of the talents there are three slaves who are given varying numbers of talents. Two are praised for their actions and one fails. On the surface they appear to be rewarded or punished for their works.
In this parable the slave who fails reveals something interesting about the human heart. He makes the following excuse;
‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, . . . so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Fear in the slave’s heart prevented him from entering into relationship with his master and accomplishing what the master desired. When I am being truly honest with myself, I sometimes wonder how to relate the feelings inside my heart with the idea of my own journey to Heaven. Have you ever experienced a fear of failure?
In this parable we are not simply talking about this present life. The parable is about heaven. Of course, it is possible that someone could be both hampered by shame and have mixed up ideas about eternity. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI noted that many modern people do not even desire eternal life, because their idea of eternity is that it will be a painful continuation of this present life (Spe salvi, 10).
What is Eternal Life?
When we look in Scripture almost every detail of the cartoon is wrong. We do not become angels, and according to the book of Revelation, the Heavenly city has twelve gates, three facing each of the four directions of the compass (Revelation 21:10-13). And we are especially told these gates are always open (21:25).
Far from being a gated community for a few elite people, the multitude of heaven is from “every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Rev 7:9). Truly everyone is welcome! Even you and me!
If heaven is for everyone, why do some people reject it? Perhaps it would be helpful think of the analogy of an airport. If you could get to Heaven at an airport, what would you do to buy a plane ticket?
Recently a large group of American Catholics were asked a similar question, and much to the dismay of our bishops, the majority said they would pay for their ticket to heaven by their good works. Notice that in our parable today, the talent was not something earned but a gift which the slave was to care for. The key idea was to cooperate or collaborate gift rather than to earn the talent in the first place. The slaves were later judged on their cooperation with the talent they were given.
As the Catechism reminds us;
“With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.”. . .The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful” (CCC 2007-2008).
In keeping with my plane flight analogy, imagine showing up at the airport with the idea you are going to earn your way on the flight. Let’s also imagine your flight leaves in a few hours. While clearly many people think this makes sense in their spiritual life, there are good reasons why our faith teaches us this does not work.
Earning your Ticket?
I want to point us back to the excuse given by the unworthy slave in the parable of the talents;
‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, . . . so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
This slave is paralyzed by the fear of not being good enough for the master. I don’t know about you, but at times I have experienced this kind of doubt and fear.
The truth is the same place in the heart is driving both the response to try to earn God’s favor and the paralyzing fear of trying to cooperate. In order to avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame, one soul strives do things perfectly and to look perfect to others while another soul procrastinates and makes excuses and doesn’t try, or even gives up.
There is also a third possibility. Someone could joyfully receive their ticket, but then assume that without any cooperation on their part, they will still make their flight. Perhaps they will say, “God loves me so much, he doesn’t care what I do.”
Some years back, I was trapped briefly in St. Paul. MN during the ‘Snowpocalypse’ of 2014. In addition to eventually getting me home, the airline issued me a free ticket or credit to fly again with their airline, but I never cash in the ticket. The grace of the sacraments, without out our continued future cooperation, is like my unused and now useless ticket.
The Catechism discusses these same three possibilities under the sins against hope. The first sin is despair. This soul gives up and ceases to hope for his personal salvation (CCC 2091). I think we can conceive of despair in degrees, moving from apathy to a complete disregard for life itself. I believe despair is similar to the fearful slave in the parable of the talents, who fails to risk, and responds out of shame.
On the other side is the sin of presumption against hope which comes in two forms. “Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God's almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit)” (CCC 2092).
The perfectionist who tries to earn his own salvation is the first presumption, while the second is like the person who makes no effort to cooperate with the graces he received. To be honest, I am not sure what is going on in someone’s heart when they presume upon God’s mercy.
How then can our hearts be healed from shame?At a purely human level the antidote to shame is vulnerability. Vulnerability is a kind of courage. It is the willingness to face uncertainty, to take a risk, and experience emotional exposure.
Vulnerability is illustrated in famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt’s called “The Man in the Arena,” which was delivered in Paris, in 1910.
In this speech Roosevelt said,
It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly . . . who at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
So what does this mean? Vulnerability is the willingness to face either victory or defeat, but above all take the risk of being all in, or as Roosevelt said, “to dare greatly.”
Even if our heart is pounding with fear, or a small voice inside our head is saying “you are not good enough” we need to risk entering the race. To begin to run.
We may need to ask ourselves what’s keeping us out of the arena. Is there something we are afraid of? Is there something holding us back? If we are not practicing vulnerability, what are the coping behaviors we are using to protecting ourselves from being vulnerable. Are we constantly trying to be perfect? Do we procrastinate? Are we numbing our pain with drugs, alcohol or entertainment?
Why is this so vulnerability difficult?
Especially for men, we have been taught not to show weakness. But men, are we really certain that an American football player is tougher, than an Italian soccer player? Is it always better to “shake it off” and get back in the game, and not show that we are hurt? Seriously how is that working out for you in real life –in your work, in your marriage, in your friendships?
At a very deep level the shame we experience is a result of the Fall. When God confronts Adam and Eve, after they have together eaten the forbidden fruit in the garden, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent (Genesis 3:12-14). There is a lot of finger pointing and not much taking personal responsibility. Nobody wants to look bad to others and this is part of our fallen nature.
One outstanding positive example of vulnerability in sacred Scripture is the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10. As a blind beggar in Jesus’ world, poor Bartimaeus would have every reason to think he was not good enough to warrant Jesus' attention. Yet he puts himself forward and cries out, “Jesus, son of David have mercy on me!” The crowds try to shut him down, but he keeps crying out even louder. Finally, Jesus calls him and says, “What do you want from me?” He says, “Master, let me receive my sight.” … and Jesus immediately heals him.
If shame is about our interior feeling of unworthiness and caring too much about human respect or how others might see us, isn’t it ironic that a man who is blind is the model of vulnerability?
The Vulnerability of Jesus
I believe Jesus Christ came into this world to be a model of vulnerability. St. Paul tells us that Jesus,
“Who though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
. . . coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance (Philippians 2:6-8).
What greater example could there be of taking the risk of being all in, of great daring, and emotional risk, than for the God of the universe to become a little child and dwell among us.
Do we need to clean up first?
I would say, both yes and no. If we have examined our heart and we feel we need to approach God for forgiveness, this is a good thing. The sacrament of Confession can be a means of God’s continuing grace in our hearts and draw up into deeper relationship with him. All of this is good.
This line of thinking can also be a subtle trap, however, if motivated by shame, we are trying to make ourselves acceptable to God. If we are measuring our worth by our perfect deeds, and constantly trying to earn God’s favor, instead of resting in his love, we have taken a wrong turn.
While Jesus does invite us to approach God for forgiveness, he doesn’t have the prerequisite of cleaning up the house first. In Mark’s gospel Jesus says, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mk 2:17).
Similarly, in John’s Gospel Jesus says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” St. Paul notes, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Ro 5:8).
Very recently the church updated a document called the General Directory of Catechesis 2020 (GDC) which is a manual that tells us how to teach the faith. It is important for us to realize that the graces we receive in the sacraments require cooperation from us, and the church calls this cooperation ongoing conversion.
What does this mean to us personally?
Returning to the Airport
I truly believe that if we take the risk of showing up for our flight, trusting in Jesus, we will begin the journey of healing, and can hope to hear the words of the master, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.”