“Why did I say that? God, why did I say that? What are they thinking about me now? Do they still like me? Do I even like me? I liked me a lot more before I opened my stupid mouth! UGHHHH!”
This mantra was almost a weekly occurrence for me at social gatherings in my teen years. With few exceptions, this was my self-talk whenever I spoke more than a few words at a fellowship, hangout, or conference. I was constantly screening and checking myself for what I said, how I said it, and how others might’ve heard it—as if I had any control over that!
It’s no wonder this kind of self-talk carried over when I first started sharing about anxiety, self-doubt, and other personal struggles on social media. A great fear would overwhelm me whenever I started typing admissions of my struggles; inevitably, I’d hit the backspace button, reminding myself, “This is stupid. No one is here for your whining, they’re here for updates on your next novel and maybe some cheerful affirmations. Pick a safer space to whine!”
Except I didn’t really have one, because I had the same conversation with myself everywhere I went.
Fearless Vulnerability – It Matters to Others
Over time, the overwhelming evidence was that as much as people enjoyed a good encouragement about picking yourself up by the bootstraps, more often than not even those were received better when coming on the tail-end of vulnerability—an admission that, hey, I am not just telling you this because I’m wise and I think you should listen to me. Actually, I’m struggling really badly with self-doubt, I’m writing but the words won’t come, I can barely sleep or think right now. But I am going to keep writing anyway, and I hope you’ll join me in persevering, too.
What I learned is that every single sphere of influence I’ve ever dipped a toe in is full of fakers just like me; people who are plastering on big smiles while wrestling demons behind their eyes. Sometimes all it takes it seeing one person be brave enough to say, “I’m actually not okay, I’m really struggling right now! My life isn’t perfect, but we don’t have to be perfect to carry on, and we will get through this valley!”
Sometimes that person has to be you, uncomfortable as it may be.
But that’s where the fearless part of fearless vulnerability is so important; it becomes unconcerned with how it looks or sounds, the bearer standing rooted in the truth and love of their God-given identity, which allows us to then reach out and touch lives around us with love and encouragement to grow and improve.
A Biblical Example of Fearless Vulnerability in Relationship
Let’s take a look at the life of the Apostle Paul!
As a quick recap: Paul started out as Saul, a zealous Jewish leader persecuting the newly formed Christian Church. He had an implicit hand in the death of Stephen, an early follower of Christ, an event which started a wave of persecution and saw many Christians flee the region for Judea and Samaria (Acts 8). Following a personal encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul’s eyes were opened (quite literally!) and with a new name and purpose, he became one of the chief proponents of Christianity’s spread throughout the non-Jewish world.
Over the course of his ministry, Paul wrote thirteen letters (that we know of; evidence within the letters themselves indicate there were others which God did not include in the canon of Scripture) and visited many of the major cities in the Mediterranean. He developed close personal relationships with leaders and “lay-people” during that time, some who are mentioned by name in his letters. It’s within those letters both to individuals (like Timothy and Titus) and to churches at large (Ephesians, Philippians, Corinthians etc.) that we see Paul being fearlessly vulnerable in such a way as to encourage better conduct in the recipient(s) of his writings.
Paul pulled no punches in his letters; he was consistently real about the good and bad of being a Jesus-follower in the first century. And it was no walk in the park! Paul faced trials of all kinds, both inflicted on him by others and by the aches and pains of his own body in a fallen world. He was ill, shipwrecked, scorned, cast out, lied about, imprisoned, and more. He also wrestled with his sin nature constantly, and about all this he was fearlessly vulnerable with those he wrote to; he didn’t hold back, nor did he beg pity or clemency for the times when he fell short. Instead, he preached joy (Philippians) and also spoke to the human condition (Romans).
Paul was not afraid to call sin for what it was, and he was not afraid to admit he struggled with it just as much as anyone he encouraged. In fact, he called himself “chief among sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15) and stated openly that “I do not understand my own actions, for I am not practicing what I want, but I am doing the very thing I hate. […] For I do not do the good that I want, but what I do not want—that evil I practice.” (Rom 7:15, 19)
Now, that is some vulnerability! The temptation for anyone—especially when writing to those who look up to us or even hinge the course of their spiritual future based on our testimony—would be to talk things up just a little. Like, maybe let’s not call it evil I practice, maybe just “bad” or “wrong” – those are softer words, right? And maybe I’m not chief among sinners, maybe I’m like…staff-sergeant among sinners?
But no; Paul knew that despite these shortcomings, his identity was rooted in the redeeming sacrifice and shed blood of Jesus, and he was able to work outward from a place of honesty and boldness about his own inadequacies. Because he was fearlessly vulnerable in both his letters to the blossoming Christian Church and his face-to-face relationships with those like Peter whom he confronted when they were misrepresenting the heart of Christ, Paul inspired a better way of being. Not just to the saints at the time, I would argue, but to a great many who have followed Jesus in the thousands of years since.
You Can’t Have Full-Sharing Without Vulnerability
The word used for fellowship in the New Testament, koinonia, translates more accurately as “full-sharing.” To be in fellowship is to be fully sharing of oneself, the kind of relationship God desired with mankind from the start—it’s why He made us! People are made to be in relationship, but sometimes we want to do it without being vulnerable. Basically, we want all the rewards of relationship without taking the risks. But in order to receive, we must be willing to give…to have a proper portion of vulnerability, baring our hearts so that others can receive and respond.
For my part, I really want to change the game for people who feel they must hide their anxiety. But I can’t do that if I’m unwilling to be vulnerable about my journey, my struggle.
Vulnerability opens doors and eyes and hearts that the imitation of a perfect life never will.
You Can’t Have Full-Sharing With Fear
Fear has shut so many doors that faith flings open. Fear is mostly concerned with the self, how things will go for us when we risk, when we dare, when we step forward and do. If we are afraid to be honest about our life, our struggles, and the journey God has brought us through—if we’re living in fear of what others will think or do or say to us if they perceive we’re not perfectly put-together—we will never be vulnerable, and therefore we’ll never be fully invested in any relationship. We will always withhold a piece of ourselves, maybe even the piece that most encourages and inspires others.
What if instead we are fearless with our story, rooted in our identity in Christ, and we present our struggles both past and present not as self-condemnation or self-aggrandizing, but instead as a testimony of what God has done and is doing in our lives? I think miracles would happen then!
Fearlessness inspires more change than avoidance ever can.
When we have fearless vulnerability in our relationships, being honest about our shortcomings for the sake of teaching and entreating others to inspire and endure, we walk in the footsteps of Paul—inspiring those in our circles of influence to lean more deeply into God and always persevere.