The Vulnerable Man
Who would ever want to be vulnerable? I put “vulnerable” into the cbc.ca search engine a while back and here is a little of what that day’s news served up:
vulnerable kids were in need of food
vulnerable adults were in need of protection
the housing market was vulnerable to collapse
a hockey player was injured because he put himself in a vulnerable position
So I ask again, who would ever want to be vulnerable? The term means “to be susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm”. That does sound like something we should avoid, don’t you think? It sure sounds like the opposite of being strong. And if real men are strong then it is logical to conclude that a real man should not be vulnerable. Well, that may be logical but it’s a lie. And, like all lies, it will destroy us.
The heart of the problem is this – we are taught that vulnerability and strength are at opposite ends of the same continuum. If we buy into that, our attempts to be strong will be focused on protecting ourselves from anyone who could hurt us or from any situation where we might fail. I know these are real temptations because I am a man who wrestles with them. I have also worked with men my entire adult life and I see guys buy into these lies over and over again. But it doesn’t work. Here’s why: the primary tool for trying to protect ourselves is hiding and the primary motive for hiding is fear.
Hiding and fear keep us from living into our potential to be truly strong and Godly men. I grew up the youngest child in the shadow of two very gifted siblings. They were at the top of their classes academically so when I came along the teachers had some pretty lofty expectations. I was afraid I couldn’t measure up so I chose not to play. Between skipping school and lack of effort, I barely graduated high school. Have you ever done something like that? In an effort to sustain your image of invulnerability, your illusion of strength, you just didn’t compete? Fear of failure has induced many of us to simply not try, not engage, not risk, not make ourselves vulnerable to disappointment and failure. Perhaps at work we should be stepping up or speaking out but we are afraid of the outcome. Maybe at home we should be more engaged in the nurture and spiritual formation of our children but we step back because we are hiding from our own failings. In our marriages, many of us know we could be more tender and loving to our wives but we are paralyzed by fears of feeling silly, of doing things the wrong way, of failing to be the man of her dreams. So we hide behind a cloak of false strength. We must learn and relearn this simple truth: it takes strength to be vulnerable and being vulnerable builds strength. The strongest, most fearless New Testament preacher put it this way: “So if Christ keeps giving me his power, I will gladly brag about how weak I am. Yes, I am glad to be weak or insulted or mistreated or to have troubles and sufferings, if it is for Christ. Because when I am weak, I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).
Hiding and fear keep us from being faithful and fearless friends and husbands. Relationships are the perfect example of what it means to be vulnerable, to be susceptible to both being loved and being hurt. Vulnerability is the stuff relationships are made of. And if we are going to be the strong men God created us to be we will have to learn to be vulnerable in at least two relationships: with trusted male friends and with our spouse. Each of us needs some male friends that we do not hide from. The kind of men we are not afraid to be honest with. Men who won’t be dishonest with us.
And if we are married, we need to be vulnerable to our wife. My wife, Sharol, and I have been married for 42 years and have worked full time in marriage education for the last 15 years. We’ve talked to literally thousands of couples. We can tell you for certain: being vulnerable is essential to a healthy marriage. You see, love grows best in an environment of trust, a place where we are both fully known. This can’t happen when we are hiding. None of us intend to undercut our marriage but it can easily happen. We want to feel respected. We want our wife to think the best of us, to trust us and look to us for strength and security. All good things, but they turn against us when we try to accomplish them in unhealthy ways. In order to impress her with our strength we try to hide our weakness. To inspire her trust in us we hide the truth, we become a little dishonest, which is a particularly untrustworthy behaviour. In an attempt to make her love us more, we pretend to be what we are not. Motivated by fear and probably some pride too, we are false to our spouse instead of vulnerable. There are only two outcomes to this strategy and they are both bad: we can succeed in the deception and then live in fear of being found out, losing intimacy every day we live the lie. Or we can fail in our attempts to hide and then live with the broken trust that is a natural consequence.
But there is a better way. First, let’s resist the temptation to pretend to be a better man, let’s actually be a better man. As we grow in character and faith, our wives will respect us, trust us, feel safer and more secure with us. Secondly, let’s move towards vulnerability. Baby steps. I guarantee you’ll see results in your marriage. Here’s the little-known secret: most wives measure intimacy by vulnerability. When we are more open with our wives more often, they feel closer to us, open up to us in return and the relationship spirals upward. The more withdrawn, silent and hidden we are, the riskier the relationship feels to them and inevitably they pull back emotionally which makes us draw back even further and the relationship spirals down. If you are married, I am betting your relationship is in one of these spirals. Choose the upward one! Be strong. Take the risk. Engage. Be vulnerable. Far too often, when men ask me about strength and weakness in marriage, they are talking almost exclusively about power – who has it, how to get it, keep it and use it. I like to point them to the example of Jesus “Who, being in very nature] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature] of a servant” (Philippians 2: 6-7).
Hiding and fear keep us from being intimate with God our Father. The same spirit that strives to be invulnerable to our friends and to our spouse will keep us at a distance from our Heavenly Father as well. I have seen it in the men I work with. I see it in myself. We work hard to earn God’s approval. We compare ourselves to other guys or judge others. We find it hard to confess our failures and like Adam we work hard to cover our shame and even try to hide from God. We attempt to be strong, in the eyes of God and of others, by being invulnerable. But that is not God’s way. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). I have seen it over and over in my life and in others’ – when we seek in our own efforts to be strong, invulnerable even, we fail. We will never be stronger than when we quit trying to hide from God and instead get on our knees, humble ourselves and ask him to forgive us and lead us.
Let me ask one last time: who would ever want to be vulnerable? I do, because I want the intimacy that comes with it - with my friends, my wife and my God. How about you?