Vulnerability can be described as a “willingness to allow one’s weakness to be seen or known; willingness to risk being hurt or attacked.” In a mental image, I’ve heard it described as “giving somebody a knife, turning around, and trusting them not to stab you in the back with it.”
While that’s a powerful image in itself, the vulnerability described in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 goes even beyond that. Our traditional understanding of vulnerability is still lacking without what this short passage evokes of a Christ-focused vulnerability:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”—2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)
Vulnerability, or the awareness and expression of weakness, is not the end in itself in this passage. The most resonant phrase here is “so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” When I first read through the passage, I was tempted to focus on that last line: “when I am weak, then I am strong.” But then I realized that was a very worldly perspective, in a classic underdog-rises-to-the-top sort of story.
The world tells us to be strong. Any weakness, if you must show it, is only a temporary plight that is meant to be “overcome.” Even when you show up at a job interview and are asked the question, “what is your greatest weakness?”, people don’t actually want to hear about your greatest weakness. They want to hear your polished, positive spin on it. They want you to reveal just enough weakness so as to demonstrate how authentic and honest of a candidate you are. Ironically, the temporary weakness actually presents yourself as a stronger, more well-rounded candidate. Wordly vulnerability is often a calculated vulnerability.
The Christ-focused vulnerability in this passage has no such ulterior motive. Paul isn’t fake boasting to prop himself up in a better light, or to win authenticity points from his followers, or even to brag about his weaknesses being opportunities to learn or grow from. He says it plainly, so that Christ’s power may rest on him. His weakness points to Christ.
We’ve all felt this power before. Truly selfless vulnerability—when handled and expressed with no extraneous strings attached—simply invites God into the picture, offering God the chance to profoundly change both you and the people around you. That kind of vulnerability touches on our deepest need to be known and accepted by another. It reminds us that we were not meant to be our own salvation. It invites us, for the briefest moment, to let down our defenses that the world has taught up to constantly have up.
Jesus himself came to us as a vulnerable baby. God delights in weakness; celebrates it; utterly transforms it. The best Christian is not the one who is most self-sufficient or most loving towards others. The “best” Christian is the one who most acknowledges their need for God, who dares to utter the phrase: “have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And how does vulnerability change the people around you?
Think about the last time somebody cried in your presence. What did you feel? How did you respond? Tears are both a gift and an honor to behold. They speak, “I trust you. I’m willing to be vulnerable around you. I am choosing to share this part of myself with you.” Somebody else’s vulnerability has the power to move your heart. For a moment, you bypass the inherent self-oriented nature by which you perceive the world, and you enter into someone else’s pain. You experience a wider understanding of the human experience. You feel connected, and you may even feel love for this person. The same love that God has for each of us.
Think about the last time someone responded to the standard “How are you?” question with anything besides the usual affirmative. Consider the gift it was to the conversation. How much more meaningful it is to hear a response of “not too great,” or “actually, I had a really hard week” instead of a canned response. From vulnerability springs forth connection.
True weakness, not temporary or calculated weakness, is hard to practice and to receive. But that kind of vulnerability—directed at God and not at a particular motive or purpose—can also be freeing. Take it as an opportunity to practice God’s love and attentiveness to another just as God has already demonstrated with you. Allow those situations to lead to a greater awareness of God, your need for God, and rightful human relationship. The Christ-focused vulnerability that is counter cultural to our own sensibilities has the power to point towards Christ’s way of healing and mending. It enables God’s presence to be manifest among humanity.