In her 2010 viral Ted Talk, researcher Brené Brown launched a broad cultural conversation about vulnerability. She pointed to it as the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love—the key to the wholehearted life. Transparency and vulnerability are cultural buzzwords, and the value for authenticity can be seen within the church as well.
I, too, have a history of valuing “authenticity” above all things. The church and Christian school I attended throughout junior high and high school prized outward conformity above inward transformation. By the time I reached college, I determined to rebel against these unwritten rules. I became a reckless truth-teller, severely lacking in boundaries and bedside manner. Certain that true community and growth were only possible through unflinching vulnerability, I committed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I shared all the gory details of my past and present struggles, heaping burdens upon willing listeners while remaining a safe distance from their attempts to speak truth into my life.
It perhaps goes without saying that my “transparency” in this season did nothing to draw me into the community of believers. Despite my honest confessions, I made little forward progress in faith or life. I felt isolated, lonely, and stuck, and eventually, I walked away from the church altogether.
Why Vulnerability Falls Short
On the surface, vulnerability seems like the secret to community. We’re to confess our sins one to another (Jas 5:16). We’re to walk in the light, leading to fellowship with one another and the assurance of forgiveness promised to us in Christ (1 Jn 1:7-9). Brown’s research seems to confirm this biblical truth with common grace wisdom: connection is the result of authenticity.
But I wonder if the way we define authenticity goes deep enough. Brown describes authentic people like this: “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.”
This was my aim as I compulsively confessed my sins and struggles: I just wanted to show people who I really was, and to hear that I was okay. Theoretically, this type of authenticity leads to greater connection because it tears down the facades between us. As we let ourselves be truly seen, we will feel truly known, and thus feel truly connected to others.
But as Christians, we can’t abandon the reality that we’re not who we ought to be. God’s Word reveals a standard for his people—complete and utter holiness (Lev 20:26, Matt 5:48, 1 Pet 1:15)—and we know how far we fall short.
So often we settle for authenticity that allows us to tell the truth about our sin, but leaves us there. When we cast off who we ought to be in order to reveal who we truly we are, we may feel seen, but deep down, we’ll feel exposed—naked and ashamed, desperately seeking cover.
To assuage our discomfort, we’ll build new walls: We’ll manipulate, strategically sharing just enough so that we’re applauded for our brave honesty rather than humbly dealing with the sin exposed. We’ll confess in order to get things off our chest—to clear our conscience—giving no thought to the burden we’re asking our brother or sister to bear. We’ll confess to preempt confrontation, making it clear that we both see the problem and know the solution. And if we’re challenged in what we share, we’ll say, “I’m just being transparent. This is where I’m at.”
Exposing our ugliness on its own ultimately falls short in facilitating Christ-centered, authentic community. In order for vulnerability to result in deepening relationships and growth in Christ-likeness, it must flow from Christ-like humility, welcoming truth according to God’s standard—not our own.
Humility As The Secret to Community
Humility is the starting point of faith. In order to receive God’s gift of salvation through faith in Jesus, we must come face-to-face with God’s holiness and realize that we are ruined, unclean, and desperate (Eph 2:8-9; Is 6). We must be humbled to see ourselves as we truly are, recognizing that there is no one who is righteous; there is no one can do enough law-keeping to be worthy of saving (Rom 3:10, 20). And as our pride melts in the face of God’s holiness, we must seek refuge in the savior who humbled himself on our behalf to do what we could not: He left his heavenly home and took on the form of a man, lived a perfectly holy, worthy and righteous life and then submitted himself to a humiliating death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8).
This humility is also the starting point of community. Ephesians 4 gives a picture of biblical community—of one body characterized by gentleness, patience, love, and peace, that is growing towards maturity in Christ together, where all are able to “[speak] the truth in love and grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:1-2,15). Nestled into this passage is a phrase that holds the key to how this type of community is possible: “With all humility” (Eph 4:2).
The cross levels us—we are all desperate, all in need of God’s grace. With all humility, we recognize that we are all recipients of God’s mercy. He’s gentle and patient with us; he has loved us extravagantly in Christ, in whom we have peace. If this is true, who are we to withhold these things from our brothers and sisters in Christ? As people who have been forgiven a great debt, we can’t turn and stand over one another in judgment (Jas 4:11-12, Matt 18:21-35).
With humility as our foundation, transparency and vulnerability cause community to flourish.
With all humility, we don’t need to hide our failures. We know that our brothers and sisters have no power to condemn us because God doesn’t condemn us (Rom 8:1, 34). Instead, they can be the means God will use to remind us of his love for us and acceptance of us in Christ (Jn 13:34-35).
With all humility, we can confess our sin, bent low before God’s authority. We confess that we are not who we ought to be; we need Jesus. And we can humbly accept instruction and correction and ask for help, support, and prayer (Heb 10:24-25; Col 3:16).
With all humility, we see that our confession is not simply an exercise to serve ourselves. Motivated by love for our brothers and sisters, we can share in a way that honors one another, exercising wisdom and discretion.
With all humility, we can recognize that sanctification is a work of God’s grace over a lifetime, so we can be patient and gentle with each other, bearing with each other through the slow, steady growth God has promised to complete (Phil 1:6).
Humility frees us to be truth-tellers who are no longer reckless. Instead, we can be vulnerable in such a way that God’s mercy and love are put on display. Our weaknesses can point to Christ’s perfect strength and sufficient grace (2 Cor 12:9). And our constant need for mercy can display Christ’s perfect patience as an example to those who are to believe in him, for his glory (1 Tim 1:16-17).