‘Vulnerable’ is an interesting word.
We use it to describe people who need help, especially those susceptible to abuse, exploitation and neglect – particularly children, youth and various adults. Sometimes such people don’t realise they need support and care, but they do. That’s why the word is used in the context of safeguarding – as we rightly seek to protect those who are ‘vulnerable.’
But it’s also used to describe someone willing to be open about themselves, and life. They share their tentative thinking or their uncertain emotions, seeking to learn and love well. Brené Brown often uses it this way, saying that ‘Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.’
Most people would be pleased to include themselves as someone who’s vulnerable in the second sense. We’re happy to say ‘I am positively vulnerable. I’m willing to love, to empathise, to discover and to share.’ But we wouldn’t include ourselves as vulnerable in the first sense, saying we’re someone who needs special help. This is understandable, for in the world of safeguarding there are clear categories describing those who are ‘vulnerable’ – and the majority of adults don’t fit. So we can relax, knowing we’re not vulnerable. We’re fine.
But maybe we’re not fine. Maybe there’s another kind of vulnerability that we often dismiss – a vulnerability closer to the first meaning, describing those who are fragile and frail. Perhaps it could even be used of a people, or culture who, without realising, are brittle and weak. I thought about this recently while reading some essays by Marilynne Robinson. She said of Jesus, that ‘It is his consistent teaching that the comfortable, the confident, the pious stand in special need of the intervention of grace. Perhaps this is true because they are most vulnerable to error – like the young rich man who makes the astonishing decision to turn his back on Jesus’s invitation to follow him.’
Did you notice her use of ‘vulnerable’? Robinson makes the staggering suggestion that those ‘most vulnerable’ to error are the comfortable, the confident and the pious. I think that includes me, and probably most people reading this blog. We are vulnerable.
Of course Marilynne Robinson is not saying anything new. The Bible consistently shows us this, warning, for example, that those who think they’re standing firm should be careful, lest they fall (1 Cor. 10:12). As we read Scripture, Scripture reads us. Our fragility is exposed, as well as our selfishness and sin. Robinson’s perceptive diagnosis of this is matched by her wise prognosis: we have a special need of the intervention of grace. Of love. Of God’s holy goodness, that is so brave and beautiful, flowing from the cross of Christ. This grace that humbles and cleanses. That gladness and delights. This grace that is pure gift. All gift.
Grace is given not just for others, but for us. For me. Grace is God’s desperately-needed gift for the vulnerable.