Vulnerability and mistakes

I’ve never been comfortable with the catchphrase “God makes no mistakes.” It’s not that I think God makes lots of mistakes, but that I find the phrase to be fairly useful for defending pretty much anything and entirely useless for changing anyone else’s mind. The phrase is not meant to open up possibility as much as it is meant to end conversation. For those who have been harmed by the words and actions of others, especially by hateful religious rhetoric, I can easily see why this kind of statement is a valuable and perhaps even necessary shield. But it never felt quite right to me.

I recently listened to a talk by Brené Brown called Listening to shame that gave language to the uneasiness I felt. Guilt, Brown says, means I’m sorry I made a mistake. Shame, on the other hand, means I’m sorry I am a mistake.

We all fail. We all fall short. We all make mistakes. The reality of guilt is at the heart of the Christian faith. But the only place shame is possible in a life of faith is in those moments when we make the mistake of thinking that we could or should be anything more than exactly the imperfect children of God that we already are. And in those moments when we are guilty of thinking that we ought to be God instead of love and submit to God, forgiveness is there to wash away the feeling of shame.

Spoken from a position of weakness, to proclaim that God makes no mistakes is to hide the reality that I feel like I am a mistake. Heard from a position of power, to proclaim that God makes no mistakes is a meaningless truism.

In either case, the statement acts like an impenetrable wall to keep a deeply felt shame out of the conversation. If you’ve been harmed into wondering if you are a mistake, why would you expose that deep wound? If you don’t understand what it’s like to be so deeply marginalized, how could you respond with the care and empathy necessary for healing?

I say all this not to place blame or suggest the phrase must be dropped, but to remember that when we talk, we’re quite often not having the conversation we think we’re having. Most of the words we use hide as much as they reveal. We have to hear the words behind the words to create the space for healing and relationship. And to hear that message requires vulnerability.

The cross is God’s creative act of vulnerability. Through the cross, God creates the space in which the source of all life and power becomes vulnerable to the point of death. And in doing so we are invited to experience the love and grace that reside underneath every word and form of religion. That God would commit such an act is the definitive response to guilt and shame. That God invites us into the life made possible on the cross means that vulnerability is the definitive shape of God’s mission to love and transform the world.

Church is the invitation to participate in God’s mission. Church is the name of God’s vulnerability brought to life in the ordering of human community. Church is the shape of life in the pursuit of vulnerability. Church is the vulnerable space wherein we seek to expose the heart of God to the world. Church, therefore, cannot be about right beliefs or perfect morality or theological precision.

More often than not (and especially in the public facing world of social media) it is much easier and much more safe to speak from behind the shield of a catchy slogan rather than expose the woundedness we feel. If you hear such a slogan and it ignites a deeply felt outrage inside of you, that is a message worth hearing.

If it ignites outrage in agreement, ask yourself what is deep within you that needs to hear and believe these words. If you cannot name the source of shame that compels you to use that slogan as a shield, the shame of what’s inside may never release its grip over you. I pray that you would find someone in your life who is willing to sit in vulnerability and help you find the means to let go of the lie that shame is speaking.

If it ignites outrage in opposition, ask yourself what that slogan might be hiding. If you are not creating the space in which someone feels safe and loved enough to express the vulnerable words beneath the words, you are likely making the problem worse. Don’t allow your guilt to fester into shame. I pray that you would learn to embody the vulnerability of God that enables you to hear another child of God.

As long as our words are a means of asserting power rather than embodying vulnerability, we will never create the space wherein we experience the cruciform shape of God’s love and in which healing takes place. We will make mistakes, but we are not mistakes. To speak this reality is to remember that at the heart of the Christian faith is the vulnerability of our God. By the cross of Christ, God creates the vulnerable space in which we are invited to give up the illusion of perfection and embrace the new life God is and makes possible.

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