I will remove from them their hearts of stone
and give them a heart of flesh.
When I was diagnosed with cancer I felt fear, but I was not clear about what frightened me. So I prayed for clarity: “God, I know that I am afraid. But what am I most afraid of? Please show me.”
Vulnerability was the word that came as a response to this prayer. Being vulnerable was what frightened me the most.
To be vulnerable is to be undefended. No fortress walls around our hearts. No live ammunition to fire in self defense. When we are vulnerable we are open to being hurt.
As the text from Ezekiel suggests, God offers to remove our hearts of stone and to give us hearts of flesh. God offers to remove the hardness of our hearts. In place of our hard hearts, God offers to give us hearts that are vulnerable—hearts that can feel both pain and joy, hearts that are tender like God’s own heart.
God had been teaching me for years about vulnerability, showing me that my well-defended, stone heart kept me at a safe distance from others. It created barriers to the genuine expression of love and affection. My stone heart hindered me from receiving God’s love and the love of others, and it kept me from freely offering loving affection to God and to others.
Almost all of us have wounded hearts. Many of us have had our longing for love and our longing to love others rejected in some way. As a result, most of us have some part of our heart that is defended, hardened. Like stone. We defend and protect ourselves—often without even knowing we are doing so. To the extent that we protect and defend ourselves, we hurt people close to us, causing them to feel bereft of us and in greater need of defending their own hearts.
God had been reminding me that vulnerability is the soil in which all good things grow. Love, connection, intimacy, trust, healing, kindness, honesty, genuineness all grow in the rich soil of our vulnerability.
When I prayed to know my greatest fear and vulnerability came back as the answer, I saw once again what I had seen through all the earlier times of crisis and struggle in my life. It was this: the thing I was the most afraid of is the biggest gift of all.
As I told clients, friends and family about being diagnosed with breast cancer, I prayed that I would stay in a place of vulnerability. As a result, some very open-hearted exchanges took place. There were many tears and hugs and expressions of love and affection. The most important realities in the universe are given life in the rich soil of our vulnerability.
The author of the letter to the Philippians invites us to take on the same mind set—the same way of being in the world—that Christ had. In the second chapter of this letter we read about Jesus becoming completely vulnerable. He “who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but… taking the very nature of a servant…he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
Vulnerability is at the very center of Jesus’ life and death. We talk about Jesus saving us, but what do we mean when we say these familiar words? I believe that one of the ways the cross of Christ offers us salvation is that the cross shows us the way of vulnerability. Christ’s death offers us salvation from our hardened hearts and defensive ways (the very things that lead us to harm others and to push God away). The cross invites us, and God’s Spirit empowers us, to lay our armor down and to practice the way of vulnerability.
Margaret Bullitt-Jonas writes in her book Christ’s Passion, Our Passions about the final words that Jesus spoke from the cross. About his words, “I thirst,” she writes,
“I thirst for you,” says God. “I long for you. Will you turn to me? Will you say yes?”
God is so vulnerable sometimes. We’re all vulnerable when we ask for love, since love can’t be forced—it can only be freely given. And never is God’s longing so straightforward, so direct, as when we see God on the cross, pouring out God’s self for our sake.*
So what exactly is vulnerability? What does it look like and feel like? It is what Margaret Bullit-Jonas is describing as she talks about God’s vulnerability in Christ on the cross. Vulnerability is the full exposure of our love and our longing to be loved. It is the open expression of our spirit’s deepest truth. We were made for intimate, tender relationship with God and with each other. This is our heart’s deepest need and longing.
When I was a young nurse, I worked with many men and women who were in their final days of life. Some were young. Some had lived long and full lives. Many of them talked to me about their experience of coming to the end of life. From their vantage point they shared what they could now see. It was as if they had climbed a high mountain and now had a clear view of things. “It is all about loving and being loved,” they told me.
This is what Jesus taught—not only in his death, but in his life as well. When people came and asked Jesus what mattered most in life, he answered simply and directly, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,38).
For me, vulnerability, comes down to allowing myself to feel and express my love and affection to God and to others with an open heart, with wisdom and with humility.
Even though vulnerability means that we don’t allow our fears and defenses to rule our lives, vulnerability does not mean that we have no boundaries. Boundaries are very much a part of vulnerability. Boundaries are tools that allow us to respectfully, honestly and humbly communicate about our limits. Our “yes” means yes and our “no” means no. We do not feel compelled to share everything with everyone. We do not feel compelled to rescue others or to do things that are beyond our capability or power. Instead we seek God’s wisdom about what we share and about how we respond to the needs of others.
Part of living with hearts of flesh—hearts that are tender and vulnerable—is that we practice honesty and respectfulness. We do not become superheros. Quite the opposite. We become children, God’s much loved children—open, loving, responsive and aware of our limits.
When I let myself stay open to the experience of vulnerability during my season of living with cancer, it sometimes felt like everything inside of me was turning to liquid. It was as if I had been hard like ice in places and now I was melting. I was losing the sense of protection and definition that the hardness had offered.
This was a strange and powerful sensation that I wanted to resist. It felt like I was losing myself. It was painful. At least, it was painful as long as I resisted it. But when I let myself stay with this sensation of melting and flowing, and allowed myself to relax into it, it became something wonderful. As I allowed myself to melt and flow, I had a sense that I was flowing into the vastness of God, and that God was flowing into me.
A year or more before being diagnosed with cancer, as part of this ongoing conversation with God about the gift of vulnerability, I had written this prayer:
are the vulnerable one.
I am creature, child,
yet my heart is rock hard in places.
While your heart—
your heart is liquid love and longing.
You hold nothing back.
May God prepare us to give up our stone hearts and to receive the gift of vulnerability. May God grant us the grace to be like God in Christ, whose heart is liquid love and longing, poured out to us all.
When you don’t know what to do…learn vulnerability.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What thoughts and feelings do you have about the idea of becoming more vulnerable?
2. What negative experiences have you had with being vulnerable?
3. What experiences have you had with vulnerability being the soil in which intimacy and love can grow?
* Margaret Bullit-Jonas, Christ’s Passion, Our Passions (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2002), 7.