Tag: vulnerable

Seeing God in the Rear View

We can only make sense of Gods purpose in our lives when we can look back. I’m trying to stop looking forward as much.

So I think after five months, lockdown is beginning to break me a little bit.

In the beginning it wasn’t so bad. The stress of it all sucked, and not seeing my friends who mean the world to me was really hard, but lots of things were ok. I live with my parents so money wasn’t an issue, as they are far too generous to let me squat here for nothing. I got to take my dog on daily walks and started a daily readings group with my church. I was furloughed so for the first time in about two years I actually earned money (most of my big expenses we’re driving), so I had plenty of spare capital and time to spend on hobbies. I even had some phone counselling sessions (not related to the pandemic, and its a story for another time) which have really helped clarify some things. All in all, things were not looking too bad.

But in the past month or so, things have taken a bit of a downturn mood wise. Not critically, but enough for me to notice. I began watching a video essay by Patrick H Willems on timeloop movies (e.g. Groundhog Day) and how they reflect so much of the present moment. The feeling of endless repeating days that have no meaning, stuck in a perpetual loop with no end in sight. It’s a good essay, and really clarified some things in my head. https://youtu.be/2IrZD94CTxw

For me, it’s the monotony of it all. Wake up late, walk the dog, watch some Netflix, have lunch, think about doing something productive, get depressed reading Twitter, play some old Xbox games, have dinner, watch some more Netflix/ play Xbox/ stay on Twitter/Facebook/Hinge, stay up too late, sleep, repeat. Every day the same, no variation, except which app takes up most of my time that day. The hobbies no longer bring the joy they did because they aren’t there to be a break from everything anymore; the counselling finished; the reading group stopped being fulfilling; Hinge, started out of boredom, never went anywhere, and I’m convinced now I wasn’t in it for it to do that (although I have made a couple of friends from it which is positive). Even writing this blog, something which was a welcome cathartic release after work and other stressful things became its own work just to think of anything. It’s just like everything has become the sludge zone, just oozing, slimy nothing that sucks you in like quicksand and doesn’t let you go.

Gods work – Invisible String

So how is all of that relevant to the title?

I was chatting to my friend the other day about the new Taylor Swift album Folklore. We were talking about our favourite tracks, and she said one of hers was Invisible String, a song all about connections between two lovers that brought them together. My friend said it was her favourite because she had just got married, so she could look back and see all the invisible string that tied her and him together.

Christians often say and believe that God works in our lives. The degree to which He does and what He chooses to get involved in vary from person to person. I used to pray for Gods intervention in my exams, but now I’d hope something more important would get priority! I also do not think God intervenes in favour of any given side of a football match, unless he is a [INSERT WINNING TEAM AT YOUR SPORT OF CHOICE HERE] fan. But millions, perhaps billions of people believe that God is actively at work in their lives, guiding their footsteps in the right direction. This is not restricted to things that are positive, because that’s not what God is there for. God is not a genie designed to fulfil our deepest desires (I’m looking at you prosperity gospel people), so it makes sense that some things that happen to us that are bad are also from God right?

Thisnis the idea that God puts trials in our lives to test us; can we go through something bad and become better people? I can agree with this to an extent, because I can look back on moments in my life where I think God was working for me and putting me in the best position possible, even when the thing that caused it was painful. For example, because it’s news relevant in the U.K. at the moment, I didn’t get the required grades to go to my first choice of university, despite many hours of procrastination and hastily said prayers and promises to be good as I sat down in front of the exam! I was shocked at the time, but now looking back I see it was all for my good. I went to a Uni where in my second year, a student group was created for likeminded Christians. This group was one of the best things to ever happen to me, and many of the people who went are still my friends today. I do not know if I’d have had the same experience going to my first choice of uni.

That student group was really uplifting, and convinced me I needed something new from my church life. This meant I moved churches to my current church, where it’s safe to say all of the good things that have happened in my life since have come from. I do think God helped me to get to this place, to realise how much I need and thrive when I have a strong community behind me.

This I think relates to the invisible string conversation I had with my friend. We can look back on our lives and see how God created situations both good and bad that allowed us to grow. It’s lie driving a car and looking in the rear view mirror to see where we have been.

The Flaw in Looking Back

But I can’t find it that comforting, and I haven’t for about a year. The past year has not been brilliant, even without the lockdown. I lost a relationship and friendship in one go, and then had to write a dissertation I hated doing. The qualification I achieved has only served to make getting new jobs harder as it overqualifies me for some jobs, but I lack the experience for others, meaning I stayed trapped in a dead end job until the pandemic happened. I have sent out dozens of applications without success, getting close but “I’m sorry we’ve found another candidate with more direct experience”. Not only isn’t the string tying together, it’s seems to be completely frayed.

Trying to stitch things together yourself doesn’t always help either. I tried that with some things, trying to see what Gods pattern might be and putting together an apparent map for myself; getting a job in the city where my church is, moving out, getting my own place, starting a life. But that dream seems a little further away. I saw all of that happening after finishing my qualification, creating that life with my then partner, being part of a thriving church; but all of that stuff has either fallen away or seems to be in jeopardy. All of these feelings have been compounded in this global pandemic, the lack of direction and purpose it has created in me merely adding to the crushing weight of everything that came before.

And I think I understand the flaw in what I was doing. Looking back and seeing God’s invisible string tying things together is only possible when those things are good, or if they were bad, they have created something better. Its easy for me to see now that going to a different university because I didn’t get my grades was ultimately a good thing, because I have the good things that resulted from it. But at the time I couldn’t have foreseen all of that! It sucked! I felt like a complete failure! And that is where I am at now with all my current baggage. I cannot see the good in it yet because the good hasn’t happened, and I do not know if it ever will.

The Unknowable

The book of Job is a strange book. It tells the story of a righteous man called Job who loses everything; his crops are burned, his house falls down, his kids are killed and he becomes diseased. His friends show up and they try to make sense of it. They decide he must have done something bad in order to be suffering this way. It reads almost like a debate, or a Shakespeare scene, four guys meditating on suffering because there must be a reason for it. But in the end, God speaks to them, and he doesn’t give them an answer, even though in Job chapter 1 it tells God has done it to test Job’s faith. God asks them where they were when he made everything, in a really poetic passage:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)

Gods point is that his ways and means are so far beyond our comprehension we cannot understand. There sometimes is no discernible reason as to why bad things happen to us, they just do. There doesn’t have to be some life lesson for us to learn right away.

This is really frustrating because we as human beings like completed stories, a neat little ending wrapped up in a fancy bow. Imagine a murder mystery novel where the mystery is never solved! It would suck! But that is what life is sometimes. We don’t always get closure handed to us without pain, and sometimes we don’t get closure at all. We just have to keep muddling along, having to accept that things sometimes will not make sense.

Plodding Onwards

Something I tried to do very quickly as all of this stuff was happening was try to make sense of it all. I tried to predict why God would be doing this to me, if indeed it was from him, and draw lessons early. I think that was a mistake. A healthy perspective on things requires some emotional distance from the events, so a lot of the supposed lessons I was trying to take from it weren’t actually helping me, only making me feel worse. I took on all the blame for them in an effort to force change, but was not in a position at that time to bring it about, which lead to further uneasiness. In a weird way, I was trying to use my God rear view mirror to drive forward, which wasn’t working.

So I am going to ease up a little on trying to make sense of things. I can still use my God rear view mirror to look back on past events and I can see how God was connecting things together. But I am going to stop using that mirror to try and make sense of things that I do not have enough distance on yet. The car has to keep going down the road, and only when these problems are dots in the rear view mirror can I begin to look for the lessons.

Love and Vulnerability: Armour

As I have discussed in previous posts, being able to love often requires us to be able to remove the masks and clothing that keep people out. This can be very difficult to do, especially when we worry that others may not like us for who we truly are. It ultimately boils down to one thing, that revealing your secrets, especially the ones that paint us in a negative light, is to expose yourself to potential injury.

Wearing Armour

We are all familiar with the expression “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. It’s taught to us as children in order to tell us that we shouldn’t worry what others say about us because the words cannot cause you pain.

What a load of crap!

We should all be aware of the damage words can do! Just look at the damage social media can do to someone, especially the young, when they cannot escape their tormentors. Words have a power sticks and stones do not have because they can cut right to the core of you as a person. Someone can zero in on an aspect of your personality or appearance and slowly destroy you.

This is where the armour comes in. Wearing armour protects you from these attacks, allowing you to continue functioning. It protects the core of your being from being damaged. This is something I learned to do at school because I am quite sensitive, so jibes at my person often hurt me quite badly. Or at least I had the appearance of not being able to care, because armour still has weaknesses.

Armour doesn’t just protect us from strangers though. Far more dangerous is the power the people we love have to hurt us. When we let people in, and they can see all of you, your foibles, flaws and damage, you are giving them access to ammunition that can hurt you really badly. When someone you love insults you, they have access to a far wider range of points to attack you for. It also hurts so much more because a level of trust has been broken in the attack; you let them in, and then they did this?! So putting on the armour prevents this kind of damage being inflicted because people never get close enough to access that kind of ammunition.

Rebuke and Weapons

“Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favour rather than one who has a flattering tongue.”
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭28:23‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

We often like to focus on all the nice things Jesus said and did. It’s easier that way. A cuddly Jesus with a warm, benevolent smile, perhaps a small child on his knee telling nice stories to an adoring crowd. And that part of Jesus is definitely real, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the whole story.

In Matthew 23, Jesus takes the Pharisees to task. The Pharisees were the religious elite, the establishment power. They were venerated because of their apparent holiness.

But Jesus saw through all of it. In Matthew 23, he describes them as “whitewashed tombs”! What an insult! It cuts right to the core of their hypocrisy! On the outside, they look completely clean, but on the inside is still a dead, decaying corpse.

This seems really harsh, and it is. But crucially, Jesus wasn’t saying these things to be mean or to try and hurt feelings. Jesus was rebuking out of love, wanting the Pharisees to change their ways and realise their faults.

The chink in the armour

Armour is useful but is also flawed. The more armour you put on, the more you can protect yourself, yes, but it also renders you unable to distinguish between personal attacks and genuine criticism. Imagine a medieval knights helmet, one that covers your whole face. I’ve no idea how they could fight anyone, you can barely see out of them! And that’s a problem because your perspective becomes blinkered. You cannot recognise when someone is criticising you from a place of love.

I was and still am really bad at this. As I said earlier, I am quite a sensitive person, so any attack causes my walls to go up and for me to go on the defensive. But this also means that I fail to tell the difference when someone is telling me something that I do actually need to work on. I get too locked in to a mindset of defence I cannot improve.

I have slowly been trying to work on this. The past year has taught me that this reflexive defensiveness is a serious flaw, one that prevents me from growing. A lot of the time, my friends aren’t saying things to hurt my feelings; they are merely being honest with me about things I need to work on. It’s hard to change an instinctual response, but I hope I can keep doing it.

Having friends willing to rebuke you to make you become a better person is a gift. Don’t squander it.

Love and Vulnerability: Masks

“…We refuse to wear masks and play games…”
‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭4:1-2‬ ‭MSG‬‬

As discussed in the previous post, being able to love sometimes requires us to be spiritually naked with one another, to reveal ourselves to one another so we can be loved for who we truly are. But that’s not what we always do.

What’s your mask

I don’t know about you, but I wear a lot of different masks.

Not real masks mind you. But masks that allow me to hide who I really am from others. They allow me to present an image to the world that paints me favourable light. Whether it’s a smile when I feel sad, confidence when I feel anxious, or righteousness when I do wrong, I have at various times worn all these masks.

Billy Joel called them the faces of the stranger. It’s a song all about wearing different faces and how they make us feel good. We all do it. Masks are convenient because they allow us to hide inconvenient truths from others. I know this drum has been beaten to death, but anyone who has social media does this. They cultivate their lives to project a certain image to others. It’s the imagined self, the way we would most like to be seen by others. But it’s not just how others see you. The mask can sometimes change how you see yourself.

Hypocrisy

In Matthew 23 Jesus really takes the Pharisees to task. They were the religious establishment, the people who were venerated above all others for their holiness. But Jesus saw that for a lot of them it was a mask; they had the veneer of being righteous, but it was all for show. The Pharisees hated him for it, because they couldn’t not separate themselves from the mask and see themselves for who they truly were.

Our masks can make us like that a little bit. We can wear them for so long we can trick ourselves into believing everything is ok, when in reality it’s not. They make us hypocritical which in the Greek means ‘play-acting’. It’s a performance of whatever the mask is meant to convey, whether success, love or happiness. And in some ways, that might be necessary, a sort of fake-it-til-you-make-it approach to love and happiness.

The problem with this is where love enters the mix. If you wear masks, people may fall in love with the mask and not the real you. Think of all the Instagram celebrities that people love. They are loving an approximation of a person who is by definition not real. This is a problem for both sides of the relationship/friendship; the bond is based on nothing concrete so might fall apart if exposed. An in some sense we may realise this and tie the mask even tighter to our face so it never slips. But this means that people will never be able to love the real you because they have never met them.

The façade cracks

I got really good at wearing masks.

A lot of this was for basic survival. If I looked like I was ok, then people wouldn’t probe. We are all good at assuming people are ok even when they’re not. And that is part of the problem with masks is that hey become toxic the more they are used. We get so used to wearing them, that we cannot see when we might actually need help.

This has been my situation for a while. Protecting others from my reality as much as protecting myself from the same became second nature. But once I allowed the façade to crack I was able to actually get help from others and let them see the real me. This is why I think my previous post is so connected to this one; being spiritually naked and vulnerable with each other relies on us taking off the mask.

And this has to be an active choice on your part. Because sooner or later, the mask will slip from your face, and like it or not, people will see the real you. It happened to me once; my mask slipped and a friend saw the real ugly truth and it changed our friendship. Because I hadn’t really opened that part of myself, it was a nasty shock for them.

So, choose to take of the mask. It will be painful, but I promise it will be worth it, as the friends that stick around will love you for the real you, and not some fake version.

Love & Vulnerability: Exposure


Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”
‭‭Genesis‬ ‭2:25‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

It wasn’t until about a year ago that I became puzzled by something I read in Genesis. Genesis 3 tells us the story of the fall of man, how the man and woman were corrupted and ate the forbidden fruit. But what caught my eye was what the account gives as the first response of Adam and Eve when they had eaten the fruit:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
‭‭Genesis‬ ‭3:7‬ ‭NIVUK

They realised they were naked.

It’s strange that the very first thing you’d notice after eating fruit that gives you the knowledge of good and evil is that you’re starkers. I can’t imagine suddenly Adam felt a breeze around his nethers and that’s what made him realise! The garden of Eden probably wasn’t chilly.

But the fact that Adam and Eve were naked is also mentioned in chapter 2; in fact it’s the final verse:

“Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”
‭‭Genesis‬ ‭2:25‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

The fact that the Bible chooses to reinforce this point twice shows that it’s meant to teach us something. But I didn’t know what. But then I listened to a Timothy Keller podcast on Genesis 3 and how it shows us the different behaviours of sin. He made the point that the nakedness in the garden represents a different kind of nakedness for us.

Being Naked

The nakedness in the fall is a reflection of the fact that Adam and Eve had not sinned and only realised they were naked when they had sinned. Why? Not actually being naked, but realising that others can see your nakedness. And that changed how Adam and Eve saw each other and wanted to be seen.

Being naked means the people who see you can see you for who you truly are. There are no tricks, no way to hide, nothing to conceal all the things about yourself. You are completely exposed. Being naked in public is one of the more common nightmares people admit to having, and I think that speaks to the primal fear within us of what people might think if they saw us that way. Everyone could see all those little imperfections, those unsightly lumps and scars, that weird mole that’s slightly too big.

But it’s not always physical nakedness. There are some people who have no problem being naked in front of others (nudist camps, events and beaches testify to that). It’s not even nakedness within the context of sex, as some people find it easy to have multiple sexual partners. It’s rather more subtle and interesting than at first glance. Because the nakedness in the garden of Eden wasn’t just physical, it was spiritual.

The Soul Laid Bare

Adam and Eve only realised they were naked once they sinned. This is crucial to understanding spiritual nakedness, because being physically naked and spiritually naked are perfect parallels. When you’re naked in front of someone, you have no secrets. They see all of you, all the bits you normally cover up. We cover our shame with clothes to hide those pieces of ourselves (or in my case, many layers, but that’s due to being cold all the time).

Before they sinned, Adam and Eve had no need to hide because they had no secrets. They hadn’t done anything that they would need to hide from one another. But once they ate the fruit and had realised what they had done, they covered themselves, because they now knew too much that could be used by others against them.

We are not so different. There’s loads of stuff we hide and keep concealed from one another in order to make our lives ostensibly easier (although whether it makes them better is up for debate). We are scared that if people can see us they won’t like what they see. I know I kept a lot of stuff in for a long time, and to an extent I still have trouble trusting people with my secrets. I’m scared that people will abandon me or decide to use them against me.

But it shouldn’t be that way.

Love

Just think for a moment how many people you’d be willing to be spiritually naked with. Probably only a few right? Only closest family and friends, or if you’re lucky, your partner. You can be naked with them because you aren’t afraid for them to see your secrets. You can remove “clothing” around them to actually show them who you really are.

I was fortunate to make the group of friends I now have when I did. Before then there was a lot of hidden anxiety and trauma that I hadn’t begun to unpack. But what helped me was someone was willing to be vulnerable in front of me and lay bare their problems and worries. This allowed me to see that opening up wasn’t a bad thing, and that allowed me to open up and develop more meaningful relationships with my friends.

So yeah. In order to love, you have to be willing to get naked. You have to be able to let people see you at your worst, all the stuff you don’t think people would love you if they could see. Yes it’s scary, but you can achieve a depth of friendship or partnership you wouldn’t have done otherwise

And do you know what? Remember that God can see all these things that you hide from everyone else. He sees it all. And he loves you anyway. So you never know, others might too.