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Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Cost of Invulnerability

As I shared in my article last week, one of the most dangerous things we can do is reveal our mess to the people around us. It’s extremely tempting to construct a fortress around our mess and lock it up like Fort Knox in an attempt to prevent anyone from getting even the smallest glance of it. If they see our mess, they might reject us.

I’ve certainly experienced rejection as a result of being vulnerable. Or at least I associated the rejection with my vulnerability. We face a risk when we choose to be vulnerable. It’s possible that our vulnerability may cause us to lose friends and distance ourselves from family members. It’s possible that our vulnerability may cause us to lose our jobs, our homes, our cars, and all the other stuff we’ve spent years acquiring. It’s possible our vulnerability may destroy our marriage. It’s even possible our vulnerability may put us in jail. With such high costs associated with being vulnerable, I can appreciate our desire to construct a fortress around our mess.

Weighing this cost is certainly important. But if we stop here, we’ll fail to see that there’s another opportunity cost we’ve failed to consider; maybe being vulnerable is worth the risk because it has the potential to get us something which may be just as great, if not greater than what we’re currently getting because we’re hiding our mess behind our fortress walls.

The Advantage of Vulnerability

Every single one of us fears rejection. Have we ever asked why? What is it about being rejected that causes us to cringe every time we experience it? When we get rejected, we feel disconnection. When I was teased by some of my classmates in elementary school, I felt rejected and therefore disconnected from them. When you ask someone out on a date and you get turned down, you feel rejected and therefore disconnected from that person. When you share part of your mess with someone and then the person doesn’t talk to you for a month, you feel rejected and therefore disconnected from that person.

When I first started digging into this topic a few years ago, I took a journey down memory lane to evaluate how the shame I felt from my childhood experiences was impacting me today. During that process, I made a discovery which left me absolutely dumbfounded: the memories which were most vivid in my mind involved a feeling of disconnection. I remembered a time when I got spanked by someone I didn’t even know because I wouldn’t stop crying. I remembered a time when I got teased by some of the kids on my baseball team when I couldn’t hold back the tears from flowing after I struck out. And of course I remembered the time I got made fun of for my skinny arms.

The commonality amongst all these stories, other than disconnection, is a feeling that my vulnerability somehow contributed to my rejection. The time I got spanked, I was being vulnerable by expressing my emotions in the form of crying. My parents had left me with a seminarian while they went to a wedding for another seminarian and I didn’t want them to leave me there, so I expressed my displeasure by crying. When I stuck out in baseball, I cried because I felt like I had let the team down. I was being vulnerable, albeit involuntarily, by showing my emotions. The day I got made fun of for my skinny arms, I happened to be wearing a tank top as opposed to a normal t-shirt. I was being vulnerable by showing off more of my body than normal. Based on these stories, it’s no wonder we tend to draw a connection between being vulnerable and being rejected; the two seem to go hand in hand.

Connection, at the core, can only happen when we get to know another person.[1] I’m not talking about simply knowing about another person; I’m talking about really knowing another person. The best word I can think of to describe this type of knowledge is the word intimate. I recognize this word is commonly associated with sex, and for good reason, but that’s far from its only use. To have an intimate relationship with another person means to know that person deeply. Sitting around B.S.-ing about the weather, football, and politics may teach us a little about someone, but it’s certainly not going to allow us to get to know another person on a deep, personal, intimate level.

I think most people deeply long for connection with other people. But what very few of us realize is that in order to experience the deep connection we long for, we’re going to have to be vulnerable; we’re going to have to show other people who we really are. This can be very scary. What if they don’t like what they see? Will they reject me? They might. And when they do, it’s going to hurt. But taking this risk by putting ourselves out there is the only way we’re going to be able to experience deep levels of connection with other people. Because most people are terrified of being vulnerable, you’re most likely going to have to take the first step in being vulnerable if you want to enter into a deep, intimate relationship with another person.

Tying It All Together

Now I want to circle back around to where I started. There are both risks and rewards associated with being invulnerable. The reward for being invulnerable is that we get a chance to hide our mess from other people and the potential rejection and disconnection associated with it. However, the risk of being invulnerable is that we miss out on the opportunity to experience deep connection with other people. Which one is more important to you? Protecting your dignity or having deep, intimate connection with other people.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the rewards of both without the associated risks? Some people try to find both. Two of the most obvious ways this is manifested in our culture is through the internet and sex. How much easier is it to listen to someone else be vulnerable than it is for you to be vulnerable? No wonder so many people watch YouTube videos listening to other people be vulnerable and spend hours reading their social media news feeds. We think we can find connection with other people simply by listening to them be vulnerable without having to personally be vulnerable. But I’ve found that the only way we can truly experience intimate connection with other people is when both parties come to the table being open and honest with each other about who they truly are.

The other obvious way I see people in our culture trying to achieve the rewards of both is through things in the sexual realm including pornography, gentlemen’s clubs (who came up with that name anyway?), and sex with another human. Similar to the way we can be emotionally vulnerable, we can also be physically vulnerable. There’s something about the appearance of a human body with its various shapes and curves which is absolutely beautiful to the eye. And fashion designers are extremely skilled in designing clothing which accentuates these features, making them appear thinner, smoother, or bigger (you know what I’m talking about) than they truly are. The most physically vulnerable position we can place ourselves is to be completely naked in the presence of another person without all those perfectly designed clothes to cover up our imperfections. When we view pornography or go to a strip club, we get a chance to observe other people being physically vulnerable without having to be vulnerable in return, similar to the way we listen to other people be vulnerable on social media without having to be vulnerable in return. When we try random hookups, we get to experience physical vulnerability, but since the emotional vulnerability isn’t there to support it, we walk away feeling empty because the deepest level of personal connection can’t exist apart from emotional vulnerability. We can’t have the rewards of both without the associated risks.

If you want to experience true connection with another human being, you’re going to have to be vulnerable. There’s no shortcut around it or easy way out. Your vulnerability may cost you everything, but then again, it may open the door to experiencing the best relationships of your life.

Why do you think you’re afraid of showing people who you really are? Who is one person with whom you can share a piece of who you are this week?

[1] I owe the research behind this content to Brené Brown. Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TED, YouTube, January 3, 2011, accessed August 23, 2018,

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

It's Okay to Not Be Okay

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the second leading cause of death amongst American white males[1] between the ages of 15 and 34 is suicide (the first is accidents).[2] In total, 45 thousand Americans die by suicide every year. And for every suicide, 25 more attempt it, meaning that over a million people attempt suicide every year.[3]

I knew suicides were a problem in our country, but up until now, I hadn’t put all these numbers side by side. I want to thank my friend Suresh for putting some of these numbers side by side for me and giving me the inspiration to write this article.

In the frantic words of Kari the babysitter from the movie The Incredibles, “THINGS ARE NOT OKAY!” Behind the glamorous facades by which the world has come to recognize us are a bunch of messy, broken people who are struggling with lots of doubt, insecurity, and shame. Many of us realize we don’t live up to the expectations we feel pressured to meet, but because of our fears of rejection and the stifling (or ending) of our careers, we’re afraid to admit it to one another. So instead, we prefer to keep it locked away in a vault, hoping no one else will ever find out.

I’ve written this article for two reasons. First, I want you to know that it’s okay to not be okay. And second, I want to share some ideas for taking down our facades and confessing our shortcomings.

Some of My Feelings from Over the Years

To get this ball rolling, I’m going to share some of my mess from over the years. Not all of these feelings and thoughts are present today, but they have been at various points in the last ten years.

I wake up every morning to the realization that it’s time to leave my dream world behind, a world where I’m much more in-tune with my subconscious state than at any other point in time, and put on my well-organized, confident mask that I’ve spent years and years fabricating. It starts with taking a shower to rid myself of my natural, repulsive stinky smell. Once out of the shower, I put on a clean, wrinkle free set of clothing which matches all the way from the shirt to the belt to the pants to the socks to the shoes. I then top it off by making sure my hair looks neat, giving my face a clean shave, and brushing my teeth to make them sparkle. Now that I give the appearance that I’ve got it all together, I’m ready to enter the world.

But deep down inside, I don’t look anything like I do on the outside. Inside, I realize that I stink, my clothes are wrinkled, my hair is a mess, I haven’t shaved in weeks, and my teeth don’t sparkle. My life doesn’t look quite as much like a picture of utopia as it’s perceived to be by those who are on the outside looking in. I may look well put-together on the surface, but deep down, I’m a complete mess.

Unfortunately, the world has demonstrated little patience for my mess; it wants me to be confidently put together. If the world realizes how messy I really am, instead of being there to help me through the mess, it’s going to run me over with a fifty thousand pound bus. It sees my wounds and instead of offering to heal them, it pours salt on them. The same world that I continue trying to help day after day turns its back on me when I show it how messy I really am. What am I supposed to do on the bad days? Am I supposed to curl up in a ball and hide in my closet so that no one has to see me that way?

The safest thing I can do is erect an enclosed wall around my mess and hide behind it. If I keep my mess contained and hidden behind an immaculate fortress, then maybe I’ll appear to be exactly the person the world expects me to be. Maybe then the world will accept me. So I’ll continue to wake up every morning and hide my mess behind the façade of my shining blue-eyes, smiling face, and sparkling teeth.

No matter how immaculate I make my fortress, I still can’t seem to escape the pain associated with my mess. I still feel inferior to the rest of the world. Why does everyone else seem so well put together? When I open Facebook, all I see is a bunch of people whose lives seem to be in perfect order. Why can’t my life be like that? Why do I have to be such a mess all the time? If only they knew what was really hidden behind these walls, certainly they’d reject me. They’d cease to stand and gaze in awe at my pristine fortress. They’d tear it down and expose everything inside of it. I’d become the laughing stock of the world. And not a single person would be willing to stoop down to pick me back up.

In our competitive, dog-eat-dog world, I can’t afford to show people the mess I truly am. Finding people who accept me is hard enough; why would I want to risk losing their acceptance by giving them a grand tour of my fortress? I’d rather just keep them outside my four walls so they can continue to admire the beauty of my stone masonry handiwork, all the while having no idea what sits just a few feet away from them on the other side of those walls.

I share these thoughts and feelings because I think you may be able to relate with them. Coming from someone who is a mess, I want you to know today, right here, right now, that it’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to be a mess. And I don’t and won’t think any differently of you when you admit it.

Coping with Not Being Okay

Two of the most destructive coping mechanisms I’ve observed people use when they realize they don’t feel okay is to get drunk or commit suicide. I don’t recommend either of these two options. Instead, I’ll suggest two other alternative options which have proven to offer great support and healing in my own life.

The first is to seek God. I realize that may sound absolutely crazy at first. How in the world can God help? I don’t have all the answers to this question, but I can share about what he’s done in my life.

God is omnipotent, meaning that he knows everything. Thus, he knows I’m a complete mess. I may successfully fool everyone else with my façade, but I can’t fool God. Yet, he has chosen to love and accept me despite the mess that I am. Regardless of what I do (I’m not suggesting that I use this as an opportunity to do whatever the heck I want), I realize that he’s still going to love me. There’s no part of my mess that will separate me from his love. God recognizes that I’m not okay and still choses to love me anyways.

But God also isn’t content with leaving me in this place. Day after day, he continues to clean up the mess that I am. He continues to take away the doubts, insecurities, and shame and replace them with assurance, security, and honor in him. I doubt he’ll bring me to a place in this life where I’ll be completely mess-free, but I do believe he will bring me to this place when I’m with him.

The second coping mechanism I’ll suggest can be done independently from the first, but I’ve found it and the first complement each other very well. This mechanism is to invite a few people you love and trust into your fortress to see your mess. Taking this step can be extremely difficult because it defies all intuitive human logic: it involves being vulnerable. When we’re vulnerable, we’re opening ourselves up to potentially getting hurt even more. As one author once put it, “vulnerability quite literally means capable of being wounded, open to attack or damage.”[4] That’s what makes being vulnerable so uncomfortable. But when we have the courage to be vulnerable, we open up an opportunity for other people to empathize, support, and encourage us in a way that they can’t do otherwise.

Although some people in our culture view vulnerability as weakness, not all people do. The people who I feel most connected with are the ones with whom I’ve been the most vulnerable and who have been the most vulnerable with me. I believe that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, but rather, it is a sign of courage.

So my encouragement to you is to be vulnerable with a few people who you love and trust. Of course there’s the possibility that they could reject you, but there’s also the possibility that you could become more connected with them. Is it worth the risk? It has been for me. Family and friends who have walked alongside me through the mess that I am have been a huge encouragement in my life and have played a big role in participating with God in the work he’s doing in me.

I’m going to leave you with a few questions to consider. Are you okay? I’m not asking whether you’re façade is okay; I’m asking whether you’re okay. What coping mechanisms do you use when you’re not feeling okay? Are you willing to seek God? And are you willing to be vulnerable with one or two friends?

[1] I used the statistics on white males because they account for roughly 7 out of 10 suicides.
[2] “Leading Causes of Death by Age Group, White Males-United States, 2010”, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010, accessed August 15, 2018,
[3] “Suicide Statistics,” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2018, accessed August 15, 2018,
[4] J.R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 79.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Being Set Free from Shame

Failure, or rather the fear of failure, controlled my life for many years. Somewhere in my subconscious state, I realized there was something about failure which led me to feel an intense amount of emotional pain. What was I experiencing and what role did failure have to play in it?

I’m far from being the only person in the world who experiences this struggle. Many of you reading this article also live with the fear of failure. And even more of you are experiencing the real root of the struggle; you’re struggling to identify and process the emotion which I believe to be at the heart of our fear of failure: shame.

With the help of pastor and author J.R. Briggs, I got to the heart of my struggles and after taking the time and energy to work through it, have come out on the other side a completely different person. I’ve written this article to share my discoveries in hope that you will also find freedom from failure, rejection, and shame.

The Relationship between Shame, Rejection, and Failure

I hated criticism. I’m not talking about simply disliking it; I’m talking about complete full-on hatred of it. I hated criticism more than Buckeye fans hate the Michigan football team. Due to my fear of criticism, I dreaded my yearly performance reviews. Although 95 percent of what my bosses said was positive and complementary, the only part I usually remembered was the 5 percent where I felt criticized. Looking back on it, all they were trying to do was help me improve, but at the time, I felt as if I’d failed because I was being criticized.

I read a story one time about a successful screenwriter, Larry, who went to a homecoming back in New York. While there, he attended a Yankees game and during the game, he was honored in front of the thousands of fans in attendance. On his way to his car after the game, a stranger driving by yelled, “Larry, you suck!” What do you think stuck out in his mind that evening? The standing ovation he received from thousands of fans or the drive-by insult he received after the game? You guessed it. He dwelt on the one insult.[1]

What is it about criticism that destroys some of us? What is it that causes us to overlook our successes and spend our time dwelling on our failures?

This is where J.R. Briggs comes into play. In his book Fail, he shared his story of “ministry failure” (not marked by the usual signs of embezzlement or sexual misconduct) and the journey he went on to heal from it. His first realization, much like mine, was that he feared failure. But why did he fear failure? After digging into this question, he realized his fear of failure came out of his fear of rejection. His experiences had taught him that failure leads to rejection. This, he thought, was at the heart of his struggle.

But a few weeks later, he came to realize that there was something even deeper which lay at the heart of his fear of rejection. When he felt rejected, he experienced shame. So failure led to rejection and rejection led to shame. I’ve depicted this in the figure below.[2]

After reading about Briggs’s experiences, I spent some time evaluating my own life to determine whether this could possibly explain my experiences. My conclusion was that this was exactly what I was experiencing. My fear of failure came out of a fear of rejection which came out of a fear of shame. Shame was ultimately at the heart of my struggle.

Understanding Shame

Shame and guilt are often associated with one another, but they are two different animals. Guilt is experienced due to an action. For example, when we realize we did something bad, we feel guilt. Shame, however, is experienced when our identity is tied up in the action. When our bad action leads us to say, “I’m a sinner,” that’s when we experience shame.[3]

Personally, I used to spend a lot of time wallowing in my shame by dwelling on my past failures. I felt like I wasn’t good enough. And if anyone ever tried to tell me I was, their words never made it through my thick skull. I was so terrified of failure and rejection that I became non-committal, I stopped trying new things, and I stopped setting ambitious goals for myself in order to avoid the shame I felt from having my identity wrapped up in my failures. When not handled healthily, shame can cause us to become depressed and enter into a state of complete debilitation.

In my research on shame a few years ago, I discovered that the Bible actually speaks quite a bit about shame. One verse that really sticks out to me is this one, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”[4] When Christians talk about what happens to people who don’t receive eternal life, we often focus on fire and brimstone. But what about shame?

Can you even begin to imagine what it would be like to experience shame for all of eternity. I can’t even begin to fathom it. What would it be like to experience even more shame than I’ve experienced for all of eternity? This would be the worst emotional punishment we could ever experience.

Shame is obviously harmful to us and based on the Bible, is not something we’ll experience when we’re with God in heaven. So if God’s kingdom is here right now, is there any hope for overcoming shame right here, right now? I believe there is based upon the radical transformation that’s taken place in my life. I went from being someone who spent a lot of time wallowing in my shame to someone who doesn’t have to spend much time there anymore.

The Thing That Changed My Life

How do we become free from our shame? We may be encouraged to try a few different coping mechanisms that attempt to convince ourselves that we’re good enough and worthy of belonging. You may have tried some of these methods and maybe they worked for you, but no amount of attempting to convince myself of these things made a single dent in my struggle with shame. The struggle still existed.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the problem with these methods is that they are based on what I believe to be a bad foundation. As long as humans have been around, we’ve believed that humanity is ultimately good at heart. Of course this is what we believe. What person wants to arrive at the conclusion that humanity is intrinsically evil when our emotional health is at stake? To believe our hearts are evil seems like it would lead us into a never-ending state of depression.

Nonetheless, I have decided to stand among the minority who claim that our hearts are inherently evil and there’s nothing we can do to change it. This was not a conclusion I arrived at lightly; I arrived at it after spending much time and energy pouring over books, having discussions with friends, and experiencing life. If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on this topic, I’d encourage you to check out my articles titled “Are There Evil People in the World?” and “Mental Disorder or Evil Heart Condition?

The reason I share this conclusion is that it was foundational in my journey to being set free. Once I began to see how evil I was and how I couldn’t do anything to set myself free, I began to see the magnitude of how great God’s love is for me. My experiences up to that point (outside of my family) had shown me that acceptance was conditional. For example, in the article I posted a few weeks ago titled “How Freedom in Jesus Impacts Our Daily Life,” I shared a story about how my elementary school classmates made fun of me because of my skinny arms. The result: I felt rejected. So I worked really hard to do something that would earn their acceptance.

For some reason, I believed God worked the same way. I thought I had to earn his acceptance. When we mix this belief with the belief that humans are ultimately good at heart, we arrive at the dangerous conclusion that we can pretty much save ourselves, but need Jesus to take care of those few times when we fail. When we fail, we need to confess our failure and try harder next time. However, if we continue to fail, God may decide to stop forgiving us. This way of thinking would make God’s love conditional. The good news is that this is not what the Bible says about God’s love.

The biblical writers tell us that God’s love for his people is unconditional; it’s not contingent upon anything we do or don’t do. Do you realize how amazing this is? While we were evil sinners who wanted nothing to do with God, he accepted us. He looked at me, a person who was inherently evil and worthless, and made the decision to make me a part of his family. Wow! That’s incredible! Who does that? Your employer doesn’t do that. Most of your friends probably wouldn’t do that. Even your family may not do that. The vast majority of people in this world accept you because of what you bring to the relationship. But not God. He accepts us even though we have nothing to offer him that he doesn’t already have.

Since this shift has happened in my life, I have become a totally different person. I can wake up every single morning knowing that although I may not be accepted by people here on earth, I am accepted by the king of the universe. Not only am I accepted by him, but he has forgiven my sins, that which had led me to feel shame. Instead of living in everlasting shame and contempt, the punishment we all justly deserve, God will bestow glory and honor upon his people.[5]

Would you like to be set free from shame? If so, I’d encourage you to seek Jesus with all your heart. As one of the biblical writers tells us, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”[6]

[1] Jon Acuff, Start: Punch Fear in the Face Escape Average Do Work that Matters (Brentwood, TN: Lampo Licensing, 2013), 153-54.
[2] J.R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 36-42.
[3] Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, YouTube, March 16, 2012, accessed August 3, 2018,
[4] Daniel 12:2.
[5] I realize this statement may not sound biblical, but it is. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father, representative of God, honors his lost son upon his return. And in Romans 8:30, we’re told, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” It’s not that we do anything to deserve honor and glory, but it’s that by being united with God, we get to share in his honor and glory.
[6] Jeremiah 29:13.