When we think of the teaching of our Lord, vulnerability may not be the first idea that comes to mind. But it is there:  being vulnerable to each other and being vulnerable to our God.

What do we mean by vulnerability? Well, it’s the idea of being open and not hardened. It’s the idea of being open to attack. The dictionary definition of the word is: “the quality of being exposed to the possibility of harm”.

 Psychology researchers have identified vulnerability as essential for all relationships. It is essential for a true connection with others. Being vulnerable allows intimacy; it allows a deeper connection than just acquaintance. And while modern researchers have discovered this, there is nothing new under the sun. In this article, we want to consider the importance of vulnerability in our relationship firstly with our Father, and secondly, with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We all want relationships, don’t we? We want a relationship with our Maker—our heavenly Father. We want a relationship with our brothers and sisters. And we want a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our captain, our ruler, our master, our bridegroom. And we don’t just want these relationships to be hollow, shallow, cold, and distant. We want to feel that closeness, that intimacy, that warmth and love that comes from those special connections.

Matthew 18 opens with the idea of vulnerability. In the opening verses, Christ takes a little child and sits him in the middle of his disciples. Now, one of the things about little children is that they are vulnerable. Whether they like it or not they are ‘open or exposed to the possibility of harm’. In fact, offence or harm is not only possible, but likely. As verse 7 says, “it must needs be that offenses come”. The NASB has, “it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come”. If we are to “be converted”, and “become as little children”, then we become vulnerable and offence is inevitable in our lives. We are not encouraged by Scripture to become tough and hardened, or callous. Instead, we are encouraged to become humble and remain mouldable to our God working in our lives, like a little child.

This vulnerability is why, in Matthew 18, our Lord emphasises the need to “receive” one such little child in Christ’s name as verse 5 says, and through verses 6–14, he warns against causing offence and highlights the need to ensure that none of these little ones gets offended or lost. He continues in verses 15-20  to deal with conflict, and how to resolve conflict in the spirit of not offending a little one. If you like, verses 15-20 are about the responsibility to avoid offending a little one who has trespassed.

The reality is that we all offend each other:


For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.”
– James 3:2

If we are honest, we offend others just as often as we are offended. And this can be in things big or small, depending on the circumstance. It’s one of the awful things about human nature, that we are extremely capable of hurting those around us.

In this article, though, we want to focus on our response to being offended and our own vulnerability to offence. Because, throughout the rest of Matthew 18, Christ’s focus shifts from not offending, to the responsibility of the offended, and in particular, forgiving from their hearts those who have offended them.

What is our response when our brothers and sisters, our family or our friends let us down? It’s inevitable that they will because they have human nature as well. But how do we respond?

Well, one way we could respond is by allowing ourselves to become hardened, which is the natural human response. When someone has hurt us, we want to avoid being vulnerable to them again. In extreme cases, we want to stop the relationship altogether, but in less extreme cases we tend to close up and withdraw from being in such a close relationship with them. We cut off our emotions because it is too painful to deal with them. It is too painful to open up to that person again and we don’t trust that we can, because we might get hurt.

Worse still, we might talk to others about their offence, not in an effort to help them, but in an effort to justify ourselves or convince ourselves and others of their wrong and how right we are to maintain our distance. As the proverb says:

‘A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle.’
– Proverbs 18:19

But, is this the answer? How should we respond?

Our Lord told us in Matthew 5 that when we are smitten on the right cheek, we should turn to that person the other cheek as well. There is no resistance in this response , no pulling away, no striking back. It is to remain vulnerable to  further attack.

But how do we do this? How do we find the strength to remain vulnerable to our brothers and sisters and to those in the world around us when they have hurt or  offended us? We know cutting them off can’t be the answer. There is no love in that. There is no forgiveness.

This brings us to the root of the issue, because it’s about forgiveness. It is full forgiveness, from our heart, in love, that creates or maintains that vulnerability. They go hand in hand. Without forgiveness, there is no vulnerability, and without this willingness to be vulnerable, there is no forgiveness from the heart.

If you are anything like me, I think we sometimes tell ourselves we have forgiven our brothers and sisters when perhaps we haven’t. Oh yes, if someone asks us to our face whether we have forgiven them we would say yes, and we may feel that in some sense we have. But we don’t mix with them much anymore. We have a lot less to do with them and we don’t express our love to them anymore. We might smile and be polite and have pleasant conversations with them, but we know, the relationship is not as it was before.

And we use all sorts of justifications  for this. We can’t trust that they won’t do it again. Or perhaps we put a label on their character and say they are an  ‘X’ sort of brother, or ‘Y’ sort of sister,  i.e., ‘that’s just them’.

This is not full forgiveness. Our Lord taught us to ask God to  ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. In other words, how we would like God to forgive us, should be the way in which we forgive others.

So what does that look like?

When we are forgiven by God, would  we be happy for him to hold us at a distance from then on? To no longer work in our lives or to be a little bit disinterested in our salvation from that point? If we withhold full forgiveness with the excuse that our brother or sister might do the same again, then how much more could God use this as an excuse! He knows for certain we will keep offending him, we will keep sinning until the day that, by His grace we are made immortal!

No. We wouldn’t  want him to keep us at a distance from that point on! We want the relationship to be as it was before we sinned, as though the sin had never happened! As David says, we want him to restore to us the joy of His salvation.

Is that how we forgive our brothers and sisters? Can we be that vulnerable?

Think of the benefits of being vulnerable. When we are vulnerable, we encourage others to be vulnerable. We encourage a culture of vulnerability. What are the implications for ecclesial life? A number of implications, though not a complete list, are:

  1. A culture of vulnerability goes hand in hand with a culture of humility. Where is pride and status in this type of culture? Where is keeping up appearances? You can’t have this at the same time as having vulnerability.
  2. A culture of vulnerability encourages honesty and openness, with no deception. James 5v16 tells us to confess our faults one to another and pray for one another. It is about bringing our faults to the surface so that we can assist each other.
  3.  Vulnerability, as we said before, is about intimacy, and deepening our relationships with each other.

We want a culture of vulnerability in our ecclesia, don’t we?

How do we find the strength to forgive like this—o to remain vulnerable like this, to love like this?

In Matthew 18:21, Peter also has this dilemma and comes to Christ and says “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?”. Christ gives him an answer that is tied strongly to the ‘Seventy week’ prophecy from Daniel nine:  until seventy  times seven. In the ‘Seventy week’ prophecy in Daniel 9 God unveils the period of time until He would provide Messiah for the nation. In referencing this, Christ guides his listeners to think about the lengths the Father Himself has gone to patiently work with His people Israel, despite their rejection of Him, to reconcile not just them, but the whole world to Himself.

To add weight to the idea that the seventy times seven is referencing the love and patience of the Father to provide forgiveness for us, Christ gives a parable about a servant who, despite the forgiveness he had experienced from his master, is unable to forgive their fellow servant the smallest debt (verses 23–34). Christ’s parable tells us that our forgiveness of others must be a reflection of the forgiveness that we have received from God! As God has opened Himself to us and shown love, we must in turn reflect this to others! 1 John 4:10–11 says:

“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son [to be] the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.”

This great love of the Father in sending his Son was about sacrifice; it involved vulnerability. There was immense exposure to hurt. Not only for the Father, but also for the Son.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul shows the Corinthians the impact that the sacrifice of Christ should have on us. For example, v14–15 reads,  “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And [that] he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.” Paul goes on to show through the chapter  that the work of Christ was actually the work of the Father in reconciling the world to Himself. Following this, Paul issues an appeal to the Corinthians at the start of chapter 6:

“We then, [as] workers together [with him], beseech [you] also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. (For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now [is] the accepted time; behold, now [is] the day of salvation.)”
– 2 Cor 6v1-2

Paul’s appeal is that we  receive not the Grace of God in vain. God has reached out to to us all through that great act of grace:  His Son. But would it be in vain? Following this question, in verse 2, Paul quotes Isaiah 49.

Isaiah 49 is about the work of God in Christ. For context, verse 1 reads:

“Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The LORD hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.”
–Isa 49:1.

God called Christ from the womb for this ministry, this purpose of reconciling the world to Himself. But it wasn’t easy for Christ. Verse 4 reads:

“Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain….”

This is what Paul asks in 2 Corinthians 6. Would Messiah’s work be in vain? Would Christ’s life and work, his sacrifice on the cross, all be wasted? Would the love of the Father and the love of the Son be expended  on this world in vain? This is vulnerability, isn’t it? This is about the greatest act of vulnerability this world has ever seen. It was the Father’s vulnerability, and the Son’s. Isaiah 49 continues with the words  Paul quoted in 2 Cor 6:2:

“Thus saith the LORD, In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee: and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages
– Isa 49:8

This was the response of the Father to the Son, reassuring him that his work would not be in vain. Their work together would result in a covenant of the people that would establish the earth!

And this is where Paul’s mind was as he appealed to the Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians 6: 3-10, Paul points out the lengths the apostles had gone as ministers with Christ to extend the grace of God to the Corinthians! Then we read Paul’s appeal:

“O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged. Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels. Now for a recompence in the same, (I speak as unto my children,) be ye also enlarged.”
– 2 Corinthians 6: 11-13

The apostles’ hearts were enlarged, or ‘made open’ as the word means. They had made themselves vulnerable to the Corinthians just as God and Christ had in their sacrifice in Isaiah 49. And Paul pleads with them, “Don’t be straitened”. Don’t be ‘constricted’ or ‘contained’ as the word “straitened” means. In other words, don’t shut off your heart from us, Corinthians! Allow yourself to be affected by our Love! Allow yourself to be vulnerable and feel the love of the Father in the Son, which we are extending to you!

Can you see the need for your own heart to not be “straitened”, or  restricted? We need to be vulnerable to receive God’s grace into our hearts, and then be willing to extend that to others.

Remember, our Lord wasn’t hardened. He continued to pour out his life despising the shame, the mockery, and the constant hurt from his own people.  He wept. He wept at the hardness of the Jews’ hearts over Lazarus. He wept over Jerusalem in Luke 19. But his trust was in the Father, who he knew would not let him down. And so he hid not his face from shame and spitting. He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to those that plucked off the hair.

How do we respond to this great act of vulnerability?

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