When you meet people from the country, you might notice a few things: country people are practical. They’re friendly. They’re happy to lend a hand. When you drive through town, you wave at everyone you pass—partly because you know all of them, but also because that’s just what’s done. For the sake of mateship, you stick together and help each other out: I unbog your car because one day I’ll need you to unbog mine.
While this is all warm and practical, it’s also weirdly shallow. This is not to say that country people offer warmth insincerely; it’s that in the heart of your typical blue-blooded Aussie, there’s a second door behind which thoughts and feelings are kept. You talk about the rain and care about the rain, because when your livelihood depends on the rain, you care about it. But feelings? Fears? Deep-seated things? They exist, but they’re either so well-concealed, others miss them, or so atrophied that if you’re asked about them, you wouldn’t know how to explain.
Of course, it’s not just country people who are bad at emotional vulnerability; it’s Australians in general. Some of us are better at it than others. But unless you think about your feelings regularly, it’s an untrained skill. I am not an expert on Australian history, but colonised Australia began with two unique factors: a lot more men than women (this article places the initial skew at 6:11) and hard labour. The generations that followed inherited a mindset that understood and cherished “blokey” hard work, whereas showing “weakness” was dangerous in a context where both the environment and the people could be hostile.
Combine these factors with small town dynamics and suddenly the very private personal lives of your typical country Australian begins to make sense. In a small town, everyone knows everyone, and people are seen as part of their familial context. This can be a good thing or a bad thing: on the one hand, everyone knows everyone, so you can leave your house unlocked; you can be confident that, should you need help, it will be extended; and you get your first job at the shop down the road because the owner knows your parents.
On the other hand, if there is a scandal in your life or in your family—if someone has done something bad or wrong—others will know and they will not forget. Dirty laundry is hard to hide, and because there are fewer people and everyone knows everyone else, what might be regarded as a “family” crisis can instead hang over the heads of that family for generations.
This means that the best way for others to not know what’s going on in my life is to just not talk about it. Opening up to others during hard times means risking so much more than one person’s knowledge of that hard time; it means the whole town will know that I am inadequate, wrong or weak. It risks me and mine being known as “that family” in which “that incident” happened—the one we all know about, but don’t talk about. So I will hide the hard things and the things that have the potential to become fodder for the gossip circuit. I will develop a polite exterior that is always happy to chat about the day-to-day, but never anything deeper. My response to “How are you?” becomes “Fine” or “Not bad”. Sometimes I am actually telling the truth and my words are sufficient. But sometimes my words are a defence mechanism: you make the greeting noise to me, I make the noise back, and we go on with our lives, the greeting complete.
The trouble is, this way of operating can spill over into church. We make the greeting noise, but don’t talk about how we’re really going. We don’t talk about our weaknesses or share our struggles, or, at least, we give a vague answer and hope the asker doesn’t dig any deeper. When our Bible study group shares prayer points, we make requests on behalf of other people, but never for ourselves. We adopt a friendly attitude, but not an open one, and in doing so, show that we don’t value emotional or spiritual vulnerability—not in ourselves and certainly not in others.
This approach to life is a very lonely one. Things might look fine on the outside, but it leaves us bearing the full weight of our burdens by ourselves. When life gets hard, we soldier on, struggling through on our own, instead of turning to our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we find ourselves grappling with particular sins, we have nowhere—no one to go to for help. When things reach their breaking point and we come undone, we find ourselves isolated and unmoored.
But in our darkest hours, in our worst moments, we can still turn to God. For,
while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)
The gift Jesus offers us in the gospel is a fresh start—forgiveness for the things we’ve done and a transformed life. But if we want to receive forgiveness, we first need to be open about the things we’ve done: as James reminds us, we must “confess [our] sins to one another and pray for one another” (Jas 5:16). This is because sin—the corruption in our hearts that affects what we say, do, think—breeds in the dark. Often when sin remains undetected, it grows and spreads until it becomes too ugly to hide.
The only way we can deal with our hardships and sin is within the context of the gospel and each other. As John reminds us,
God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10)
The good news of the gospel is that God extends his forgiveness to those who ask for it and who trust that Jesus has repaired their relationship with him. If we walk in the light the way he does, we can enjoy fellowship and deep emotional bonds with one another. In contrast, if we conceal our sin and claim that we are “Just fine”, we reveal ourselves to be out of step with Jesus.
There’s really only one solution to all of this: we need to foster vulnerability. We need to foster it within ourselves, with our friends, within country churches, within city churches, and so on. But this will only work if we understand vulnerability within the context of the gospel of grace. The gospel reminds us that we are all sinners—sinners in need of Jesus’ kindness. We all have dirty laundry. We have all walked in darkness. We all need help. We are all undeserving of God’s love and the grace he offers us in the gospel. Nobody feels like they have it all together, so there is no shame in being vulnerable and admitting that to one another. Never underestimate the value in being the first to speak and be vulnerable about something, either. It’s hard, but doing so invites others to share too. Create a safe place to be open about things that otherwise will remain closed off.
Of course, it’s wise to choose what you will be vulnerable about and who you will be vulnerable with. Confiding in people who are equipped to help you well is a good start. It may not be appropriate for an older Christian man to open up to a younger Christian woman, or for a single person to disclose intimate things to a married person of the opposite gender—if only because vulnerability without careful thought can grow the wrong kind of closeness. There is a place for strategic vulnerability, and obviously vulnerability will look different in different situations.
But don’t underestimate the value of offering your own weakness. After all, it’s in our weakness that the gospel is displayed (2 Cor 12:9-10).
If you enjoyed this article, check out others like it in the CCL annual.
1 Corinne Purtill, “When a society has too many men and not enough women, the consequences can last for generations”, Quartz at work, 3 July 2018. Accessed online 8 February 2020.