Why do we talk so much about love but often fail to be loving?

God is love. God so loved the world… Love one another as I have loved you. Love the Lord your God… Love your neighbor as yourself.*

At our best, Christians are known for our love. As I write this, wildfires are consuming vast acres of forest in my home state of Oregon. We have been housebound for days due to extremely toxic air quality. Along with other local churches, my church opened the doors to the homeless in our community to protect them from exposure to the poor air quality.

Ideally, the Church is a place of grace, mercy, and safety when we experience vulnerability in its myriad forms. As humans, we cannot escape vulnerability, and we need loving relationships during tender times when we are in distress.

Sadly, vulnerability can provoke responses that are far from loving. The initial impetus for this book came from the stories clients shared of being harmed by their Christian communities and the confirmation from other therapists that they often heard the same kind of stories. Why the disconnect? Why do people in distress often feel judged or invalidated by the responses to their struggles?

Because we fear vulnerability.

Take a moment to think about something vulnerable in your own life. If you have children, that’s a great place to start. What parent hasn’t imagined ways their beloved child could be harmed? Perhaps you deal with chronic physical or mental health issues. Finances can be a significant source of vulnerability, particularly in the context of the pandemic. Maybe you also create through art or writing, and you have never wanted to share it publicly out of fear of criticism.

What do you feel in your body as you bring vulnerability to your mind? What emotions surface? Do you notice a desire to distract yourself in some way?

Vulnerability inevitably provokes fear. And fear drives problematic responses to others’ distress. Just as none of us escape some degree of vulnerability, we also do not escape the fear-driven responses to it. Some are more obviously damaging, such as judgment and rigid legalism. Others are so common we might not understand how they are problematic. Advice-giving and a heavy emphasis on “correct beliefs” fall into the latter category. All of these reactions to vulnerability are driven by fear. And they block a loving connection.

So if we are going to offer loving presence when someone seeks our support in a time of distress, we need to be able to befriend our fear.

Befriend fear?

That is not our default response. We are much more likely to suppress it, deny it, or spiritualize it. When we bring the perspective of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model to our fear, we understand it to be the protective response of a member of our inner family who has a positive intention. That opens the possibility of a relationship. As the leader of our inner family, we turn toward our fear with curiosity to learn more about how it is trying to help us. This builds trust in our leadership and calms the fearful part of us, opening space for connection to the struggling person.

The more we engage in the spiritual practice of building relationships with our inner family members, of loving ourselves, the more likely we are to be able to meet someone in distress with a calm, curious, and compassionate presence – loving them as they need to be loved at that moment.

*1 John 4:3, John 3:16, John 15:12, Mark 30-31 (also Matthew 22:37,39; Luke 10:27)