When I think about lions, I imagine a fierce, magnificent, beautiful creature prowling around the Serengeti. It has total control; its mane and fur are the color of the sun itself, and its sharp teeth deter prey. Proverbs describes lions as “the mightiest among beasts [that] does not turn back before any” (Proverbs 30:30). While I am happy to marvel at them from afar, I would hardly want to encounter one up close.
And perhaps that is why Wilhelm Kuhnert’s painting At the Watering Hole demanded my attention one chilly October afternoon a few years ago as I strolled through the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany. Here was a lion—just as magnificent, just as beautiful—drinking water from a small pond. Its golden fur stood out among the muted colors of trees and brush. It was lying down, paws up to its chin, whiskers touching the brown dirt at the edge of the water.
The painting transfixed me for several minutes; when I went to move to the next one on the wall, I struggled to pry myself away from it, as if my body was telling me that there was more to see. Sudden tears clouded my vision, baffling me as I struggled to put into words what I was feeling. Understanding what had happened would take time.
This was not an ordinary picture of a lion, at least as far as my past experiences informed me. Most of the images I had seen made lions look almost otherworldly and powerful. In Kuhnert’s painting, the lion looked peculiarly common: it was doing something that every other animal does. I have always assumed that lions get thirsty, and I figured that, as strange as it might seem, they drank water similarly to how my grandfather’s beloved eleven-pound tuxedo cat used to: one lick at a time. The painting was a fresh reminder that even lions have vulnerabilities. There were things that they needed, things that they had to lie down to get.
If lions had vulnerabilities, so did everyone else. At the time, I was relatively well acquainted with my own: a tendency to overreact to criticism; a bend toward discouragement when it came to slight adversities; a rather large dose of social anxiety. While other people had things together, I most certainly did not. I tried to mask my vulnerabilities, usually hiding underneath designer clothing (inevitably thrifted) and the occasional unusually articulate sentence.
If I were the lion being painted by Kuhnert, I would not have wanted to be depicted lying down at a pond—I’d much prefer a glamor shot at golden hour. I wondered, though, if it was precisely the lion’s vulnerability that gave the painting an arresting sort of beauty. And if that was the case, perhaps my attempt to hide my weaknesses—to “smooth and blur” them away, to quote the label on my makeup primer—was in effect hiding a part of myself that was worth bringing into the light.
But this raised a bigger question. Why would I shirk vulnerability in the first place? Why would I not desire to be fully known—the good, the bad, and the ugly? The answer is admittedly obvious: I am afraid of being fully known. There is underneath these objections to vulnerability a fear of rejection, a fear that if people knew me—the insecure, nervous, somewhat needy Olivia—they might no longer want me in their lives. Part of me is convinced that I cannot be both fully known and wanted, so I choose to do what seems necessary for me to be wanted: I hide the rough edges, highlight the good things, and, in effect, eclipse my need for God from the view of others even as I proclaim my need for him in church, in writing, and in conversation. My relationship to vulnerability is thus: I avoid it.
However, I forget that there is something I can never avoid: being fully known and wanted by God. As David writes in Psalm 139:1, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me!” He begins to list all the things that God knows about him: his actions, his thoughts, his path, his ways. God knows more about David than David does. At the same time, David is convinced that God loves him, writing elsewhere that God “shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever” (Psalm 18:50). Each of us is known by God better than we know ourselves, and despite knowing even the worst things about us, God wants us.
Approaching our vulnerabilities with this mindset—recognizing that knowing us fully does not make God want us less—can help us summon the courage to let ourselves be fully known by each other. Perhaps the best thing that I have to offer other people isn’t a projection of a polished image. Perhaps it’s not making myself appear worthy of being wanted, but instead admitting that there are plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t be. Perhaps the best thing that I have to offer isn’t all the good things about me and all the things that I know and can do, but instead my brokenness and my story of how God meets me in it.
CS Lewis famously said that we have never met a “mere mortal.”1 And, perhaps ironically, it is the immortal part of us that makes us vulnerable. This immortal part—our souls—sounds out a need for connection with our Creator and each other. It is the mortal part, our flesh, that tries to establish those connections by projecting an image of strength and invulnerability at the cost of never being fully known.
But Jesus gives us another way. He reminds us that it is not only possible for us to be fully known and wanted, but that we who are in him are already living in this reality. He opens to us the richness of being known by reminding us that there is nothing more for Christians to do to be loved by him. CS Lewis puts it beautifully in a 1954 letter:
You ask ‘for what’ God wants you. Isn’t the primary answer that He wants you. We’re not told that the lost sheep was sought out for anything except itself [Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7]. Of course, He may have a special job for you: and the certain job is that of becoming more and more His.2
It’s because of Jesus that our failures become demonstrations of his grace. In John 4, Jesus offers the woman at the well—who had her own string of failures—living water. This living water is himself—the gospel, the good news that we can have a relationship with a God who fully knows us and who fully loves us. There is nothing to hide before the God who knows everything about us and who loves us more than we could ever imagine. So let us, like the lion, lay ourselves down before our God, recognizing our need for what only he can give. Let us quench our souls in him.
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