A small group of members from a faithful church gather on couches and chairs in a member’s home to discuss the previous Sunday’s sermon. They share insights, encourage each other, laugh, and gravely confess sin. So far, so good. Then, one member begins to revel in the grace of God and his utter dependence thereof, saying something along the lines of, “I’m just so needy. I always need grace. And what a relief it is to know God wants me like this! He wants me needy and eager for his grace so I can rejoice in my weakness. My neediness and finitude and brokenness is a good thing!” What’s wrong with this picture? Maybe nothing. It really depends on what he means by “brokenness” and what he means by “a good thing.”
Recently, Jared Wilson wrote a timely article on why we should hang on to the language of “brokenness.” In that article, he stressed the importance of distinguishing between “brokenness” and “sin.” His point is that if we flatten those two concepts, we often burden victims, who already feel a misplaced guilt for the brokenness they are experiencing, with more guilt. Sometimes people are broken and have nothing to repent of with respect to that brokenness. Victims really do exist, and often they feel guilty for no good reason. As Jared says, “We further traumatize victims when we tell them their wounds are sins.” This is an important point to make, and as a pastor who routinely sees this kind of misplaced guilty conscience among the members of my church, I’m thankful to Jared for making it.
I’d like to make an additional point. There’s a difference between affirming and applauding broken people as they come to Jesus, and affirming and applauding the brokenness itself. That difference is difficult to mark out in practice, but it is important that we labor to do just that. It is the difference between praising God for overcoming an obstacle and praising the obstacle itself. It is the difference between praising a craftsman for making beautiful work with shoddy materials, and insisting that shoddy materials are superior to sound ones.
The Relationship Between Brokenness, Sin, and Finitude
Although brokenness is distinguishable from sin, they are nevertheless connected. There is no such thing as brokenness that has no relation whatsoever to sin. It is what sin leaves behind after reeking its carnage. Sometimes brokenness is caused by one’s own sin, sometimes it’s caused by another’s sin, and sometimes it’s caused by God in order to sanctify such a person—and he does this by using the effects of the fall, which came about through sin (Is. 45:7; 48:8-10; 2 Cor. 12:7-10). That last point should be stated and restated explicitly.
Sometimes God breaks people by ordaining for this fallen world to sanctify—to "holi-fy"—them. God breaks them to purge them of sin, or to protect them from sin, or to help give them a distaste for sin, or even to simply fit them for a sinless heaven. But, no matter the scenario, sin and brokenness are never totally unrelated. There would be no brokenness if it weren’t for the fall, and we long to see the complete reversal of the fall and its effects. This means we eagerly wait for the binding up of all broken things—both brokenness which is caused by our personal sin and that which isn’t. We don’t like brokenness. In fact, we very much would like to bid it farewell.
This is where nuance is important (and tricky) though, because what we do like is our finitude. That’s something to celebrate! Our dependency is not a bug or a defect in itself; fundamentally, we are needy, contingent beings, and our finitude is a design feature that glorifies God and works for our joy. This was true of mankind before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and it will be true of mankind after Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.
The problem is, at present, our awareness of our finitude is typically occasioned by brokenness. We are always experiencing neediness, but we’re generally asleep to it. But brokenness makes us keenly aware of our neediness. In this way, God uses brokenness to our advantage. This is why Paul can be thankful for his thorn in the flesh, and you can be thankful for:
The cancer in your blood, i.e. brokenness that comes from living in a broken world.
The shambled state you’re left in after looking at porn, i.e. brokenness that comes from sinning.
The fragility you’re left in after being abused, i.e. brokenness that comes from being sinned against.
It is possible, as impossible as it sounds, to praise God for these forms of brokenness because they refine us in ways of which we are seldom aware. Paul doesn’t say: “This light momentary affliction might be preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. Who knows?” There is no maybe. Affliction prepares us for glory. Bank on it.
God sanctifies his people through suffering—and, in a sense, he is no respecter of where that suffering comes from. Think about it: is God prepared to reject any form of suffering as unusable for the sanctification of his people? Whether it’s from your sin, the sins of others, or from God sovereignly ordaining and using impersonal effects of the fall: if you are experiencing suffering, God is at work to sanctify. And, as God sanctifies with the instrument of suffering through brokenness, he is revealing to us the finitude we will experience long after our brokenness is mended. The things brokenness reveals (neediness and finitude) are good, and to the degree that brokenness reveals it, we can be thankful for such an instrument. But this does not mean we should celebrate the instrument itself. Our gratitude isn’t intrinsically in brokenness, our gratitude is in God for what he does with brokenness.
This is difficult for us to wrap our minds around because the world we live in basically has two speeds: shame or pride, embarrassment or affirmation. But Jesus is not so reductionistic as that. He invites all the weary people to come to him, shamelessly, but his invitation to all the weary people is not to come and have their weariness affirmed. It’s to come and receive rest so as to not feel weary anymore (Matt. 11:28-30). His invitation to the broken is to come to him in order to be fixed! Of course, on this side of eternity, no one will be completely and finally fixed of their brokenness, but make no mistake, he has begun that work, and he will finish it. Faithful Christianity is content with nothing less than absolute restoration. We don’t want a hint of brokenness in heaven. We don’t want a smidgen of brokenness to be left alone or “affirmed.”
Fixer-Uppers, Fixed Up
We can, and should, tell people to feel absolutely no shame in confessing that they struggle with depression, or doubt, or self-loathing, or persistent wounds from those who have wronged them. They shouldn’t feel embarrassed to reveal their or pride, or insecurities, or lust, or same-sex attraction, or envy. Those things describe broken people—regardless of whether their brokenness was caused by personal sin or not. And the good news for them is that Jesus came to redeem broken people, and broken people only. The gospel is only for those kinds of people. There are no demands to figure out how to not be broken anymore before coming to Jesus. He doesn’t want whole people (none exist, by the way), he only wants broken people. But the great news of the gospel is that broken people don’t have to stay broken forever. Jesus loves fixer-uppers because he loves to fix them up!
If we come to him, and bashfully introduce ourselves, we will not be shamed for our lack of sophistication. We won’t be snickered at for limping, or crawling. We won’t be scoffed at for our shabby attire. He won’t ever recoil in disgust from our disfigurements, whatever they may be. But he also won’t leave us exactly how we came. That would not at all be loving. No, he’ll do something much better! He’ll embrace us and fix our brokenness. He’ll set those bones in place so we can walk without a limp. He’ll give us his ever new, clean robes of righteousness. And he will mend our disfigurements.
Although this work won’t finally be completed until the consummation of his Kingdom on Earth, he has nevertheless begun the work now. Jesus invites us broken to come, shamelessly, with no embarrassment for our destitution. And when we do, he doesn’t show his love for us by looking at our brokenness and saying, “That looks cute, you should keep that.” No, he shows his love for us by saying, “Don’t you worry about that, I’m going to fix it. Let me put a little grace here. Give you some Holy Spirit-wrought power there. A touch of local church discipleship, brothers and sisters to weep with you while you weep and rejoice with you while you rejoice, a lifetime of sanctifying suffering, a resurrection… and… voilà! I am making all things new!” He shows his love for us not by affirming our brokenness, but by receiving us while still in such a state, and then slapping an expiration date on it.