Against the Cult of Brokenness

You may have heard of Richard Russell. Last August he killed himself by stealing a Horizon Air plane, doing a few stunts, and then slamming it into a mostly deserted island near Tacoma. Russell had attended the community college where I teach and had been an active Christian in the area. I didn’t know him personally; however, before slamming the plane into the ground, he described himself as “just a broken guy.”

Even before this sad story, I had noticed how often Christians and contemporary Christian music celebrate brokenness. I have knocked around evangelical circles long enough to understand this emphasis. It is, I think, a pendulum swing away from Christian triumphalism that blended the gospel with self-help programs. For a long time, we have foolishly equated success with God’s favor and preached faith as a path for success. When God is presented as a guarantee of success, no believer feels free to be honest about their brokenness. Too often church has made the wounded and broken feel like second-class Christians.

So, in many ways our current emphasis on brokenness is healthy. But here everything depends on how we define brokenness. If we simply mean being humble and honest about our weaknesses and failures, brokenness should be embraced as a prelude to healing and repentance. We are all broken by our sin, and many of us by those who have sinned against us. We need to forgive and be forgiven. And we need to be honest and admit that growing in holiness and wholeness is a process—not making a trip to an altar or being zapped by the Holy Spirit.

Yet, there is a kind of brokenness that kills. The paths to this kind of brokenness are varied, but all end in a kind of despair that slams the door to healing. It creates scar tissue more damaging than the wound. When we celebrate brokenness as an end rather than a step on our journey to wholeness, we are in danger of embracing a brokenness that destroys us. It is, perhaps, the difference between having our pride broken and having our faith broken.

Some years back I confessed to my pastor that I was broken. It was not my pride that was broken; it was my faith. I felt I could go no further with God but was also convinced there was nowhere else to go. I had no relationship with God that could be called personal. I could not hear God saying anything to me personally. Mine was a very dangerous kind of brokenness—one filled with despair. The abyss into which I stared was the emptiness and pointlessness of walking with God. I don’t know, but I suspect, this may have been Richard Russell’s kind of brokenness. It is deadly.

When I spoke to my pastor of being broken, while shedding more than a few tears, I tried to explain that my brokenness wasn’t the good kind. I mangled the idea by saying, “I am broken in the way of not working anymore.” I was blessed to have a pastor that didn’t urge me to embrace my brokenness. Instead he prayed for me and stood by me in love.

I worry about the idea that brokenness needs to be our constant condition as Christians. I especially see a danger if we don’t define brokenness carefully. Yes, we should always walk as humble, dependent, and grateful recipients of God’s abundant grace. But the other kind of brokenness can kill us if we aren’t careful. We must be accurate in our diagnosis.

Many years ago, I foolishly jumped off some playground equipment and hurt my leg. Teckla drove me to the closest little hospital where the doctor on-call asked me a few questions, gave me some pain pills, and sent me home with instructions to have my primary physician to look at it on Monday. After my doctor x-rayed my knee, he said, “Your knee is shattered, you are in danger of blood clots, and need surgery immediately.” I was rushed to the hospital where I had surgery that rebuilt my knee with bone taken from my hip. The first doctor had not recognized how seriously I was hurt.

The wrong diagnosis can kill us. As I confessed my brokenness to the pastor, I realized all of it came from not hearing God’s voice or having any kind of relationship with Him. I desperately needed to return to a genuine relationship with God, not one based just on a set of theological propositions. In all my emptiness, I needed to hear His voice. This was the emergency surgery my brokenness needed. Affirming my brokenness as something inherently spiritual would have been foolish and dangerous.

As humble as it sounds to call the church a community of the broken, by embracing brokenness as our perpetual condition, we diminish the power of God to restore and heal. It is better to testify to God’s healing and the power of His grace to make us whole than to forever declare our brokenness.

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About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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