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The Broken Definition of Brokenness
by Teresa Lawrence
Brokenness is a popular buzzword in the professing Christian world today. It’s a word that evokes emotion and sympathy; it seems to appropriately describe our perception of ourselves as sinful people in a cursed world. We feel broken. We feel the effects of sin in the world and know this isn’t how it is supposed to be. We know this not only through our experience, but even more clearly through the revelation of scripture.
In some cases, the term is appropriate. It is true that we hurt and suffer, and that life is hard. However, words matter. If we want to communicate carefully and biblically, caution is called for. Brokenness, as a term, is being increasingly used by fuzzy writers and soft-tongued teachers to describe the problems of our lives and world, without regard to defining the term according to Scripture. “We are broken people living in a broken world,” is a mantra echoed by many in one form or another. And we tend to be quick to agree. The description seems to fit.
So, what’s wrong with it? Isn’t it true, even scriptural? What about Psalm 51:17, which says “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise”? What about Jeremiah 6:14 and 8:11 and 21 where the Bible talks about “the brokenness of my people”?
It’s important when we are going to describe anything of a spiritual nature to study scriptural uses. The Bible uses this word in quite an interesting variety of ways. A search reveals 325 uses of variations of the word “broken” in the NASB, including 3 of “brokenness”. Here are some literal biblical ways it is used:
broken out, as in a disease on the skin
break forth, as in song
broken through, as in a wall or a barrier
broken down, as in old and worn out
literally broken, a thing that is no longer able to be functionally used, as in a pot or a ship or an arm
broken law or covenant
Then there are two other, metaphoric, uses. First, there is the broken heart (Ps. 69:20, Jer. 23:9), signifying great, uncomforted grief. There are instances like Psalm 51 and Job 17:1 where a broken spirit is used to refer to a person at the end of his own resources, and in desperate need of God’s mercy and help. There are surprisingly few biblical references to this kind of brokenness (I found 12).
Secondly, and perhaps also surprisingly, a large percentage of the biblical uses of “broken” (I counted around 67) refer to a position to be feared rather than embraced. These refer to being under the judgment of God–the results of the justice of God against his enemies or the discipline of his own people. This is the “brokenness of my people” referred to in Jeremiah–the judgment of God on Israel because of their rebellion and hard hearts. It also refers to the act of God in regard to His enemies and the finality of their defeat, as in Proverbs 6:12,15:
“A worthless person, a wicked man,
… his calamity will come suddenly;
Instantly he will be broken and there will be no healing.”
(See also Psalm 60:1; Proverbs 29:1; Isaiah 65:14; and Ezekiel 32:28, among many others.)
The problem with many modern uses of “broken/brokenness” is that while the biblical word is used, it is defined generally as an accurate description of us and life in our fallen world—a definition the Bible never uses. This unbiblical usage serves to emphasize our own experiences and perspectives and soften some rather unattractive realities that need to be faced about ourselves rather than softened: Sin. Rebellion. Selfishness. Pride. Hatred toward God.
This cushioning of hard truths produces consequences in our thinking. Using “brokenness” to describe our cursed condition can be a subtle way of shifting responsibility from ourselves to some other, nebulous cause (Satan, maybe?) that got us into these troubles in which we find ourselves. It softens the responsibility we ourselves have for rebelling against God. We aren’t rebels, we’re broken. We aren’t sinners, we’re broken. We readily adopt a more forgiving opinion of our own hearts, and see ourselves as victims of circumstance. Even unbelievers are comfortable taking on the “broken” identity, a fact which ought to give thoughtful Christians pause.
The term “broken” is passive. It begs the question, “Who broke us?” It implies that the fact we are broken is someone else’s fault. Somehow, someone broke us and our world and we are living with and dealing with the consequences as best we can. We can tend to see ourselves as bravely facing our problems; responsible only for being as gentle with ourselves and others as possible, to prevent further breakage. We suspend all judgment, even biblical judgment, because who are we, who are just as broken as you are, to point fingers?
We do need to be gentle with the hurting around us. We ourselves do suffer. However, when these things dominate our thinking, and we begin to describe ourselves in these terms, we are in danger of minimizing or overlooking our own sin and responsibility altogether. The fact that other people sin against us, sometimes grossly, doesn’t negate the fact that we ourselves are guilty of hurting others, and more seriously, sinning against our holy and righteous Creator.
Dear Christian, this is the subtlety of the devil. If he can convince people that to be Christian means to admit that we are merely broken and need healing, we readily settle on a distorted picture of who we really are and what we truly need. That we are hurting is easy to see and admit. But a more serious diagnosis is necessary.
The Bible describes mankind in his natural, godless, sinful state in the most unsavory of terms. We are not only wicked, we are thoroughly wicked.
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth,
and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Gen. 6:5
We are also called fools. And corrupt.
“The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds;
There is no one who does good.”
How about deceitful? And desperately sick?
“The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9
The brokenness of the Bible comes when we realize these things are true about ourselves. We have nothing good in us and are in serious trouble with God, however uncomfortable we are in admitting this is true. This is when we arrive at the point of spiritual bankruptcy, where we are brought to understand that we are “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). This is the brokenness David referred to in Psalm 51, to which he had come as a result of his own terrible sin. This brokenness can be defined as humility before God. David recognizes that his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah (adultery and murder), while heinous, are nothing compared to the weight of sin he has committed against God:
“Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge.” (v. 4)
The Bible never uses the word broken to describe the world or the state of all mankind. The brokenness the Bible describes is not our problem, it is what we need. To be broken is to come to God with nothing in our hands, knowing all we have to offer Him is our sin, and asking only for His mercy.
The brokenness the Bible describes is not our problem, it is what we need.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God,
You will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
These are the brokenhearted that the Lord is near to and helps:
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)
This isn’t just someone who is sad or grieving. This is someone sad and grieving over their sin. We aren’t just “broken people living in a broken world”. We are proud sinners living in a rebellious and cursed world–in need of being broken. We need to be humbled, and brought to where we see our desperate need. Those who do not will face serious and lasting consequences.
“A man who hardens his neck after much reproof
Will suddenly be broken beyond remedy.” (Prov. 29:1)
Interestingly, both of these biblical uses of “broken” fit its passive voice. When God judges a person or a nation, they are broken by His decree and His might, and none can stop Him. Psalm 75:6-8 says,
“But God is the Judge;
He puts down one and exalts another.
For a cup is in the hand of the LORD, and the wine foams;
It is well mixed, and He pours out of this;
Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs.”
And, just as much as the other, when a person comes to the place of a broken spirit, realizing their sin and utter lack of any resource, and their great need for mercy, this also is a work of God’s sovereignty and grace.
“I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the LORD…” Jeremiah 24:7a
“…God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.” 2 Thessalonians 2:13b
Describing ourselves unbiblically as “broken” shifts our perspective just enough to cause God’s judgment to seem cruel (what kind of God sends broken people to hell?) and His salvation to be something He ought to rightfully give us (it would be unkind to do anything but help and rescue a broken person). But until we are saved, we aren’t broken—yet. We’re proud sinners who would rather work our way into God’s good graces than accept that there’s nothing we can do for ourselves.
One of two paths is available to us: either we will be broken before the Lord, and saved by His mercy, or we will be broken by the Lord, justly judged, and condemned. And while it is true that we hurt and suffer, this doesn’t reduce our responsibility. If we want to be called broken, humility or condemnation are the biblical choices.
As believers, we ought to be aware of the gradual drift away from these biblical meanings, and how this drift affects our thinking. Increasingly, brokenness has become a useful word for sidestepping the culpability that sinful people are already trying to avoid facing. We need to speak compassionately, with kindness, but without softening the hard edges of the message. It is true that we suffer. But our suffering doesn’t negate our sinfulness. The Israelites were abused horribly by the Egyptians. God had compassion on them, and brought them out of slavery, but he also judged them for their rebellion in the desert. The suffering didn’t nullify the sin. We need to be careful not to obscure the real need for salvation from our own sin and its consequences.
This world isn’t just broken. It’s lost. It’s condemned. All its wickedness and rebellion will someday be permanently broken under the mighty sword of God’s righteous judgment. Let us be humble enough to see ourselves not only as hurting people, but as sinful people who offend our gracious Creator. Let us be loving enough to tell people of their dangerous position before God–not of their “brokenness”, but of their sinfulness. Then let us tell them also of a holy, yet merciful Savior who desires that they turn to Him and be saved. Let us boldly hold out God’s powerful gospel to His enemies, extending to them the good news of peace with Him before it is too late.
Teresa has been married to her husband Adam for 23 years, and they have 8 children, ranging from ages 5 to 22. She lives in the Dallas/Ft Worth area, serves as a musician in her church orchestra, and mentors in their one on one discipleship ministry. She is passionate about knowing God and understanding the truths in His word, and loves nothing better than teaching, encouraging, and being encouraged by like-minded women. She blogs very occasionally at Your Word Is Truth.