Broken bad

  • Claire Smith
  • 13 May 2016

Broken man

I’ve noticed something of a cultural shift in the way we evangelicals talk about the human condition: more and more, we are ‘broken’, rather than ‘sinners’—people who act out of our ‘brokenness’, not our ‘sin’, rebellion’, ‘disobedience’ or ‘rejection’ of God. And I’m not convinced this shift is all good.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about the frequency with which actual words are used—as if there’s a bingo card with words on it and the winning sermon or church service is one that ticks each box. What we communicate is about much more than the individual words we use. I don’t have to mention the water, waves, sand and sunshine for you to know they’re included when I say, “The beach was nice.” So I’m not advocating a slavish adherence to a particular script or lexicon.

Nor am I advocating a slavish adherence to biblical vocabulary. My sense is that the Bible doesn’t use the language of ‘brokenness’ for the human condition the way we do. It mostly uses it for God’s acts of judgement against sinful people or nations (e.g. Ps 2:9, 51:8; Isa 1:28), and occasionally for the humbled and broken stance of true repentance (e.g. Ps 51:17). In addition, the language of ‘brokenness’ may be a culturally appropriate way to capture the meaning of words the Bible does use. Language changes, and we need to use language our hearers will understand.

As it happens, I think ‘broken’ and ‘brokenness’ are good terms to use with unbelievers, in public evangelism and in preaching to the flock. They make sense of how people feel about the world and their lives. Relationships are broken. Sleep is broken. Hearts are broken. Laws are broken. Families are fractured. Hopes are shattered. And our strength and will are broken by it all.

And yet while the words ‘broken’ and ‘brokenness’ resonate with us all and have some explanatory power, they’re not enough to describe the human condition, and don’t deserve to be our dominant go-to vocabulary for it. In fact, I’d go further and say that if ‘broken’ and ‘brokenness’ become our dominant vocabulary, we will lose gospel clarity and effectiveness, rather than gain it. At worst, we lose the heart of the gospel itself and end up with a God who is, at best, domesticated or, at worst, unkind, unjust and uncaring.

An overstatement? Perhaps. But here are ten things to consider:

  1. The words ‘broken’ and ‘brokenness’ do not have an obvious moral or ethical element, unlike the older terminology of ‘sin’, ‘rebellion’ and ‘disobedience’.
  2. ‘Broken’ and ‘brokenness’ do not convey a relational framework—at least, not in the way we commonly use them. We speak of us being broken, not our relationship with God. On the other hand, rebellion, rejection and disobedience clearly happen in a relational context, and damage and even break relationships (as we all know). They explain why we are enemies of God, alienated from him and objects of his wrath.
  3. With the biblical terminology for sin (in both Greek and English), the noun can also become an adjective, an active verb and an adverb. So, for example, a sinner sins sinfully and a rebel rebels rebelliously. But ‘broken’ terminology doesn’t allow the same linguistic movements. The active verb ‘break’ doesn’t even feature in our use of this terminology, and a ‘broker’ is someone who deals with shares, not someone who is by definition broken.
  4. The terms ‘broken’ and ‘brokenness’ are used passively—in the sense that someone is broken by something or someone else. This means that someone who is broken is a victim and not morally responsible for their own brokenness. Of course, our brokenness may be a result of God’s judgement upon us, but few entertain that possibility! We only know that we are broken, and not by us. We are victims of nature and nurture, life and love.
  5. ‘Broken’ terminology focuses us on our pain and dysfunction, not on God’s holiness and righteousness. This is not inherently problematic. But on its own, it does nothing to challenge or correct the self-centred and humanity-centred worldview at the heart of human sin. It keeps us at the centre of the universe, not God.
  6. It’s not obvious why someone who is broken needs to be forgiven. In fact, it seems a category error: they’ve done nothing wrong. Their greatest need isn’t to have their guilt removed, but for healing, sympathy, a helping hand, and a fair go, and for those responsible for their brokenness to be called to account.
  7. If we are broken through no fault of our own, then it is unfair, unreasonable and unloving for God to judge us. We are victims, so how could it be right for us to bear the blame? Either God doesn’t know we’re not to blame, or he doesn’t care—and what sort of God is that?
  8. And if God cannot be our judge, his response to our problem can only be one of pity, not of mercy or grace. Worse still, it’s pity for our suffering, rather than boundless mercy and grace expressed in his pardon.
  9. A gospel for broken people is one that offers healing, restoration and wholeness. Like the true gospel, it may be free, but there can be no call for repentance because there is no wrong to repent of. Like the true gospel, it may offer hope, but it is the hope of the good life in this world—of emotional, relational and material success—not the hope of eternal rest in Christ. Like the true gospel, it recognizes that relationships are broken, but doesn’t tell me how I became an enemy of God. And like the true gospel, it recognizes that there is something wrong with me, but fails to address the evil in my heart.
  10. Finally, on this therapeutic model, it is not clear why Christ had to die. There is no penalty or ransom to be paid. No judge to satisfy. No holy love to appease. In fact, the cross seems to add more meaningless suffering to a broken world filled with meaningless suffering.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone who uses this language of ‘brokenness’ drifts into all these errors! And I’m not saying that ‘brokenness’ language isn’t sometimes helpful. What I am saying is that if all we ever (or mostly) use is ‘brokenness’ language, this is what our hearers might hear—and that would be a distortion of the truth. Not only does it make us the centre of the gospel and the world, it can place God on the wrong side of the ledger—in company with all those who are against us. At best, it portrays him as a celestial therapist who is there to help us put our lives back together.

It’s probably true that the older terminology of ‘sin’ and ‘sinners’, ‘rebellion’ and ‘rebels’, disobedience, rejection, and so on, is not everyday language. It may need more explanation than it once did, and it may have cultural baggage attached that we need to unpack. It may also be that in our culture of pathologization and victimhood, it will jar to say that we have a fatal problem of the heart of our own making. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say it.

Perhaps the way ahead is to combine the old and the new so that the strengths of both are harnessed: we are broken sinners living in a broken and fallen world.