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:
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.