Are We Using the Word “Brokenness” Biblically?
We often hear Christians today talking about “brokenness.”
Many seem to use “brokenness” to describe the underlying reason they sin. Someone might say, “I struggle with pornography because of the ‘brokenness’ I experienced growing up in a home with a father who objectified women.”
Others seem to use “brokenness” to describe the result of being sinned against. For example, “I experienced deep ‘brokenness’ when I was emotionally ‘wounded’ by my mother’s rejection of me.”
Still others seem to use “brokenness” to describe the result of enduring suffering. Such as, “Failing in three business ventures left me dealing with ‘brokenness’ and battered self-confidence.”
First, Empathy for These Usages of “Brokenness”
Anyone who has ever read any of my blog posts, any of my books, or heard any of my lectures, seminar presentations, or messages knows that I teach that God calls us to empathize with one another in suffering. Biblical counseling is not only about confronting heart sin; it is also about comforting those who have been sinned against, those who have endured great suffering in a fallen world.
As I like to say, “We live in a fallen world and it often falls on us.” When it does, it can “break” us—it beats us up and beats us down. The great apostle Paul candidly admitted that when life knocked him down, he despaired even of life and felt the sentence of death (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). That’s pretty “broken.”
Second, Caution about These Usages of “Brokenness”
I don’t have a lot of problem with calling the result of being sinned against and the result of facing suffering “brokenness.” Unless, in doing so, we think our number one issue or problem is our brokenness or woundedness from suffering.
Our number one problem is our sinfulness—having sinned against God. Our number one problem is not our brokenness—others having sinned against us or facing suffering because of living in a fallen world.
That’s why I have a significant problem with the first use of “brokenness”—where we use it to describe the underlying reason we sin.
Think about Job and Job’s wife. They both faced the same horrific suffering. Job’s wife responded by telling Job to “curse God and die”—give up on God and give up on life, yourself, and others.” Job responded by saying, “Blessed be His name—the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
Their “brokenness”—their suffering—was staggering beyond imagination. But their brokenness did not cause their sin.
If I were counseling Job and Job’s wife, yes, it would be helpful for me to understand the personal reasons they each might struggle with a particular temptation to sin. Just like it would be helpful for me to understand that the man I’m counseling about a pornography problem had a father who objectified women. That’s helpful in understanding his particular temptation, but it is not causative. His history and upbringing and broken family life does not demand that he give into that sin. Nor does it robustly explain why he gives into that sin.
There is a fine line between seeking to understand helpful personal history and turning that personal history into an unhelpful excuse for surrendering to temptation.
Third, How the Bible Uses “Brokenness” in Suffering
In the psalms of lament, David and other psalmists candidly talked about their suffering and having been sinned against. In these lament psalms (such as Psalm 13, Psalm 88, and many more), the psalmists clung to God’s in their suffering.
That was also the apostle Paul’s response to his suffering. After admitting that he despaired of life, he explained that this brokenness happened to him so that he would not rely on himself, but on God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
Thus there is a biblical way to talk about being “broken” in suffering. It is biblical to use “brokenness” to mean that life has so beaten us down that I turn to God in utter desperation. When we are beaten down by life, biblical brokenness directs us to God as our only source of help, hope, and healing.
Fourth, How the Bible Uses “Brokenness” in Sin
In confessing his sinfulness, David said to God, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17).
This is the primary way that God’s Word uses “brokenness”—being broken over our sin against God and others.
If anyone could have used their past suffering and woundedness to excuse or explain their sin, it would have been David. David could have used his life story to say:
“Saul, my father-figure—his horrible mistreatment of me, that woundedness explains why I committed adultery and murder.” David could have said, “The despicable way that my very own son betrayed me left me so broken that in my emptiness I committed adultery and murder.”
But David didn’t. He came clean. He confessed. Without excuse.
And everything in David’s confession moved toward his biblical use of “brokenness.” In Psalm 51:17 we saw that David used “broken spirit” as a parallel for a “contrite heart.” “Contrite” means humbled, remorseful, repentant, penitent. It is the picture of the Prodigal Son coming home to his father in spiritual brokenness—desperate for grace, throwing himself at his father’s mercy.
Both David and the Prodigal Son are broken over their sin against God, rather than being broken over being sinned against. In their brokenness, they both throw themselves at the mercy of God. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2).
So, how could the man struggling with pornography apply this biblical use of the word “brokenness”? Perhaps he would say:
“While acknowledging that my father sinfully objectified women helps me to understand the direction of my sin, it does not explain or excuse my sin. Father, I sin against you, I sin against my wife and my children, and I sin against all women when I look at pornography. Give me a broken and a contrite heart. Help me to see the evil of my sin. Expose the heart causes, the idols of the heart, the false cisterns that I dig when I commit this sin. I confess my sin to You and I ask You to have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love.”
When speaking of “brokenness” and suffering, my “brokenness” motivates me to turn to God as my only source of hope.
When speaking of “brokenness” and sin, my “brokenness” motivates me to confess my sin to God and turn to Him as my only hope of forgiveness, cleansing, and victory over my sin.
Biblical brokenness always leads us to cling to Christ.
Bob is the Vice President for Institutional Development and Chair of the Biblical Counseling Department at Crossroads Bible College, and the Founder and CEO of RPM Ministries. Bob blogs at the Biblical Counseling Coalition; this article is reprinted with his permission.
Posted on August 22, 2016