Brokenness Revisited, or “I Hate to Admit It, But I Think I’m Making Progress”

     In recent years, it seems increasingly rare to hear believers say, “I grew up in a happy home and we had everything we needed.” I almost never hear anyone say “I am making progress as a disciple,” although healthy believers should keep growing (below). The unfettered gratitude we hear in Psalm 16:6 has gone missing: “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed I have a beautiful inheritance.” It has become difficult, even fraught, to say “My life is good,” in public at least. A few even identify themselves by their struggles rather than their relationship with Jesus. This is puzzling enough that we ought to look for causes, beginning with our culture.

     Despite unparalleled gains in prosperity, life expectancy, and food security, complaint, critique, and resentment dominate public discourse. We privilege victims and scorn the privileged. People are reluctant to admit that they received a fine education, good health, and satisfying work. Instead, we compete in what some call “the oppression Olympics” by trumpeting our suffering.

     Because of my skin color and manner, I often register as a privileged white male. When I meet people, this can cause enough social tension that I can feel compelled to explain myself: “I realize that I come across as confident; most men who survive violent homes do.” Or “Yes, Western societies have oppressed your group. They slaughtered six million of my people too.” Why do I feel pressed to say these things? Am I capitulating to forces I should resist?

     Somehow, Western society has determined that the poor, downcast, and oppressed have a stamp of authenticity and moral authority. Their voice counts more than others, and since people long to be heard, they learn to trumpet their sorrows and minimize their advantages.

             Whatever the causes, Christian discourse often sounds like mainstream discourse, with its emphasis on struggle. It is sensible for believers to speak openly of their hardships or wounds for several reasons. First, it corrects the baleful effects of the prosperity gospel and perfectionism. Second, an accent on the victories of believers presents an impossible ideal that leaves other disciples feeling defeated. Third, blind optimism can silence people who fear that their struggles represent shameful aberrations. Fourth, Scripture encourages honesty and realism. That leads to confession of sin and laments over the troubles of this world. Psalms 32, 38, 51, 130 are extended pleas for forgiveness of sin. Perhaps sixty psalms are largely devoted to lament. Historical narratives record the sins committed by heroes from Abraham to Paul. We agree: discipleship is arduous. This world is a veil of tears.

     That said, there is a strand of Christian subculture that seems to glory in brokenness. In certain conversations, to achieve a state of “brokenness” begins to sound like an end it itself. It may suffice to state that "broken" typically appears one to two hundred times in common English translations. The sense is almost always negative. The broken are weak, they have failed, they have been subdued. A broken bow is useless. A broken person or nation is devastated or defeated (e.g. Ex. 6:9, 1 Sam. 2:10, Ps. 31:12, 69:20, 102:23, Job 17:1, 31:22). "Broken" has a clear positive sense just once, in Psalm 51:17: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."  

      The difficulty with "broken," as used in Christian subcultures, is that it supplants or diminishes more biblical terms, like sin, iniquity, and rebellion. “Broken” can sound more like a disability than a moral failing and it registers as an ongoing state rather than a transitional condition. In Psalm 51, the psalmist’s brokenness is transitional, not permanent. It describes a humble repentance that leads to forgiveness, cleansing, and renewal (51:1, 10).

     While Christians accent struggle and brokenness, Scripture offers growth and fruitfulness as common metaphors for the life of faith (Rom. 4:20, 2 Thess. 1:3; Luke 2:52, Matt. 13:3-43). Hebrews says we must lay aside the sin that entangles us (Heb. 12:1). Paul says we “cast off the works of darkness” (Rom. 13:11) and “put off the old self” with its “deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22-23). Scripture also has a pervasive interest in fruitfulness (e.g.  Ps. 1, Isa. 32, Rom. 6). The Father is glorified when his children abide in Christ and bear much fruit (John 15:4-8).

     If, by the grace of God, believers can grow and “bear fruit for God (Rom. 7:6), then they should grow and bear fruit. We should expect to make progress. It is not arrogant to aim for growth nor is it not prideful to report progress. It is good to say things like: “A year ago, I would have [given up, gotten drunk, lost my temper] but recently I have learned to [persevere, seek help, find peace].” Instead of succumbing to cultural norms by speaking of our failures and brokenness as if they are a steady state, we both admit our sins and weakness and speak honestly of our growth in grace, giving God thanks for the Spirit’s work in us. We should aim to be thrivers, not merely survivors.

     Believers certainly suffer grave afflictions, but we should be able to say, with the psalmist, that our oppressors do not crush us. We remember that the psalms that begin with bitter lamentation almost always end with gratitude or triumph:

     “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”

          —let Israel now say—

     “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth,

          yet they have not prevailed against me

     The LORD is righteous;

          he has cut the cords of the wicked” (Ps. 129:1-2, 4).

     Notice that the double cry of affliction leads to a double affirmation of release. “They”- the foes of the psalmist – do not prevail, for the LORD is righteous. Because he cuts the cords of the wicked, they do not prevail. So then, it is correct to acknowledge our ongoing struggle with sin. An awareness of the old nature prepares believers to fight sin, question their motives, and avoid pride. Still, we must remember that we are also “prisoners of hope” (Zech. 9:12).

     When Romans 6 explores the relationship between faith, grace, and works, it teaches that while no one is saved by works, neither is anyone saved without works. Works are not an antecedent necessity, but they are a consequent necessity of salvation. Consider an infant. She receives life from her parents. She does not gain life by breathing and but she does consequently stay alive by breathing. An action can be necessary even if not causative.[1] For believers, fruitful works and spiritual progress do not cause salvation but they are essential to it. This means that struggle, woundedness, and brokenness are aspects of life in this age, but they are not goals of life.

     If we are dead to sin and alive to God, it must show. It is a struggle to live out our faith, but one can construe that struggle in ways that owe more to secular thought than to Scripture. The Lord empowers believers to conduct lives of substantial beauty. That beauty can adorn the gospel, leading to God’s glory and the salvation of the lost (Tit. 2:7-10, 1 Pet. 3:5).

        Grunge rock surfaced in 1991; some call it the year musical discourse changed. Led by Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, “anti-happy” songs about abuse, violence, drugs, war and depression suddenly prevailed. But secular people are beginning to grow tired of the anti-happiness trope. An actress recently wrote an article asking “When Did a Happy Marriage Become So Taboo?”[2] She starts with a faux confession: “I have a dirty little secret… I’m happily married. It might be my most boring attribute, and there’s nothing I can do about it! I love my husband and he loves me.” Unfortunately, this makes her a social misfit at “girly soirees.” When the talk “turns to marital affairs” anxiety courses through her, since she feels that she doesn’t belong.

     “I’m happily married” or “I love my work” is also something Christians should be able to say, without irony. Believers do indeed struggle and fail, but we should also be able to say “I am united to Christ in his death and resurrection and because of that, we heal, grow, and bear fruit, to the glory of the Father. By the power of the Spirit, I sin and receive forgiveness, I break, but then I heal.”

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.

[1] Dane Ortlund, Edwards on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 139-40.

[2] Ali Wentworth, “When Did a Happy Marriage Become So Taboo?” (Town & Country, April 8, 2018).


Dan Doriani