How Brokenness Happens

As an important albeit difficult stop on the journey, brokenness enables us to get beyond ourselves and recognize our need for God’s complete, continuing and uninterrupted intervention in our life. For us to become the people God intends us to be, brokenness is not an optional possibility; it is a necessity. In this article we’ll explore how the act of being broken occurs.

As best I can tell, there are two ways in which brokenness can take place. The first is for us to recognize the problem that mandates the need, understand what brokenness means, and will ourselves into a place of brokenness before God. This requires that we understand the impact of our sin against God, of usurping God’s authority and taking His place on the throne of power, and of taking our cues from society rather than God’s Word. Cut to the heart by our callous insensitivity toward Christ and our consistent wrong doing against a holy and loving deity, we would therefore experience a life-shattering realization of our selfishness, independence, control, and evil. We would desperately throw ourselves on the mercy of God, pleading with Him to forgive our narcissistic and unrighteous behavior. We would find ourselves on the threshold of depression and despair, wholly distraught over our indefensible choices and the effect they have on our relationship with both a loving and benevolent God as well as the people whom we are called to bless. We would be virtually impotent to continue to live without God absolving us of our spiritual sickness, powerless to keep going without His willingness to walk alongside us from now on.

Such a response is theoretically possible and is the approach that many ministries equip us to pursue. However, after conducting thousands of interviews regarding people’s transformational journey, and numerous case studies, I have yet to encounter a single individual who has successfully broken himself.

So that leads to the second means to brokenness. That is allowing God to do it His way. In every case of successful brokenness I’ve studied, it has been initiated by God. He does this by allowing us to endure a life crisis. If the expression “successful brokenness” seems a bit odd, please know that it is an intentional choice of words. It refers to the fact that God often strives to work with us to facilitate our brokenness but we usually resist, resulting in a missed opportunity to minimize ourselves and maximize God’s presence and authority in our lives. Urged on by our secular society, we remain full of ourselves, leaving little room for God to be present in our lives. In fact, our worldview does not interpret life crises as examples of God at work in our life. Rather, we view such challenges as instances of “bad luck,” “chance,” “unfortunate circumstances,” “the circle of life,” “negative karma,” or “the randomness of life.”

To some people it may seem unlikely, unnecessary, or even unloving for God to expose us to harsh circumstances in order to break us. With our upbeat and optimistic theology, a view that glosses over the roles of persecution and suffering, we believe that God’s primary interest is in providing the best for us at all times. We explain away the hardships visited upon Moses, David, Jesus, and Paul. We are aghast when we are told that God loves you so much He allowed you to face another crisis, which He followed up with pain and suffering in all four life dimensions (emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually) in order to more perfectly shape us into His image. How, we wonder, is that the work of a loving God?

Actually, the crisis approach is a response to our own refusal to work with Him any other way. It’s not like He hasn’t tried to get our attention through a variety of alternative means. We have left Him little choice besides situational confrontation.

  • He tried to reach us emotionally through our understanding of what His own son, Jesus Christ, went through on our behalf, including how Jesus was broken of (our) sin.
  • He used sermons and other forms of instruction in an effort to penetrate our intellect.
  • He used the Bible as another conduit of psychological challenge, describing His principles, commands, stories, and warnings in the form of narratives, poetry, and polemics.
  • He exposed us to the suffering and hardships of others, hoping we’d learn the lesson vicariously.
  • He even went to the other end of the continuum and tried to penetrate both our head and heart through excessive, undeserved, and frequent blessings, only to see us miss the point by taking those for granted.
  • You can’t say God didn’t go all out in His efforts to rip us out of our comfort zone in softer and gentle ways. But because we constantly resisted His efforts, He has unleashed what may well be the last resort, snapping us to attention in the same way that He broke His Son: through physical hardship and anguish.

By the way, my research found that a majority of people who are finally broken experience harsh circumstances time after time after time. Why? Because the first time or two – or three or more – we take our cues from a culture that says brokenness is for weak losers. We see nothing positive emerging from those difficulties. Instead we deem those challenges to be tests that will prove our worthiness through self-reliance, independence, personal strength, and perseverance.

Sadly, we fail to learn from experience, either ours or that of others whose challenges we observe. Everyone experiences similar hardships, and we go through them over and over. Among the most common forms of crisis that lead to brokenness are imprisonment, debilitating illness or injury, the painful or prolonged death of a loved one, personal bankruptcy, acrimonious divorce, and the loss of possessions in a natural disaster. There are countless other challenges as well, but the research found that a majority of people have undergone these difficulties one or more times en route to brokenness.

Society teaches us that crises are merely stumbling blocks on the path to victory, unfortunate barriers that we can convert into opportunities to show strength and determination. That mindset causes us to have to undergo two or more of these crises before we wake up to our need for God. Or, as John 3:30 reminds us, He must become greater and greater in our life, and we must become less and less.

It is also intriguing that most Christians interpret the reoccurrence of crises as signs of God’s disinterest, punishment, lack of engagement, or inability to protect us rather than as evidence of His involvement, love, care, and concern. This perspective reflects the heart of our worldview – one that is not so much Bible-centric as unrealistic and secular in nature. While the scriptures talk about the centrality of discipline and the refining fire, we cling to a God who shields us from any painful experiences that might help us to grow in our relationship with Him. Consequently, when we get beaten down by life, we question God’s love and power. We assume that He has abandoned us or remains indifferent to our plight.

That worldview misses the point. God’s goal is not to break our spirit but to break our rebelliousness and independence. His efforts to guide us that were less debilitating met with our own indifference or rejection.

Ironically, our continued perseverance in the face of brokenness-inducing crises just produces additional suffering and doubt.

It need not be so hard, of course. The Lord has provided a simpler and easier way out for us, if we are willing to do things His way. In the next article we’ll explore how we can most efficiently cooperate with God in facilitating our brokenness.

(Reader’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles on stops seven through ten of the journey to wholeness. For more information about the common journey through which God transforms people, read George Barna’s book, Maximum Faith).

Why Brokenness Matters to God

Being transformed from someone who is focused almost exclusively upon life-on-earth into someone who lives for and like Jesus Christ requires mastering multiple challenges along the journey to wholeness. Brokenness, which is typically the seventh stop on the 10-stop transformational journey, is imperative to experience, understand, and embrace before further growth is possible.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most Christians acknowledge the importance of brokenness but do everything they can to avoid the experience of it. Individual believers seek to avoid brokenness because our culture proclaims that it is for weak people – losers who don’t have the strength, the smarts, the resources, or the resilience necessary to succeed in a competitive world. That same society also tempts people into believing that you need not be broken because the world enables you to have it all, if you set your sights on winning and then play your cards right.

An overwhelming majority of Americans has spent little or no time thinking about or preparing for brokenness. It is not something that families discuss with their children. It is not a lesson taught in schools, even Christian schools. It is not an outcome supported by government programs or rhetoric. In fact, brokenness is not likely to gain much attention from families, schools, or government because it requires a long-term view of life, truth, and purpose that places God and His ways at the center of the discussion. Instead we conceive and promote strategies designed to help us live “in the moment” more effectively, ignoring the well-known truth that such a lifestyle is destined to fail. When comfortable survival and immediate gratification are the chief ends of life, that life is resigned to insignificance.

Churches are partly at fault for Christians not taking brokenness seriously. Because the perceived success of most churches is so intimately tied to the number of people attending, and because it is virtually impossible to draw (and retain) a crowd when the teaching promises the inevitable struggles that accompany brokenness, this is one of the topics that gets little attention and urgency. My studies have found that churchgoers are taught very little, if anything, about the beauty and necessity of brokenness for their own wholeness. Few church people are allowed to reach the precipice of brokenness within their congregational context because individual happiness is often accepted as a natural outcome and a higher end of the Christian life than the necessity of being crushed by our offenses against God. Some Christian churches even preach a theology that claims God will protect His people from all hurt and hardship.

The Importance of Being Broken

The Maximum Faith research indicated that the pain and distress of being broken is necessary in order to facilitate personal and corporate wholeness. Let me briefly share four reasons underlying the significance of this experience.

1.     We are called to imitate the life of Christ.

One of the most pressing challenges that followers of Christ face is that of mimicking what He modeled for us. (Eph 5:1) He assumed the burden of our sins, sins He did not commit, and was crushed by them. He did not savor that pain but He embraced the brokenness that led to not only God’s grace and Christ’s own glorification but also to the justification and sanctification of hundreds of millions of human beings.

Many Christians in America talk about following Christ but the true way to imitate Him is to eliminate the grip of sin, self, and society on our mind, heart and soul. That starts with seeing sin, self, and society for what they are, especially in contrast to the incomparable riches available through Jesus Christ, and then choosing wisely between those options. Our salvation is not of our own making but our sanctification is certainly related to our willingness to replicate the model that Jesus gave us: rejecting sin, allowing its weight to break us, and allowing God to restore us through our voluntary and comprehensive determination to surrender and submit to Him.

2.     Our intimacy with God is blocked by our love of other things – and can only be restored by willingly becoming a broken vessel.

The concept of “fatal attractions” has no better application than in regard to things that get in the way of our relationship with God. Our life is meant to be lived for Him and His purposes. Objectively, it doesn’t get better than that. Yet 99% of American adults – literally – have chosen to pursue beings, possessions, and conditions that relegate God to a secondary (or worse) position in our minds, hearts, and lives. Those preferences amount to our continuing affair with sin, self, society.

In essence we are adulterers until we voluntarily abandon those errant passions. If we do not master those distractions and preferences they control us and keep us from being who God created us to be: His loving and obedient servants.

In our “sophisticated” culture we denigrate any decision that is portrayed in black or white terms. In reality, our life is based upon a series of pivotal black or white decisions. The most important of those is: Will I live my life solely for the pleasure and benefit of God, or not? Every subsequent choice in life is built upon the foundation of that answer.

3.     Brokenness precedes wholeness.

A friend challenged my thinking on this, noting that something must be whole before it can be broken. What he overlooked was that we were conceived by God to be holy before we chose to pursue the elements that offend and replace God in our lives, and that is what created the weakness in us that allows for the benefit of true brokenness. But, of course, once we have been separated from that which made us weak, we then have the opportunity to again be made strong by the One who has the strength to do all things.

Unless we understand and embrace our own brokenness we are insulated from so many of the glorious and desirable promises God has made to us. Rejecting brokenness prevents us from:

1.     experiencing all the promises God has made to you in His Word (2Cor 6:14-7:1; Heb 6:9-12, 11:4-19; 2Pet 1:3-11)

2.     becoming the “new creation” God envisions us to be (2Cor 5:17; Eph 4:24; Rom 12:2; Gal 6:15)

3.     experiencing true freedom from the bondage of sin, self, society (Rom 6:14, Gal 3:22-5:13)

4.     worshiping God in fullness because He is not on the throne of our life (Matt 4:10, 15:9; John 4:23-24, 9:31; Rom 1:23, 9:4; Col 3:5)

5.     realizing our utter impotence in the grand scope of creation, and the inevitability of either giving in to God or suffering tragic earthly and eternal consequences (Job 38; Gal 6:7-10; Phil 2:5-10)

4.     For God to complete His work in your life, you must decide to eliminate the garbage you have chosen that keeps Him at arm’s length.

Jesus told his detractors that the most important task they faced was to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mk 12:30). My research with American adults who are people on the journey to holiness emphasized the importance and accuracy of that contention. People become isolated from God and resistant to brokenness because of emotional blockages or pain (i.e., issues of the heart); because of spiritual ignorance, confusion, or self-indulgence (i.e., matters of the soul); because of intellectual distortions and misunderstandings (i.e., challenges of the mind); or because of behavioral and physical obstacles (i.e., manifestations of our strength). Our adversary is expert at blending potential seductions in these areas into a minefield that maims and retards us.

However, in our moments of clarity, we might recognize the truth: we are being held back from the loving embrace of a Father who wants nothing less than to heal, love, preserve, and enjoy us. When we feel that His response to our stray behaviors and thoughts are stern, we have to realize that His unyielding response to our rebellion is the necessary act of a loving parent who must discipline a wayward child for the good of that youngster. And we must see our difficult times as the precursor to ultimate victory in Christ. While the powers of this world have often succeeded at distorting our understanding of the process and purposes of God, in the end the hardships He allows are a necessary and beneficial aspect of our development.

In fact, if we study God’s teachings about our well-being, we cannot escape the realization that brokenness is a biblical promise and an eternal gift. We resent it because western societies have become soft and embrace a sense of entitlement. We believe our own press about our great accomplishments and sensitivities. We seek continual comfort, abundance, security, and leisure. We deem hardships and sacrifice unnecessary, and sometimes believe they are even unfair or counterproductive. We consider pain and suffering to be avoidable and undesirable. We recoil in horror at the notion of voluntary brokenness. Our wholehearted embrace of this worldly perspective is our tangible rejection of the foundation of Jesus’s model and message for us.

The Importance of Brokenness

The process of allowing God to transform you into the people He envisioned you becoming is a lifelong challenge. Often, we believe we have dealt with our sin issue by saying some words that invite Jesus to be our savior, and after making that decision we move on to face the other challenges of life. We feel comforted in believing that our place in heaven is secure and that we no longer have to fret about Satan’s impact on our eternal life.

Unfortunately, it seems that there is a lot of misunderstanding and unfinished business related to our salvation. (And yes, this topic is fraught with theological landmines, so I will attempt to tread carefully.) My research suggests that millions of Americans “say the prayer” that they assume guarantees them eternal salvation. But the research also confirms that a large share of those people does not develop a real “relationship” with Christ, they have not really broken ranks with sin, and they are not truly living for God’s purposes. Millions of people who have said a salvation prayer missed the primary caveat of that offer: you must be broken of sin, self, and society in order to truly be freed to become a follower of Christ.

The data indicate that very few people – barely one out of ten adults in the United States – could be considered to have been broken by their understanding of and distaste for their offenses against God. And a huge majority of Christians believes that you can be saved without experiencing such brokenness.

Sadly, they are wrong. There is no salvation without brokenness.

The Bible leaves no doubt as to the necessity of brokenness. Consider some of the evidence:

  • King David lived life to the fullest –sometimes too full. Among other sins, we know that he suffered from lust, engaged in adultery, and was guilty of murder. In order to grab David’s attention and teach him the seriousness of what he had willfully done, God allowed David’s marriage to dissolve, his baby died, and his older children rebelled against him. David was a man after God’s heart, but God had to break him. (2Samuel 11-15)

 

  • The apostle Paul was a brilliant scholar and skilled debater. But he suffered from hatred (of Christians) and pride. God loved Paul enough to break him through blindness, beatings, imprisonment, mistrust, questions about his standing as an apostle, and public humiliation. (Acts 9, 2Cor 6, 12)

 

  • Jonah was a reluctant and disobedient prophet. He heard and refused the call of God, preferring to let his enemies experience God’s harsh judgment. Jonah’s self-centeredness and lack of compassion toward fellow sinners resulted in a life marked by emotional turmoil, physical peril, and public rejection. (Jonah 1-3)

 

  • Moses was a highly educated orphan, raised in a privileged environment to prepare for leadership. But after breaking away from his Egyptian setting, he returned to lead God’s people. Unfortunately, in one particular circumstance he disobeyed God and beat a rock with a stick, ostensibly taking credit for a miracle God performed by generating water from that stone. That act of defiance displayed the level of pride and anger residing within Moses. In response, God allowed Israel’s leader to complete the work of leading the Jews to the brink of the Promised Land but banned Moses from entering it. (Numbers 20)

Note that in each case God’s response was more than simple punishment. It was actions intended to break the heart of the sinner and cause them to reform their relationship with God.

Personally, it was God’s reaction to Moses that finally awoke me to what was going on. For years I had felt that Moses got a raw deal. Sure, he hit a rock with a stick because he was tired of people whining. That hardly seems worthy of depriving Moses, the diligent leader who had to put up with doubters and complainers for years of miserable trekking through a desert based on little more than pure faith, the joy of experiencing the place God had reserved for Israel. What would motivate God to react so sternly to such a minor miscue? To my human mind, the punishment did not fit the crime; it seemed way over the top. From my arrogant, self-absorbed perspective, it seemed blatantly unfair.

But that punishment was simply a necessary means to a glorious end. That in-your-face response by God finally pierced the spirit of Moses and enabled him to receive an incredible gift: brokenness. Through the ensuing brokenness, Moses was able to know God more genuinely, deeply and completely. He was able to walk more closely with Him and serve Him more appropriately. He transitioned from self-centered leadership to God-centered service. And he was able to accept the loss of a prized earthly reward in exchange for an invaluable eternal reward.

Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention that Jesus Himself was broken. He had to experience that devastation, not because of anything He did, but because of our sin. But even the holy Son of God was not spared the pain and suffering inherent in being separated from intimacy with God because of our offensive choices. As much as anything, the fact that our holy and righteous savior was broken is the ultimate sign to us, God’s offenders, of just how important it is for us to abandon anything that stands in the way of our complete reliance upon God for true life.

Almost every great biblical hero was broken by God through multiple life crises or harsh circumstances designed for that purpose. There is no getting around the reality: even the best of us needs to be broken, fully and completely detached from our dalliance with sin, self, and society.

If you examine the individuals involved in all these instances, you’ll see that God does not force us to accept brokenness. He always allows us to choose. But if you are wise, you will discover that you either allow God to use circumstances to wake you and break you, or you may count on continuing to fight Him and suffer.

Most people never realize that brokenness is actually a gift from God that demonstrates His awesome and unyielding love. We typically examine the circumstances designed to guide us from a casual acquaintance to an intense and intimate lover of God and foolishly conclude that they are harmful to our well-being. In reality, they are God’s means of bringing us to our knees before Him, in full-on repentance, enabling us to see the truth of who we are, who He is, how we treat Him, and how compassionate He is.

In our culture-aided confusion we focus on the deprivation, sacrifice, pain, suffering, hardship, and persecution that God injects into our experience. We mistakenly assume that once we believe nice things about God and invest a few personal resources in the development of our faith, the appropriate response by our Father should be affirmation, comfort, pleasure, rewards, and happiness.

But that’s only because we understand neither the nature of God nor the beauty of brokenness.

So if you are serious about honoring and loving God, eliminating your gnawing sense of spiritual discontent or incompleteness, and living your life to the fullest degree, then you have no choice but to embrace brokenness and to trust God alone to bring you through it.