The New Language of Brokenness (Part One)

I have divided a longer post into two shorter parts for clarity.  In part one, I hope to show that the language of brokenness is imprecise and that Millennials are increasing the uncritical use of this term.  In part two, I hope to show the dangers inherent in substituting brokenness language for the concept of sin and sinfulness.  Finally, I’ll offer some guesses on why these shifts have occurred.

The flexibility of words from generation to generation makes a fascinating study in American history.  We are all familiar with words whose meanings have dramatically shifted, such as:

–   Gay
–   Literally
–   Awful

The changing of words typically doesn’t reorder or reshape fundamental beliefs or practices in our lives.  The academy may publish interesting papers when it happens, but most of us simply shrug and move on with the new meanings.  However, certain theological language commands our attention when it begins to take on new contexts, new connotations, and new meaning, since these words represent realities about ourselves and about God.  Significant generational shifts in language present a danger to Christians because they hinder the ability for the old and mature to inform the young.1 Familiar words that are filled with new content lure different generations into a false sense of communication.  The Greek myth-makers at least allowed Sisyphus to roll the same boulder up the same hill.  Readers of theology that are trying to make sense of the ancient, the recent, and the new are confronting the same boulders, but always on a new hill, in a new direction, and rolling for a new purpose.

One such shift in the language of evangelicals is taking place within the word “brokenness.”  The millennials2, their grandparents, and dead American theologians have all used brokenness language, but have often intended significantly different meanings.  The present problem is that brokenness, both the word and the concept, is beginning to replace the language of “sin” and “sinfulness” in theological books and music. It is tempting, though overly simplistic, to completely blame the Millennial generation for weakening both words and theology. The truth is that the concept of brokenness was already fuzzy when the Millennials were born.

Historically, theologians have observed and applied many forms of brokenness to humanity.  Unraveling the concepts is no easy task.  To illustrate the messiness here, consider that brokenness can be an awful thing if the author intends to speak about circumstances, but “unbrokenness” can be even worse if he means pride.  I think there are three primary ways that this word brokenness is used, and Scripture primarily features the first one.

Table 1

I must quickly say that there are legitimate uses and contexts for all three meanings.  However, substituting #2 or #3 when #1 is intended can be dangerous theologically – and none of them are proper substitutes for sin.  The second form of brokenness deals with our circumstances only, while the third deals primarily with our posture before other people.  My suspicion is that the older evangelists and revivalists typically intended the first meaning, while counseling models typically intend the second meaning and the Millennials typically intend the third.

Allow me two quick disclaimers.  First, the sky is not falling.  Of all the potential issues threatening the landscape of the American church, both internal and external, this particular shift in terminology is a relatively tame monster.  Yes, words matter because they represent theological ideas – and ideas have legs.  But unstable language can be more easily corrected than other problems.  Second, as with any new cultural shift in language, hard data supporting my suspicions is not easy to find.  Sea changes are mostly realized after the water has risen a foot, not merely an inch.  But I am not alone.  Pastor and author Kevin DeYoung has also noticed the shift and written briefly about it, and the tremendously interesting Google NGram viewer, which documents the use of specific words and phrases in publications, observes that the rise in “brokenness” conversations correlates nicely with the Millennials.

The path of least resistance would be to jettison all uses of the word except for its main Biblical and historical use.3  This first meaning describes our awareness that we are unable to perfectly image God, unable to stop sinning completely, and incomplete in our love for God and others.  Even after professing and following Christ, we are powerless to fix our sinful thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors, regardless of our efforts or prayers.  Our resistance to God’s sanctifying work will remain until Christ returns to make us new.4 This brokenness is illustrated by David’s lament in Psalm 51 and by the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Pastor and author Stanley Voke describes it this way:

True brokenness means we are brought to the end of ourselves before God.  We see our sin in the light of God, see what it has done to Him and how another Child was born to suffer and die because of it.  We see how the spear of pride and the nails of our lusts have pierced Him…It is seeing Calvary that breaks our hard hearts.  It is here that our stubbornness is melted, our rights are renounced…[and we] claim nothing but sinnership and ask nothing but mercy.5

Since there are other legitimate uses of the word, though, we must strive for precision in our contexts.  The second use involves an awareness of our sinful environments and is most often used in counseling situations.  We all have experienced varying degrees of brokenness in our circumstances.  This was especially true when we were children; our environments were often outside of our control.  Broken circumstances such as neglect, abuse, and trauma often produce the rotten fruit of brokenness in us, since our thoughts and attitudes are shaped in part by our environments.  Thus, growing up in a “broken home” is significantly correlated to eventual negative outcomes later in life.6  Certainly there is Biblical support for this perspective on humanity.  Scripture describes us like Jesus describes the crowds of people in Matthew 9:  “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”7 A bruised reed was an appropriate metaphor for Israel’s status.8

The third use places a positive connotation on brokenness.  Here we are concerned with authenticity before God and before others.  To be unbroken in this context is to remain prideful and arrogant.  God often blesses what He breaks, whether it is dry bones in Ezekiel 37, broken bones in Psalm 51, or bread in the upper room.  The tax collector in Luke 18 named himself a desperate sinner and went home justified, in contrast to the Pharisee who publicly lauded his own righteousness.  Pretense is hated by God, as evidenced by His contrasted descriptions of Judah and Israel in Jeremiah 3 and by His treatment of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.  I believe this is typically the intended meaning when Millennials use the word brokenness.

In all three contexts, though, brokenness serves as an indicator that something has gone wrong.  Things are not the way they’re supposed to be, and we are not as we’re supposed to be.  If every author, speaker, and writer explained his particular use of the word brokenness, there would be no problems with the concept and no confusion to be addressed.  Unfortunately, this kind of precision doesn’t exist in the real world, and we must be clear about the dangers of sloppy language, whether it is intentional or not.  

In part two, I hope to show some of the theological and social dangers of using the language of brokenness as a substitute for the language of sin and sinfulness.  We will post that next week on 4/30.


1. The word “missional”, for example, means something different for the octogenarian than it does to the new seminarian.
2. Those born between 1980 and 2000, following Generation X.
3. #1 in the table above
4. Of course, the Holy Spirit works to transform us in significant ways. But these smaller transformations of heart and behavior are not complete.
5. Stanley Voke, Personal Revival. Page 35.
6. Crime, divorce, and depression, to name a few.
7. Matthew 9:36 (ESV and NIV)
8. Isaiah 42:3

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