The New Language of Brokenness (Part Two)

I have divided a longer post into two shorter parts for clarity.  In part one, I hoped 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.

As we’ve seen, the concept of brokenness itself is imprecise.  But it becomes even more problematic when we uncritically substitute it for the historic language of sin, for at least three reasons.  First, it ignores the breadth of the historic understanding of sin.  Sin and sinfulness are broad and thick concepts in Scripture, as evidenced by all the different experiential and philosophical descriptions for it.  Consider some of the other Biblical metaphors for sin:

  • Lawlessness
  • Unfaithfulness
  • Rebellion
  • Wandering
  • A hard heart or a stiff neck
  • Blindness/Deafness
  • Transgression/Trespassing
  • Missing the mark
  • A beast crouching at the door (Genesis 4)

Those who adhere to the Westminster Confession recognize sin as any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.  Theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes sin as “disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony”.1 Notice that each statement addresses sin both as human moral agency and human circumstances.  We are simultaneously culprit and victim.  The real concern in this conversation is that brokenness is reductionist.  It primarily identifies the human problem in the area of circumstance and then communicates it using the language of victimhood.  If I see myself mainly as broken, I am tempted to allow that characteristic to explain more of my life than it should.

If I am broken, it stands to reason that I will break things:  myself, my relationships with others, my world, and my relationship with my Creator.  Who is to blame for this?  Am I helpless – continually reacting to a cycle of cause-and-effect?  The Bible holds me accountable for disobedience, regardless of my environment.  There is a pesky falsehood that we cannot seem to shake:  we often believe that a man would behave perfectly if no brokenness touched him.  We imagine that a man free from social evils would be pristine – as if men could retain purity through quarantine.  But this has already been tried.  Adam’s circumstances were wholly good; he walked with God directly, he had no broken family or toxic education, and no woman besides his wife to tempt infidelity.  Our first parents stood as humanity’s best shot at sinlessness and unmediated contact with the Creator.  Their moral failure stands for ours, and neither they nor we are permitted to allow broken circumstances to explain away our choices.  The cumulative history of sin weaves together actions that were disobedient to God and resistant to His correction, creating tapestries of suffering and difficulties.  Our responses to our own broken environments, even dramatically tragic ones, are often still disobedient and tainted with selfishness and distrust in God.

Thus, bringing our circumstantial brokenness to God and admitting that we can’t clean up our mess is true, helpful, and beautiful – but it is incomplete as a picture for sin.  When Isaiah saw the immediacy and holiness of God, he first voiced in confession in terms of his own sinful moral agency:  “I am a man of unclean lips”.2 That he lived among a people of unclean lips was a secondary confession, and it was not voiced as validation for the first confession.  A narrow emphasis on confessing brokenness shifts the responsibility for our guilt onto other agents.  Brokenness implies dysfunction, helplessness, and passivity; all are incomplete in confessing sin.

Second, a misuse of brokenness terminology can lead to a shifted understanding of the work of Christ.  If the main problem for humanity is circumstantial brokenness, not rebellion and resistance, then Christ’s accomplishments in His crucifixion are very confusing.  We would expect redemption to match the problem it solves.  Identifying the problem as brokenness causes our expectations for redemption to come in the form of wholeness.3 And certainly wholeness does come from Christ’s work, but it is not often wholeness in circumstances.

I am free from the penalty of sin, but not its power or presence, and so my circumstances and dysfunctions may not feel as though they’ve been renewed by Christ.  In fact, I am told that my own circumstances/sufferings4 have been ordained intentionally by God for my good!  Rather than being redeemed from my environment, the Holy Spirit redeems me through it.  Or, to put it more plainly, even Christ’s circumstances/sufferings5 were ordained for Him by God.  I am not as holy as Jesus Christ, so why would I expect God to bring deliverance from my situation but not His?

Relying too heavily on brokenness skews our expectations for Christ’s work.  At best, we delve too far into the territory of the Christus Victor perspective, where Christ primarily rescues my situational helplessness from the enemy’s assaults.  At worst, we are planted in the national territory of liberation theology or the personal territory of health-and-wealth gospels.  The truth is that we are promised to be sanctified and “inwardly renewed,” but we are never promised deliverance from brokenness until His return6.

Ephesians 2 is blunt:  we were dead in our transgressions and sins and only made alive by a merciful God.  Broken is a far cry from dead; the two are not even playing on the same field.  Do we thank God more for reviving a dead rebel or for reforming some of his flaws7?  As DeYoung cleverly puts it, “we need a savior, not just a handyman.”

Third, an uncritical adoption of brokenness language can lead to an unhealthy fixation on victimhood.  This is especially true with Millennials, who are more suspicious of pretentiousness in others and favor the concepts of group dynamics more than previous generations.  Especially with respect to ethical and social issues, Millennial language is dominated by conversations of inter-group relations.  The groups in question are race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, belief, age, and others.8  Theologian John Frame is helpful here:

[These groups] are all classified, in quasi-Marxist terms, as oppressor groups and victim groups.  The oppressor group is usually identified as white, middle-class, Christian, heterosexual males.  The issue is the unfair or unequal treatment of the victim group by the oppressor group.  Most all other ethical questions eventually get reduced to this one.9

What does brokenness language have to do with victimhood?  The reasons why we allow brokenness to overstep its bounds are the same reasons that draw us to the mentality of victimhood.  Pushed too far, brokenness allows us to distance our actions from our own moral agency.  Our state of disrepair can be attributed to external forces, often other people groups.  We can effectively name them as the real producers of sin in society or in ourselves.

The power and appeal of this state of mind must not go unnoticed.  In some cases, churches even build their ethos on these premises.  Church plants often advertise that they are the church for “broken people” where no pretension is allowed.  The fight here is subtle but powerful:  those who appear unbroken in terms of dress, speech, or other indicators, or those who never knew the walls of a broken home are either not welcome here or they must prove their membership.  Thus, stories are told of worshippers from pleasant backgrounds who, after flocking to urban churches, quickly get tattoos and take up smoking.  Are they simply trying to “fit in” or are they separating themselves from their perceived “oppressor groups”?

It is one thing to create a welcoming environment for worshippers with difficult backgrounds; it is quite another to draw lines of victimhood and oppressor groups inside the church’s walls.  Misplaced and exaggerated zeal for displays of brokenness will eventually lead to tension and division in churches over the perceived oppressors and oppressed groups, whether they are couched in the language of race, gender, sexuality, etc.  We should be careful to examine the cultural magnet of victimhood and to only use the language of oppression when it is legitimate, lest we cheapen the real instances of discrimination.

Finally, why is this happening now?  I cannot draw precise conclusions, but I’ll offer some guesses.  I mentioned before that we are more exposed to counseling language than previous generations.  This atmosphere makes us quite comfortable wearing the labels of “victim” or “oppressed”.  Additionally, the information age and the onslaught of social media have exposed us to so many visions of the good life and examples of success that we are searching for ways to explain why we haven’t achieved greatness yet.   Brokenness language helps to lower the expectations of our peers.  Social media also offers us plausibility structures for other worldviews, and the language of brokenness fits well into the scheme of “I’m OK; You’re OK” that our new pluralism demands.

Beyond this, the appeals to seek church experiences that are “authentic,” “transparent,” and “genuine” have increased our desire to display our own brokenness quickly and dramatically.  The competition for “least Pharisaical” has been running for a few decades now, and demonstrating brokenness is how we win.  Ironically, displays of brokenness are still concerned with horizontal relationships rather than our vertical relationship with God.  In our zeal to distance ourselves from the tax collector who prayed arrogant prayers in public, we pray self-deprecating prayers in public!  A unique danger exists as millennials set out to prove their lack of pretension.  Camaraderie is found and formed in groups of like-minded sinners with like-minded sins.  This can result in second-class citizenship for some Christians who are not quick to publicly display their darker struggles.

Both words and people matter.  Some Christians may enter the kingdom primarily confessing brokenness and professing Christ as the Healer.  We should thank God that He is kind and remember the broken image in us.  But eventually, Christian growth demands more specificity in our confession, more depth in our understanding of sin, and more breadth in our view of Christ.

 1. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin
2. Isaiah 6
3. In the same vein, if we identify our main problem as separation from God, our expectations are shaped to view Christ differently.
4. 2 Corinthians 1
5. Isaiah 53
6. Despite the popular saying that we are God’s broken crayons and the church is the place where broken crayons are put back together, our pieces may never be made whole until the New Heavens and the New Earth.
7. Certainly we should do both, but let’s start with the big “E” on the eye chart.
8. The list has grown longer in recent years, as fringe groups are now claiming discrimination for all sorts of grievances.
9. John Frame. “Racisms, Sexisms and Other Isms.”

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