Are We Using the Word “Brokenness” Biblically?

October 6, 2014

Are We Using the Word Brokenness Biblically
Bob Kellemen

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Bob Kellemen

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.”

So…”

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.

Join the Conversation

What do you think? Are we using the word “brokenness” biblically?


5 thoughts on “Are We Using the Word “Brokenness” Biblically?

  1. Really needed to hear these words. Been memorizing Psalm 51:16-17. Thanks so much Bob.

  2. Finally! The word “brokenness” is indiscriminately used throughout the Christian community. It’s become a dangerous substitution for our sin. Thank you for your insights.

  3. I agree that biblical brokenness always leads us to cling to Christ, but I have a question about use of the word “broken.” Brokenness as far as sin is concerns certainly can be used for broken-heartedness, but cannot brokenness also relate to the consequences of sin or judgement against sin?

    A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech…therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing (Prov 6:12, 15)

    He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing. (Prov. 29:1)

    And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. (Is. 8:14-15)

    This is, of course, a form of suffering, but suffering related to one’s sinfulness. When I use the word “brokenness” in relationship to sin I usually am referring to the consequences of persistent sin, the internal damage sin causes as God gives us up to sinful passions and a debased mind—damage for which we are entirely culpable.

    Is this a wrongheaded approach?

  4. I’ve been a little uncomfortable with the use of the term brokenness in Christian circles; it describes pain and being crushed, yes, but it also is used to excuse sin.
    I’d be less than honest however, if I didn’t say that I don’t entirely agree that the things a person has suffered at the hands of others don’t have some causative responsibility for the person’s behaviour. Especially when what is now going on in a person’s life would never have been a feature of their existence without that experience at the hands of someone else.
    I’m thinking of a young woman I know who became a prostitute in response to her father’s sexual use of her from childhood. That was how he treated her, like a whore for his usage and that was how she felt about herself. She felt unworthy of any other life. It sounds like orthodoxy to say that she became a prostitute because of her own sin, but not like truth, when had her father been a loving and protective daddy instead of an evil man, the prostitution would never have been part of her life and would have repelled her. Most little girls are dreaming of prince charming or owning a horse or one day getting married, not standing on a street corner.
    Jesus did say that it was inevitable that offenses would come but woe to him through whom they came. He also said that if anyone CAUSES one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have never been born than to face Him at the judgement, So it would seem to be that Christ does regard us as being capable of causing another person to stumble into sin, and holds us accountable. In revelation, God holds “that woman jezebel” accountable for leading believers into committing fornication and eating things sacrificed to idols; obviously for the purpose of causing them to have defiled consciences so they would be unable to resist evil and control.
    Obviously my thoughts here are not the whole enchilada, and I would welcome some further clarification as it relates to sin and accountability when there has been causes of stumbling. Thank you for your time.

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