We live in a broken world.
I’m sure you’ve either used this expression or heard it used. You’ve probably read it too. It’s almost become a cliché in the church.
We are broken.
But is that the right word to use when describing the world in which we live and the condition of humanity? I’m not sure. I have a daughter who studies linguistics; I’m a novelist; my family reads a lot, so words matter to us. A lot. Some might call me pedantic, and I’m fine with that. Words and their meanings are endlessly fascinating. Word usage reveals a great deal more than many people realise. Especially when it comes to a word as loaded as “broken.” It’s used both inside and outside the church, but I’m not sure we’re all using it in the same way.
First, does it accurately describe our condition? Well, it certainly appears to. When something is broken, it no longer fulfils the purpose for which it was designed. A dishwasher that is broken can no longer clean my dishes. The purpose of a human being is to worship God. We are no longer able to do this according to our original design. So “broken” seems to be an appropriate term. So far, so good.
However, when you think about the meaning of “broken” a little more deeply, problems arise. First, why do things (or people) become broken? It is true that some things can break by accident. Many who raise children will discover how easy it is for ornaments to break “by accident.” It wasn’t me! It broke by accident! Certainly, accidents do happen. However, even when they do, they occur due to agency. So when I bump into your occasional table by accident, I am, sadly, responsible for the loss of your rather tasteless rearing dolphin glass ornament. Perhaps I lacked the intention to break your dolphin, but I was responsible. I was the one who broke it.
Agency. The capacity to act or exert power. So says the dictionary.
We live in a broken world, but who is acting here? We are. That should be obvious, but because of our use of the word “broken”, this isn’t clear. Indeed, the word is sometimes used to avoid responsibility. Often when I hear the word used, I feel myself dragged back into the nature-nurture debate. Am I behaving badly because of my genes or my environment? It must be one of those, surely.
We’re all dealt a hand, aren’t we? Some of us are tall, others short. Some love numbers, others adore letters. Some are extroverts, others are introverts. Our genetic makeup is not deterministic, but it has a huge influence on the kind of people we become. No question.
Some of us live in poverty, others live in lovely big mansions. Some eat healthy food while others eat white bread and butter for their tea. Some of us were beaten by their parents, others were not. Some people lived in medieval times when most women had almost no autonomy. Some are European, others African or Asian or Pacific Islander, all of us living surrounded by a different cultural background. Environment has a huge effect on the lives we lead and the people we become.
And all of us are broken.
Both our genes and our environment are broken. We’re broken inside and we live among others who are equally broken. That’s how we’ve ended up over-using this phrase, “We live in a broken world.”
But can you see the problem here?
We’re victims. We were given our genes at birth—they’re not our fault. Nor did we choose our environment. So, we’re victims of our circumstances. Indeed, these two—genes and environment—seem to explain human behaviour in its entirety. No wonder we’re broken.
And it’s really not our fault.
In response, it is essential to acknowledge that genes and environment are hugely influential. Imagine being raised in the Hitler Youth or working on a plantation in the Deep South during the nineteenth century. We cannot ignore the impact that our cultural and family backgrounds make on the people we become. However, and it’s a big “however”, the Bible never portrays our environment—still less our family background—as a reason to exonerate us. Instead, the Bible begins with a story of human rebellion. We started well, enjoying an unbroken relationship with our Creator, but then we broke it. We were the ones who did the breaking. No one else. It was not our genes or our environment that was responsible for our choice—we lived in a beautiful garden. And though the snake (Satan) was clearly a character in the story, we chose disobedience. We turned away. As the prophet Isaiah puts it so eloquently, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.”
The word to describe our human condition isn’t “broken”. There are other more suitable words. Here are a few.
I make no apology for how these words make you feel. Indeed, we need to feel them in order to respond appropriately. “Broken” won’t do it. “Broken” easily becomes the means by which we seek to avoid responsibility. I’m not arguing that everyone hears the word this way. Some may continue to hear it as a synonym for “sinful”. And, of course, I have no way of knowing how prevalent this subversive interpretation may be among those who attend your church on Sunday. But I suspect that it’s becoming ever more widely interpreted this way. The reason is perhaps because we have reached the point where the very concept of “sin” is disappearing. Time was when our culture, while not explicitly expressing an evangelical view of Christ, did at least operate within a Christian moral framework.
We knew what sin was. Sin was a thing. No longer.
Now the world rejects the very idea of “sin” and visitors to your church on a Sunday morning may not understand its meaning. That’s why I’m writing on brokenness. I think it’s a subversive attempt by the enemy to tempt us into believing that we’re not really responsible. That there’s no such thing as sin. We’re all victims.
Not only are we born broken, we’ve been broken by external forces. It’s not our fault.
So what is the answer? Well, we could start by using the word “broken” the way the biblical authors use it. A related word is often used to express the pain of suffering people. It is for these people that the gospel is such good news. The word is “broken-hearted.” Hence this beautiful passage that Jesus recites in Luke’s gospel when he quotes from the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
God’s compassion is extended to people who suffer, and the word “broken” never implies a lack of responsibility for sin, but an acknowledgement that we live in a vale of tears, that we face heartache and pain. Often, believers speak of “brokenness” in this way. We feel broken by the loss of a relative or the sickness of a child. Such brokenness sends us to our knees, and so it should. This is a brokenness we all feel at some point in life, and when it causes us to grow in faith or cry out to God, then such brokenness has a transformative effect on the soul.
Most important, however, is the way the bible uses “broken” to express repentance. Here’s one of my favourites.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
David’s use of “broken spirit” communicates the depth of his confession, the strength of his repentance. To be broken is to accept responsibility for sin. Indeed, the uniform teaching of the Bible is that when human beings are broken—meaning they have reached the point where they know they cannot save themselves—then God in Jesus is there to repair them.
Make them new.
Make us new.
We need fixing, and only God can fix us. Only he can restore us.
So, may I ask you to think carefully before you use the word “broken” in your church services? Ensure that when you use the word, you are crystal clear about your meaning. Make sure that “broken” can never be misinterpreted to mean “not my fault.” Instead, lead your people to the beautiful, life-giving truth of the gospel, which is that God is close to the broken-hearted, and he mends the broken when the broken confess their sin, their rebellion. He restores and repairs those who fear him, who confess their sin and repent.
For it is in acknowledging our sin with a heart broken before the cross of Christ, that we receive God’s grace. From such confession, we are made whole. No longer broken, but restored and made new.