I'm not 'broken', thanks – I'm just an ordinary sinner

Every so often something catches your eye on social media and makes you think, 'I wonder.'

Today it was the word 'brokenness'. I'm not sure it was occurring more frequently than usual, but I Googled it. It's almost always used in Christian circles, and always approvingly.

We are broken people. God loves us in our brokenness. We have to acknowledge our brokenness. Jesus redeems us in our brokenness. Healthy churches are those where people know they're broken. People need to be healed from sexual brokenness. Etc, etc.

Many Christians talk about brokenness – but is it a useful word?Pixabay

But what if that's not true? Or – to be precise – what if it's a partial truth that becomes untrue and unhelpful when it's generalised to mean that we're all 'broken', when we really aren't?

Here are some of the problems I have with it.

1. It implies someone can't function because they're so damaged. Life has really, really hurt them. A broken toy or a broken tool is useless and good for nothing. And yes, there are people like that, who have suffered beyond their personal capacity to bear it. But most people haven't, and describing them as 'broken' is frankly disrespectful. It turns them into victims rather than survivors. It also, by the way, devalues the currency – what have we got left to say when someone experiences a devastating tragedy or a spiritual or mental collapse? Most of us are not broken by our experiences. We're wounded, sometimes badly, but mostly just a bit scuffed and bruised. The emotional inflation implied by the language of brokenness doesn't really do us any favours.

2. It denies the power of God. The truth is that we are not all broken, because God heals people. There is, in some Christian circles, a tendency to luxuriate in brokenness, for understandable if misguided theological reasons. We want to stress God's forgiveness, and that we rely on him for strength to do what we'd otherwise be unable to do. But there's a kind of theological masochism that rather enjoys stressing how rubbish we are. I call it 'worm theology', after Isaac Watts' hymn, which asks of Jesus: 'Would he devote that sacred head/ For such a worm as I?' It is a fundamentally low view of human beings and human nature. If we continually tell people they're broken even after they've become Christians and are engaging in joyful discipleship, what does that say about the gospel? Isn't it supposed to help? To be permanently broken – or told that we are – is to be permanently a victim ­– and we aren't.

3. It can be a cop-out. When we hear 'broken' we feel sympathy. Broken people are victims – and sometimes, yes, they really are. But what if that language is really not appropriate? What if someone's problems – which may be genuine and deeply distressing – are the result of that most unfashionable of concepts, sin? And this matters, because broken people just need to be healed, but sinful people need to repent as well. 

All in all, I don't think brokenness is a very useful category for Christian spirituality or discipleship. I think we go through painful times in our lives, and some of them are our own fault. Sometimes we experience trauma, and we'll experience the grace of God helping us through it, often through the presence of other people. And sometimes we'll sin, and churches ought to be communities of forgiveness where the sinner is restored.

But the aim of discipleship is for us to become Christians who are confident in our faith, aware of our weaknesses but generally resistant to sin. We are to be admirable people, advertisements for Christ. Yes, perhaps once broken, but mended – or in the process of being so.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods