In Christian circles, much has been made of brokenness, vulnerability, and authenticity in recent years. Some have expressed concern that these ideas have been overemphasized while holiness has taken a backseat. Brokenness in this context has tended to be of a faux variety. Much of it amounts to confession of socially acceptable sins and mommy bloggers making messiness cool.
Enter Ann Voskamp’s new book, The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life. The fundamental brokenness she addresses in this book is real, identity-shattering brokenness born out of tragedy, suffering, and sin: seeing her sister run over by a delivery truck, being abandoned by her parents, and cutting to rid her body of the pain. What Voskamp offers us, then, is a theology of brokenness that makes it more than a mere destination. The Broken Way helps us understand brokenness as a vehicle that can propel us toward Christ.
Writing in her signature poetic style, Voskamp moves through a series of personal experiences to share what God has taught her through both mundane moments and monumental brokenness. Throughout these stories, she weaves together a theology of brokenness that meets us at a heart level.
Theology of Brokenness
What’s refreshing about Voskamp’s theology of brokenness is that rather than making brokenness an end in itself, she describes it as a purposeful opportunity for something better. “The miracle happens in the breaking,” she writes. Her husband shows her the purpose of brokenness on their farm: “The seed breaks to give us the wheat. The soil breaks to give us the crop, the wheat breaks to give us the bread” (25). And Voskamp shows us the purpose of brokenness in our lives: “The wilderness of suffering . . . is the land where God woos. The crush of crisis is but a passage into communion with Christ” (241). God meets us in our brokenness and heals us with his own: “Only the wounds of God can heal our wounds . . . bad brokenness is healed by good brokenness” (21–22).
While Voskamp rightly gives dignity to the broken person and leaves room for suffering to remain hard, she doesn’t hand out a license to sulk. Out of the healing we find in Christ’s suffering, she points us toward holiness, with a bold exhortation to repentance and an emphasis on “givenness.”
Pointing to Jesus’s body being broken—given—for us, she observes that to “break and give away” is “the broken way” (31). She calls us to give our gifts and our brokenness, our time and our resources, our love and our attention. “Out of feeling lavishly loved by God,” she writes, “one can break and give away that lavish love” (32). Moreover, amid a culture that exalts feelings, Voskamp puts them in their place: “Feelings are meant to be fully felt and then fully surrendered to God . . . all feelings are meant to move you toward God” (182).
On the whole, The Broken Way offers helpful insights that push us toward a deeper relationship with the Lord and with others. Moreover, Voskamp’s style and content meet a need in publishing today. Memoir-style books that invite readers into the struggles of the author and offer lessons learned have become quite popular, so it’s helpful to have one from a thoroughly Christian perspective. The Broken Way in many ways parallels Glennon Doyle Melton’s popular Love Warrior [review], which also deals with serious brokenness but ultimately points to self as the answer. In contrast, Voskamp points to Jesus as our only hope for healing.
Lost in Translation
While Voskamp’s poetic style certainly has merit, enabling her to coin phrases often simultaneously beautiful, memorable, and deeply true, it also leaves much to interpretation. People like me, who are most comfortable loving the Lord with our mind (and who need to grow in loving him better with our heart), may struggle with some of her wording, since certain assertions don’t sound quite true at first glance, at least in the way we’re used to hearing them expressed.
For example, one idea that comes up multiple times is that God believes in us. Voskamp goes so far as to say, “Maybe it isn’t enough to believe in Jesus—maybe I have to believe that Jesus believes enough in me to choose me” (85). To say “Jesus believes in me enough to choose me” is too man-centered for my comfort and borders on suggesting we have some merit that draws Christ to us.
I suspect her “God believes in me” idea is a way to speak of dignity and value to those who legitimately struggle to feel God’s love. We all need that message time and again. But to believe in someone means to put trust, faith, or confidence in them. To say God believes in us places too much emphasis on us and distorts the truth that our dignity, value, and ability come solely from him. It’s God’s love for us—rather than his belief in us—that changes everything.
If I sat down with Voskamp over a cup of coffee and we chatted in greater depth about what she means by some of these phrases, I imagine we’d find fundamental agreement on the things that matter. My concern is simply that ambiguity leaves room for misinterpretation, and not every reader will discern the implied biblical truth beneath the poetic descriptions. To be precise as well as poetic is difficult, but important. As C. S. Lewis put it, “To say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.”
To ensure I’ve communicated what I really mean in this review, let me end with this: The Broken Way gave me compassion and understanding for people who have experienced a depth of suffering I have not. It helped me to engage my heart as well as my mind in understanding my brokenness, and it pointed me to Jesus Christ page after page.
For that I say, thank you, Ann Voskamp.
Ann Voskamp. The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016. 288 pp. $22.99.