Why We Should Use the Language of Brokenness

It’s an opinion that pops up in my social media feeds every now and again from well-meaning believers critical of the therapeutic influence on Christian preaching and teaching. “Stop saying people are broken. They’re sinful. That’s the problem.” Or some variation of the same. At a speaking engagement recently a fellow in a Q&A time asked for my thoughts on the language of “brokenness” in preaching. Is it okay to say people are broken? Or that the world suffers from brokenness? It’s obviously on people’s minds.

Look, I get it. I am not a fan of whitewashing the human predicament—or, rather, the human offense—before our holy God. Too many preachers and teachers do downplay or ignore sin altogether, and this is spiritually dangerous, because disobedience—and the wrath we deserve because of it—is our primary problem. And yet, I cannot go where so many seem to suggest we go, which is to abandon the language of brokenness as it pertains to the human problem. No, we shouldn’t replace the concept of sin with the concept of brokenness. But speaking of people’s brokenness is a valid and biblical category for Christian preaching and teaching. Here are three reasons why:

1. Because we’re not gnostics.

If we use only the category of sinfulness as it pertains to human and social dysfunction, we may unintentionally drift into the pseudo-gnostic error of treating matter or anything physical as inherently bad. Yes, all creation is groaning (Rom. 8:22) because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, but this does not make creation and the created order in and of itself bad. That sin and its effects infect everything good doesn’t make good things innately sinful. It is the inability to conceive of brokenness as a category, in other words, that gives rise to the kind of asceticism the Bible forbids. The errors that arise from the mistaking of broken for sinful are numerous. We see it in the “puritanical” approach to sex, the legalistic approach to culture, the domineering approach to gender roles, the fearful approach to any earthly joys or pleasures. All of these things and more are affected by the fall. And we are able of course to approach them in sinful ways. Yet none of them is sinful in and of itself. For example: A married couple’s sexual intimacy is undoubtedly affected by the fall, but marital sex is not inherently sinful. Losing the category of “broken” loses this distinction.

2. Because we don’t believe in karma.

This may be the most important reason to preach and teach with the category of brokenness. If we only speak of human problems as the result of sin, especially without biblical nuance, we inadvertently give the impression that all of people’s sufferings are the result of their personal offenses against God. (I know some preachers and counselors actually say that very thing, but I think they are in the minority. I am here addressing those who may be giving this impression unintentionally.) Someone comes to you for counsel. They suffer from depression or crippling anxiety. Do they need to trust God more? Sure. We all do. But mental and emotional afflictions are similar to physical afflictions—they are the result of living in a broken world, not always (or even often) the direct result of personal sins.

Jesus himself addresses this issue in John 9 when he is approached about the man born blind. The disciples want to know if this disability is the result of the man’s sins or his parents’. They could not conceive of the blindness not being owed to God’s judgment for disobedience. And of course we know that in the grand scheme of things, this kind of brokenness is God’s judgment on the world because of capital-S Sin. But specific effects are not always specific judgments. Jesus says the man isn’t blind because of someone’s sin (John 9:3), directly refuting this karmic vision of suffering. Not all difficulties are judgments. People are broken. Brokenness as a category gives us a good theology of suffering and hardship.

3. Because undue guilt is anti-gospel.

Our primary “issue” is the spiritual divorce between us and God because of personal sin. To avoid or ignore that is to obscure the gospel. And yet we can obfuscate this message by heaping more guilt upon needy souls than they have the right to bear. Here is something I wrote in my book The Imperfect Disciple:

The sins of garden-variety human beings are frustratingly redundant. I don’t recall ever moving on from one area of battle to another with anybody I’ve ever “done discipleship” with. Nobody ever “achieved victory.” It’s the same old thing every time. We like our ruts, and our ruts like us.

And it’s not just the sins that don’t seem to go away; it’s the wounds too. These two things are not the same! We have to get that straight, first of all. Too many foolish teachers in the church equate wounds with sins, and vice versa, and this needlessly complicates people’s following of Jesus. We further traumatize victims when we tell them their wounds are sins, and we demotivate repenters when we tell them their sins are wounds.

But this confusion is somewhat understandable in that both sins and wounds linger. Our deepest wounds and our deepest sins are both awfully persistent.

Too many times to count, I’d be sitting with some wounded person recounting their past week, a mix of good times and bad, but the culmination of which has led them back to my counsel, hungry for a good report, eager for some final, concluding release. I recall one of my favorite disciples, an early-middle-aged woman who was a relatively new believer. She loved the things of God and was thirsty for the living water of the gospel. But she still struggled with angry outbursts (sins) and she still suffered from the trauma of abuse as a child (wounds). These were very much connected realities in her soul, and every time we met we would spend our time working through the routine maintenance of grace, untangling sins from wounds, sorting out her responsibilities from her vulnerabilities, distinguishing what she owed from what was owed to her.

If we fail to make the distinction between sins and brokenness, if we collapse brokenness into the all-encompassing category of Sin, we can do great harm to people’s consciences, quench the Spirit’s work in their lives, and frustrate the implications of the gospel, which doesn’t just empower our holiness, but also announces our freedom.

Ministers of the gospel are not called to announce more guilt than is due. There is plenty to announce, to be sure. But conflating brokenness with sin creates confusion where there should be order and shame where there should be liberty. The language of brokenness helps us give clarity to the gospel and, if I can be forgiven the imperfection of the phrase, “helps” the gospel give clarity to sinners.