On Brokenness: Sin, Human Struggle, and Sacred, Safe Spaces

A few days ago, one of my favorite online people, blogger and Moonshine Jesus Show host Mark Sandlin posted an article titled “Christianity has it wrong – You are not Broken.” Although I don’t I agree with the entirety of the post, I liked it and it set me on a course of thought that led to some interesting reflections.

I agree with Mark that as humans, we aren’t already “broken” or “sinful” right out of the gate as some traditions of belief have claimed. While Mark’s views in the article may cut us a little too much slack, I think they are preferable to doctrines of original sin and total depravity that condemn us from the moment that sperm meets egg (or even before, really), or that claim that without the direct influence of God, humans only have a tendency toward evil and sin.

In addition to doctrines like original sin, I suspect that Mark’s article is also a response to more progressive Christian voices who embrace the existence of “brokenness” in our lives and extol the value of being open and honest about it (Glennon Doyle Melton at Momastery comes to mind). One can debate whether talking about our human struggles in terms of “brokenness” is helpful or not, but essentially, I think this approach is less problematic because it doesn’t necessarily saddle us with automatic evil or spiritual unworthiness, and it potentially creates opportunities for healing and restoration.

I have long thought that human beings have an equal capacity for good and for evil. Mark writes that our flaws and our stumbles are simply part of the process of being human and that they do not make us sinful, unworthy, or broken. I agree that nothing we can do puts us beyond of the reach of God’s love, of regeneration and reconciliation, but I do think that there is a natural human tendency that often leads us to sin, and I think Mark touches on it when he writes that “We are so deeply invested in life that we can, at times, deny the larger good for the experience of the moment.”

Mark says that we are “self-invested” because of “love” . . . but love of what, exactly? I suspect that our capacity for evil stems from our love of self . . . more specifically, from our basic instinct for self-preservation. The need to preserve and protect ourselves (and, secondarily, the people and things that we love or value) is perhaps our prime motivation in life, and it can manifest itself in negative or positive ways.

Self-preservation often leads us to selfishness and to a quest for power, resources, and gratification at the expense of others. I have come to believe that this is at the root of a lot of what we call “sin.” It divides, hurts, and oppresses. It leads us to eye our neighbors with suspicion, to hoard resources when others are in need, and to exchange fairness and justice for the illusion of security and peace (I call them illusions because neither really exist in the absence of justice).

If humans have an innate tendency to evil and injustice, I think this is it. We all have the potential to be selfish and to ignore, exploit, oppress, or marginalize others in an attempt to guarantee our own security and status. We all have the potential to seek comfort and gratification to the point of excess.

And I think that giving in to those tendencies is what often leaves us with a feeling of brokenness and of separation both from God and from others.

Our culture perpetuates selfishness and excess, but God calls us to take a different path and follow our better natures. We all have that instinctual drive toward self-preservation, but God invites us to realize that our needs are best filled in community.

Our best attempts at self-preservation are attempts to guarantee the preservation of others: to promote equality, justice, acceptance, and love. We are all in that “inescapable network of mutuality” that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about; we do not stand alone as independent and unaffected individuals. We belong to each other, and at our best we realize that and we care for each other as ourselves, beginning with our immediate communities and extending out into our world.

If we take the time and effort to create authentic communities, we can serve and be served, and we can meet needs and have our needs met. We can release the anxiety that comes from trying to fulfill all of our needs on our own. We can tear away the veil of self-sufficient individualism and not be afraid to let others know that we have struggles, wounds, and broken places.

I agree with Mark that we are not inherently “broken,” and that Christian culture should not promote theology that leads people to feel unworthy or damaged, or that uses those ideas to control them through shame, guilt, and fear. However, many of us have circumstances in our lives that cause us to experience profound feelings of being wounded or broken: grief, anger, failure, addiction, abuse, anxiety, depression . . . the list goes on. Feeling broken may not be the same as being broken, but when one experiences it, there isn’t much appreciable difference.

Our individualistic “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” and “suck-it-up” culture often encourages us to hide our wounds and cover up our broken spots rather than seeking the support and help that we need. So while some Christian voices may get a little over-zealous in celebrating our “brokenness,” I think that they are still on to something positive. They are encouraging communities where there is less shame and fear of rejection, and where we can be vulnerable and share our weaknesses and struggles with each other. Safe, sacred spaces where we can find affirmation in spite of our imperfections and recover our sense of worth and wholeness . . . where we can remember that we are indeed beloved children of God.

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6 responses

    • I think that in the long run, we are all sinful, but I would argue against theologies that hold that we have more of a predisposition to sin than to goodness, or that we are already sinful at birth. I think most of us have an equal capacity for good (altruism) and evil (selfishness). One way or the other, though, we all end up needing restoration and reconciliation. Jesus came so that we could know and be reconciled to God, and he was willing to die to get the message across.


      • What do you say regarding the verse in Isaiah that our righteousness is like filthy rags? Even the greatest goodness in the world is not good enough to stand in the presence of God. If that is the case then there is an inherent problem with humanity. That problem is the sin nature that each one is born with. It really does not matter whether we have a predisposition more to sin or to goodness. The point is we have a predisposition to sin. There is no human being who is ever born that will not sin. That is where you are right Jesus died to reconcile us to God.


      • I think that verse is taken out of context if it is used as some kind of literal proof that nothing we can do is “righteous” or of any value to God. Of course I would agree that in comparison to God, we are imperfect, but that passage of scripture describes Israel in a state of disobedience and it also blames God for their transgressions, which I would not read as the literal truth (v. 5). There is also a contrast between those who remember God and do right (and who are “met” by God) and those who forget him and whose “righteous deeds are like filthy rags.” The problem isn’t the deeds – it’s the “forgetting” of God. To me this passage evokes others where the empty practice of religion is contrasted with true righteousness (i.e. the pursuit of justice, love, mercy, etc.), like Micah 6:6-8 and Isaiah 58:1-12 (and in Amos as well, I believe). I think we all have the capacity to sin or do evil (and we all do, to one extent or the other) but I don’t see that as creating a state in which we cannot act righteously as well. And from my reading of scripture, it seems that one of God’s top priorities is for us to act rightly (again, I equate that with seeking justice, peace, etc. rather than religious rule-following). Passages from the prophets and the main thrust of many of Jesus’s teachings, like the Sermon on the Mount, seem to bear that out. I doubt God/Jesus would spend so much time emphasizing right actions if they only amount to “filthy rags.” But that’s just my best take on it at the moment. Sorry to ramble 🙂


      • What that passage is also saying is that the Israelites had spent all that time trying to do right, and their greats acts are no good for salvation. We cannot act righteously apart from Christ, and all who are not born again are apart from Him. Why? Because of their innate nature of sin. Sin is what has separated us from God. The most “righteous” person apart from Christ has no standing before God. It is this denial of the sinful nature we are born with that keeps so many in their sin instead of begging God’s forgiveness from it.


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