I’ve been trying to figure out when “broken” became the new normal. I don’t remember the term “broken people” being thrown around much when I was a lad. We talked about broken homes, I remember, and sometimes an occasional broken family. But as far as I can tell, people didn’t get broken until sometime in the late 1990s. But now it seems that broken people are everywhere. And the phrase “we are all broken” seems to have become a favorite theme of Church talks from General Conference on down.
I get why we do this. It shows that we are affirming and compassionate—that we recognize that everybody is imperfect and that we all need each other’s love, not each other’s judgments. “We are all broken” is a much better talking point than, “some of you are broken and some of us are whole,” which, unfortunately, was often the gist of our rhetoric back before we all became broken.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that brokenness is the wrong term for people who are struggling with the fact that they are people. Something that is broken does not work the way that it was designed to work. A broken lawnmower doesn’t mow lawns. A broken piano doesn’t play music. Broken things lack the ability to be what they are.
But most of the things we call “broken” in people result from human beings doing exactly what human beings were designed to do. By nature we are selfish, tribal, weak, lazy, status-seeking animals. We have a bad sense of proportion, and we constantly seek short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term joy. We use other people as instruments for our own ends, and we lie all the time–most often to ourselves. People who act in these ways are not broken; they are functioning precisely according to the design specs of human nature.
The thing about human nature, though, is that it doesn’t make us happy. Happiness has no real survival value. Our natural instincts help us survive and reproduce—both fine things to do—but they do not help us find joy or meaning in our lives. The Gospel calls us to transcend our human natures—to yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit become saints through the atonement of Christ. This does not mean being “fixed.” It means being transformed.
We can see how this works very clearly in one of the most famous stories of the New Testament: the one where Peter walks on water:
And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? (Matt 14:26-31)
In our eagerness to see where Peter went wrong, we often forget that, for the briefest of moments, he actually did walk on the water. And this is a miracle. Walking on water is not part of the human design; physics is against us. But Christ called to Peter and told him that he could exceed his design—that he could shed the normal limitations of human nature and become something divine. The point is not that Peter failed to transcend his humanity; the point is that, for one almost-imperceptible, grace-filled moment, he succeeded.
Our metaphors matter. If we frame the quest for perfection as the process of fixing what is broken–like Jesus clensing a leper–we risk waiting our all of our lives for a healing touch that never comes. But if we understand it as the struggle to change our fundamental natures–like Peter learning to walk on water–we may find ourselves more aware of the grace in those few moments when we glimpse our eternal natures. And we can be grateful for those times when, if only for a barely perceptible moment, we walk towards our Master and don’t sink.