“Humanness” and “Brokenness” with a View to the Love of God

Jesus-walking-on-water-300x272I’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.

 

Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    I’ve been thinking about this lately, too. Surely the idea of original sin has some part to play in thinking of ourselves as broken. Consider George Herbert, almost 400 years ago: “A broken Altar, Lord, thy servant rears…”

  2. Or, you could say that most of us must break ourselves from our current functional states to rebuild ourselves in the image of Christ, the same way that lifting weights actually causes small tears in muscle that the body repairs in a stronger form. In that light, the language of brokenness becomes very powerful indeed.

  3. But most of the things we call “broken” in people result from human beings doing exactly what human beings were designed by natural selection to do. By nature we are selfish, tribal, weak, lazy, status-seeking animals….People who act in these ways are not broken; they are functioning precisely according to the design specs of human nature.

    And those “specs” can’t be deficient, counter-productive, unnecessary, maladaptive? Obviously they can be, as we can see thousands of examples of such without even trying hard. (Just ask anyone who has had to have their appendix removed.) One could argue, of course, that such aberrations in the process of natural evolution are temporary, or spandrels that never quite came to fruition, but the same could be said for every one of the human qualities you mention (after all, couldn’t “selfish, tribal, weak, lazy, status-seeking” be read as “protective of one’s existence, affectionate to those one knows best, properly conservative of one’s energy, and motivated by a legitimate desire for social accomplishment”?). I think your desire to present “brokenness” as simply the nature of humanity reflects a wish to see ourselves in neutral terms. But looking at the mess that is the human body and the human mind (to say nothing of human society) and ascribe to it a value-neutral normative status–nothing wrong here, that’s just “natural”–is every bit a moralistic imposition upon the facts before us the one performed by those of us of a more Pauline perspective.

  4. Couldn’t broken just be a synonym for humbled?

  5. sidebottom says:

    Or imperfect?

  6. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Mike, as usual, you speak to my soul!

  7. “I think your desire to present “brokenness” as simply the nature of humanity reflects a wish to see ourselves in neutral terms. But looking at the mess that is the human body and the human mind (to say nothing of human society) and ascribe to it a value-neutral normative status–nothing wrong here, that’s just “natural”–is every bit a moralistic imposition upon the facts before us the one performed by those of us of a more Pauline perspective.”

    Russell, I’m pretty sure that I am not saying that human nature is a neutral. I rather specifically said that it is not conducive to one’s happiness and that it is incompatible with the spiritual progress that we need to make. It is something we must transcend if we are to have happy, fulfilled existences. Also, I do acknowledge that there are such things as people who don’t work the way that people are supposed to work. So I do not object to the phrase “broken people” inherently.

    What I do suggest here is that transcending inherent limitations is a different process than fixing mistakes, and that the narrative of “brokenness,” when applied to what I would term “limitedness” or just “humanness” can cause us to ask the wrong kinds of questions and pursue the wrong courses of action.

  8. FarSide says:

    The broken parts of ourselves we graciously tolerate. The imperfections in others, however, try our patience. Which, by the way, is defined in the Devil’s Dictionary (by Ambrose Bierce) as “a minor form of despair, disguised as virtue.”

    Our imperfections, in a very real sense, are what bind us to this earth and to each other. For a thought-provoking short story about the price man pays when he fails to accept the flawed nature of his mortal surroundings, read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, “The Birthmark.” You can read it in 30 minutes, but you will think about it for quite a while.

  9. Love it.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Graph of use of broken homes vs broken people. The former vastly out populates the later and seems to occur around WWII. Putting broken people alone we see it was actually more popular at the end of the 19th century then dropped out of use until the 1960’s. Then it’s use skyrocketed in the 90’s to 19th century levels.

  11. Molly Bennion says:

    Yes! Esp. the last paragraph. The concept of broken makes change more difficult. That which is broken usually doesn’t fix itself. People who internalize the idea they are broken find it harder to believe they have the wherewithall to embrace the struggle and, even more sadly, to believe God extends every aspect of His grace to all.

  12. I’m reading concern that the term “broken” invokes too much finality and perhaps induces a sense of helplessness, right?

    I’m reluctant to pick on the term itself when there is at least one context where the word “broken” has long been solidly ensconced in the English-rendered and LDS canon: the places (Psalm 51, 2 Ne 2, 3 Ne 9, D&C 20) where it talks about broken hearts and spirits as not just states to overcome but as actual *offerings*.

    It’s possible the modern usage isn’t the same; or it’s possible the voices of the canon chose an imperfect term. But I think it might be deliberate and important. Religious thought/faith seems to play one of its most important roles where it touches on our limits, including the point where we realize we hold ideals often beyond our ability to embody and offer. I’m not sure one can really meet that realization without having a sense of grief that at least *feels* like broken-ness — and sometimes even helplessness. Perhaps that’s a different experience for others than it has been for me, but I think I’m not alone, and that perhaps the uptick in its modern use is meant to reach out to others who’ve had those moments.

    Maybe what’s needed is to talk about what *offering* means from those moments of “broken-ness” on. I don’t think it’s wrong to hope for the attendance of merciful touches, but I do think we’re asked to do more than just wait by a Christ that invites us to take up his yoke…

  13. I suspect that the vogue for speaking of “brokenness” has arisen because the traditional Christian terminology of sinfulness feels too rote to have the necessary impact when we speak about the atonement. People are looking for a fresh way to convey a very old idea. But it’s more than that for Mormons. When Mormons say that we are all broken, I hear something like the idea of original sin, which has been marginalized or denigrated in much Mormon teaching. In traditional Mormon thought we speak about the fall, but we pass rather lightly over the deep and dark implications of being in a fallen state. In our teachings the fall is most often treated primarily as a component in the plan of salvation, but not so much as the central conundrum of daily existence.

    I like the original post very much. I like that it pushes back against the mechanistic flavor of saying “we are all broken.” We are not things to be repaired. We are fallen beings who transcend our natural sinfulness by accepting union with God.

  14. I find this very interesting. I guess I tend to think that things I have the ability to change – like sins and weaknesses – are part of being human, while the things I don’t have the ability to change – long-term illness, severe depression, child abuse – are the things in me that are broken. I didn’t cause them or choose them and, unfortunately, I can’t overcome them, no matter how much willpower I have. So in that sense, I am broken and waiting on Jesus to heal me. I think it probably will take till the next life, because I’ve dealt with them long enough now to know that no mortal person, including me, can wipe away all their effects. I think there are some things you’re never completely healed from in this life – for some people anyway. At least, that’s been my experience. YMMV.

  15. sidebottom: imperfect is a better word…thx!