“God is weak and powerless in this world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us… it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and suffering.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lectures on Christology
The focal point of Christianity is a figure on a cross. Arguably the most significant scene that has ever played out on the world stage – certainly on the stage of the world’s largest faith – and one that still determines the Western calendar today, is that of an apparent failure of a man, crippled, struggling for each breath of the air he created, beaten, bruised, and nailed to a hunk of primitive wood. This was the moment that changed all of history. This was the moment that changed our lives. This moment, one of brokenness and seeming defeat, is what victory looks like for the Christian.
When we see the man on the cross, we see a man who was not born into prominence or wealth, or even the right side of town. We see a man who started his life among the poor and the exiled, in a wooden manger, surrounded by poverty and barn animals. We do not see a man who had a notable place at the table of ideas in his culture, rubbing shoulders with the well-connected, the elite, or leaders of the church. We see a man who was routinely rejected by the most important people his society had to offer… those who spent their careers trying to silence and ultimately destroy him and others like him. We see a man who, at the apex of his ministry career, rode to his certain death accompanied not by a vast motorcade or a celebrity-filled private jet. We see a man who rode into town on a dirty donkey, being celebrated only by the societal outcasts, and the diseased. Yet, this is what victory looks like for the Christian.
On the cross we see a man who was not excited about the lot he drew at the end of his life, but who was so disturbed about God’s plans, that the blood vessels in his face raptured, causing blood to pour out of his face like sweat, as he asked his Father to consider a different plan. We see a man bleeding on a tree, displayed in between two of his fellow criminals, wondering why his friends abandoned him… wondering why his God abandoned him. This though, is what victory looks like for the Christian
When we think of the man on the cross, our minds typically do not conjure up an image of a triumphant warrior, basking in a clear-cut victory that put all his doubters and haters in their place. We think of an embarrassed, naked man, hoisted high in between his creation of heaven and earth, suffering, while his beloved jeer and mock him. Yet, we are told, this is what victory looks like for the Christian… Brokenness.
That was the way that Jesus lived his life as well, among the Broken. He dined with the Broken, loved on the Broken, shed tears with the Broken, healed the Broken, drank with the Broken, was blessed by and abused by the Broken. It was not the well-put-together that Jesus went searching for, but the ones on the margins. Jesus did not seek out the pastor or leader, who was celebrated by their contemporaries. He purposefully sought after the ones no one else would touch… the diseased, the sick, the criminals, the prostitutes, the widows, the failures, the foreigner, and the spiritually Less-Thans… those who this world had “no room for” – a phrase that he heard from the very womb of his mother. Jesus was born in the margins and proceeded to befriend those in the margins. The life of our Savior consisted of leaving the company of the successful, even the religious successful, and intentionally seeking those who no one else was looking for… and there he shared his life.
So why would followers of that very Christ pretend to live any other way other than Broken, weak, and dependent?
The quote that started this essay, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was written from the cold cells of a German Gestapo prison. This educated, pastor, from a once elite Berlin family, had realized that because Christ came to us as a weak and powerless man, that is best and dare say, the only way we can approach him. It is when we are at our most frail and crippled that we are closest to the God who was as well. Bonhoeffer wrote, “God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto a cross.”Christ refused the call of the easy life, even that as a professional minister. He gave up on his chances of notoriety, and chose a path that led to death… and a humiliating death at that. But remember, this is what victory looks like for the Christian: rejection, humiliation… Brokenness. The mended have little need to be fixed. It is in our Brokenness that we are closest to being found by Christ… and there he continues to to wait for us.
We tend to want a different Jesus though. We tend to want a cleaner, more successful Jesus. We may not say it… but we act like it. We tend to treat others and we treat ourselves as if it’s true. There may not be a whole lot of Christians who disagree with my descriptions of Jesus above, but the temptation of our Christian culture is to try to mirror our cultural prominence with our Christianity. Earthly success equates to spiritual success. When things are going pretty well in our lives, we assume God is pretty happy with us. When things are going bad, we wonder what we did wrong. Why did our God forsake us?
We want to feel well-to-do and accomplished, and somehow, that’s how we want Christ to find us, as someone who is doing something right. Deep down we want him to be as impressed as everyone else. We want to feel like we’re not failures; like we’re not dependent on anyone but ourselves and our morality. Being Broken is uncomfortable and uncontrollable. We’re clean and successful. So our Savior must think so as well. We like feeling like we’re put-together and have things figured out, and we want to our bible stories to confirm as such. We’d prefer to avoid the verses that confront our lifestyles and embrace the ones that make us feel successful. Our Western lives demand that we have a more victorious Jesus than the Broken one described above. Mangers smell. The needy grow annoying. Picking up a cross sounds dangerous. We’d rather have the majestic horse than the filthy donkey… Touching someone’s feet?… not when we have a sermon to write or a theology book to read.
I’m not sure why this is. It’s such a different model than the one Jesus displayed. One cannot look at the life and ministry of Christ and come away with anything close to it being comfortable, or what we would consider a successful life or ministry, at least on the surface. His followers literally ran away when he needed them the most. If there was an attendance-metrics system for Jesus to type in his follower numbers at the end of his ministry, it would be significantly less than what we would consider a successful weekend at church. The trend levels would have been horrible. Jesus would have been let go. Yet this is what victory looks like for the Christian.
When we think about a typical, God-fearing, modern Christian, what typically comes to mind? I’m sure the answers would vary, but I wouldn’t be far off if I suggested that the descriptions would include a straight, clean cut man or woman, most likely married, with a few kids. Maybe they’ve adopted a kid or two, they make it to church twice a week, they hold a bible study in their home, and their kids are always in the Christmas plays at church. Chances are they give ten percent of everything they earn to their church, and are well respected for doing so. Chances are we think of a man or woman who does not have a substance abuse problem, would never be caught in an affair, never struggles with internet porn, nor would even go see a Rated-R movie. We think of wholesomeness. We think of cleanliness. We think of respectability.
When we think of our churches, it’s sort of the same. We typically think of family friendly, safe buildings that we dress up to walk into, and eat lunch with other families after we leave. We think of well-connected pastors who rarely struggle with their faith, never argue with their spouse, and are a bit closer to God than the rest of us. We think of family programs, Sunday School classes, handshakes, smiling faces, good coffee, choirs, robes, well dressed worship pastors, door greeters, volunteer opportunities for those we want as representatives of our church, and all things pure and clean. We typically do not think of brokenness, dirtiness, and failure.
We would never say it. Most Christians would never say God can only be found in these wholesome conditions, but our lives and our emotions reflect it. Every time we do not measure up to this modern idea of the Church… every time we slip-up, loose our cool, get in trouble, yell at a spouse, have a moral failure, question our faith, or embrace a negative thought, we feel like a Less-Than. We feel like we are outside the faith. We feel like a third-string player on God’s team. We see the modern heroes of Christianity, and think to ourselves, I could never measure up to them. That must be what really pleases God… not my mess… not my brokenness. Yet, if Christianity is true, then the most epic example of Christian success is that of a battered man, who started his life a literal outcast, pushed to the margins, looked down upon by the religious and political elites, and ended his life as a criminal, via a very public execution. His followers that would eventually come around were equally Broken. They lived equally troubled lives, and most likely would never get hired at a church today. Yet Christ longed for these Broken people. He came back to them. He chose them to do his work. He instantly promoted one of them who just got down cursing, denying him, and running in fear because of the popular opinion of the mob. When our lives are in disarray, and failure seems to be all that we know, we assume that this is when God’s love is the furthest away… yet a quick survey of those whom Jesus loved, sought after, and indeed became himself, screams that this is a false, and indeed grotesque mindset. Our brokenness may just be an elevator to the God, who himself lived in the trenches of our sin-diseased world, and experienced rejection and earthly failure. Brokenness may be what connects us to him the most.
So why do we have the incessant desire to try to be anything but broken?… broken, and in need of some severe mending… If God is near to the broken hearted, as Scripture says, why do we desire to live like we are not?
I once heard a prominent pastor describe all the reasons why Christians should buy nice cars and wear fancy clothes. Among his many reasons was the suggestions that if we, as parents, let our kids wear dirty clothes and unkempt hair, others would think poorly of us as parents. So, we as Christians should dress the best that we can, wearing and driving the best our wealth has to offer, thus reflecting well on our Father in Heaven. When I first heard that, I was honestly quite angry, thinking instantly about all the biblical examples of the exact opposite of what he just said… it honestly made me mad. But eventually, the more I thought about it, I grew very sad… Why?… Because most Christians believe it… the successful and the Broken alike. Even though most Christians who are vaguely familiar with scripture know that what came out of that pastor’s mouth was a heresy of the highest degree, we often feel that everything he said was true. If we don’t look the part, we’re not the part. If we don’t feel the part, we’re not the part. If our stories are messy, so is our relationship with God. If our family is broken, so are our chances at redemption. If we don’t feel put-together, we’re probably not put-together. If we’re not in the in-crowd, then we’re outside of God’s crowd. Our clean life, clean looks, large bank accounts, and prominence in society are all testaments that God must be a pretty good dad, and he’s pretty pleased with his well-dressed children. But the exact opposite is true. If we do not have those things… if we’re dirty on the inside and out, what an embarrassment we must be to our Father in Heaven… a larger lie has never been told.
My current ministry role has me in and out of prisons, several times a week. I am exposed almost daily to the worst that society offers, yet the best that redemption produces. Some of the largest giants of our Christian faith, I have found behind bars. Some of the kindest, most rehabilitated souls, can be found in prison, quietly loving God and those around them; a living testament to the changing power of knowing Christ. Many of them have awful crimes in their past, yet are now serving now God at a capacity I could only hope for. When I see their faith, I am in awe. When I see their vulnerability and transparency, I am spiritually jealous. When I see their orange scrubs however, I am never tempted to think poorly on God. I am actually tempted to fall on my knees and worship the God who can take the most deplorable among us, and make something beautiful and extraordinary. These men and women are not someone to be pitied. They are someone to look up to, and conduits to worship the God who makes beautiful things out of broken things. Their brokenness is not a poor reflection on their Heavenly Father, but a model for the rest of us to strive for.
Now, it’s probably important to say that I am not anti-success. I am not anti-large churches that bring in lots of giving, while also providing critical resources to their community. I am not anti-complete Christian families, who have little dirt to wade through on their spiritual journeys. I’m happy for them. What I am anti, are people feeling like a Less-Than because of their past, present, and future failures. I am not a fan of our culture being hard on those who who do not measure up spiritually, or who are at different stages in their struggles with their sin-nature as mainstream Christianity. I am not a fan of a culture who assumes Christians all have our act together, when we all know that we do not. If we are all truly broken, I long for a culture that embraces that. I long for those who are at all levels of sobriety and recovery to know, we are too… no matter what the addiction looks like. We’re all at a loss to save ourselves, not matter if we wear a suit everyday, or orange scrubs.
I envy my inmate friends who are so comfortable in their own skin that they do not let their everyday failures get them down. I am envious of anyone, who can approach God, approach others, and approach themselves, fully knowing that they are flawed and inadequate, yet still comfortable loving the God who is. I am envious of anyone who accepts their frailties, while not allowing their shortcomings to keep God’s love and acceptance at an arm’s distance. Anyone is a giant who does not run from their brokenness, but uses it daily to reach for God’s lifesaver.
I am not anti-a strive for purity and continuing, as Christ tells us, to clean the inside of the cup; indeed, this demonstrates a mark of spiritual maturity. But let us never assume that we are doing better than the least among us. Let us never assume we are closer to God than those with a lesser status, a more difficult spiritual journey, a different role in ministry, different temptations than us, a lesser education, bank account, prominence, or a less healthy family. We are all fractured. We are all at different levels of sobriety. We are all in need of a great remodeling, but can only recognize that fact if we embrace our Brokenness.
The point has little to do with achieving what we consider greatness in this life, whether in the business world, our family, or even professional ministry. It has more to do with what we offer God. So when we think God is looking for our earthly success, remember his followers than ran away in terror upon his arrest. When we think about God wanting our morality, remember the thief on the cross, who Christ accepted into his Kingdom, having never given the chance to stop being a criminal, and live a moral life. When we think of our addictions, let us remember the prostitutes that were justified not because they cleaned up their life, but because they offered Christ only what they had to give… their weeping… their tears… their brokenness… their faith in his ability to save and not their ability to clean their selves up.
The point is not to reject a cleaner, spiritually-healthier life. Indeed, God delights in this. The point is to remind the Broken, that we are the very people Christ came to redeem… the sick. So when we are at our worst, when we have nothing to offer God but a contrite and broken heart, that just may be all that he wants. Let us lift up our heads. It is in a state of failure that God has the most to offer us. That’s when his grace gets to show off the most. Our shortcomings give the cross more power than our successes. It is our failures that give Christ more room to be our Savior.
So let us not offer up God our morality, our cleanliness, our put-togetherness, or anything else we tend to think God is wanting from us, before he hands over his love and approval. Let us offer him our weakness and helplessness. Let us remember the epitome of success in the history of the Christian faith: a bleeding and rejected man on a cross… suffering from the rejection of his followers… suffering from the rejection of his creation… Let us remember the Broken people he saw fit to redeem, for no other reason than they loved him, while having nothing of value to offer him but their broken-selves. Let us always be Broken, and thus all on the same sinful-playing field, equally dependent on the Great Mender, who will one day fix us all.