A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about living in hiding. In that post, I talked about how a great many of us become expert at deploying a variety of strategies to keep our authentic, unvarnished selves safely concealed from the world. The problem is that, in keeping ourselves a safe distance from others, we end up being isolated and separated from ourselves.
I concluded in that post that we are not made to live in the shadows: there is a greater freedom that awaits us if we dare to lay down our armour and shed our various masks. The sixty-four thousand dollar question, of course, is how to find the freedom of living in the world as our true selves after a life spent in hiding. Many of us have been playing a largely fictional part in the play of our lives for so long that we don’t know how to stop playing to the audience, take off our costumes and just be ourselves.
Some will glibly say that, if you want to be set free from the endless cycle of performance and stage management, you just need to have a personal encounter with God’s unconditional love. While I appreciate the sentiment, such advice on its own, abstract as it is, is not always much help. Yes, we need to encounter God’s love in a personal way; but such an encounter is not something we can in any way engineer. The best we can do is try not to run away when it comes to us – which is also much easier said than done: when push comes to shove, our desire for self-preservation often keeps us firmly and squarely in the very place that’s killing us.
How, then, does a freeing, transformative encounter with God’s love and grace come to us? It seems to me that it very often comes in the form of an experience of brokenness.
I can certainly testify to this in my own life. There have been specific times I could point to where, through my own stupidity, selfishness and woundedness, I had dug myself deep into a pit of destruction, all the while working frantically to hold the masks in place and keep all the plates spinning and all the punters happy. Only through the pain and humiliation of being dragged out of my miserable pit and into the light of truth was I able to genuinely experience grace. And only such an experience could offer me the possibility of a better path – a path toward healing and wholeness.
In short, having refused to face the truth of my own failure and pretence, I had to be broken.
Brokenness is not an attractive proposition. It’s painful and uncomfortable. That being the case, it’s something we tend to run from like the plague. Somewhere in the depths of our consciousness, a voice tells us that brokenness is for losers and basket cases. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
First, the idea of brokenness doesn’t jive with the cultural imperative to have all our shit together at all times. And it doesn’t fit with the popular Christian mantra of being more than conquerors, world-changers for God, and generally people who look like we’re continually overflowing with blessing and abundance. When the shiny, happy Christians all around you are shouting at you to live your dream and embrace your God-given destiny, brokenness seems very far away from any kind of experience you should accept or embrace.
But consider this: many of those in the Bible considered heroes of the faith had to pass through the valley of brokenness before they could fulfil their true potential. Moses had to experience the disgrace and bitterness of being an outcast and a nobody for forty years before God commissioned him to set his people free; David, lauded as a man after God’s own heart, had to face up to the fact that he was a murdering adulterer, at the cost of his own son’s life; Peter, having sworn that he would never deny Jesus, had to endure the shame and humiliation of doing just that; and Paul, the great apostle who would go on to carry the Christian faith to the gentile world, needed to be knocked off his horse (whether literally or metaphorically) and confronted with the fact that he was a murderous religious zealot. These four, and many others in the pages of scripture, had to go through the extreme pain and desolation of being broken. Had they not done so, they may never have allowed God to shape and use them in ways that would have a profound effect on the world around them.
The second reason why brokenness has such a bad rap is that the very meaning of the word has negative connotations. If something is broken, it’s impaired; it might even be useless, at least unless it’s repaired. We kick against the idea of being broken because it makes us feel like we’ll be worthless pieces of trash, of no further use to God or man.
But there’s a different way to think about brokenness. Sometimes a broken bone, if not attended to promptly, will begin to fuse together in the wrong position. In such cases, it may be that the only way to give the bone a chance to heal properly is for a skilled physician to break it again so it can be re-set. I suggest this is an apt metaphor for many of our lives: whether through circumstances beyond our control or through our own deliberate fault, we have fused into a posture that is at best impeding and restricting us, and at worst slowly killing us. Sometimes – often, I would say – the only way to healing is to allow our malformed lives to be broken so we can have a chance to be re-set.
The reality is often, in fact, that we are already broken and we are clinging on for dear life to the brokenness that we know rather than letting go and allowing ourselves to fall into the unknown brokenness that awaits. This is not at all surprising: whatever is unknown is scary, especially when we are already in pain. But grace is only ever found when we finally reach that place of being willing to give up our own efforts and abandon ourselves to the unknown. The idea of reaching the end of your rope may be a cliché, but it’s a very apt one: only when we finally let go of everything we’ve clung to and allow ourselves to fall into the arms of grace can we hope to truly be saved.
To come back to where we started and wrap this up before it turns into an aimless ramble, an encounter with the unconditional love of God sounds like a wonderful experience that ought to give us the warm fuzzies. In truth, it often feels like a terrifying plunge into the abyss. That plunge is the loss – which is to say, the death – of all our false security, pretence and deception. And in the economy of grace, the only way to resurrection and new life is through the valley of death.