Often today the core messages found in Scripture are the very ones NOT being preached in so many of our churches. For example, we have a plethora of churches and preachers whose messages basically major on themes like: have your best life now; think and feel positive; how to have great self-esteem; think well of yourself; always focus on the positive; you can be strong and reliant; etc.
Yet Scripture – while also having some of those themes, rightly understood – does not live in that rarefied air of feel-good, self-affirming, humanistic mush. Instead it offers us a realistic portrayal of who all of us are: hardened and contemptible sinners who without the grace of God are dirty rotten scoundrels and under the just wrath of God.
God always loves us enough not to leave us where we are, but to deliver us from ourselves and our sin. And there is only one way in which God has done this: by the blessings of repentance and brokenness. Scripture is full of passages speaking to this.
Just two verses – of many – can be appealed to here. In Psalm 34:18 we find this: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” And in Isaiah 57:15 we find these amazing words: “For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, And also with the contrite and lowly of spirit In order to revive the spirit of the lowly And to revive the heart of the contrite’.”
God is NOT near those who have great self-esteem and a terrific self-image. Instead he readily dwells with those who have known brokenness, hardship, difficulty, and humiliation. The proud and self-satisfied are not going to be the ones God is near to.
The world, and worldly preachers, will emphasise strength and power and ability and independence and taking charge and the like, but God emphasises brokenness and humility and weakness and dependency and letting go. The proud, self-assured and self-reliant person is not the sort of person God can use.
Indeed, those who have done the greatest things for Christ, who have been the greatest warriors for Christ, and who have been the greatest representatives of Christ and his Kingdom are those who have been broken. Those who have come to the end of themselves and have fallen contrite and broken before the Lord are the ones who seem to be most used by God.
Another very important biblical passage on this of course comes from the great penitential psalm of David. Psalm 51 is a chapter we need to visit and revisit regularly, and verse 17 is another incredible text: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
So important is this single passage that the great Puritan preacher John Bunyan (1628-1688) wrote an entire book on this. For those who do not know much about Bunyan, who was also the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, see my recent piece on him: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/01/05/notable-christians-john-bunyan/
But the book on brokenness that he penned just before he died – and deserves to be as widely read as Progress – is The Acceptable Sacrifice. This may be a short book (just over a hundred pages) but it is a powerful book. And here I must make a brief confession: I have long intended to get a copy of this, but only bought it just yesterday when I was in Perth.
Now that I am back home I of course gave it a read and must now write it up. As with so many of the great Puritans, this one verse is given plenty of detailed discussion and application by Bunyan. The whole book is on how important brokenness is for the Christian, and how only the broken Christian will really be used by God.
In his important volume he has incisive chapters on why a broken heart is truly excellent; how the unbroken heart can be made contrite; signs of a broken heart; why the heart must be broken; why God so esteems a broken heart; and keeping the heart tender.
Each spiritually meaty chapter can be read, reread, prayed over and meditated upon. Let me look briefly at chapter 6 on why God so esteems a broken heart. He mentions five things about this:
1. A broken heart is the handiwork of God; a heart of his own preparing, for his own service; it is a sacrifice of his own preparing, of his providing for himself…
2. A broken heart in the sight of God is an excellent thing because a broken heart is submissive; it falls before God, and gives to him his glory…
3. Another reason why a broken heart is to God such an excellent thing is this, a broken heart prizes Christ, and has a high esteem for him. The whole have no need of a physician, but the sick…
4. A broken heart is of great esteem with God, because it is a thankful heart for that sense of sin and of grace it has received…
5. A broken heart is of great esteem with or an excellent thing in the sight of God, because it is a heart that desires now to become a receptacle or habitation for the spiritual graces of the Spirit of God.
Let me offer one more quote – from chapter 2 on why a broken heart is truly excellent:
God has cordials, but they are to comfort them that are cast down (2 Cor 7:6); and such are the broken-hearted; as for them that are whole, they need not the physician (Mark 2:17). They are the broken in spirit that stand in need of cordials; physicians are men of no esteem but with them that feel their sickness; and this is one reason why God is so little accounted of in the world, even because they have not been made sick by the wounding stroke of God. But now when a man is wounded, has his bones broken, or is made sick, and laid at the grave’s mouth, who is of that esteem with him as is an able physician? What is so much desired as are the cordials, comforts, and suitable supplies of the skilful physician in those matters. And thus it is with the broken-hearted; he needs, and God has prepared for him plenty of the comforts and cordials of heaven, to succour and relieve his sinking soul.
I mentioned above that I am just back from Perth, and I want to offer a personal illustration of what I have been talking about. I know of many broken and contrite believers who are superstars for the Kingdom. One of them is a gal in Perth who knows all about these matters. She seems to live in a daily state of brokenness, and that is why she is being so widely used of God.
She has certainly gone through the wringer, with abuse and violence, broken relationships and betrayals, hardships and difficulties that many of us will never know about. Yet she bravely soldiers on, always with a smile on her face and words of spiritual wisdom to share.
She is diligently raising her children as a single mother and seeking to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. She is one of the most giving, sharing and helpful people I know of, even though she struggles greatly in so many areas. She is a trooper and a champion, and I put all that down to her life of brokenness.
As is often said, brokenness will either make you bitter or better. It will either break you or make you. In the case of this great woman she has not resorted to anger, pity parties or victimhood whining. She stands strong, and out of her brokenness God is using her greatly.
Let me finish with a few more quotes on brokenness by some other great saints:
“The good work wrought in every true penitent, is a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart, and sorrow for sin. It is a heart that is tender, and pliable to God’s word. Oh that there were such a heart in every one of us! God is graciously pleased to accept this; it is instead of all burnt-offering and sacrifice. The broken heart is acceptable to God only through Jesus Christ; there is no true repentance without faith in him. Men despise that which is broken, but God will not. He will not overlook it, he will not refuse or reject it; though it makes God no satisfaction for the wrong done to him by sin. Those who have been in spiritual troubles, know how to pity and pray for others afflicted in like manner.” Matthew Henry
“God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume. It is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.” Vance Havner
“It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.” A.W. Tozer
“Being broken is both God’s work and ours. He brings His pressure to bear, but we have to make the choice. . . . Brokenness in daily experience is simply the response of humility to the conviction of God. And inasmuch as this conviction is continuous, we shall need to be broken continually. And this can be very costly, when we see all the yielding of rights and selfish interests that this will involve, and the confessions and restitutions that may be sometimes necessary. For this reason, we are not likely to be broken except at the Cross of Jesus. The willingness of Jesus to be broken for us is the all-compelling motive in our being broken too.” Roy Hession