This week the little corner of the Internet where I live has been talking about brokenness and sin, ever since some random Reformed pastor’s tweet found its way into the progressive-liberal-Christian twittersphere, saying that parents should “Teach your children that they are broken. Deeply broken.” And at first I didn’t pay a lot of attention to that conversation, because I didn’t have it in me to do much more than roll my eyes at yet another Reformed dude saying Reformed things, but the quote wormed its way inside me anyway, dug down deep to find the dark places that were still hurting from just that kind of theology of brokenness and settled in to fester.
At the same time, I’ve also been mulling over these big words, sin and salvation, wondering just what it is they mean — wondering whether they really mean what I’ve always thought they did. I’ve been beginning to see that the way I was taught about salvation has failed me, exploring the notion that there are other doctrines of Atonement than just Penal Substitutionary, but afraid to look too closely — haunted by the ghosts of fears that not believing in those specific mechanics of how Jesus “paid our price” on the cross is the same as not believing in Jesus at all.
So with all of those things swirling, I was halfway through writing a blog post — one that I wasn’t even sure I was going to publish except that my phone’s WordPress app had other ideas — and then Sunday morning happened.
Sunday morning, I was awakened early to strip the bed for a wet little boy whose waterproof mattress protector had failed to keep his mattress dry. I burned my forehead with my curling iron and spilled something on my favorite leggings. I managed to wrangle the kids to their Sunday school classes on time and slipped into the pew, sweaty and needy —
— just as the worship leader opened up with a chatty prayer about how we all have sins that we need to confess to God, even just from this morning, even if we don’t think we’ve sinned this morning or remember any sins we’ve committed — we have, they’re there because we are sinful people, we just need to ask God to reveal to us our sins so that we could confess them.
In the stuffy silence that followed I thought, “Search me and see IF there is any offensive way in me.” IF. Is sinfulness a constant state of being? Could I examine any given chunk of time and find sins in it, or do I sometimes do okay?
Am I still that broken?
And then we began to sing, a sweet, folky number in three-four, a song about Jesus saving us , and standing there on this Sunday morning I could not bear to sing along with the people around me about how “dead in my sin” I was, how I deserved death, how
we are not worthy,
we are not worthy, God,
to be loved by you.
There was more to the song than that — it was about our redemption, too, about being “adopted by God / a child now of grace” — but all I could hear was the bridge was pounding in my ears, the acoustic guitar lilting gently: not worthy, not worthy to be loved, and I ran to the bathroom, crying, shaking, back in the dark place again where God’s love was something I had to prove I could treat carefully enough or it would be taken away. Angrily insisting to God through the nausea and snot, You love me. You LOVE me. You do. I am made in Your image, and You love me. Like a desperate reminder in case God was thinking about changing Their mind.
What I’m not saying is that my church is wrong, or that penal substitutionary atonement is wrong, or that the worship leader was wrong (or even that this is the extent of the gospel that they teach there; it isn’t). It’s all perfectly cromulent theology, I’m sure. But — and this is probably going to sound very postmodern and relativistic of me, but I don’t know another way to say it — it’s theology that’s wrong for me, because it is theology that has been used by others, decades ago, to hurt me, to make me fearful and anxious. It’s theology that keeps me broken and bound instead of setting me free. On Sunday morning I came to church seeking wholeness, seeking the Presence, the Family, of God, longing to draw closer to the Divine. Instead I spent Sunday morning in the bathroom, triggered and sobbing.
But what do we need Jesus for, then, if not to fix our brokenness? (Although He must not have fixed it very well, clearly, if we’re still so damaged that we can’t go even a few hours without sinning.) Don’t we need to understand just how awful our sins are so that we can feel properly grateful for being saved from them?
I’m not saying that we’re not all, in some way, broken. I am Not A Licensed Theologian, and I don’t know if I’m qualified to really address what “brokenness” is supposed to mean and how to quantify it. But I do know that I need Jesus far beyond just fixing me. I need Jesus because my soul is aching with longing, a bride waiting to be united with her Groom (a metaphor I love because that means He longs for me, too). I need Jesus because I am made in the image of a God who exists in a constant state of complete intimacy and fellowship with Themself, and I yearn for that same intimacy with the Divine. I need Jesus as Savior and Healer, yes, but also Lover, Author, Mother, Father, Protector, Friend. God is multifaceted, and I am multifaceted, and my relationship with God will necessarily contain multitudes.
If the only understanding we have of ourselves is one of brokenness before an almighty Judge, we can never experience the fullness of God as Savior, Healer, Lover, Author, Mother, Father, Protector, Friend.
And sometimes part of that multifaceted relationship involves remembering that, yes, I am a broken girl in a broken, beautiful world; but I have never needed a single other human to point out my brokenness in order for me to know it’s there. I have had no shortage of moments of realization that I do not measure up, and a theology that emphasizes how often I fall short is a theology that cannot coexist with no condemnation. It’s a theology that trips me up on my way to abundant life, that loads me down with shame and fear instead of joy and love.
And I’m an adult, equipped with the maturity to develop a robust relationship with God in spite of teachings like this that threaten to derail me. How much more damaging is it to teach a child, whose perspective is far more limited, that she is deeply broken? How much harder is it to transform that shame into gratefulness for God’s forgiveness than fear of God’s abandonment?
We should not do this to ourselves. We must not do this to our children. Aren’t we supposed to go to God with faith like a child? Why then would we want to make them approach God like an adult?