March 10, 2002
“Crawling Out of the Brokenness Hole”
Alan Nelson, the pastor of the Scottsdale Family Church chronicles a time in his life that is very familiar to me. His story is much like my own. Every church I have pastored has done well. We have always grown, not always spectacularly but we always seen positive movement. There has never been a year where we did not receive more in offerings than we spent. Most of the time the budget has been exceeded. I have pastored two churches that won Church of the Year honors in the ABC. As you are already aware I seem to get my share of newsprint and media attention. Pats on the back have been many, praise has been consistent and positive attributions have almost been routine. However, in the past, it seems I have always been able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In the times I felt that I should be receiving the strongest sense of affirmation from God what I seemed to get was a cold shoulder and even rebuke.
I am not alone. Many of my friends in ministry have felt much the same way. In fact, many of my parishioners have reported the same emotions and feelings that I experienced in these times. Alan Nelson writes that there are three dominant emotions that present themselves at these times. There is a feeling of impotence. Desired results do not come, everything done seems ineffective. Each situation seems out of control and no matter how hard you work or how well you do, your best just never seems good enough.
The second emotion is anger. You get angry at self, angry at life, angry at everyone around you and ultimately, angry at God. You begin to ask questions that stem from a vision that sees God far away from the circumstance. You are serving God and obeying God, now where is the loving Father that is portrayed in the parable of the Prodigal Son? You are far away, can’t he see you coming over the hill and run to greet you? This type of anger nearly always leads to depression and a sense of defeat.
The third prevailing emotion is a sense of abandonment. Like Job, whom we have covered the last two weeks, in his trough or Jesus on the cross when he cries, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” We have all felt it and in times where we work hard, study hard, we’re doing all the right things, yet we feel all the wrong stuff. We know our scriptures well enough to know the promise that he has given, “I will neither leave you nor forsake you.” So where is he? Our mind still tells us that he loves and cares for us, so why don’t we feel his love and care?
What you need to know is that when you feel these three emotions regardless of circumstance, results or acclaim you have already descended into the hole called brokenness. The wonderful thing about this hole however, is that the descent into it, the time spent at the bottom of it and the struggle to climb out of it is always used by God to grow his people. God uses brokenness to prove to us that what we have and what we rely upon for our life and work is not enough. For some like the Apostle Paul or a Charles Colson, brokenness is a way to get your attention and His desired result is the surrender of your will. Yes Paul, you are a great student, zealous in your faith, sincere in your practice but there is something you lack, something that prevents you from seeing Me in my fullness. Yes, Chuck Colson, you may sit in the seat of power in the greatest nation on the face of the earth but you need to see MY power, not your own. Friends, Is God trying to get your attention today?
God also uses brokenness to get those of you who already know him to let go of what ever prevents you from experiencing him more fully. It might be a respected pastor, a cherished memory, a loved building, a convenient time or perhaps a reliance upon your own way instead of a different way. Often times it is control, God must take enough control away from you until we realize that he is in control or has placed others in our lives to control lesser things we want to control so that he can prepare us to control and handle greater things.
There is a little story that I have always liked about a wealthy man who had a pet monkey. One day the man found the monkey with his hand caught in a priceless vase. Try as he might he could not pull or pry the monkey’s hand from the vase. He ran water in it. He greased the monkey’s arm and forced grease around the rim of the vase but to no avail. Finally, he took a hammer and broke the vase. As the pieces of the vase fell from the monkey’s arm, he could see that the monkey had his hand closed around something. He pried the monkey’s hand open and in the monkey’s hand was a shiny penny that had been at the bottom of the vase. If the monkey had just let go of the shiny penny the vase would have been saved and the monkey’s owner would have rewarded him well. The penny would have been his as well. What lesser thing are you clutching so tightly that God cannot give you something greater.
Brokenness comes in many flavors. Many times it comes from a sense of personal failure, real or imagined. For some it takes a shattered marriage, the loss of a loved one, a failed job or ruined finances. For others the word CANCER will lead to brokenness or an emotional collapse draws you into the hole. However, the source of the situation is not nearly as important as our response to it. Although the circumstances may be diverse, the divine goal is to take you from your lesser things to the greater things of God.
It is important for us all to understand what brokenness is not. Brokenness is not simply suffering. Suffering is a broader category than brokenness. All fathers are men but not all men are fathers. In the same manner nearly all brokenness has a suffering component to it but not all suffering is spiritual brokenness. Brokenness is not repentance. You may in fact need to repent but not all brokenness necessitates repentance. It is that type of brokenness that I want to explore today. And, in reality it may not really be brokenness at all. However, it feels so much like brokenness and looks so much like brokenness that we generally label the condition as brokenness. It is my hope that once you understand brokenness that does not necessitate repentance then you will know where you are at and be able to adequately handle all brokenness.
Our scripture passage today does not describe the brokenness of God getting one’s attention, neither does it describe the letting go brokenness. Our passage today describes the “pruning brokenness.” Pruning brokenness is the kind I described for myself at the beginning of the sermon. It is by far the most confusing. It isn’t really brokenness but it feels like it and because it feels so much like it we humans generally retreat to a hole and nurse our wounds emotional and physical. When you have done right, when you have sought the will of God and then moved out to do His will and still feel broken you need to maybe ask yourself Am I being broken or am I being pruned. See the action is the same. Something that is alive is being cut off. We are experiencing a separation of one sort or the other. While the action is the same the result definitely…is not.
John 15 tells us that our God in Heaven is the gardener. Verse 2 says, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will even be more fruitful.” Let me ask you this question. Try to imagine that you are physically a branch with several little branchlets. Let’s suppose that this arm (Go to someone in front- hold up an arm) doesn’t bear fruit. So it gets lopped off. What will you feel? Will it bleed? Will it hurt? Are you going to recoil and call Bob Simpkins to see if you have a liability case? Well…maybe.
Now, let’s take this other arm, it is bearing fruit. It’s doing well and your chugging right along. Let’s say I lop this arm off, but this time I call it pruning. I am preparing it to bear more fruit in the next season, your next job or your next ministry let’s say. Let me ask you this question. What do you feel now, with this arm? Will it hurt as much? Will you bleed as much? Will you experience the same feelings as the arm that got lopped off for bearing no fruit? Get the picture? See how it is that what you feel may not brokenness at all even though it looks like it, feels like it? Everything that looks like a duck, smells like a duck and walks like a duck, may not be a duck after all. The Lord is seeking thru pruning brokenness to allow us an opportunity to make God to be Lord of more of our lives than ever before.
One of the common things that we do during these times of pruning is that we resist the Lord’s efforts in this process. When we resist the pruning process a whole host of emotions that degenerate into wrong behavior and wrong attitude occurs. Instead of being prepared and equipped for expanded fruitfulness resistance produces bitter and sour souls. Often they are filled with a raging current of anger and rage just below the surface that bursts to the surface in uncontrollable fits and spasms. Some continue to carry the agonizing hurts of parents, teachers, spouse, pastor or boss when yielding the hubris of the past to a sovereign and omnipotent God who can make it fertilizer for future growth. Others blame God directly for the pain of broken dreams and unfulfilled hopes. The view of these persons future is always out of focus because they never grew from or out of the pains of the past.
Perhaps the most horrible interpretation of brokenness occurs when poorly taught and nearly ignorant Christians classify everything that happens as being “God’s will.” Folks, death is not God’s will. It was God’s will that humanity lead a perfect life in a glorious garden that provided all their needs. His will is that every person spend eternity with him, Jesus died for all not just a few. It is God’s will that we have unceasing communion ad relationship with Him. All pain, suffering, disease, crime, natural disasters are not “In God’s Will.” Each horrible and evil thing that is known to man is a result of a will…our own.
Dr. William Sloan Coffin of New York’s great Riverside Church said this in the April 20,1984 Lutheran Standard after the death of his son, Alex. "The night after Alex died, I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when a middle-aged lady came in, shook her head when she saw me and said, "I just don’t understand the will of God." Instantly, I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I’ll say you don’t, lady!!" I said. (I knew the anger would do me good, and the instruction to her was long overdue. )
I continued, "Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper of his, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he probably had had a couple of ’frosties’ too many? Do you think it is God’s will that there are no street lights along that stretch of road, and no guard rails separating the road and Boston Harbor?"
Dr. Coffin continues in the article: "Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with His fingers on triggers, His fist around knives, His hands on steering wheels. God is against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy and muteness. As Alex’s younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket: "You blew it buddy. You blew it."
Dr. Coffin continues: "The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s was the first of all our hearts to break."
Hear that? God knows brokenness too. We have been told that Jesus died not from his wounds though many, not from asphyxiation as most did, our Savior died form a broken heart. God uses broken things. It was the broken heart of Jesus as a sacrifice that bought our eternity. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to produce rain, broken grain to give bread and broken bread to give strength. It was a broken alabaster box that gave forth perfume and a broken Peter that wept bitterly, who returned with greater purpose and power.
You must also know that brokenness is not intended as a way of life. The pruning process has a beginning and an end. In the midst of it, it may seem like an eternity and you will probably speed up the process by surrendering quickly to what God wants to do with the brokenness. And, at the same time you cannot rush brokenness. Some lessons only come with time. We have a tendency in this culture to help people get happy as quickly as possible. We can even hinder spiritual growth because we pressure others or self to get over brokenness too quickly.
It has been said that brokenness is more like a hallway than a room. You do not live in a hallway. A hallway leads someplace. A season of brokenness regardless how intense, should lead us to another place. When we realize this, brokenness need no longer be feared but embraced. The embracing may not take away the pain. But by embracing we manage the pain and may even find a type of joy therein. God walks with us through these times. His purpose is to create new life and a more full life.
When I was in school there were two times that you went to the hallway. The first time you went there was when you got in trouble. You either did something wrong or said something wrong. The other time you went into the hallway was when one class was over and you needed to go to your next class. Friends, brokenness is mostly about going to “a new class time.” Perhaps it’s time to go to another class.