When I asked if anyone wanted to read, her hand timidly went up. She had chosen John 8 for her writing assignment—the woman caught in adultery— and focused on the passage’s details: the condemning crowd, the frightened woman, and Jesus’ question once everyone had dispersed. Then the words turned inward. It was evident the student had sexual brokenness in her past. Her voice shaking with emotion, suddenly she was the adulterous woman, and Jesus’ question was directed at her.
The young woman was a part of my Christianity and Writing class, where students wrote a variety of texts on topics of faith. She chose to meditate on a Gospel story and write what surfaced for her. My practice was to invite a few students to read these assignments aloud at the start of class. As the student kept reading, the question “Has no one condemned you?” became the refrain of her struggle for wholeness. When she finished, a hush fell over the room. I was a little stunned—a humdrum class hour transfigured into holy ground.
In the days that followed, other students sensed permission to open up. One, who had been a resident assistant in the dorms, read a piece about how he had to step down due to misconduct. Another student shared how she had used her past writing only to get good grades, but she felt called to let her writing come from a more tender and vulnerable place. She read the resulting assignment to a friend—a business major, even—and he began to cry. “Nothing else I’ve ever written has ever made anyone do that,” she said, her own voice breaking as she prepared to read. As the course progressed, there was more and more a sense of solidarity in our humanness, of shared weakness and struggle. Inside that stuffy, windowless room, three days a week, we were not just a hodgepodge of people perfecting writing skills. We were a community.
Now, consider a second room, a large room, dimly lit, with rows of chairs on a college campus. The college’s counseling department brought in a woman who had persevered through anorexia, mental hospitals, and a performance-based family system. She spoke in chapel for two days, and this evening a gathering was held for students to interact with her in a smaller, more intimate setting. I stood in the back, listening, wanting to be a supportive presence. The woman shared more about her story, the people she met in the treatment facility—both patients and therapists—and the way they helped put her life back together. She talked about her road of forgiveness and her transformed life with God. Then she invited the students to comment, ask questions, and share pieces of their own journeys. A tense silence gripped the room. I knew what she had in mind—invite the young people to open up a little, to get real about some of their own stuff, to find solidarity. A handful of questions were asked, but every one concerned a friend, a roommate, a relative, always someone else who struggled with perfection, performance, an eating disorder. Their only wonderings were about how we could help such unfortunates. The atmosphere turned anemic, disconnected, and empty. Those gathered traded pretense for pretense. After about twenty minutes, the students all filed out, a group of individuals looking for the exit.
The first room is an emblem of hope for me and my community and speaks of freedom and true relating, yet I have spent a good portion of my Christian life milling about in that second room, lost in pretense, padlocked to my poverty.
01. Poverty vs. the Myth of Competency
Our physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds—the totality of weakness, vulnerability, and human frailty—are our poverty. We are finite and limited creatures, not self-contained, never self-sufficient. Amid our best talents, our greatest strengths, we are, at base, impoverished. Poverty is part of our story, our reality, part of who we are in this fallen world. This poverty is not specifically our sin nature, but in our weakness, we certainly fall prey to sin. Christians, above all, seem uniquely equipped to live in ultimate reality, to embrace all that we are in light of God’s unconditional “yes” to us, his beloved ones. Yet life lived in the second room seems the norm for most in the household of faith.
In 2 Corinthians Paul prays for his thorn, a part of his physical poverty, to be removed, and God replies, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responds, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9–10, NIV All Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ). Paul’s response to his weakness, his poverty, is to boast about it because it is the access point for Christ’s power in his life. We hear such verses and tend to patronize them with a nod of the head or a sweep of a highlighter without ever marveling at how contrary they are to how we live together. We reject our poverty, opting instead, to use Frederick Buechner’s words, for a “highly edited version” of ourselves for public consumption. And the battle cry of this edited self is the myth of competence.
The myth of competence is founded in a competitive framework for living, the idea that life is about “bigger and better.” It is the unspoken belief that as I progress in my spiritual walk, I will become less weak, less sinful, less vulnerable, and magically turn into a person who is wise, a pillar of strength and goodness for whom sin is only an occasional annoyance. Born of delusion, a false self, this myth permeates much of my motivation to participate in weekly worship services, Bible conferences, spiritual life workshops, and the like. I might attend such things to deepen my devotion to Christ, but I also secretly hope to become a stronger, more admired Christian, to be seen as ever ascending the staircase to holiness with fewer and fewer chinks in the armor. In this paradigm of appearance and performance, sin and poverty become an old-life appendage that eventually atrophies and drops off.
Of course, none of this ever happens. To be sure, with God’s help, we overcome areas of sin and grow in Christlikeness, but holiness is imparted to us, not created by our behavior. And as long as we cling to the myth of competence, we remain alone, our true selves hidden from our community and from God.
02. Community and Brokenness
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer comments, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. . . . The final breakthrough to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So, everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954) 110. And, I would add, we dare not admit weaknesses, confess our limitations, embrace our poverty. In short, we dare not be broken. Hiding its sin and weakness under a veneer of pretense, the pious fellowship, fueled by the myth of competence, is not a community as much as it is a collection of pretenders. It is incapable of genuine relating. The one hope for true community with fellow believers and with God is to exchange the fellowship of the pious for a fellowship where we can be known as both saint and sinner, where our failings and poverty are not to be excluded at all costs from the fellowship, but are an intimate part of it. Only in such an atmosphere can authentic community flourish. This is the fellowship of the broken.
But where do we see a call to such authenticity within Scripture? In the first Beatitude, Jesus goes further than Paul does in 2 Corinthians 12 in connecting weakness and the power of God within us. In this prelude to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ great manifesto on life in the Kingdom of God, he begins by declaring, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). David Johnson points out that the Greek word for “poor in spirit,” ptochos, literally means “with reference to the spirit, a poverty.” But ptochos is an extreme form of poverty, and when one goes further into its extended nuances, it describes “one who is reduced to a begging dependence, one who is broken.” David Johnson, Joy Comes in the Mourning (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1998) 18. Jesus’ message here is that brokenness is blessed, that the Kingdom of God is not handed over to those who populate the pious fellowship, who spend their time looking good and constructing holiness. No, the Kingdom is given to those who are aware of their sins, their weaknesses, and their poverty and cling in desperate dependence upon a Savior.
Brokenness is a spiritual response to my poverty. It is to come to the end of myself—my wisdom, energies, and talents—and to know from the depths of my being that Jesus is the only hope I have for life and for holiness. All are broken, but few embrace brokenness, yet it is an intimate part of who we are and how we are to be with each other.
The second Beatitude gives us a deeper picture of this way of being together, building on the first: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Johnson points out there are nine words for “mourn” in the Greek, and the one Jesus chose translates as “an external expression of an internal reality.” Johnson, 39. This form of mourning expresses sorrow as a communal encounter, rather than as a purely privatized experience. Jesus calls us to be authentic about what’s really going on and about the painful things that accompany our humanity—sin, poverty, and weakness—not to pretend everything is good and wonderful when it’s not. Such brazen vulnerability opens us to intimacy with God and with each other and abolishes, as Bonhoeffer puts it, the condition of being “utterly alone” in our sin and its effects. If we belong to the fellowship of the broken rather than the fellowship of the pious, this kind of life marked by a true owning of brokenness together can be an everyday reality, not a wishful dream.
In his book Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller recounts the story of an alcoholic friend who hit bottom and checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic. While there, his friend had an experience in which his honesty about his poverty was the catalyst for deeper connection with his father and with God:
His father had flown in to attend a recovery meeting with him, and in the meeting my friend had to confess all his issues and weaknesses. When he finally finished, his father stood up to address the group of addicts. He looked to his son and said, “I have never loved my son as much as I do at this moment. I love him. I want all of you to know I love him.” My friend said at that moment, for the first time in his life, he was able to believe God loved him, too. He believed if God, his father, and his wife all loved him, he could fight the addiction, and he believed he might make it. Donald Miller, Searching for God Knows What (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 131.
Through owning his brokenness and openly “mourning,” Miller’s friend came to know himself more thoroughly, strengthening the bonds with his father and God. The wonder is that this owning and mourning is not at odds with true Christian community, but at the heart of it.
03. The Call to Intimacy
Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:21–35—the servant who owed the king ten thousand talents—depicts the difficulties of true relating apart from the fellowship of the broken. Ten thousand talents symbolized a completely unattainable amount of money, and the servant had no chance of ever raising such funds. Filled with mercy, the king forgave the debt. But the servant then left the king’s presence and immediately had an acquaintance thrown into prison because the man owed him a miniscule amount of money. Why couldn’t the servant empathize with his fellow servant and extend mercy in light of the gift he had just received?
The answer lies in the servant’s response to the king: “Be patient with me . . . and I will pay back everything” (Matthew 18:26). The servant never asked for mercy because he didn’t believe he needed it. This man had not come to the end of himself and his ability to repay. He wouldn’t see himself as a broken person desperately dependent upon the king’s goodness. The servant allowed the debt to be erased, but he still believed he could repay it if he had to. My reflections on this parable derive, in part, from a sermon by Jeff VanVonderan at Church of the Open Door, Maple Grove, Minnesota. He was lost in the illusion that he could eventually pay back his debt by lining up the right number of moneymaking schemes. He was alone in his ingratitude born of his own myth of competency. The king’s mercy was extended but only superficially received—and the fallout in the man’s relationships is clear.
The beginning of intimacy with ourselves, God, and others comes in recognizing and owning brokenness, something that the servant in the parable couldn’t do. Had the servant been able to embrace his poverty authentically, he would have dwelt in reality, in a greater self-intimacy, about his true condition. In that case, receiving the king’s great gift would have created a profound intimacy and dependency upon the king, and the servant would have genuinely known the king, whose character was defined by the mercy and loving-kindness the servant sorely needed. Such knowing would have evoked the gladness and gratitude of a mercy truly received, which could have been extended to the servant’s acquaintance, allowing them to find solidarity in their smallness and interdependence.
Jesus intends that we locate ourselves in this confrontational parable. The king obviously parallels God, and each of us is the servant with the unfathomable debt. Do we roll along in our lives of faith, having only superficially received the love and mercy of Christ? Do we cloak ourselves in the competency common to the fellowship of the pious, or risk honesty and self-revelation in the fellowship of the broken? The hard truth is this: to the extent that we feel safe with God only when we are performing well, we are superficial receivers dwelling in the community of the pious. Our unspoken theology of salvation and sanctification is an unholy mix of Christ’s sacrifice completed by our competencies and performance. And such a theology creates a life of spiritual anonymity.
While the shiny performer may appear to have a direct line to God, it is the ptochos poor who truly experience communion. To commune with God other than from the ground of our sinfulness, our weakness, our woundedness—even our nothingness—is to relate from a place tainted by the myth of competency and our illusory strengths. Only in our deep poverty can we most fully apprehend the person of God. How else can we receive the unconditional love and mercy of God unconditionally? Any knowledge of God apart from our brokenness is largely derivative, as Thomas Merton elucidates:
If we know how great is the love of Jesus for us we will never be afraid to go to Him in all our poverty, all our weakness, all our spiritual wretchedness and infirmity. Indeed, when we understand the true nature of His love for us, we will prefer to come to Him poor and helpless. We will never be ashamed of our distress. Distress is to our advantage when we have nothing to seek but mercy. . . . The surest sign that we have received a spiritual understanding of God’s love for us is the appreciation of our own poverty in light of His infinite mercy. Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1989) 36–37. [Emphasis added.]
Merton links an appreciation, a deep owning, of our poverty as the best evidence that we truly know God and do not just possess knowledge about God. Such a paradigm is so at odds with our culture—and I mean Christian culture—that we can scarcely wrap our minds around it. The fellowship of the pious, and legalists generally, in their refusal to face their brokenness, live religious lives without ever knowing themselves, others, or God beyond the barest crust of personality.
04. Poverty and Grace
On a church retreat many years ago, the speaker had us create collages depicting our lives using stacks of old magazines. Among all the pictures I added to my poster board was an image of a painting of a crippled beggar, lying on a mat, crutch by his side. He was staring intently at Jesus, reaching toward him while Jesus’ hand extended toward his. Something in the picture resonated with me, so I clipped it out. Later, we gathered into groups to share our collages. When my turn came, I briefly explained the various words and images I had arranged on mine, and when I got to the painting of Jesus and the beggar, I pointed to it and, without thinking, said, “This is me on my best day.”
My own words startled me. I had been on a journey of forsaking rooms filled with the pious, owning in deeper ways my fragility, limitedness, and vulnerabilities. And in that moment, I realized that my poverty was not just an issue to face but an integral part of how I saw myself, vital to my way of being in the world. No matter how much intelligence or energy I have or how many talents or gifts I possess, that photo was me. On my best day, in my brightest moment, I’m the ragged beggar on the mat sorely in need of Jesus’ touch and empowerment. And I no longer merely tolerated this fact. I celebrated it. I was—and am—a ptochos broken person who can joyfully embrace her membership in the community of the broken. In that room, there’s nothing to hide, nothing to defend. I am free to be known.
In our journey of faith, we walk through many rooms: in some, sin and weakness drive us to dependency; in others, such things are covered like a hand over an open wound. Some are populated by the fellowship of the pious, and others are filled with the broken. One issue raised in my story is a key question underlying the two rooms: Who are we really? Are we to strain to be saints only, as the posturing of the pious would indicate? Or within rooms of the broken, where authenticity is welcome, can we be saint and sinner at the same time?
It is within those rooms, those moments when we know ourselves as both saints and sinners, that the breaking in of God’s grace deepens from notion to reality. Let us return to 2 Corinthians 12:9. After Paul prays about his thorn, God tells him where his physical brokenness will lead: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Only the broken can most perfectly apprehend the mystery and sufficiency of grace. And it is grace that ultimately marks the community of the broken. Indeed, we cannot hope to taste grace without a framework of bold openness about sin and weakness that constitutes the community of the broken, as Bonhoeffer says:
But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone. . . . God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Bonhoeffer, 110–111.
In the end, there are two rooms, two frameworks for living. We do not have to clothe ourselves in pretense and performance. The good news, the Gospel, says we can dare to be sinners, weak ones dependent upon the mercy of a saving Messiah. In that room, we receive the keys to the kingdom and enter the fellowship of the broken—people who know they don’t have it all together, who are intimate with their weaknesses, their poverty. Here in the freeing light of truth is the gateway to union—with God, others, and our true selves. We were created for such union, for transparent relating that embodies all that we are. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), loved in our poverty, grace abounding.
JUDITH HOUGEN is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern College in St. Paul, where she teaches writing. Parts of this article were adapted from Transformed into Fire: An Invitation to Life in the True Self. For more information or to contact her, go to www. judithhougen.com.