The Breaking Is The Healing
Recently, I was reflecting on a conversation I had with a young man going into the ministry. I enjoy such interactions, especially because of how the wisdom and patience of several older saints helped set the course of my own journey. However, with every year that passes, I feel like there is more of a disconnect between how they think about their calling and how I inhabit it. The fire and the certainty in his words are something I regard fondly but no longer feel as my own.
What has changed? It isn't my sense of calling--I love what I do deeply and pray I might continue to serve God as a pastor as long as He permits. Neither is it my opinions about God. While I've certainly nuanced some things and fiddled around the edges, my core convictions about theology and the church remain largely the same. Indeed, I hold some of them with more confidence (albiet perhaps less bombast) than I did when I was in this young man's shoes. My faith, my sense of God's lived presence, has deepened.
I think people's instinct is to chalk up the difference to "experience." However, I've never liked that term. It is too broad. It includes skills learned, voices heard, and strengths tested, all of which are useful but none of which get at the shifting posture of my heart. Instead, when I try to name the difference between me and that young man, the best way I know to express it is that I have been broken by life. Broken in ways that are necessary and good.
Some of that brokenness is woven into ministry. I have had to sit with people who have held dead children, had loved ones murdered, or been violated in horrible ways, to look in their eyes, and to know there is nothing I can do to help them beyond be present and pray. I have preached hundreds of sermons to individuals I pray would have their hearts softened by God and, as far as I can tell, not seen Him choose to bless those prayers with the new birth. My skills at ministry have certainly improved with practice; my estimation of what those skills can accomplish has diminished precipitously.
Another part of the brokenness has been particular to my story. Cancer, loss, widowerhood, single parenting--I have been brought to the end of myself. There is good to be done that I do not have the capacity to do. I walk forward with a heaviness that I suspect will never fully life. Life is an accumulation of wounds and scars, and we will inevitably develop limps and lose our youthful range of motion.
What has been broken, specifically, when I look back on my younger self?
My estimation of how much certain ideas matter. Correct beliefs are important, don't get me wrong, but by themselves they do no lasting good. They cannot, on their own, create a heart encounter with the beauty of God or tailor healthy spiritual habits out of whole cloth, and they will be stubbornly twisted by those who want to do evil.
My sense that the right answers can fix people. Even when people hold correct beliefs from an honest heart, it doesn't remove the reality of their pain or struggle. You can point out the path, but someone can't walk it when their legs have been cut out from under them, and continuing to point while they lie there is simply cruel.
My delusion that I was exceptional. That my gifts were greater than they are, and that God is certain to bless them in unusual ways.
My belief that I can find a solution to any problem. That, with the right answers and some hard work and pep talks, I could overcome any obstacle.
My conviction that I could do it all.
My conviction that God would do what I wanted.
I enumerate those areas of brokenness because they highlight what I want to stress here: that it is precisely in being broken that we are actually made to be more like Christ. Those are all areas of growth; what was truly being broken was my blindness and my pride. It is not that God works despite the wounds life has given me. It is not that God works to overcome or undo them. No, I am beginning to realize it is the wounds themselves that have made me more like Jesus. The breaking is the healing; the wounding is the instrument of growth.
The apostle Paul speaks of this exact mystery in 2 Corinthians 12. He discusses his "thorn in the flesh," a wound he never specifies because he intends it to teach us about all of our woundedness. Despite Paul's prayers, God intentionally does not take the affliction away. Why? Precisely because the affliction is the source of God's work in Paul's life. "My power is made perfect in weakness... When I am weak, then I am strong."
None of this should be read as opposing a proper posture of lament and hurt. Paul is not chastised for asking three times that his bodily struggle would be removed. Nor does it make the things that break us good. Death is an enemy; betrayal and hard-heartedness are sins.
However, it does mean that we can find a particular beauty and hope even as we struggle and hurt because the struggle itself is not a sign of our failure but a means of our deliverance. When we fall, that is actually what God is using to move us forward. When we are cut deeply, we have the certain hope that God will use the blade to slowly cut away at our arrogance and independence. God sympathizes with our pain, and He aches with us in our pain, but even more amazingly, He promises that the pain itself will not be wasted but will help to fashion us into the glorious image of Christ.