How To Be Broken
Text: Psalm 51:16-17
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.
We have finished chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians, and the next chapter would begin a new topic in that book. I thought it would be appropriate, then, to take a break, especially in light of Holy Week and Easter which is coming up. I’d like to begin to turn our thoughts towards themes surrounding Good Friday and the Cross, and so I would like to turn to David’s prayer of repentance in Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is famous for repentance. It tells us in its introduction that David wrote this when confronted by Nathan the prophet, when Nathan had told him that his sin was known. So David prays this prayer of repentance, which becomes a psalm for us, for the church afterwards. What I find fascinating is the emphasis on brokenness in vs. 16-17. “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise” (vs. 16-17).
These verses highlight a key component of repentance, but really a key component of Christianity in general. Brokenness is a character trait, a spiritual exercise that we must actually cultivate. As I would like to show you, it appears in several other places in Scripture. The Lord wants His people to be a state of brokenness. And this is a message that the modern church does not preach. The modern Christian church, of really every denomination, is preaching what could be called a therapeutic gospel. This is like a therapy session—“You tell us your problems and we’ll tell you how to fix them.” Sometimes this does take a psychological form, but it can take other forms as well. It can be like a Christian version of TED talks, where a stylish executive teaches you how to be successful. It can also take “lower-class forms.” After all, what is the health and wealth gospel really all about? It is selling a message of how to get rich, largely to poor people. None of these versions of Christianity tell you that God wants you to spend time in your life broken.
Brokenness is not just a problem in need of being solved, but it is a posture or an experience that even the godliest Christians will go through at length. While we should not be broken to the point of despair, we should allow ourselves to be broken and to acknowledge it. Brokenness is not fun. Brokenness hurts. Brokenness causes us to call out to someone else, someone who is not our self, for help. And it is for all of these reasons that it is essential to the gospel. This morning I would like for us to hear how we can be broken and what this will do for our relationship with the true and living god.
What is brokenness?
The first thing we need to do is identify what we are talking about. What is a broken heart and a contrite spirit? A broken heart, as we have said, is necessary to know God truly. According to Psalm 51, it’s the only way you can offer Him sacrifices that He will accept. And so what is it?
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart.” We are talking about the inner man. This includes the emotions, but it is also the seat of your identity. It includes your will and how you think about “you” vs. all other things. While it probably wasn’t original to him, C.S. Lewis would explain the existence of the soul by how we use the phrase “my body.” When you say “my body,” the word “body” is the object that is possessed, and the possessive pronoun “my” indicates that which possess it. What we are talking about is the spirit, the soul, the mind, the will, or the Biblical word—the heart.
It must be broken. The term for “contrite” is an amplification for the word broken. The words for spirit and heart are used interchangeably to signify the inner man. It all means to bring low and to crush. And so true sacrifices are broken and contrite people. We must be humble. We must think of ourselves as lowly and in need of help. We must be dependent. And during those times when we are none of these things—when we are proud, content with ourselves, independent and carefree—during those times God Himself breaks us in order to bring us back to Him. Brokenness produces the true sacrifices of God, the sacrificed person.
The Bible also says that this is the kind of person that the Lord is near to. Psalm 34:18 states, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit.” Isaiah writes, “on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Is. 66:2). Who will God look upon—the one who is poor, contrite, and fearful at His word. Jesus himself says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn.” (Matt. 5:3-4). You may have heard it said before that the word for “blessed” does not mean that they will be given a blessing later. It means that they are currently in a blessed state. So some modern translations will say “Happy are those who mourn.” This sounds strange because when you mourn you are certainly not “happy,” but the point is that you are in a state of blessedness. And Jesus says that this is the way the kingdom heirs, the sons of God, are to exist.
This shouldn’t really be strange if we remember what the Bible said about Jesus Himself. What kind of man was the messiah supposed to be according to the Old Testament? Well, he was going to be an heir of David, yes. He was going to be a conquering king, yes. But what else? A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3)—one who is stricken, smitten, and afflicted, one who we have laid our burdens and our guilt upon. And he would go like a lamb to the slaughter without resistance. That was the prophecy before the New Testament.
So when we talk about our need to be broken, it is after this model that we look. We are stricken by a sense of guilt, of our sins and the world. We are struck by the moral weight and the truth of that condition. And any Christianity, or anything that calls itself Christianity, that doesn’t have these characteristics is a false religion. It is Christianity without Christ. Any religion that is only happiness, only strength, and only reward, is not Christianity. And so we must be able to be a broken people. If we are to be what the Bible says, we have got to have broken hearts and contrite spirits.
So how do we do it? The good news is that if you really desire to be broken, all you need to do is wait. Live your life trusting God, and brokenness will come to you. Jesus said that if any man wants to follow him, let him take up his cross. That’s what Jesus promised us at the beginning. That was the pitch. If you follow Jesus, then that will happen. The world will hate you, the curse of the Fall will continue to afflict you, and your own heart will be betray you. And if no one ever has a bad thing to say about you, that’s actually a problem. It’s a negative testimony because it means that you haven’t experienced spiritual conflict.
However, there is a danger here. When God brings brokenness into our lives, the New Testament word is chastisement. But we have to be careful not to become bitter. Listen to Hebrews 13, as it explains this. God brings chastisement into our lives to sanctify us, but we have to be sure to receive this in righteousness, else we can fall into bitterness:
And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.”
…Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears. (Heb. 13:5-6, 11-17)
This is an amazing section of Scripture because it tells us what is going to happen to us, how we should respond, and how we should not respond. When the Lord chastens us, it means He loves us. It means that we are His children. We should respond to that with the peaceable fruit of righteousness. So we should respond to affliction by being peaceful, righteous, and by encouraging other people around us.
Now, just as a parenthesis here, that sounds crazy. When I’m afflicted, I’m angry. And when I’m angry, I’m a little surly towards people around me. I’m a little short. I don’t think I spread peace. And that’s a sin. When we are afflicted, we need to accept it as a sign of God’s fatherly love and then share peace and righteousness with other people.
Now, this is what will happen if we don’t do it that way. We will have a root of bitterness which will spring up in our hearts and we will become defiled. And it’s interesting. The text uses the word “fornicator” here. Isn’t that a different topic? Consider, when you are afflicted, instead of responding with peace and righteousness, you become bitter. But then you become a fornicator? What does that mean? Well, you can think about it by thinking about how people respond to extreme affliction in their lives. They go out drinking, they turn to drugs, and they can fall into forms of fornication. Whether it be pornography, outright adultery, or simply not giving the love they are supposed to. And when people respond to affliction in that way, over time, the Bible says that they stop being able to repent. Affliction leads to bitterness which leads to fornication which leads to the inability to repent. That’s a very scary situation.
And this happens when we think that what happens to us is unfair. When we think we’ve been ripped off—when we think that God Himself has done us wrong. When we become self-righteous—I don’t deserve this. This happens when you don’t accept affliction as a gift from God but rather a punishment and perhaps a vindictive one at that.
This is the problem of victimology. There are true victims in the world, and the Bible cares for them. It promotes justice for their account and says that God will save them. But there are people who like to play the role of victim. They like this because it gives them leverage. It allows them to be in charge of the accusations. And there is an expression which one of my friends, Derek Rishmawy coined, but has now been popularized by Pastor Doug Wilson. The expression is “weaponizing the victim.” I think that’s a very clever turn of phrase. A victim is typically one who has had weapons used against them. But in our day we turn victims into weapons and use them against others. We see this when people respond to an outrage, not by following the rule of law, but rather by forming a mob. They pile on more and more unrelated accusations, whip up the crowd into anger, and then sometimes a call to unrighteous action. This all happens because the affliction which came was not understood as something coming from God, in His plan, however difficult, but as an affront to us, to our righteousness. When we respond to affliction like that, we become bitter, not broken.
The Cure For Bitterness
We need to be broken, but we cannot become bitter. How do we do this? We must begin by accepting our brokenness. In Hebrews, we are instructed to respond to affliction by remembering Christ and his suffering and then pursuing peace and holiness. We are not to argue with the trials and tribulations, but instead we should use them to find solidarity with Jesus Christ.
There can be other players of course. There can be bad guys who need to be judged. But we need to still see this from God’s perspective. God has put them right where He wants them. God put Pharaoh right where He wants him. He puts Cyrus right where He wants him. Even the darkest day of all, when Christ was crucified, the New Testament says that God ordained that. God wanted that to happen to save us. And so we have to see suffering and affliction as ultimately coming from God. This is not because He hates us. This is not because He is punishing us necessarily, though sometimes He is. There is personal sin and there is original sin, which comes from the Fall. We don’t always individually earn punishment. But punishment is handed out against unrighteousness because of the Fall. And it is something that God is doing something about.
When God brings judgment or affliction in our lives, it is so we will repent of those sins we are guilty of and so we will ask God for His grace. That’s how it happens. If we are never afflicted, we won’t ever do that. If we don’t have anything to repent for, then we won’t repent. And if we don’t have anything to repent for, then we don’t need a savior. We don’t need to be forgiven. And if we don’t think we need to be forgiven, then we really can’t go to God asking to be forgiven. It just doesn’t work.
We’ve all heard false apologies. You know how they go: “I’m sorry if anything I said may have come across the wrong way and you were offended by it…” At no point in that statement did you say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Really, those kind of apologies are saying that the other person did something wrong by getting offended too easily and that we are big enough to extend the olive branch to them. And we can’t do that with God. He sees right through that. He wants us actually repenting because we actually feel guilty. He wants us to actually feel needy and in need of His strength, His love, and His grace.
And so God will bring affliction on us directly because of sin, and other times it happens because of sin in general to remind us of our neediness. He also does this to break to hard and obstinate hearts who are opposed to Him. Earlier we said that people can respond to affliction with bitterness and, left to themselves, will not be able to repent. But in God’s mercy, sometimes He even breaks the hard hearts, people who you thought were hopeless, who you wrote off.
God also does this through affliction and judgment. Psalm 9:19-20 explains it like this, “Arise, O Lord, do not let man prevail; let the nations be judged in Your sight. Put them in fear, O Lord, that the nations may know themselves to be but men.” That prayer is asking God to really scare people on the inside, to make them feel afraid of Him, so that they will realize that they are only men and not God. They need God. God does this to us sometimes in lesser degrees, to remind us of who we are. He puts a holy fear in our lives, and this is also a part of brokenness.
If we don’t believe that God will actually do this to people—will actually do this to us—then we won’t ever have a holy dread. And if we don’t ever have a holy dread, then we won’t ever repent.
God continues to send affliction into our lives so that we will not become haughty and great in our own eyes, and even the Apostle Paul underwent this:
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
When God brings us affliction into our lives, He wants us to be broken, so that we can be weak, so that we can boast in Him. What are you allowed to boast about in the Bible? Not in our own righteousness, not in being descended from the tribe of Benjamin, not in being a Pharisee, not in being blameless according to torah (Philippians 3:4-6). You can boast in the righteousness of Christ and in your weakness. Those are the things that you get to boast about. And if you are boasting about you weakness in a way to make people to congratulate you, then you need to start over again. The point is to acknowledge your neediness for Christ. This is what God wants from us. This is how He makes us holy. This is how He makes us the people He wants us to be.
So this morning, my charge to you is to not miss your chance to be broken. Don’t waste the opportunity. Don’t let it go by. And don’t respond to it in self-righteousness and bitterness. Accept afflictions in your life as gifts from God, to teach you about His grace, to change you, to make you humble. And it should produce peace and righteousness.
The gift of brokenness is grace to us. And then, when you are broken, you can draw near to God. You can offer true sacrifices. We are all priests in the New Covenant. And if you are a priest, you’ve got to offer a sacrifice. Christ is the ultimate sacrifice, but the Bible also says we offer ourselves. Make yourself a living sacrifice. We offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. And then there’s the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.
So offer your brokenness to God as a sacrifice, and He will accept it. He will do this because He has accepted Jesus, that broken sacrifice for us. So now we know, we have a gospel promise, that when we are broken and turn to the Lord, He will accept us. He will delight in us. He will save us.
Let us pray.