O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
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.
Today marks the first Sunday in Lent, and many Christians who did not grow up practicing the liturgical calendar are now becoming very interested in it. Some are madly in love with all things liturgical, seeing Lent as one way to rediscover lost roots. Others are critical of it as faddishness, a sort of picking and choosing of one’s piety according to whatever seems interesting. And then there’s always the perpetual fear of subtle Romanizing. Lent can be abused in a legalistic way. I would be more than happy to talk about each of those concerns at another time, but it is my belief that each of those conversations actually distract us from the real point of what Lent is supposed to be. Like all forms of liturgy, Lent is meant to be an aid in worship, a way of assisting our thoughts and devotions in focusing on God’s majesty, our sinfulness, and the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.
What would you think if you saw a man staring at his own glasses? He might be adjusting them or fixing something that had broken. That would make sense. But what if he never seemed to finish? What if he just kept staring and commenting on his glasses, asking other folks to admire his glasses, but never got around to actually wearing them? You’d think he probably didn’t know what glasses were for in the first place or that he had some other serious disorder. You certainly wouldn’t be inspired by wonderful blessing of cured vision! Liturgy works the same way as a pair of glasses. You are not supposed to look at it. Instead you are supposed to look through it to see something else, namely Jesus. Lent is a waste of time and spiritual failure unless it points us to Jesus. How should it do that? During Lent, we ought to remember the significance of our sin, the guilt which we bear before God, and the great price paid by Jesus on our behalf. We have no thought of atoning for own sins at this time. That would be insane, an impossibility that would only leave us in perpetual despair. No, instead we remember the death of Christ, the curse which he bore for us, and, in response to that saving act, we put to death the remaining sin within us in order to show our gratitude towards Jesus.
Psalm 51 is particularly fitting in this light. You will recall that it is King David’s prayer of repentance after Nathan the prophet convicted him of his sin with Bathsheba. It teaches us about true repentance and forgiveness. Notice that David does not believe that the offering of bulls and goats washes away sin. In fact, they are not even “true sacrifices.” They are only symbols of the sacrifice of praise coming from the human heart. “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom” (vs. 6). “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (vs. 10). “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).
Those last lines about brokenness are what I wish to focus on. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart. This is how we must approach God. And it might sound strange to you, but we have to learn how to be broken and contrite. It does not come naturally. We must cultivate a sense of brokenness in order to worship God in the only way that He finds acceptable, with true sacrifices.
What is brokenness?
The first thing we need to do is identify the broken heart and spirit. This is especially necessary because the modern church has, in many ways, lost its brokenness. Our churches have turned to an ever grinning sort of false piety that is actually a barrier to the knowledge of God. The predominant religion of America in our day is a form of prosperity preaching, even if it manages to avoid money. This promise of having “your best life now” and “realizing” all of your inner “potential” is what we might call the Oprahfication of American Christianity, and we need to speak plainly about it. It is idolatry. When personal happiness, the realization of life goals, and fulfillment become our chief goals, then they become replacements for the cross. They become idols. And if a broken heart is necessary for offering true sacrifices to God, then any life philosophy which prevents brokenness prevents the true worship of God.
What is this brokenness which we need? “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart.” Textually, there’s not much to it. It’s all quite plain. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and crushed heart.” Broken, broken, and crushed. 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.
That the true man of God must be broken is a teaching emphasized throughout both the Old and New Testament. 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). Jesus himself says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn.” (Matt. 5:3-4). It would be impossible for any sincere reading of the Scriptures to miss this point. But we do miss it, and that is because we are often looking for something other than what God has to say on this matter. Jesus himself was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3). When we seek a Christianity without these markers, we seek a Christianity without Christ.
Three Sides to the Broken Spirit
Now, in the immediate context of Psalm 51, this idea of brokenness is connected to a sense of guilt and repentance. This comes from being confronted with one’s sins. John Calvin puts it this way, “The man of broken spirit is one who has been emptied of all vain-glorious confidence, and brought to acknowledge that he is nothing.”
This sense of guilt breaks a person precisely because he knows that it is true and just. He understands that sin is wrong and that because of his actions a horrible thing has happened. In Psalm 51, David has realized that he was responsible for the death of Uriah, and that, due to his lust, he had wronged his own countrymen and shown himself to be selfish and unfaithful.
The Knowledge of God
But truly understanding the guilt of sin can only happen when one also contemplates a second thing, the holiness of God. This is what David means when he says, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight.” There is a rather obvious way in which David sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba, as well as their families, but that’s not his point. Instead, he means that when he considers his sin deeply, he knows what it really means. He has wronged the perfectly-holy God Who had appointed him king. He has sinned against the holiness of God, and that was greatest injustice of all. In order to properly repent, we too must understand this holiness of God. And we shouldn’t make any mistakes about this point. We are sinners, and that means that for us, knowing God will necessarily result in broken hearts.
Solidarity with the Broken
A third point in defining brokenness is an important qualification. True brokenness is not just individual sadness or introspection. It includes those things, but it does not end with them. The broken spirit is broken because it understands the larger problem of brokenness. It knows that we all live in a fallen world and that things are not as they should be. The broken spirit finds solidarity with the world, which means solidarity with others who are broken.
The entire book of Isaiah contains a sustained critique of religious externalism. Going through the motions, as it were, without the actual faith and repentance is an abomination to God. Chapter 58 makes this very point with regards to the broken and humble affectation:
Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (5-8)
And so we see that it is not personal fastidiousness or a severe countenance that God is interested in. God does not want us to strengthen our self-righteousness by self-affliction and abasement. No, he wants our humility to lead us to an understanding of mercy, forgiveness, and love. He wants us to have compassion on others. We must be broken in order to know others who are broken and to extend our souls to them.
In fact, this brokenness is necessary if we are ever going to “reach out” to the world. Brokenness is necessary for us to understand others and to give counsel and comfort to those who are broken, the only ones, by the way, who need comforting. The 20thcentury devotional writer Henri Nouwen explains this very point, saying:
When we think about the people who have given us hope and have increased the strength of our soul, we might discover that they were not the advice givers, warners or moralists, but the few who were able to articulate in word and actions the human condition in which we participate and who encourage us to face the realities of life… Not because of any solution they offered but because of the courage to enter so deeply into human suffering and speak from there… Those who do not run away from our pains but touch them with compassion bring healing and new strength. The paradox indeed is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with the pain. In our solution-oriented society it is more important than ever to realize that wanting to alleviate pain without sharing it is like wanting to save a child from a burning house without the risk of being hurt. It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity takes its shape (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out 60-61).
And so, ultimately, we must be broken if we are ever to share the gospel.
How to be broken?
Now, here comes the practical application. You must be broken. But how? 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. The world will hate you, the curse of the Fall will continue to afflict you, and your own heart will be betray you. You will be broken.
Barriers to Brokenness
But you can miss your chance to be broken, even when all of these things happen. Self-justification, moralism, and legalism are all ways which we naturally shield ourselves from being broken. Let’s consider this for just a moment. The purpose of affliction is to bring us closer to God and make us more like Him. It is to bring us face to face with our holy creator and to teach us about our true selves in the process. But when we respond to affliction with resentment, bitterness, and anger, then we miss our chance to be broken.
The self-righteous person sees pain and wrong, not primarily as an offense against God, but instead as an affront to themselves. It is an injustice because they have been wronged. It’s not fair. They are the victim, and other people are the bad guys. Sometimes, even God is the bad guy. This is the way of self-righteousness and bitterness.
Another way to miss your chance to be broken is to explain it away. Some people do this with a sort of care-free appeal to cynicism or even randomness. Others do it with theology. Since we are supposed to expect a general sort of depravity, then we cannot be surprised when sin happens, they say. Or perhaps they appeal to divine sovereignty. Since God is bringing about all things for your good, there’s no point in being sad. But this also misses the reality of brokenness. Even though we know why it happens, and even though we must trust God throughout it, we must still be broken and laid low. The broken heart and contrite spirit are not the sorts of things to “rise above” the fray. No, they go directly through it.
A side-effect of false explanations is the problem of pious self-denial. Since we do not believe that we are supposed to be broken, we deny that we are struggling with pain or doubt. We put on a false smile or a stiff upper lip. But this is also a form of self-justification, a variety of works righteousness. During these times we are not called to show how strong we are. Rather, it is precisely as Christians that we are to be broken. We must be humbled, see our need for God, and admit our weakness.
Brokenness and “Law”
One way of understanding brokenness is to see it as a form of the law. Brokenness tells us the truth. It tells us the truth about our sin and the resultant suffering which comes from all sin. And just like the law, brokenness convicts us. It does this not merely to leave us broken, but to drive us to the cross of Christ. Brokenness teaches about our need, namely our need for God’s grace through salvation in His Son.
Now, this teaching is easier to accept in the case of those who have wandered and now come back to God. It is much more difficult for the person who grows up in the faith to understand, and it is often challenging for the mature Christian who still struggles with pride and humility. Is it ok to continue to be broken, even as someone who goes to church, professes faith, and more or less lives a Christian life? For this, let us listen to the Apostle Paul:
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)
The Knowledge of God and the Knowledge of Self
This sense of brokenness is not a one-time thing. While we will have various crises in our lives, the true broken spirit we need should not be identified with any one crisis, but our continual response to encountering God throughout all of our lives. The more we grow in grace, the more we ought to understand our weakness. The more we come to know God, the more we come to know ourselves, truly.
This is important for our understanding of childrearing as well. A common question that is asked is whether our children need to be converted? The Biblical answer to that question is yes, but this need not mean that they come to a singular crisis moment at some distinct point. Instead, what they need is to know themselves, and that means they must see their own sins truthfully. They must know their weakness. They must meet God on their own, but they must do so on His terms and not theirs. And this means that they must be humbled. They too must be broken.
In coming to accept Christian brokenness, we need to always keep in mind its purpose. It is not simply that God wants us to be miserable. There’s no virtue in mere depression or anxiety. But what we need to understand is that he who loves his life must lose it. We have to give up all our claims to strength, to self-sufficiency, and to self-reliance. Instead, we must learn how to be vulnerable, to open up to God about who we are, what we have done, and what we need, which is His grace. And the good news is that God has given us this grace in Christ.
Brokenness is a way for God to draw us to Himself. He humbles us so that we can believe, so that we can believe the truth about ourselves and about Him. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom” (Ps. 51:5-6) God is peeling away the skin of our old Adam so that we can better see Jesus. That’s what a continual broken heart understands. We are always breaking with our old self in order to be more at one with God in Christ. And we should take comfort in this. Sorrow over our sins is itself a gift of grace. The broken and contrite heart, He does not despise. God restores our joy, but it is always the joy of salvation, the joy of being saved from our sins and our sorrows. And so when you bring your sacrifices, offer yourself to God in humility. Don’t make excuses or try to clean yourself up. Just bear your broken spirit. That is a true sacrifice and acceptable worship.
And so for this season of Lent, take the opportunity to be broken. Remember your sins. Be honest with yourself. And then repent with a broken spirit and a contrite heart. These offerings are acceptable to God, and through the love of Christ, He will reveal His grace to you.
Let us pray.