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Everything Seems to Be Broken

It is an odd thing, I have discovered during my nearly three years as a pastor, to be entrusted with people’s pain. 

It’s not an everyday occurrence, but today pain came calling.  Two conversations with two people, both carrying crippling burdens of hurt and despair, sorrow and longing, both dealing with the complex cocktails of physical, spiritual, mental, and relational pain that characterize so many lives, both searching desperately for a word of hope, comfort, or encouragement.  “Do you have a verse for me?”  “Some advice?” “Wisdom?”  “Help?” “Compassion?”  It can be a simultaneously wonderful and helpless feeling to be invited into these deep and dark places.  And it is scary to realize how little I often have to say.

Today’s conversations weren’t necessarily any more or less heartbreaking than others I have been a part of, but that didn’t make them any easier.  I still find it hard to know what to do.  You ask questions, you listen, you invite elaboration, you listen, you gently probe and push and pull.  You listen.  And sometimes you end up back where you started.  At one point, after a number of attempts to isolate “the problem,” the face across from me just stopped and looked vacantly toward the tree of life hanging that graces the wall of my study.  A few tears appeared.  Then a few more.  A couple of  half-sentences were haltingly attempted.  And then,  “I don’t know… everything just seems to be broken.”

Yes.  Everything does seem to be broken.  And it hurts.

There were more tears, there were prayers, there were hugs.  And then we went our separate ways, fortified by entreaties to our inscrutable God and the care of each other.  Some days it seems like these are the (only) things that can change the world.  Other days, you wonder if they will even make a difference for the next hour.

I thought about pain’s visit today as I sat (appropriately) in the dentist’s office, waiting for my son to get four teeth extracted from his overcrowded mouth to make room for the ones on their way.  I thought about Paul’s words about suffering and glory in Romans 8.  My son’s groans through a swollen mouth full of gauze on the drive home seemed almost like a kind of enactment of my morning and of this passage.  I thought about the groaning of all of creation, about the groaning of God’s harassed and helpless children who await their adoption, redemption, salvation.

Adoption, redemption, salvation.  Such wonderful words.  Such a necessary hope for a world where everything seems to be broken.

33 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: “a necessary hope for a world where everything seems to be broken”

    In Eliade’s estimation that is the basis of religion – the reason we worship. It is for sure the basis of Christianity and Judaism.

    Everything seems to broken – this is what Eliade called “the terror of history.”

    It is not what we say as pastors, but that we pray, that we lead worship. Pastors are not counselors – pastors are priests and prophets. You did the right thing. You listened or witnessed the terror – you offered the prayers to heaven. In the moment of the prayer, as in moments of community worship, we are taken to a place of order instead of chaos, hope instead of despair. We cannot live without such moments. They are much greater than mere consolation.

    May 11, 2011
  2. Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for sharing. Sometimes it is only listening with a heart of compassion and a helping hand that can help in the process of healing wounds, pain and hurt but these sometimes take a long time to heal. It is the God of compassion and healing mercy we see in Jesus that can know our heartache and share our pain and suffering and provide hope in the midst of the pain.

    We are the the feet, the hands, the heart and the voice of the lowly Nazarene, crucified and risen for us and it is with open, soften and liberated hearts that God can choose to use us in the midst of the world’s sorrow, heartache, pain and suffering.

    May God truly bless you. Many thanks again for this wonderful post.


    John Arthur

    May 13, 2011
    • Well said, John. Thank you.

      May 13, 2011
  3. This world is in decay. From our mountains, to our water source to our relationships. Everything is broken. I am saddened by it, especially when I see it in my own life. But it makes me anticipate the day when it will all be fixed — and I long for it.

    May 16, 2011
  4. Thanks for this Ryan.

    I think you’ve rightly identified “broken” as the appropriate word. “Broken” means that it was made good – that it was meant to work properly. “Broken” also leaves open the possibility of a fix. Hidden in the word “broken” is the very same hope you speak of found in the words adoption, redemption and salvation.

    May 16, 2011
    • That’s the Christian hope, isn’t it? What is broken will be fixed…

      (I look forward to following your MCS project on your new blog!)

      May 16, 2011
  5. paul johnston #

    I think the lack of real, place in time, Christian communities leaves us impotent. “Come here” we could say, “We will help you”. But where exactly is “here”? And who are the “we” doing the helping?

    So we start well and offer prayers and condolences and perhaps a meeting or two a week as a hopeful antidote. I wonder what God thinks of our efforts? I wonder if they meet His standards?

    May 16, 2011
    • I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at here, Paul. These conversations took place in the context of a real, place in time Christian community with real followers of Jesus.

      To whatever extent God has “standards” for situations like these, I think that our attempts at honesty and sharing of burdens and prayer would have met them.

      May 16, 2011
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Gospel prerogatives and responsibilities aren’t a consideration of the community I live in. Best as I can tell they are something of an anathema. I mean that I’m pretty certain I don’t live in a Christian community. Do you?

    Does Sunday service attendance and the expression of Christian sentiments that don’t conflict with broader cultural imperatives constitute a real community? Is that good enough for God?

    Prayer IS a fine place to begin. But then what?

    May 16, 2011
    • “Does Sunday service attendance and the expression of Christian sentiments that don’t conflict with broader cultural imperatives constitute a real community?”

      To what or to whose experience does this statement refer? What connection are you making between this and the experience of the post?

      The church community I am a part of isn’t perfect, but I certainly do not hesitate to call it “Christian.”

      May 17, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Ryan, I certainly don’t mean to single out your response here or your community in particular as being something less than any other Christian expression. I am speaking to Christian responses in general.

        Jesus fixed everything. How can everything be broken. What happened to “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.

        Does God fall short of the mark? Or does mankind? And if mankind, who is accountable? Believers or unbelievers?

        May 17, 2011
      • Jesus fixed everything

        Well, that’s true, but I think we would certainly want to say that while the “fixing” has been implemented or inaugurated, the effects of this fixing have yet to be fully realized. There are things that remain broken as we await the New Jerusalem, as we pray for more of heaven on earth.

        Does God fall short of the mark? Presumably not, as he is the one who sets the mark. I think that all human beings, believers and unbelievers experience and contribute to the brokenness of our world.

        May 18, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        Hmmm interesting discussion. But if we conceive of a better mark than what is Ryan, than is it not fair to desire that?

        From this is not fair to suggest that God does indeed fall short? It seems to get pretty tough to reconcile the claim of an all-mighty God with a broken world.

        May 18, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        But if we conceive of a better mark than what is, Ryan, then is it not fair to desire that?***

        May 18, 2011
      • Tyler, I think it is not only fair but hard-wired within us to desire something better than what we see. I am certainly not criticizing this desire in any way. I am simply trying to preserve a space within the context of Christian community for being honest about the brokenness that is a part of our world and our lives. I don’t think we can (or should) claim that the experience of brokenness is somehow evidence of poorly practiced faith or Christian community.

        Re: is this situation evidence that God has fallen short? Well, I suppose this is just a variation of the problem of evil and suffering in general, isn’t it? The Christian conviction has always been that God is good and sovereign, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. And it’s probably worth remembering that there has never been a shortage of appearances to the contrary :). Christian hope has always been articulated and lived out in the context of brokenness.

        May 18, 2011
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Whatever a Christian community should look like, can you imagine it to be a place where everything seems broken?

    May 17, 2011
    • Whatever a Christian community should look like, can you imagine it to be a place where everything for everyone is fixed?

      May 17, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Fixed as it should be fixed. Absolutely.

        May 17, 2011
      • “Should be” according to who? Does this mean there is no brokenness in a Christian community?

        May 18, 2011
    • James #

      Hi Paul. Maybe the confusion here is with the Anabaptist understanding of the Gospel [not just Anabaptist of course]. The Gospel is not defined by the sacraments [we don’t even call them sacraments but ordinances] but by the Kingdom community. Kingdom community is also not defined by a perfect church but rather by those committed to obey Jesus. Failure is pervasive but we are never to concede to it.

      May 17, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Hi James. Your statement, “Failure is pervasive but we are never to concede to it.” Thank you, I think that is my point. I think we have conceded. Our communities are changing us. We aren’t changing our communities.

        May 17, 2011
  8. paul johnston #

    “Should be” according to who…yeah that is certainly the tricky part. What I’m trying to say isn’t that there shouldn’t be suffering, either within or without, but that as Christians, if we are truly living out a Christian life in real, “this is how it is here” Christian communities, we ought to be almost always able to offer responses that ameliorate, that lessen, that concretely inspire hope for better futures and in many cases fix problems entirely. Jesus literally healed. Given the vast multitude of Christian expression throughout history shouldn’t we able to point to endless occurrences of Christian healing. “Here it is” and “over here” and “here too” ought to be the daily Christian mantra. If we have the power we say we have, how could it be otherwise?

    Something seems very wrong to me. So I’m left, best as I can figure, with two primary options. Either the “Christian community” isn’t what it thinks it is or God isn’t who we think He is.

    For me then, there is no choice but to disagree with your statement, “I don’t think we can(or should) claim that the experience of brokenness is somehow evidence of poorly practiced faith or Christian community.”

    May 18, 2011
    • we ought to be almost always able to offer responses that ameliorate, that lessen, that concretely inspire hope for better futures…

      I absolutely agree.

      … and in many cases fix problems entirely.”

      Again, I think that fixing problems “entirely” will likely be a work in progress this side of eternity. We are unfinished creatures.

      Something seems very wrong to me. So I’m left, best as I can figure, with two primary options. Either the “Christian community” isn’t what it thinks it is or God isn’t who we think He is.

      I’m certainly open to the Christian community having a less-than-perfect conception of its function and role. But I still worry that you are expecting an over-realized eschatology here. I can’t think of a single Christian community in history that would meet the standard you appear to be setting. Even the churches Paul wrote to in the NT were profoundly screwed up communities. There was healing, certainly, but there was also confusion, sin, pain, misunderstanding, error, and disunity. I don’t get the sense from my reading of the NT that pain is no longer to be part of the Christian experience. Jesus told his own disciples that they would have trouble in the world, but to take heart because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Apparently, our experience of trouble is not evidence of Jesus’ failure to overcome.

      May 18, 2011
      • Ken #

        I think Paul is right. And, I think what you did is right.

        Sometimes Christians don’t believe that prayer and acts of worship matter. Modernity has shaken our confidence.

        I think our lack of confidence undermines us sometimes. It is vital for pastors to have such confidence. Vital, but rare.

        May 18, 2011
  9. larry s #

    I’m late for this Thread but it reminded me of a line from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”

    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    May 21, 2011
    • What a marvellous—and fitting—line.

      May 21, 2011
      • larry s #

        Ryan, a couple thoughts about this Thread.

        From my perspective interpreting Cohen’s line, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I’d say that it is not our pain or brokenness that causes us to worship. Instead it seems to me that, in our pain, we respond to the God who has reached out through the cracks to bring healing. That seems to me to be the Christian message. Our pain, brokenness will hopefully make us open to the healing that is available. However, we haven’t dreamt up the Christian story because we need help for our angst and pain. Wouldn’t that be us making all this up to smother the pain? The basis of our faith is responding to the God-Man Jesus who reaches out to us through the cracks.

        Another unrelated thought; when I first read your post, I wondered how you would feel if the persons with whom you had shared your pastoral moments showed up the next day and then the next only to repeatedly bring precisely the same set of issues to you. It seems to me that that pastors who’ve been at the “pastoral game” for decades have a knack at cutting through the BS and seem at times to be somewhat jaded. At some point one hopes for movement. Perhaps that is a bit of what Paul was getting at in his posts. Regardless of my last few sentences, I heartedly agree that moments of pastoral care can be profound and are a grace.

        May 21, 2011
      • Well said, Larry. Living in response to the God-man who reaches out to us through the cracks… Beautiful.

        Re: your second comment, I obviously approach and write about these experiences from the perspective of someone who is relatively new at this. But I absolutely think that at some point, we want or expect or at hope for movement, however minimal and from whatever starting point. I’ve seen a bit of movement in one of the stories alluded to in the post, and it has been fantastic to see. The other one? Not so much. It’s not hard at all for me to see how those in the game for a while could get jaded.

        I think it is unrealistic to expect the church or embracing Christianity to fix everything that is broken, but I think it is always appropriate to expect movement.

        May 21, 2011
  10. Just came across a passage in Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years that seems very relevant to some of the ground this thread has covered:

    Growing up in church, we were taught that Jesus was the answer to all our problems. We were taught that there was a circle-shaped hole in our heart and that we had tried to fill it with the square pegs of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; but only the circle peg of Jesus could fill our hole. I became a Christian based, in part, on this promise, but the hole never really went away. To be sure, I like Jesus and I still follow him, but the idea that Jesus will make everything better is a lie. It’s basically biblical theology translated into the language of infomercials. The truth is, the apostles never really promise Jesus is going to make everything better here on earth. Can you imagine an infomercial with Paul, testifying to the amazing product of Jesus, saying that he once had power and authority, and since he tried Jesus he’s been moved from prison to prison, beaten and routinely bitten by snakes? I don’t think many people would be buying that product. Peter couldn’t do any better. He was crucified upside down, by some reports. Stephen was stoned outside the city gates. John, supposedly, was boiled in oil. It’s hard to imagine how a religion steeped in so much pain and sacrifice turned into a promise for earthly euphoria. I think Jesus can make things better, but I don’t think he is going to make things perfect. Not here, and not now.

    May 21, 2011
    • Paul Johnston #


      Healing, feeding and the Kingdom of God at hand. That is Jesus. No darkness only light. That is Jesus. The realities Mr. Miller refers to are other principalities, other powers. Powers I am suggesting we could have authority over if we made the commitment. If I stopped believing this I would stop having faith. I would stop staying sober.

      To paraphrase C. S. Lewis I think much of our world of suffering (hell on earth) is locked from the inside.

      May 22, 2011
      • I don’t know, I think Miller’s examples are meant simply to highlight the fact that following Jesus is no recipe for a pain-free existence. They’re obviously more extreme examples than the ones my post alluded to, but they are experiences of a world that is not yet finished, where every knee has not yet acknowledged Jesus’ lordship.

        May 22, 2011

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