The triumphant, victorious Christian life is marked by a curious feature: it rarely feels triumphant or victorious.
In the kingdom of God, strength comes through weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9–10), greatness through service (Mark 10:43), and wholeness through brokenness (Psalm 147:3). As the classic prayer puts it,
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit.
Many of us would gladly take the latter part of each of the above lines if we could forgo the former. But in the wisdom of God, no saint is high, healed, and rejoicing who is not also low, broken, and contrite. Samuel Rutherford put it bluntly: “Seek a broken heart for sin, for without that there is no meeting with Christ” (Letters of Samuel Rutherford, 328).
We may achieve much in this world without a broken heart; we may even seem to achieve much in the Christian life without a broken heart. But we cannot commune deeply and sweetly with Christ, for he enters only through the cracks of a broken heart.
Benefits of a Broken Heart
To be sure, dangers attend this pursuit. Some Christians focus with an almost morbid obsession on the wickedness of sin, the evil of our hearts, and the duty of mourning over our remaining corruption. They spend their days wandering the labyrinths of their indwelling sin, scarcely ever lifting their eyes to the Savior who loved them and gave himself for them (Galatians 2:20).
Even worse, seeking a broken heart can easily become a twisted attempt at self-justification. We can imagine, perhaps subconsciously, that we are more accepted by God the worse we feel about ourselves — forgetting, as the hymn goes,
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
These for sin could not atone.
Thou must save, and thou alone.
Brokenness cannot justify us; tears cannot cleanse us. Only blood can (Ephesians 1:7).
And yet, the point still holds: a heart broken over sin opens the door for deeper communion with Christ. For only a broken heart teaches us to hate his rivals, welcome his grace, and hear his song of love and favor.
Hate his rivals.
Communion with Christ, much like communion with a spouse, requires a deeper sentiment than simply, “I choose you over all others.” It requires the sentiment, “I desire you over all others.” A heart unbroken over sin may choose Christ, at least in an outward sort of way, while still cherishing thoughts of another. But a broken heart has come to feel sin as its greatest burden and shame, and therefore resists Christ’s rivals with a force far greater than mere self-control: the force of holy revulsion.
In a sermon on Psalm 51, John Piper notes that, in this psalm of repentance over adultery, David never once asks God for more sexual self-control. “Why isn’t he praying for men to hold him accountable? Why isn’t he praying for protected eyes and sex-free thoughts?” Piper asks. The answer: “He knows that sexual sin is a symptom, not the disease.” Adultery is a symptom of a deeper disease: a heart unbroken over the evil of sin, unravished by the glory of Christ.
“The grace of the Holy One comes only to the lowly ones.”
So instead of merely pleading for self-control — for the power to choose God’s ways — David prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10). And a clean heart is, at bottom, a broken heart: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). If David was going to enjoy restored communion with God, he needed more than willpower. He needed a broken heart.
Self-control has its place in the Christian life, of course. But on its own, separated from a deep, abiding hatred of all that would draw us away from Christ, it merely weakens sin in the branches rather than withering it at the root.
Welcome his grace.
A broken heart, then, is never an end in itself. Christ, our good physician, breaks a heart as a surgeon must sometimes break a bone: only so he can heal it better in the end. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). And the sweetest medicine he gives is called grace.
Though bitter in itself, a broken heart can open our hands to welcome grace in deeper ways than ever before. Only after Isaiah was undone, remember, did he hear the comforting words: “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7). Only as Peter cowered, condemned, did Jesus say to him, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 5:10). And only after Paul cried, “Wretched man that I am!” did he say with equal force, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25).
If anxious thoughts of God’s love swirl within us, could it be that we are basing his love too much in us? And could it be that what we need most is a fresh breaking of the heart, to the point of despairing in ourselves again? Perhaps then we could hear the words of Horatius Bonar:
Faith is rest, not toil. It is the giving up of all the former weary efforts to do or feel something good, in order to induce God to love and pardon; and the calm reception of the truth so long rejected, that God is not waiting for any such inducements, but loves and pardons of his own goodwill, and is showing that goodwill to any sinner who will come to him on such a footing, casting away his own performances or goodnesses, and relying implicitly on the free love of him who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.
Some vainly attempt to climb to heaven by a ladder of good deeds and feelings. But the brokenhearted know that we reach heaven only on bended knees. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up: . . . ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit’” (Isaiah 57:15). The grace of the Holy One comes only to the lowly ones.
Hear his song.
Such grace in itself is a marvel. Yet even more wonderful is the manner in which God gives it. Imagine, if you dare, the God of grace rushing toward you in your brokenness, his mouth open not with censure, but with song.
To the exiles in Jerusalem, God promised, “I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly” (Zephaniah 3:11–12). In other words, he promised to mercifully break his people’s hearts. And then, against all expectation, he says,
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)
“With God, strength comes through weakness, greatness through service, and wholeness through brokenness.”
As with so many of God’s ways, “behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.” Perhaps we fear that, after breaking our hearts, God will proceed to placard our sin for all eternity — that he will rub it in our faces, as it were, and make heaven a world of groveling penitence before the Almighty Frown.
Instead, he fills the air with song. For ages and ages, the melody of our forgiving God will display to his once-broken, now-healed people more and more of “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). And still the song will go on.
Seek a Broken Heart
Of course, we cannot just up and give ourselves a broken heart. Just as the men of Jerusalem “were cut to the heart” only when touched by a divine dagger (Acts 2:37), so too with us: if our hearts are to be broken at all by sin, God must break them.
Yet we can do something. We can follow Rutherford’s counsel to “seek a broken heart.” We can give up the exhausting effort of concealing our sin and pretending ourselves better than we are. We can pray that God would kindly, lovingly break us. And we can embrace the counterintuitive truth that the Christian life advances by opposites: we rise higher by stooping; we progress by repentance.
In this world, our fullness will come through emptiness, our strength through weakness, our joy through mourning, our exaltation through humility, and our wholeness through a broken and contrite heart.