Has a painful past experience or upsetting circumstance left you reeling, and you figure you’ll never reach your potential for Christ?
Do you think that a frail temperament, insecurity in social situations and recurring episodes of depression disqualify you from a fruitful ministry?
Did the first two questions bring someone to mind whom you consider a “broken person”?
If you replied “yes” to any of those questions, you’ll find the content and story within this post reassuring!
Lesson from a Wild Stallion
I watched a TV western in which a cowboy tried to ride a wild stallion. Fenced in by a corral, the untamed horse, muscles rippling, snorting defiance, had never been ridden and had no intention of cooperating. Time and again, the ranch hand hoisted himself up and sat on the horse, only to be bucked. The cowboy’s repeated efforts finally overcame the stallion’s resistance. Eventually, the horse succumbed to a saddle and rider and a bond developed between the two former foes.
Ranchers call this process “breaking a horse.” Only by taming it, reducing it to submission, do they harness a wild stallion’s potential as a valuable resource for work on the ranch.
Similarly, an unbridled soul restricts God’s work in and through a person’s life. In Embracing Brokenness, Alan Nelson concludes, “I doubt that people who have ever achieved significance, or who have been used productively by the Holy Spirit in ministry, have eluded this process of brokenness.”
The Value of Brokenness
Most folks perceive a “broken person” as weak or emotionally fragile. When it comes to faith, they view brokenness as the polar opposite of a virile, trusting, stable Christian. Yet God’s viewpoint differs. While in the process of grieving his sin against God in relation to Bathsheba and her husband, David wrote, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despite” (Psalm 51:17). We are more useful vessels to God when we yield to the Holy Spirit and exhibit a poverty of spirit that stops bucking Him at every turn.
Factors that cultivate brokenness may include a grievous sin and its consequences, as with King David; a long-lasting disappointment in relation to one’s career; grief over a severed relationship; chronic physical pain; a physical disability, or a temperamental flaw or mental illness such as chronic depression. Whatever causes it, brokenness generates a positive outcome when it produces a posture of one’s heart that instills a desperation for God’s enablement, a submissiveness to Christ’s control and an utter sense of dependence on Him. Whether the brokenness has occurred due to our own poor choices or sin, or whether we are victims of others’ sin, or we face painful circumstances beyond our control, it has the potential to wean us from excessive self-reliance and to instill in us a daily desperation for God’s grace. Potentially, brokenness cultivates humility, a willingness to be transparent, a surrendered spirit and service to others that’s marked by selflessness.
No mater what happened to break us, God may employ it as a catalyst for a more fruitful life and ministry. When brokenness leaves us needy day in and day out for an infusion of His strength, God has more opportunities to receive more glory through our lives and ministries. Here’s how Charles Spurgeon, an outrageously fruitful pastor besieged by severe gout and recurring bouts of depression, put it: “We shall bring our Lord most glory when we get from Him most grace.”
When we feel weak and inadequate, we’re forced to trust the Lord since there’s no other recourse. We’re prompted to pray due to the limits of our own resourcefulness and strength. Then God answers our plea and displays His power in some manner. He fortifies us, alters our circumstances or uses us fruitfully in ministry in spite of our frailty. The result is that we praise Him and tell others what He did. Being at wit’s end magnifies the Lord’s name because He gets a chance to do what only He can do! Indeed, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves” (emphasis mine).
Perhaps the best way to explain how brokenness enhances one’s ministry is to illustrate the concept.
A Prime Example of Fruitful Brokenness
For almost 40 years, James “Buck” Hatch (1914-1999) served on the faculty of Columbia Bible College in South Carolina, teaching courses in Bible, hermeneutics, psychology and family life. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of alumni of what is now Columbia International University consider him their favorite and most influential professor. When he taught, students listened, riveted. When he counseled, hurting people received a life-sustaining injection of hope.
You’d think a dynamic personality and get-it-together psyche propelled such an enduring, respected ministry.
That wasn’t the case.
Buck demonstrated the truth of Psalm 50:15: “Call on Me in the day of trouble,” said the Lord, “I’ll rescue you, and you will honor me.” Buck’s life flashes in bold neon letters this truth: our need or weakness provides an opportunity for God to receive more glory.
In an article honoring his dad in 1994, Buck’s son Nathan, former president of Wake Forest University, called Buck Hatch “a painfully shy person, always near the brink of depression…a soul not at home with itself.” Nathan added, “My father has come to radiate a deep and abiding joy. But you could not call him a happy person. He has always wrestled with thorns in the flesh that drove him not to rely on himself.”
Nathan referred to his dad’s condition as “brokenness,” the result of a sensitive, melancholy temperament and an unhappy, dysfunctional home life growing up. Buck remembered as a boy sitting at the top of the stairs, night after night, straining to hear a single kind word spoken between his parents, but he always climbed into bed disappointed over their constant arguments. Their strife bred a deep-seated insecurity within Buck. Yet it was his dad’s brokenness, not his strength, that Nathan insists gave Buck ready access into the interior lives of other hurting people.
Buck gravitated to those who were out of step, lonely, rebellious, angry and confused over their concept of God. He learned what it meant to have a close relationship with God and passed that along to others who were severely wounded by broken human relationships. Buck insisted that the gospel doesn’t offer quick fixes for deep-seated dispositions of the soul caused by past hurts. Yet he consistently pointed others to a faithful Savior whose mercy was always new. Nathan explained that his dad worked to remove the veils that kept people from seeing God’s grace.
Rather than yield to despair, or conclude he wasn’t fit for a vocational ministry, Buck gravitated to wounded people who judged themselves too severely and perceived God as aloof and uncaring. He reserved ten hours a week for free counseling sessions, convincing hurting individuals that God is far more faithful and forgiving than folks imagine. Prolific Christian author Philip Yancey, a CIU alumnus, says that Buck’s influence helped unpollute his faulty concepts of God, ingrained by a harsh, legalistic church upbringing. One student represented the views of many when he wrote to Buck, “You’ve been a father to hundreds of people who needed a father like you.” Another deeply wounded person whom Buck counseled for years wrote, “You have been Jesus in flesh and bone to me.”
In my own fifty-plus years of vocational Christian service, I’ve never known a name spoken with more reverence than Buck Hatch. What a productive ministry from someone who was, according to Nathan, “insecure, melancholy and introverted.” Indeed, Buck’s temperamental weakness magnified the sufficiency of God. He didn’t serve God and others well in spite of his painful home life, but ironically, because of it. God redeemed his painful past for Buck’s good and for His own glory.
Nathan concluded, “Buck Hatch’s life demonstrated that the divine economy inverts natural priorities. In Christ’s kingdom, the last shall be first, a life is saved by losing it and weakness confounds strength.” Having known Buck personally, I better understand a comment I heard from the late Joe Aldrich: “Only wounded soldiers can serve in God’s army.”
Whoever believes that recurring depression is inconsistent with fruitful ministry didn’t know James “Buck” Hatch. No wonder the late pastor Ron Dunn said, “Your greatest area of usefulness to God may stem from your greatest area of pain.”
What “broken” person do you personally know who nonetheless exercises a fruitful ministry? How does the person’s brokenness facilitate his or her fruitfulness, rather than hinder it? Call or write to this person and express gratitude for his or her resilience in an effective ministry.
If you consider yourself a broken person, has bitterness crept into your soul as a result of your suffering or loss? Will you confess that resentment today and replace it with a plea for God to redeem your pain in a manner that honors Him?
Do you cite your fragility or limitation as an excuse not to serve the Lord in your church or community? If so, how should the profile of Buck Hatch change your reticence to serve?
Ask God’s Spirit to help you address those questions. If necessary, ask your pastor or a trusted friend who knows you well to help you think through the questions. Ask this person how he or she sees you contributing to God’s kingdom business. Start viewing your brokenness as an experience that potentially adds to your usefulness to God.
(I gleaned Nathan’s remarks about his dad from his November 14, 1994 article in Christianity Today, “The Gift of Brokenness.” The entire article examined the fruitful ministry of his depression-prone father. He wrote the article as an 80th birthday gift to his dad.)
To find written and audio resources by James “Buck” Hatch, visit the library offered by Columbia International University: www.buckhatchlibrary.com.
In my book Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants, I devote two chapters to a more complete coverage of brokenness. For people in vocational or volunteer ministry, joy-sapping workloads, feelings of inadequacy, lack of apparent fruitfulness and battle fatigue from spiritual warfare often sabotage passion. The purpose of Serve Strong is to infuse you with biblical perspectives that buoy flagging sprits and instill resiliency. For more details on the book, and a link for purchasing it, go to the book page on my website: