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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Human Brokenness

Every week, nearly one-hundred individuals experiencing homelessness step through the doors of Liberti Center City to take part in our Emmanuel Ministry. As I scan the room, it is impossible to miss the brokenness which enters our doors. The eyes betray pain, weariness, and anger. Others have fallen asleep, a common sign of drug use. Others betray a mental illness or disability by their speech. Upon reviewing the sign-in sheet, it is sobering to notice those who cannot spell their names. At the start of Emmanuel, it can be overwhelming to realize how many stories of pain, brokenness, and sin exist in one room.

Pastor Tim Keller notes there are two common oversimplifications of the connection between sin and poverty. “Conservatives, in general, see poverty as caused by personal irresponsibility. Liberals, in general, see poverty as caused by unjust social systems.” [1] Neither explanation is able to adequately encapsulate the stories I have encountered at Emmanuel. The conservative explanation is unable to make sense of the abuse perpetrated against individuals. The liberal explanation is unable to explain the very real choices some of these individuals have made and further, removes responsibility from the individual, both in what they have done in the past and the responsibility to make constructive choices in order to improve their situation.

In order to make sense of the stories I encounter at Emmanuel, we need a bigger view of sin which is able to account for complex factors ranging from personal choice to abuse to systemic injustice, all of which are very real experiences for these individuals. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. is able to provide such a definition: “Sin is culpable shalom-breaking.” [2] To clarify this definition, he explains the biblical definition of the word shalom: "In the Bible shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight-a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as the creator and savior opens doors and speaks welcome to the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things are supposed to be." [3] Sin is anything which distorts this picture. Sin is anything which disturbs God’s original intent for creation. Sin is the reason things are not as they are supposed to be.

The effectiveness of Plantinga’s definition lies in how directly he goes to the root of the matter. He does not stop at a mere breaking of the law, which serves to order creation, but drives down to creation itself. He does not stop in Genesis 3 and the introduction of sin, but goes to the beginning in Genesis 1. To have an adequate understanding of how sin has subverted the original intent of creation, we must first understand that original intent. Plantinga’s description of creation as intended is evocative. He pictures for us a world where all things dwell in harmony, with each other and with their Creator. Because of how interwoven all creation is, any attempt to subvert the original intent has profound repercussions for the rest of creation, just as one wrong note in an orchestra redefines all of the other notes which sound around it. Sin disturbs all relationships within creation and creation’s relationship with its Creator. In other words, sin has effects on all parts of the world.

Understanding human brokenness, then, cannot merely stop at the act of sin, but must also consider all the effects of sin. One of the effects of sin is more sin. If one instrument in the orchestra already mentioned plays a wrong note, it not only redefines the other notes around it, but can change them. Hearing a wrong note in the celli may lead the violins to adjust their note to one which harmonizes more effectively with the celli, covering up the wrong note. Such corrective measures have made the mistake less glaring to the audience, but it has not remedied the problem. Instead, it has created two wrong notes. If the orchestra adjusted two wrong notes at the rate we adjust to the sin and broken we experience, Beethoven’s Ninth could very well find itself turning into Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra! Continual adjustments to the wrong notes changes the piece itself. Or as Plantinga puts it: “When we sin, we corrupt ourselves, but we may corrupt others, too.” [4]

Harvie Conn helpfully says, “A person is not only a sinner. He or she is also sinned against.” [5] We do not only bear the marks of sins we has committed. We all bear the marks of sins committed against us, whether that be in the form of abuse (physical, verbal, or sexual), abandonment, disappointments, discrimination, and the list could go on. The individuals I interact with at Emmanuel do not just come with their addictions and sins, but the abuse they have experienced and the pain of their disabilities, which are themselves the marks of sin marring our relationship to creation. We are all forced to live with that pain and work through it. There are always “connections between our pain and consistent patterns of coping with these feelings.” [6] We are constantly adjusting and tuning ourselves to the wrong notes. Our individual acts of sin are not merely our own instances of shalom-breaking; they are our response to and dealing with the way our shalom has been broken. We begin our lives with our own shalom-broken and it is from this starting point we begin to understand who we are. Yet we are only given false notes to tune ourselves to and instead succumb to sin and idolatry. We commit our own acts of shalom-breaking out of a sense of broken-shalom. Underneath patterns of sin, addiction, and idolatry lie stories of pain which our own sin is a coping strategy for.

As I endeavor to understand and preach the Gospel to those who come to Emmanuel, I do not merely speak to their anger and addiction. The Gospel must also speak to the pain they have experienced by being sinned against. My task is not merely to help them turn from their sin, but to also show how the Gospel heals the pain which underlines their own patterns of sin. Such an understanding of human brokenness forms a foundation for ministry which takes seriously the words of J. H. Bavinck: "Abstract, disembodied and history-less sinners do not exist; only very concrete sinners exist, whose sinful life is determined and characterized by all sorts of cultural and historical factors; by poverty, hunger, superstition, traditions, chronic illnesses, tribal morality, and thousands of other things. I must bring the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to the whole man, in his concrete existence, in his everyday environment." [7] Christ’s mercy speaks both to the ways we break shalom and the way our shalom has been broken, healing all, and restoring us to true shalom.

[1] Tim Keller, “The Gospel and the Poor”, Redeemer City to City, p. 6.

[2] Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. “Sin: Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be,” p. 4.

[3] Ibid. pp. 2-3.

[4] Ibid. p. 14.

[5] Harvie M. Conn, Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace, p. 45

[6] Cory B. Wilson, “Deeper Still”, p. 2

[7] J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, p. 81

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