Have you ever prayed for brokenness, that painful process that reduces the flesh so the Spirit can shine forth? It’s a scary prayer because you know God will answer it, and it won’t feel good when He does.
I prayed for God to break me of my pride earlier this summer. I prayed I would not become a comfortable Christian. Even as I wrote the words in my prayer journal, I shuddered to think of what the answer might look like. Perhaps I would fail miserably in ministry, lose someone close to me, or be called to missions in a dangerous country. Part of me thought it would be awful if God allowed those things to happen, but at the same time I knew God was wise and loving. I struggled to accept that God is not a God of comfort, but He always knows and wants what’s best for us.
So how did He answer? For now He’s placed me in high school ministry, with a large cell group of some highly damaged girls. This certainly wasn’t the answer I expected, but the breaking has already begun. And despite my best prayer-journal intentions, I wriggled and writhed at the first sign of suffering. I cried through a couple weeks, alternating between acceptance and despair at my situation. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the girls or the ministry. But I felt overwhelmed, inadequate, and under-supported. I was shocked at my own immaturity, which hadn’t surfaced so blatantly when I was comfortable in my previous roles.
God was hammering away at my heart of pride, self-dependence, and fear. I felt awkward and uncomfortable when I stepped outside of the tribe of my old home church. God was answering my prayer, but it felt like He was hanging me out to dry, setting me up for failure. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He came in with support and new plan for the girls’ cell group leadership. The work has just begun, both in ministry and in my heart. I’m sure I’ll resist the Surgeon’s healing incisions again, but hopefully I give Him enough room to work.
The process of the “breaking of the outer man for the release of the Spirit,” (Watchman Nee), reminds me of a poem called “Batter my Heart.” It’s by John Donne, the 18th-century metaphysical poet of “no man is an island” fame. I’ve updated the spelling to make it more readable:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
The imagery is startling: first Donne’s heart is like a castle door which He asks God to charge with a battering ram so he can be healed. He says if he takes a stand on his own, God should overthrow Him with force in order to make him into the new creature God wants him to be. The means he suggests—breaking, blowing, and burning—all sound painful. Donne compares his heart to a town where he’s unfairly taken control; it rightfully belongs to God. He’s trying to let God rule, but his mind struggles to believe and therefore admit the true King. And yet he knows his thinking is weak, false, and easily held captive.
Donne experiences the human tension of loving God and wanting God’s love, even as he plays the harlot with the devil. He asks God to break his bonds with the devil and make him God’s prisoner instead. Until then, Donne realizes he can’t be free, since humans by nature are not independent beings. The last line is scandalous, but rounds out the metaphysical conceit of being betrothed to the devil: he can never be pure until God has full power over him, penetrating every area of his life.
Of course the Bible has much to say on the topic of how God batters our hearts and “ravishes” us. First, He can show us our sin more clearly, thus leading us to repentance and the new and living way:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there by any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.”
-Psalm 139:23, 24
Sometimes breaking requires more than a glimpse of our sin nature. Hebrews explains that God, like any good father, disciplines in love:
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him,
For those whom the Lord loves He disciples,
And He scourges every son whom He receives.”
-Hebrews 12: 5, 6 quoting Proverbs 3:12
We are encouraged to endure God’s discipline “so that we may share His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10b). As Keith taught recently, we cannot gain substance in the Christian life until we’ve grown beyond the “American way” of comfort, rights-thinking, and instant pleasure. Like an Olympic athlete, we cannot hope to win the race Paul speaks of (2 Timothy) without serious training and endurance. Everyone knows “no pain, no gain” is true. The Bible concurs:
“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
In our fallen world, suffering is inevitable. The question is not whether we’ll suffer, or even how much, but if we’ll allow God to use it for good in our lives. In the midst of intense, life-threatening persecution, Paul kept perspective on the relative values of temporal comfort versus eternal reward:
“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
-2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Paul could rejoice in physical and emotional pain because God was using it to grow his spirit, the inner man. Peter agrees earthly suffering is worthwhile in light of the substance our faith gains now, and the eternal glory of heaven:
“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
-1 Peter 1:6, 7
I’m still a sissy when it comes to suffering, but I’ll continue daring to pray for brokenness.