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Treasure in Clay Pots

By Myra Chave-Jones.

The subject under discussion was 'How can our brokenness and woundedness as people affect the development of our relationship with God - and indeed with the people of God?'.

One side of the argument went, 'It cannot'. The very word 'brokenness' indicates that something is spoiled, no longer usable and of no value. Brokenness is just a very bleak period which, unfortunately, some people experience in an otherwise productive and successful life. A victorious Christian does not expect or welcome experiences of brokenness! Rather, they are to be seen as regrettable lapses or misadventures in an otherwise continuous journey upwards. We must have been neglecting our prayers or Bible reading and we need some sort of 'divine visitation' to get us back on track again. Are we not taught that we are 'more than conquerors' and that we can 'do all things through Christ', and that 'in Christ we are new people'? So what room is there for 'brokenness'? and how can it possibly be of any value?

But another undeniable viewpoint was that many a sincere Christian believer knows what real brokenness feels like. It is the desert place where there seems to be nothing: no signposts, no way forward, nothing familiar, just a vast expanse of disappointment, disillusionment, and depression. Our familiar props have gone and our self-confidence is shattered. We feel alone and vulnerable. Even God, about whose unfailing care we have made such loud protestations in former days, seems to be a 'very absent help in trouble', as CS Lewis said in his own brokenness. We are aware of the fact that we are clay pots, lying smashed in pieces, and like Humpty Dumpty crying, 'Who will put us together again?' Is it even possible to be put together again? The same question arises from a different perspective, 'Can there be any value in this dreadful experience of brokenness?'

Alas, people do hold simplistic and triumphalistic views of the Christian life. When such people encounter (as they surely will if they are at all sensitive) experiences of being a captive rather than a conqueror, unable to do anything rather than supernaturally enabled to take on the world, lying broken and insignificant, like a clay pot rather than an invulnerable giant - what then? The confusion is immense. In addition to the pain, there is often a great sense of guilt about having let the side down, or having betrayed trust that has been placed in the example they were supposed to have been setting. This can compound the anguish of brokenness. Is there any hope? Can anything redeem the situation?

Brokenness sometimes comes from circumstances over which we have no control. We are bereaved of a spouse with whom we have lived in love for many years and now we are desolate in our deep loneliness. Life no longer seems to have any real point. Or we may be grieving over a son or daughter whose apparently self-destructive life-style brings us intense pain. We feel distressed, helpless to do anything about it and reluctant to share our sorrow with anyone outside the situation. Or we may be stricken by some chronic illness which renders us dependent to a degree that embarrasses us; we feel 'useless' and a burden; and hate our condition of neediness.

Any severe loss can cause us to feel broken - of an unborn baby; of our job and familiar financial resources; the failure of a task or enterprise in which we have invested much of ourselves. I remember such an incident in my own life, and the intense feelings of rejection, anger and distress that went with it.

Wounds are also inflicted within relationships - the faithlessness of people whom we have trusted; unjust and ill-informed criticism; the indifference of those whose responsibility it was to care for us; unresponsiveness in people whom we love, or in those for whom we have prayed and whom we have served to the best of our ability.

Sometimes in the course of life's journey we have reason to question things we have always believed and which have seemed like a bedrock of certainty, especially matters relating to God. Our experience does not fit what previously we have accepted as 'truth'. We feel wracked with doubt and the anguish can be intense as we struggle with the question 'What is truth?'.

We can also be aware of a great sense of brokenness due to some social or psychological disability which constitutes a consistent 'thorn in the flesh'; and the loss of what other people regard as normality. Most of us know the pain which comes from wounds sustained in the battle of life, and they seem much harder to bear when there is also a sense of injustice or unexpectedness.

The experience of brokenness may come to us in another way. It can come from the pressures of society. We are bombarded by the media with notions of the success culture. We are told that we need to get ahead - by the various means which are advertised - we must be popular, and there are artificial aids to assist us in the attempt; we must have what other people have; we must be sexually potent - and so it goes on.

For instance, people frequently assess their value according to the size of their salary and the type of car which the firm provides according to their seniority. And the young pick it up quickly. If a teenager is old enough and permitted to drive Dad's BMW, his/her ideas about his/her own status and importance nearly go off the top of the Richter scale! This powerful car seems to reflect his fantasised social, sexual, and ability stakes. On the other hand, our ancient little jalopy seems to reflect that we work for a down at heel firm (even if it is the kingdom of God!), and that we ourselves are not special. It is very painful that we cannot afford to let our children do and have the things that their friends at school take for granted. It feels humiliating to accept a much lower standard of living than the people around seem to have and it is exhausting to have to cope with the daily grind of trying to make ends meet. We work hard, sometimes in very unpromising situations, and often do not see really satisfying results from our labours. Sometimes we are tempted to give up in sheer disillusionment. It seems as though we are fighting a losing battle. We find that we begin, almost imperceptibly, to value ourselves by material standards of status, competence, appearance of affluence, and compare our standing with other people by these criteria. Insidiously and almost unconsciously they permeate our world view. It becomes difficult to maintain a clear idea about what constitutes 'success'. Most of us know people who have suffered brokenness because society's pressure to be a 'success' has caused depression and a sense of failure.

Constant emphasis in the media and society generally, tends to reinforce our natural desires and stimulate the pressure from within ourselves the importance of being popular, the need for loving relationships, ambition, sex, money, etc. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these desires, our sense of brokenness and failure may be closely connected with them - the urgent need for sex (in the perpetual search for love and affirmation), or alcohol (in an endless attempt to obliterate a sense of failure, insecurity, fear, or some other emotional pain). For some, it is the impelling need to be associated with the 'top names' (in an attempt to prove something to somebody - probably ourselves), and it is often the need to overwork (justification by works? or drowning out a lack-lustre inner existence?). Christians often fall prey to overwork but call it a different name! We may have a genuine desire to serve the Lord, but at the same time there may be some pressure from within which gradually turns this desire into compulsion or drivenness.

This internal pressure may have various causes. It may be the scarcely conscious desire to prove ourselves by being seen to be successful; or the need to earn people's love by always being kind and helpful; or the need to be the person who is always in control of situations, planning, or people. This inner pressure gradually takes over and we become workaholics, unable to say 'No' to the incessant demands which people make on us, or difficult to work with because we cannot delegate. Then one thing leads to another. The over-busy pastor finds that his marriage is 'suddenly' not what it was. In his absorption with his work, or possibly with another attractive woman who forms a part of his work, he has not observed the growing estrangement from his wife. Or the person who needs to have the adulation of colleagues or the congregation falls out of favour for some reason (perhaps because he or she cannot delegate), and the bitter sense of having been let down is unbearable. Then there is a great collapse. He begins to understand what brokenness is about.

Inner drivenness can become very obvious to other people. But it may become apparent to us only when we are unable both to regulate our lives in way that produces satisfactory intimate relationships, and to achieve an inner sense of quiet composure. In his 'The Problem of Pain', CS Lewis refers to pain as 'God's megaphone'. We are often so busy chasing our own particular version of what is important that God has to deafen us to its clamour by wounding us - using his megaphone.

We remember the timeless story of the Prodigal Son. He was sitting among the prohibited pigs, having scraped the very bottom of the barrel of life. He had escaped the restrictive narrowness (as he saw it) of home, and gone off to discover a more fulfilling life elsewhere. He had had his fun, and it was good while it lasted. The trouble was that it did not last long, and then he was left with absolutely nothing: worse still, he could not blame anyone but himself for his plight. He sat in his misery contemplating the situation, and as he did so he 'came to himself' (AV). He was forced to take a long hard look at himself. And what did he see? Not a very pleasant picture. He had set out with high expectations of freedom and success, but all the finery was finished now, literally and emotionally. He had no money and nothing with which to attract people. He had no prospects worth speaking of and nobody wanted him. He was alone, friendless, confused, and his self-esteem was at a very low ebb. He saw that his priorities had been all wrong. He had been chasing his own desires for success, the pleasures of the present appetite, freedom from conventional expectations and the lure of independence. He wanted to find something out for himself - and he found more that he bargained for! God's megaphone, in the shape of a pig, had at last brought him to himself, to discover the values of his own heart. He found out the hard way. But what then? There he was, sitting among the pigs, ruminating about the past and the present. Should he wait to see what happened, or should he, impelled by the misery of his woundedness, take his courage in both hands, go back to his father and confess how wrong he had been, risking the rebuff the he deserved?

It is so very hard to say 'Sorry'. And sometimes, our very woundedness is the only thing that will enable us to do it. That word 'Sorry' is so important if it comes from the knowledge of our own hearts when we have come to ourselves. It is a healer, a liberator, a growth point. It can enrich our relationships with other people and make progress possible where huge barriers existed before. But perhaps even more important than that, it causes us to recognise within ourselves our pride, our resentments, our mistaken priorities in people, things or positions, our stubborn inflexibility and our littleness. That is also a hard pill, so difficult to swallow. Perhaps somewhere among all this lies the fact that it often feels easier to admit our needs and shortcomings to God, who seems to let us off the hook more easily, than to admit them to our neighbour. For some obscure reason, we expect God to be more understanding and forgiving, as though he will turn a blind eye to our personal 'foibles' in the same way that we like to. He will not be so demanding as our neighbour. What sort of self-deception is that? It is also the part which needs attention badly, the reason a loud megaphone sometimes has to be used. Thus God can use our brokenness to let us see ourselves, creating a growth point.

Brokenness brings us to a standstill. The world may go on around us, but our heart (the part of us to which God speaks) is now broken, confused and not at all self-confident. It has been broken from its previous intentions and has to look at God and at life from a position of helplessness and dependence. It is the very helplessness and dependence which are so painful. Life feels so much more comfortable when we can regulate it ourselves and we know where we are going. Now, we have no resources, no self-confidence, nothing to offer. We have nothing left. Brokenness, down whatever avenue it comes, can make us available to ourselves in a much deeper way. Our hard protective carapace is cracked open and we can reach our 'soft underbelly'. God cannot speak deeply to a carapace: the soft underbelly (or heart) is the place where we meet with God. Then there is hope and the possibility of resurrection and new life. There is some value in that sort of brokenness!

Brokenness also enables us to experience the loving embrace of the Compassionate Father; to know the grace of acceptance, forgiveness and understanding. He has been wanting to speak to us for a long time, but we may have been preoccupied with serving him, others or ourselves, with no time or availability for him or for listening to what he has to say. Or he may want us to experience his presence in a much deeper way than we have ever known before, through some dark valley of shadow. What does he want to say? We have to be still and listen to the message which is individual and personal.

The father knows what brokenness is about. He has suffered deeply as this son spurned him and wished him dead so that he could inherit the proceeds - eager for the gifts but not the giver. He has been waiting with heart-rending patience for the right time to come, suffering the agonies of a father who knows what his son will encounter, and the bruising way of the world, yet restraining himself from interfering. Lines of sorrow and love flow down his face, like scars deeply etched. It is a form of crucifixion. The father also, in spite of his richness, knows the experience of brokenness.

The story of the Prodigal Son finishes with the joyful reunion and celebration; but it does not end there. There would be some honest and painful talking to come, some difficult issues to face, and a different life-style to evolve. Re-establishment of broken relationships is not always easy, and wounds of any sort take time to heal. Humpty Dumpty could envisage being put to together only in the same shape as he was before his fall; after the experience of brokenness, the putting together again will inevitably produce a different shape.

The healing reunion, resurrection, and a redeemed situation are not foregone conclusions. We have choices. We can choose, in our pain, to become bitter and angrily resentful against God or someone who we think has wronged us. We may try to justify ourselves so that the main blame and responsibility rests on the other person, but the relationship is broken, and in future we shall not seek their company for pleasure. Our 'shape' will be full of hard edges and corners which hurt when people come close to us. And if we are not careful, our inner heart, secret and precious, becomes hardened and our ears blocked against the deeper message of the megaphone. Is this what happened to the Elder Brother? It is bad enough to know that we are broken, but it is even worse to be broken without knowing it. That is real uselessness and of no value for relationships. This nameless man had been so busy doing the right thing hat he had lost touch with his own neediness. The possibility of relating comfortably to his recalcitrant brother or even to his father was non-existent. He could only condemn, criticise, compare and reject. Perhaps he could not recognise in his brother his own ungratified wish to kick over the traces. Neither could he acknowledge his own yearning for unconditional love which does not have to be earned by good works and 'doing the right thing'.

Of course, we could not live in a perpetual state of brokenness. Perhaps it is true to say that most of us, for most of the time, float about on the misty flats somewhere between two extremes, not in dire distress and not in withdrawn hauteur. But we know what it is like to be rushing about physically and mentally, so that inner stillness is a rare commodity, hard to achieve. Life is busy with work, shopping, family, travel, study and simply 'keeping the show on the road'. We know well that inner stillness and attention to God's still small voice are vital if we are to maintain a real and enlivening relationship with our own selves and with God - and thus with other people. As Henri Nouwen says, 'We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make some decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord'1

By keeping our eyes fixed on the Lord, we can sometimes obviate the unpleasant experiences of brokenness which come to us from the pressures of society or from within; and when we encounter brokenness which comes from sources outside our control, we can find a true solace which the world cannot give.

So we see that experiences of brokenness stop us in our tracks and cause us to be more aware. They can prevent us from becoming arid and stale, pushing on with what we think is important, but dried up within. Brokenness can soften us, making us more aware of our own vulnerability and dependence so that we tread more gently in the world. It can also make us more aware of other people; more able to weep with those who weep; more able to bear one another's burdens sensitively; more easily approachable by people who are struggling. Perhaps most important of all, the awareness of our fragility makes us less self-confident and increases our conscious, childlike dependence on God. So, thank God, we carry a great treasure in breakable clay pots.

1 'Behold the beauty of the Lord': Henri Nouwen. Ave Maria Press 1987.


Myra Chave-Jones is a Psychotherapist and former Director of Care and Counsel.

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You are reading Treasure in Clay Pots by Myra Chave-Jones, part of Issue 6 of Ministry Today, published in February 1996.

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