Donate to RNS

Ann Voskamp answers tough questions about a word that can both harm and heal

The New York Times bestselling author talk about overcoming her struggle with cutting and how brokenness can be used to hurt or heal.

The New York Times bestseller has written a book on the positive aspects of brokenness. But can that concept also be used to malign and harm? - Image courtesy of Ann Voskamp

When Ann Voskamp ascends a stage, the only sound you hear is the air conditioner. Her fans and readers hold their breath, knowing that the lyrical writer never wastes a word. Voskamp’s command of language has transformed her from a simple farmer’s wife to a New York Times bestselling author, and it is also part of the reason I decided to interview her for “On Faith and Culture.”

I wept over the opening chapter of Ann’s first book, One Thousand Gifts, the first three times I read it. Her passion dripped from the pages and her words tapped on my heart’s door until I opened up and let her inside. Her newest book, The Broken Way, showcases equally beautiful prose and explores the theological significance of a word about which I feel conflicted: brokenness.

I agree with the prevailing belief that every human life is a mosaic of broken pieces. We live in a world that is broken by greed and hate and racism and violence and selfishness, and our lives are often swept up by these broken currents.  And as a Christian, I believe that God has the ability and willingness to illuminate, restore, and heal those areas of brokenness in the world. Brokenness should bind us together and unite us in the work of restoration.

But I also find that Christians have often misused this word, fashioning it into a bludgeoning tool for striking down those they do not understand, respect, or love. Including me.

When I was outed by a gay blogger a few years ago, I used the word “brokenness” to describe my sexuality. I regret that, and would not use that term in such a way today. In the years since then, I’ve heard Christians use this word to label all sorts of groups–divorced people, disabled people, depressed people, suicidal people, gay and lesbian people, and in the last year especially, transgender people. In these cases, the word has become a weapon to malign, marginalize, and other these individuals who are no more and no less in need of God’s grace than the labelers themselves.

Because Voskamp has just written a book on this word, I thought she would be the perfect person with whom to discuss this tension. Here, she addresses the matter with the grace and wisdom for which she has become known.

brokenRNS: You’ve written a book about “brokenness,” so let’s put first things first. How do you define that word?

AV: I believe that all real truths are paradoxical. So there’s brokenness that is what I’ve termed “bad brokenness.” It’s detrimental to human flourishing. It harms other people. It self-harms. It inhibits spiritual growth and emotional growth. It’s brokenness that doesn’t draw out the best in you, it doesn’t bring about transformation.

Paradoxically, there’s also “good brokenness.” The brokenness of humility, the brokenness of vulnerability, the brokenness of repentance, the brokenness of generosity. Instead of inhibiting human flourishing, good brokenness leads us into deep connection with each other.

Good brokenness leads us into a kind of communion that draws us into deeper intimacy with Christ and deeper intimacy with other human beings. Bad brokenness does the exact opposite. It destroys relationships, leaves us isolated, and leaves us harmed and harming others.

RNS: But some Christians may call something, in your words, “bad brokenness” that the rest of the world does not label that way. How do you tell the difference between bad brokenness and good brokenness when there’s a discrepancy?

AV: For me, I go back to my understanding of God’s Word as infallible. So I ask, “What does God say?” He gets to decide what’s brokenness and He is my creator and can tell me what leads to human flourishing and what doesn’t. I say that from a posture of my own fallibility too. I try to understand God’s word in a way that does honor not only the text but does honor people’s stories, but I recognize there is this tension between those who may interpret scripture differently.

Without the lens of the Word, the world’s warped.

Voskamp with her husband and children. - Image courtesy of Ann Voskamp

Voskamp with her husband and children. – Image courtesy of Ann Voskamp

RNS: I know many folks who feel the word “brokenness” is used to other them or harm them and the communities of which they are a part. Can the word “brokenness” be abusive or harmful in your opinion?

AV: Yes. The problem is when we wield brokenness at other people as if we ourselves are not deeply broken. I think when it’s wielded at people as though they’re the only ones that are broken, that’s a problem. This happens when we in the church–or perhaps the extremes within the church–don’t live in a posture of repentance for our own deep brokenness, for own glaring sins that we’re completely blind to. When we only turn towards others in a posture of self-righteousness and hypocrisy and say to others that they’re broken.

We have no credibility to speak into someone else’s brokenness if we can’t look in the mirror and see our own deep brokenness and come to every conversation with humility and repentance.We are all broken. We’re all the same kind of different. No one’s brokenness is worse than anybody else’s–ever.

RNS: I think of several groups in particular, and I want to name some of these. I think of LGBT people, who’ve been referred to as being “broken” in their sexuality, and as a result, they feel less than straight people. Disabled people who are call “broken” in their physicality and now feel less than non-disabled people. Or divorced people who’ve been spoken of as “broken” and feel less than married people. Do you think these people are broken? Is it helpful to label them in such a way?

AV: I feel much more comfortable speaking about my own brokenness, Jonathan, than anybody else’s. I want to be very careful with the word “broken.” I’m actually wincing talking about the word brokenness being used as a weapon, as a label to say that anyone is less than. For me, brokenness is a tender way to name all of our wounds and invite us into deep communion with a wounded healer, Jesus Christ, who says that He is broken and given for our brokenness. I feel deep pain in this discussion to think that brokenness would ever leave anyone feeling like they don’t belong.

“Brokenness” doesn’t ever mean less than. For me, the word itself is so centered around communion, so it invites everyone to the table to encounter Christ, to encounter the embrace of the body of Christ that broken is never a word that disqualifies anyone. Brokenness is actually your invitation to come with all of the other broken people to the table.

RNS: You talk about brokenness as an invitation to communion. Some Christians believe that certain kinds of what they call “brokenness” would exclude someone from the table. It would disqualify them from church membership even. What do you think?

AV: I don’t think there’s any brokenness that excludes you from being welcomed into the arms of Christ. He doesn’t want to leave you where you are, and I think this is the important part. He wants to draw you into deeper communion with Him and to deeply touch the wounds and for you to find deep healing in Him. But there is never any brokenness that Christ isn’t attracted to, that He doesn’t come to embrace. And if the body of Christ is not for the broken-hearted, then the church isn’t for Christ. Christ is drawn to the people who feel like they’re the outsiders, the oppressed, the marginalized, the voiceless.

I understand there’s tension around this conversation, and there’s nuance, and I believe it’s a long conversation. But I believe that brokenness is never the end of anyone’s story or that it ever disqualifies anyone. Brokenness is your invitation to deep communion.

RNS: Related to this, you say in The Broken Way that communion may actually be a trinity of brokenness and I think this is a unique idea. Can you explain to my readers what this means to you?

AV: Communion is found in a trinity of brokenness: In a broken place with broken people encountering the broken heart of Christ. Those in the church often wear masks like we have it all together, and in wearing masks what really gets masked is Christ. When Christ gets masked, there is no communion and we experience life of starvation, emaciation. We look like hypocrites because we are. Brokenness helps us peel off the mask and step into the courage of being vulnerable about our brokenness because otherwise why in the world would anyone outside of the church want to enter it.

The church needs to be a safe place for people to encounter deep connection, deep intimacy, deep communion in the mist of our own brokenness. It needs to be a place where we see a trinity of broken people with our own brokenness encountering the broken heart of Christ. This is communion, and without it, we’re all starving.

RNS: To conclude, you talk about being broken yourself. In your book, you mention that you have struggled with cutting and self-abuse. How did you face and overcome this?

AV: That’s painful, and I’m still in process. It’s something I still struggle with. I still have to preach gospel back to myself. I still have to preach truth back to myself. Because there are days and times when it’s still tempting to think about self-harm, and that’s a very terrifying thing to say out loud. A lot of my fears are around perfection, around being enough, around being acceptable, and when you don’t feel like you attain those standards, there can still be the temptation to self-harm.

I take a pen every day and draw a cross on my wrist over the top my scar. I want the cross the be the shape of my life. I want that vertical vein to represent all the gifts coming down from God and all that gratitude rising to God. I want those horizontal veins across to be a metaphor for stretching your hands wide open, living broken and giving, reaching out to a broken heart in the world.

I think that really is the ultimate story. Out of the brokenness, can we believe that resurrection could happen? If we believe that, we don’t have to be afraid of brokenness in the world.