The World is Not Broken!
Some phrases are so widely used by preachers that we can take them for granted without asking whether they are actually true or helpful. One of those, which I have noticed becoming increasingly commonplace is “a broken world”. I have seen it cropping up repeatedly in sermons and in assignments I am marking or reviewing for theological college students. It seems to have become the most popular way to describe the world we live in. But is it correct? Does it help us present the gospel or not?
I have no idea from whence this phrase entered into standard evangelical conversation. I know of at least one book that uses it in the title. I do not have the book and, for fairness, I should say that I have appreciated some of its author’s other books, but I do not think that book is the origin of the phrase, even if it may have accelerated its use. Someone did suggest a source to me in the writings or teachings of a particular influential Christian, but I am not sure they were right. What I find interesting, however, is that both that influential person and the book come from conservative evangelicals of the Reformed persuasion. Exactly the people I would have expected to be quickest to recognise that the phrase is wrong and unhelpful.
Now, I realise I am likely to be stepping on some toes here. And I am not trying to encourage readers to jump on their pastors if they use the phrase. What I do want to encourage is more careful thinking about the words we use and what they convey to people. When I have mentioned my concerns about this phrase to people, I have met with something of a backlash in some cases. Yet, I stand by my assertion that the world is not broken. So, I wonder, why do we use this phrase? There are four things I hope to address in this post: (1) what we mean when we say the world is broken; (2) why the phrase is not helpful; and (3) what I think we should say instead.
(1) What we mean by “broken world”
When we use the phrase “broken world”, I suspect there are two things we are seeking to do. Firstly, we want to challenge some of the wrong ideas that have been influential in Western thought in the last few centuries. Christians do not accept the various utopian visions that have caught the imagination, whether the Marxist or capitalist versions (and others are available!) We do not accept that people are fundamentally good and that we can fix our own problems. We want to say clearly that the world is not basically good. Nor can we settle for the Darwinian idea that the world is just the way it is, with suffering and death being part of normal existence. We recognise that this is not the world God originally created and that the human longing for something better is an indicator of that fact. We want to convey to people that something is wrong, and “broken world” seems to convey that.
The second thing I think we are trying to do when we speak of the world as broken is to find common ground with non-believers. In this moment in Western culture there is a greater recognition that all is not right with the world than I think we have had in my lifetime. The global COVID-19 pandemic shook our collective confidence. The war in Ukraine has undermined our hope in a new peaceful world order. The rise of non-Western nations as world powers with all the uncertainty that gives about our place in the world have fed a sense that all is not well. Of course, there have always been events to puncture our illusion of comfort in a well-oiled world – earthquakes, tsunamis and famines being chief – but for the most part, the Western world has enjoyed a spell of seeming progress and stability since the 1990s or so. Now we are not so sure. To many people, the world does seem to be fundamentally broken and we doubt our ability to fix it. Climate change is perhaps the clearest example of this. The nihilistic philosophy behind a movement like Extinction Rebellion would certainly find resonance in the idea that the world is broken.
Christians will, of course, differ from non-believers who would accept the “broken world” language in where we believe our salvation can come from. If Extinction Rebellion see any hope it is in our ability to stop harming the environment. Christians may agree – indeed, I think they should – that we need to reduce our negative impact on the planet. We should care deeply about this planet because we believe it is God’s and because we see that environmental damage affects the poorest in the world disproportionately. But we do not, or must not, see this as the greatest challenge facing humanity. We believe that is sin and we know that only God, in Christ Jesus, can solve it. When a Christian says the world is broken, she means that it is not the way God intended it and that we need God to fix it. When a non-believer uses the same phrase, he means simply that we have messed up the world and better try our utmost to fix it before it is too late.
(2) Why “broken world” is misleading
Now, it may seem based on what I have said so far that my concern with Christians calling the world broken is primarily because we mean something different by it than a non-believer. I do see that as a risk, but it is not my primary issue with the language. That has deeper theological reasons. I do not like the phrase “broken world” because I think it is simply wrong. Before I explain why, I should say that I accept fully that the world is not how it was when God created it or how it should be. I also accept that human beings have caused great harm to God’s creation, especially to one another. I can even acknowledge that from our perspective amidst the suffering we collectively experience the world might appear to be broken. But I don’t believe it actually is.
In explaining myself, let me start with a question. What do we usually mean when we call something “broken”? Now, here I must make an admission that might seem to undermine my whole argument. Sometimes, ‘broken’ simply means ‘damaged’. If that is the case, then I accept the world is broken. It has been damaged by human sin, both directly and indirectly. Another qualifier to the phrase “broken world” may strengthen this point further. What do we mean by “world”? If we mean human society apart from God – the same sense in which the New Testament often refers to “the world” (e.g., John 15:18-19; John 16:18-33; John 17; 1 Corinthians 6:2; 7:31; 11:32; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Galatians 6:14; 1 John 2:15-17; 3:1,13; 4:4-5; 5:4-5) – then we can certainly say the world is broken. So, what is my issue with the phrase? Am I just being unhelpfully pedantic? I hope not!
My concern is that when we say the world is broken, people are unlikely to understand by either ‘world’ or ‘broken’ that human society is damaged. Or, at least, that is not all they will think. For most people, ‘world’ is more likely to refer to the planet (they are used to climate change prophecies of doom) or even the cosmos. The word is also used this way in the Bible. And, when we say “broken”, people are not likely to think we just mean ‘damaged’. They are more likely to think that we mean it is not working, in the same sense that “My washing machine is broken” do not mean that it is damaged, but that it has broken down and cannot wash clothes any longer. Now, some Christians may mean this when they say “broken world”, but this is the meaning that I think we cannot believe and must not inadvertently convey to people.
Is the universe, or even our planet, broken in the sense of no longer working according to its purpose? Not according to the Scriptures. The apostle Paul tells us that Christ is continuing to sustain all things (Colossians 1:17). The writer of Hebrews says that the Son upholds the universe by His powerful word (Hebrews 1:3). However ‘out of control’ the universe may seem, it is not chaotic. It is still orderly – an order that allows us to recognise when things go wrong. It has a ruler and he is still in control. The problem with our world is not that it is broken in the bigger sense of no longer working according to the creator’s intentions. Indeed, the brokenness we see in the universe was, according to Scripture, placed on the universe by its Creator. That is what Genesis 3 describes as the curse God placed on the world. In Romans 8:20, the apostle Paul says that, “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it”. All of the suffering we experience, he says, is a result of God’s imposition on the universe of decay.
Paul describes the groans of a struggling universe and of suffering people who inhabit it as being like the groaning of a woman in childbirth. This is a remarkable picture, because the pain of childbirth is a direct result of the curse according to Genesis 3, and because the pain of childbirth is the only truly purposeful pain human beings experience. Other pains may serve a limited purpose – to tell us something is wrong and needs fixed – but the pain of childbirth is not because something is wrong, it is because something very good is about to happen – the birth of a new baby. No other human pain is like that. And Paul is saying that all of the struggles, pains and groans of life are like that because this universe is heading towards a great goal – God’s children being revealed in glory. So, the apostle can write, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (|Romans 8:18).
So, according to Scripture, the world is not broken (in the bigger sense of failing to work to plan), any more than the body of a woman in labour is broken. Just as her body is doing what it needs to do in order for the child to be born, so the universe is doing what it needs to do for God’s children to be revealed in glory. Just as the woman’s body is designed to be able to bear that child and give birth to it, so the universe as we experience it is designed to be able to bring people to God and to glory. The abnormal bit is the pain that process entails (and, in the case of childbirth, the risk to the lives of woman and baby). If we say the world is “broken”, we say to much. And, we take too much credit for ourselves. Human sin has messed up the world and damaged things, but it cannot fundamentally stop God’s purpose. We cannot break the world.
I should say here that I have less problem with speaking of people as “broken” than with calling the world “broken”. But even calling people broken can be misleading for two reasons. Firstly, because it avoids the question, “Who broke us?” It can play into the victim mentality that is increasingly prevalent in Western culture. If I am going to call myself broken, I had better recognise that I am a breaker too. It is true that other people’s actions have caused me harm – for some people that harm is much greater than for others – but I must also accept that my actions have harmed others. More importantly still, I must acknowledge that the root problem I have is my own sin. The verb break does have a place when talking about sin. We break commands of God. In doing so, we commit sins. We break our relationship with God by declaring independence from him and persisting in rebellion against him. This is the heart of sin and it is the reason why we commit sins. The consequence of sin (rebellion) is sins (acts of wrongdoing) and the consequence of sin is death and destruction. If this is what I mean by calling people broken, then so good.
But there is a second problem with the language of “broken people”. It suggests that our primary need is a fix, and it turns God into a fixer. That way of thinking fits with our technological and therapeutic age. But it falls short of the biblical vision of salvation. Jesus did not call himself a fixer. He did call himself a physician – a healer – but that means more than just fixing us up (I hope that my fellow medics know that they are more than fixers of bodies). The primary way salvation is described in Scripture is relational. We are alienated from God in our rebellious minds and hearts. We do not recognise or accept his love. We do not admit that our sin is offensive to him and grieves his heart. We want to live our own way. God calls us back to himself. He wants us to know his love. He wants us to trust him. We are not just broken – we are wayward children, lost souls, rebels.
In one sense, our lives are no more broken than the universe. They are continuing to work exactly as God designed. It is just that we have taken something God designed for one purpose – to know, love and serve him – and using it for another purpose – to know, love and serve ourselves. It is like me wondering why my washing machine will not show me a movie from my favourite steaming service. I can stare for hours at the little window and all I ever see is clothes tumbling around. The fault is not with the machine. It is not broken. I am trying to do something with it that it was not intended for. So, the language of “broken people”, whilst less problematic than “broken world”, may still be misleading.
(3) What we can say instead
So much for my concerns about Christians calling the world broken or even referring to people as broken. Perhaps you will dismiss me as making a big issue from something little. You may say that you know what you mean – that when you say “broken world” you mean “damaged society” or even “damaged planet” and when you say “broken people” it is shorthand for “people who break things including themselves because they misuse what God gave them for the wrong purpose”. My concern is that I doubt that this is what anyone hears when you say these things. But perhaps I am wrong.
I cannot raise a problem without trying to suggest a solution. What is a better way to speak about the problems we see in the world and in people’s lives? I think we can use “broken” in the mix of doing that. We can speak of “broken relationships”, “broken dreams” and, perhaps, even “broken lives”. But when we speak of people in their totality, I think we would do best to use words with a richer pedigree and to use pairs of words that convey the two realities of what we are. I like alliteration, so I sometimes speak of “dignity and depravity”, explaining that we are capable of great good and great evil, bearing the mark of our creator’s image but falling short of his glory. You may prefer plainer words like “sinful and loved” or “messed up but precious”. If you do speak of people as broken, please be careful to explain what you mean and do not mean.
And how can we speak of the world? Perhaps we can call it “God’s world that we have harmed”? Or “A good but damaged world”? Or we could go back to the main shorthand phrase Christians seem to have used for decades before we ever called the world broken – “A fallen world”. That phrase is ingenious, because it captures the distinctively Christian idea that the world was not always this way and in its sense of downward movement it implies that it was made to be better. Of course, like any two word phrase, it too could be misunderstood, but I think it is easier to explain and less likely to be misunderstood than “broken world”.
So, next time you hear a preacher say the world is broken, why not have a chat with him (or her) afterwards? Be sure to give encouragement first – it is sorely lacking for those who minister God’s word – but ask what he (or she) meant by the phrase. I suspect most often the response will be a little confused – that it is a phrase picked up and regurgitated without much thought. Then encourage the preacher to think a little more (you might even link to this post!) about what the Bible says about this subject. In doing that, I think you will enrich his (or her) preaching for the future.
As I close, I do not simply want this post to be a rant about careless phrases in Christian teaching. The reason I think this is worth commenting on is twofold. On one hand, I think it will help us communicate the gospel more faithfully. That is vital, especially because the biggest barrier to doing so is the total resistance in Western culture today to the idea of sin as a moral problem in relationship to God. But on the other hand, I am convinced that accepting that the world is not truly broken in the ultimate sense can bring us great reassurance. We can have confidence in God’s purposes. Our experience of this world can be painful. I do not pretend that is easy. But the biggest problem with the world is not what we have done to it or what we do in it. The biggest problem is that it is under God’s curse and will face his judgement. Our ultimate hope is in the day when God lifts the bondage to which he has subjected the world and his people can live in his new creation without the curse (Revelation 22:3).
We are longing for the day when God’s children are revealed in glory. So is this world. Not a broken world in need of fixing, but a fallen world in need of reconciliation. Not broken people in need of patching, but sinners saved by grace and destined for glory.