Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 1
Gordon MacDonald is the author of Ordering Your Private World, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, Rediscovering Yourself, and Rebuilding Your Broken World. He and his wife recently coauthored a book on relationships, If Those Who Reach Could Touch. Formerly the pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, and president of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, he is currently pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in New York City. In the following interview, MacDonald discusses broken-world people and experiences, how to avoid a broken-world situation, and how to rebuild an already broken world.
Q. What is a broken-world person?
A. A broken-world person is one who has had his life –that is, all the external and internal things we knit together to make our being, our world–suddenly shattered. These wounds may be inflicted by others — a child who becomes a druggie creates a broken-world experience for his parents. Another, more specific kind of broken-world person is the one who makes a terrible choice and deviates from standards set by God, by himself, or by the system in which he lives. For example, a man becomes very immoral and unethical in his job, then reaps the consequences when his career and reputation fall apart. Such an individual who brings his world to brokenness through personal error, weakness, or failure was my primary concern in writing Rebuilding Your Broken World.
Q. Are there warning signals that a person is approaching a broken-world experience?
A. Yes, the signals can come from several sources. Close friends may warn you and hold you accountable. For example, Jesus tried to warn Peter that his world was about to break. God attempted to warn Cain that he was making a set of broken-world decisions.
Another early warning device is to become familiar with environments in which one is likely to make bad choices. Extreme fatigue, exhaustion, increasing amounts of stress and frustration are all potential broken-world environments. Obviously, if one is drifting spiritually and has abandoned spiritual disciplines one is open to a broken-world experience.
To understanding the misbehavior of a person one must realize two things. The first is to face the fact that there is a volcanic capacity for evil in every one of us. When that evil connects with the evil in effect outside of us,we can be involved in some pretty bad activities. The second is to ask under what conditions is this more likely to happen.
Some potential broken-world environments are fatigue, stress, frustration and adversity, and substance abuse. There are even classic environments in the different stages of life. Young adults are likely to have problems because they are consumed with the ambition to establish themselves. A midlife person is in an environment where he realizes he is not going to meet all his goals, and he is watching many things slip away from him. An aging person is in an environment that engenders bitterness and anger because he sees the world passing him by.
Q. What are the steps in rebuilding a broken world?
A. The first step, of course, is to repent. There must be a moment of insight when a person understands that he has sinned, and no excuses can be mounted. The rebuilding begins most effectively when a person stands before his peers without excuse. The next step would be a relinquishing of responsibilities and privileges, a withdrawing into quiet reflection, a period of disciplinary exile, if you will. There should be, at this point, a team of people who aid in the restorative process or the rebuilding experience. They should be a sounding board, should suggest actions to be taken, should dig deeply into the causes of the broken-world experience, and should help determine how it can be avoided in the future. Obviously, you would begin the time-consuming process of re-knitting relationships which you may have badly wounded.
Q. You mention that few people are prepared for broken-world experiences because they believe certain myths surrounding them. What are they?
A. The first myth suggests that broken-world experiences are the exception, not the rule. They are merely anomalies in life, and the less we think about them the better. Besides, to spend too much time brooding on the possibility of broken-world experiences is to invite the event. It’s better to think only happy, positive thoughts.
The second myth presumes that a broken-world experience can never happen to me. This is the version of the typically human notion that we can live above all the odds, take all the risks, and avoid all the consequences.
The third myth is built on the assumption that, if and when my world does break, I can more than handle the results. I have enough energy and resources built up to reduce, if not neutralize, any bad effects.
To the first myth, one must say, Know history. To the second myth, one must say, Know thyself. To the third, one must say, Know God’s laws.
Q. You have said that we are vulnerable not at our weakest points but at our strongest. How can this be?
A. We tend to take our strengths for granted, and, in the natural amphitheater of action, that should be enough. If all of life’s challenges were natural, we would be impregnable at our points of strength. But we are talking about supernatural challenges. The Bible seems to be teaching us that even our strengths need to be fortified by prayer, intercession, faith, and by an alertness to the enemies of God. It is this failure to realize that one must cover even his strengths with the Holy Spirit’s power that gets people into trouble.
Q. Do you think it is a necessity in our ultimate spiritual growth that we suffer?
A. Well, Christianity is very much like a sailboat — it only works best when the wind is blowing the hardest. In other words, Christianity works best in a suffering context. The great theologies of the last centuries were all born in suffering, struggle, and crisis. No great theology has ever come out of an easy situation. The Bible gives us very few examples of men who knew God well without broken-world experiences. The bottom line is this: while there may be other ways to experience brokenness and God’s deepest treasures of grace, it does not seem to me that too many people experience that without intense suffering.
Q. Are there a lot of broken-world people?
A. There are, and they are carrying their broken worlds in secret. It reminds me of a 2×6 board that I turned over in the backyard. It had been lying on the ground for months; underneath it I found thousands and thousands of insects. I have come to realize that the church has an underside to it. A high percentage of men and women who are going through some personal horror walk into church each Sunday and are terrified that someone will find out.
I’ve known the broken-world experience, and I can tell you that I was deeply wounded week after week to realize that most worship services had nothing to offer me. I felt no freedom to confess what was bothering me. I heard very little in the prayers, preaching, or fellowship of the congregation that told me if I revealed my secret I would still be accepted.
I also learned how ruthless the unmonitored conversation of many Christians is. I listened to the harsh criticism about those who were going through public broken-world experiences, the catty and cynical words, and knew that they would say the same of me. The underlying implication was that it doesn’t pay to repent.
It seems to me that, if the church is to be a restorative, grace-giving community, one of the ways it begins is by realizing we need to be very careful what we say about the person who is not there to defend himself. That is why many people do not repent; they do not see the climate that calls for repentance in the church; they hear the harshness and judgment.
I am personally convinced that we will never see an outbreak of recommitment to the gospel of Christ and a fresh infusion of heavenly power today until we take the restorative ministry of the church seriously and understand that we have nothing better to give people than grace, kindness, and mercy. We must begin to say, “Come unto me all you who are weary, your confession is safe here. Your sin is ugly and awful, but we are not going to humiliate you. We will take you with your broken heart, and we are going to commit to restoring.” As my wife is fond of saying, ” There’s only one thing Satan cannot replicate, and that’s forgiveness–because he’s never been forgiven.”