Broken or Whole? What say you?

Elizabeth, responding to a pastor’s recent tweet, says we teach our children they are whole. What say you?

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.”  –Henri J.M. Nouwen

I have written this post at least five times.

Right now, my fingers are shaking.

I have erased and re-written this sentence RIGHT HERE three times.

I realize this probably sounds dramatic. Forgive me, I’m simply attempting to demonstrate how frightened I get about the kind of theology that was summed up in a pastor’s recent tweet: “Teach your children they are broken. Deeply broken.”

I was raised this way.

I was taught this way….

To summarize, being raised with a “You are deeply broken” theological framework seriously screwed me over.

This is no way to raise children. I mean, unless you’d like them to wrack up thousands of hours in therapy. Not that I know ANYTHING about that.

I have to work my recovery every single day because I’m STILL afraid God hates me.

But there is hope. I can see it in my children. I’m teaching them to live a different way.

When I teach my children the Gospel, I don’t start with: “You are bad, therefore you need Jesus.” I start with: “Before you were born, God loved you.” I start with God’s love and I end with God’s love. 

I teach my children they are whole, deeply whole. I teach them they were beautifully created in the image of God. I teach them they are unconditionally loved and cherished—no matter what they do or don’t do. I teach them to be lighthearted, easeful, resting in full assurance that they are loved. I teach them that and nothing and nobody can separate them from the love of Christ.

This kind of theology affects me on a visceral, bodily level.

Which is to say, even though I left an abusive church ten years ago, I’m still cleaning up the wreckage of the destructive belief that says I’m deeply, inherently broken.

Hear me on this: I still struggle every day to believe God loves me. 

This is because when you teach a child they are unworthy and somehow intrinsically broken/flawed/less-than, you set them up for disaster–not just in their relationship to God but in their relationships with people. 

Indeed, my biggest obstacle in healing from a harmful theological framework has been an inability to receive love. For YEARS after leaving an oppressive church, I could not receive the love of God—and many times, the love of people—because I kept blocking it with the whole “I’m a wretch! I’m a worm! I don’t deserve love!” mentality.

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  • Susan_G1

    “I teach my children they are whole, deeply whole. I teach them
    they were beautifully created in the image of God. I teach them they are
    unconditionally loved and cherished—no matter what they do or don’t do.
    I teach them to be lighthearted, easeful, resting in full assurance
    that they are loved. I teach them that and nothing and nobody can
    separate them from the love of Christ.”

    I hear you, Scot. I recently read Rachel Slick’s post on becoming an atheist, and it was unimaginably sad. I have friends who raised their kids this way. The physical ‘discipline’ taught in the neo-calvinist (a la SGM) movement is abuse.

    I raised my children to believe your quote above. Their discipline was from “1,2,3 Magic”, a book that was recommended to me by our pediatrician, and I in turn recommended it to all my patients and friends. But I also let them know when/that they sinned (and were loved and forgiven) and they needed Christ.. I was afraid of what they would learn if they were completely confident in themselves. I wanted them to have something to strive for.

    I came from an abusive home and struggle with God’s love as well. I praise Him that my children never fail to demonstrate their love for me, and, more importantly, that God saw fit to reveal this to me Himself. I guess I needed it.

  • Matt Edwards

    I hate to start the Calvinist bashing in the second comment, but I understand the tweet from that perspective. If the cardinal sin is human effort/pride and the cardinal virtue is belief/brokenness/humility, then yes, you need to start by teaching your kids that they are broken. But if the gospel is bigger than that, then I think the starting point needs to be “Jesus is Lord,” not “you are broken.”

    Our kids are broken (as is all of the world), and they need to know it. But they are also worth loving, and they need to know that just as much. To Calvinists, brokenness is the starting point, ending point, and every point in between.

  • Adam
  • Phil Miller

    This is something I’ve thought about for a while. We don’t have children, but I’ve seen the effects that the author is talking about quite a bit. If you tell people they’re worthless and that God really wants to pour His wrath out on them, sooner or later they will start believing it.

    One thing I remember my mother doing when I was growing up is always affirming my abilities and worth when I felt down. There were times I remember specifically when I had “friends” who would not ask me to do things or whatnot, and I would get very upset. I remember her saying to me – “you’re better than those people and in a few years you won’t even care about what they’re doing”. I know that could come off like a bad thing, but she wasn’t saying it to make me prideful, and I don’t think that was the result of it. She was just saying it to affirm my worth.

    Certainly there are some parents who make their kids think the whole world revolves around them, and I’ve seen that have bad consequences, too. Some kids are shocked when they learn that’s not true. I guess it comes back to the whole moderation thing.

  • Gabriel Rodriguez

    I say that raising children with thinking they are whole already and that God loves them just as they are, we create a generation of young adults that don’t know that God is Holy, and we are not and without holiness no one will see God. If I’m not broken and the world isn;t broken, in need of God fixing us, then what’s the point of needing to become more like Christ. I’m not saying teach our children that brokenness means there’s no hope. I’m saying that we need to teach our children that we’re broken, but Jesus can fix us. He’s the only one that can fix us. We can fix ourselves. Before we can understand God’s love we need to understand how our connection to his love was broken. Then we can move to God’s love.

  • Ann

    I grew up in the Reformed/Calvinist tradition and I disagree that with your understanding that in Calvinism the starting point & ending point is brokenness. The starting point is a creation that God deems as good… very good. And humankind made in God’s very image.

  • danaames

    I don’t see the issue in such black and white terms. We are neither intrinsically broken nor whole; we are simply human beings, redeemed by Jesus and called to now journey toward the fullness of what we were meant to be, along with everyone in the Body of Christ.

    One of the reasons I moved away from Evangelical theology is that in it God’s hands are tied by our sin. That is, even though we are told that God is love and that God loves us, the bigger message is that God is obliged to have the basic stance toward us of needing to punish us somehow, having to be separate from us and ignore or even turn his back on us, because of his holiness. (Scot, that is in fact what people in the pew actually hear – hence Elizabeth’s post.)

    In Orthodoxy, God always loves us and is always working for our restoration to the fullness of what being a Human Being was meant to be. God’s hands are not tied, God’s love is not stopped, and the Incarnation was never “plan B…” In the Liturgy, we hear that God has “not ceased doing everything until” he “brought us to heaven and granted us the Kingdom which is to come.” Here “heaven does not mean the “place” but, as Willard and Wright wrote, the aspect of reality that is not seen and yet intersects and overlaps that which is seen, the Realm where what God wants, happens. This does not speak any less of the fact that God is creator and humans are created, but speaks of self-giving love that seeks identification and union with the beloved, all the way down into death, the most helpless of helpless states – and of the conquering of death itself. Many of our prayers end with the phrase, “for you are good and love mankind, and we give you glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.” Orthodox theology confirms this.

    There is most certainly a sense that we are not what we were meant to be – and that in no way diminishes God’s ability to relate to us. I still remember a comment Dianne made some time ago, when she related that growing up as an Eastern Catholic (hearing the same prayers and the same Liturgy as the Orthodox) that she never had any sense, ever, that God did not love her and that God was not good, or that she was somehow “broken,” and that she found it easy to turn to God with awareness of her sin, knowing that God had always loved her.

    It is the view of God that effectively cancels out his love and true goodness that is broken.


  • I resonate with the post more than not. I would add this caveat: I don’t emphasize with my girls that we are all “broken, deeply broken” or that we are “whole.” I do emphasize that we are loved, and that by God, and that He has the words of life. Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us, is Lord. There’s nothing broken that he can’t fix. There’s nothing anyone can steal that he can’t give back. In Him (alone) people are whole. No one who trusts in him is disappointed in the end.

    Wholeness is something Jesus does and gives. Love and Life are his.

  • Tom F.

    “Broken” and “Whole” are relative terms, and basically, relational terms.

    This could sound like a cheap way of avoiding the questions, but I think “broken” and “whole” only make sense in relational terms, and so I wouldn’t talk about anyone as individually broken or individually whole. Our brokenness is evidenced by our capacity for disconnection and disrupted relationship with God and with others. Our wholeness is dependent upon the restoration of those relationships. Neither should be understood as a property or attribute of the individual self.

    If it were only up to us, we would be “broken”, because we can not sustain our relationships without rupture or violence (“sin”) by our own powers. But you could not isolate any part of an individual and locate this “brokenness”, nor could you meaningfully talk about “brokenness” apart from relationships. Because of our incapacity to sustain relationship, we are dependent first upon God and then upon others for forgiveness and restoration. But this incapacity is not the same as “brokenness” because we were not designed with the capacity to independently and unilaterally sustain relationship. (As I think about this, I realize this is not fully and clearly articulated, and isn’t meant to be a tight logical argument. Still, I think this is a better direction to head.)

    To get rid of “broken” altogether will have the unfortunate result of leaving people with no label for the inevitable failures they will have, and the sense that they try and make out of repeated failures. If there is no word for when people do not feel whole, than their experience of brokenness will not be able to be a full part of their experience, and it will simply be. It hardly seems a mercy to multiply confusion and bewilderment in this way.

    But because of who God is, our brokenness is not the most basic truth about ourselves. Like how Augustine talks about evil can only be the perversion of the good, our brokenness can only be the disruption of the wholeness we find in loving relationship to God and others. But even that wholeness is not intrinsic to ourselves, but is a result of our relationship to God.

    So, in some ways, I would throw the question back: Why do we need to assign either “brokenness” or “wholeness” to individuals in the first place? Why is it that these can not be functions of an individual’s relationships?

  • Phil Miller

    Your answer is great if you’re describing our state in theological terms, but, really, are you going to bring up Augustine’s conception of humanity when explaining this to a child?

    To me it comes down to this – does a kid grow up thinking God love him or her or not. If they don’t believe God loves them, than all of our other theological discussions are missing the boat.

    I’ve found that a lot of kids who grow up in church don’t have a hard time believing that God loves them as long as they do the right thing. But if they mess up, then watch out. The God who sees them mess up is vengeful and full of wrath.

  • SteveSherwood

    I’d have to say I find myself between the two poles of these posts, though I recoiled a good deal more when I first saw the “teach your children they are broken” tweet. It’s the same line of thought that leads a pastor to tell his 10 year old daughter that that she shouldn’t question why God allows natural disasters but should instead marvel that God doesn’t destroy all of us in them because we are so repugnant to Him. Do we need to learn to recognize, have humility regarding and repent of our propensity to sin? Absolutely. Do need to question the hesed God feels for us? Not for a second.

  • Tom F.

    Okay, good point, I would definitely not explain it to a child this way. But I think you have to have the full theology down before formulating a response to a child.

    I suppose to a child I might try and make the analogy to their relationship to their own parents. You might ask a child if they would be okay without their parents, and whether they might be very confused and make poor decisions if they didn’t have their parents around. I might say that this is roughly analogous to our relationship to God, that our badness results from us being disconnected from God, because we were made to be connected.

    I know that in some ways this only moves the question one back: why would we choose to be disconnected from God, then, if there weren’t some *other* more basic brokenness about us. But then, I can’t recall any theologians that have attempted to explain the basic motivation for sin. Every motivation will, by definition, be irrational, and there is no reason why “unfallen” human beings should have any irrational tendencies. This leads me towards a “childlike” interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve; perhaps some necessary component of development as human beings requires passing through a stage where one might be more vulnerable to these irrational tendencies. I don’t honestly know.

    I think the point, however, is that God’s love is not dependent upon our wholeness or brokenness, but rather, God’s love is starting point upon which human response to indicates our wholeness or brokenness. God’s love is first, our condition is secondarily and only relationally connected to that first love.

    So yes, I would say to a kid that God loves them when they do the wrong thing, not because they are still “whole”, but because God’s love is always seeking restoration and restored relationship. We see the ultimate expression of reconciliation in the face of brokenness in the cross, which ultimately and finally changes our relationship to God as basically “whole”, though we still experience “brokenness” towards God in the meantime.

  • jetwideawake

    Neither and both. In my oponion, broken does not mean shameful person although he or she is miserable without God. (Romans7) Broken does not mean that the sinner is hateful or worthy of hate. We are whole and we are being made whole. We have this wholeness in this jar of clay (a treasure within us). We are being transformed into this wholeness by the power of Christ. I believe that God sees us in our wholeness, in our fullness in Christ. We need to see each other as God sees us. We need to see ourselves as Good sees us – fully loved, accepted and approved of by God.

  • Are we all broken? Yes. Are we whole outside of Christ? No. Does God love the little children? Yes. Are they perfect just the way they are? No. When and how that is taught requires wisdom.

  • josenmiami

    there are lots of oppressive churches out there, from every doctrinal distinctive

  • Josh

    Your quoting, ,”Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12.14) I assume? The verse seems to take the stance that by striving, people will be holy and therefore see God. I’m thinking if we teach this verse in its proper context we should be teaching people to strive for holiness so they can see God.

  • Steve Johnson

    The problem with teaching a child that they are broken is that they will be tempted to live from their brokenness. They will never feel complete.

    The problem with teaching a child that they are whole is that eventually they will recognize their brokenness and they will feel stuck, because they have been told they are whole, so this brokenness is something they created in their lives.

    I’d prefer to teach my children that they are being make whole every day in Christ. Not every day is great, but every day can get better.

  • Josh

    Paul’s exhortation for how we should view ourselves, is couched in terms of Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom 6.1-11).

    11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6.11)

  • Susan_G1

    My comment is below, but in reading these, I have to ask, how many of you have grown children? How are they doing? Do you know for sure, or do they tell you what you want to hear? What would you tell them if they came out to you? Got a tattoo? Liked beer too much?

    I was raised in an emotionally abusive home, and I was going to be damned if I didn’t raise my children in as loving an environment, as open (no topic off-limits, including evil and God), and as honest (yes, you are a sinner, as we all are, but nothing can separate you from the love of God) as I could provide. Now they are adults.

    Are they just fine? No, they are not. They are broken. We are all broken. But, unlike me, they don’t live there.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    We need to start with the truth our identity – we are image bearers. An original blessing is more important and powerful than original sin. In the bible, God speaks repeatedly of washing sin away. Our identity is not in sin – sin is simply what distorts, covers and hides the reality of who we are. I teach it by explaining that we’re like diamonds that become dirty and crusted over until we may look like nothing more than a clump of dirt. But that’s not who we are. Who we are is what we discover as our sins are washed away by Christ. Salvation is redemption to our true identity as the very image of God. But if you’ve been taught that the muck of sin defines you – that you are broken an unworthy, you may never be able to accept the wholeness and wonder for which you were made.

  • Chris Thom

    I cannot relate to the author’s perspective. My family left our church because after
    our first son was born with a new genetic mutation that caused the brittle bone
    disorder Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), we were repeatedly told that he was
    whole and not broken and that OI is a unique divine gift. After several broken bones, feeding
    problems, many tears and much physical therapy, we are quite certain that he is
    intrinsically broken. And having
    fellow Christians tell us that this state of being is perfect, whole, and
    exactly the way that God created him and meant for him to be set us up for a
    crisis of faith with God and a crisis of relationship with our fellow
    Christians. And when our second
    son was born with Down Syndrome and I discovered that I have a birth defect
    that causes cardiomyopathy, we were told the same thing all over again.

    This kind of theology affects me on a visceral, bodily level
    too. If we are not deeply broken,
    but are exactly the way God made us to be, I am forced to conclude that God
    really hates us.

    But I don’t believe this at all. I appreciate NT Wright’s quote “that God accepts us as we
    are, but loves us too much to leave us where we are.” We need healing, physical as well as spiritual, to become
    the fully flourishing and fruitful humans that we are meant to be, and my hope to
    reach that goal rests on the achievement of Jesus, the future bodily
    resurrection of the dead into immortal bodies and the promise of his kingdom.

    We know that God loves us, not because we are whole, but
    because he loves us too much to leave us in our broken condition. Now, I just need to find a church where
    can worship in community with other Christians who are not bent on convincing
    us that we are “just the way God meant for us to be.”

  • attytjj466

    To me the key to a healthy self image and self esteem and confidence begins and is centered and nurtured in the home, where children are loved deeply and unconditionally. When I read a post like this I hear and feel the pain and hurt and struggle and my heart goes out to the author. While there are harsh and condeming churches and church traditions out there that some were/are sadly raised in, this would seem to go deeper than that, to the home and family, and my heart grieves for this individual.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Children aren’t broken, but Augustinian theology sure is . . .

  • Guest

    I am the grown child of a family and church that was conservative enough to really emphasize all the things good Christians shouldn’t be doing and saying. In fact, that’s mostly the message I got out of it until I went to college. One encouragement I’d like to put forth is that God isn’t finished with adult children nor their parents. My brother and I didn’t turn out the way we were expected to based upon conservative church culture. We aren’t following the socially acceptable script (get married by a certain age, have children, avoid drinking and tattoos, etc.). I know it has hurt my parents and sometimes they feel like…what did I do wrong? But! That isn’t the end of the story. My brother and I can be honest with mom and dad about where we really are and we are genuinely loved and accepted. God is at work on both sides of the equation.

  • Erin Pascal

    God loves all of us. His love is perfect. If you will just give it a chance, surrender yourself to Him, pray, and believe with all your heart, mind and soul, you will see that He was always with you all this time.

  • I guess my first thought is like what I’ve seen posted by others, that I want my children to know that they are loved. I want them to know that I love them and that God loves them because ultimately we are His creation, however the details on that fall into place.

    However, I think in that we need to say that we are broken too. We are broken but God still loves us. We aren’t worthless because we are broken. Granted I think it helps to present that not just our children are broken, but that we’re just as broken. We’re all in this boat together. Maybe broken isn’t even the best word to use, but something to say that we are a weird mix of good because of God’s love and redemption, but also bad because we need said redemption and God to make us whole.

  • elizabethesther

    Scot, as a longtime admirer of your work, I’m humbled to see you quoting me, here. Thanks for continuing this important discussion.