Christianity, As I Understand It.
The Brokenness of Humanity
In July of 1942, Major Trapp was informed that his Reserve Police Battalion 101 had the task of rounding up the 1800 Jews of Jozefow, Poland. Only the men were to be relocated, the women, children, and elderly were to be shot on the spot. The men of the battalion were not officially informed, but some had a hint of what was to come. Two platoons were to surround the village, with explicit orders to shoot anyone trying to escape. The remaining men were to round up the Jews, shooting any that were sick or frail, as well as infants and anyone offering resistance.1
We live in a broken world. This story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 is recounted in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary People. Human history is filled with atrocities like this massacre: slavery, human trafficking, violent power struggles. We try to make distinctions between the bad people and the good people. We create laws declaring what constitutes good and what constitutes bad. We seek out and incarcerate the bad. We remark on accounts like this with comments such as, “What kind of monster could do that?” or “I could never do something like that.”
We tell ourselves that we are good and they are bad.
The problem is that I know, deep within me, that I am among the bad. I have not been convicted of any crimes, but I have stolen, I have wished ill towards others, and I have thought first and last only about my own well-being.
Worse, I have done things that I had previously thought myself incapable of doing. When that happens, you realize a scary truth: given the right circumstances I am more than capable of evil.
This is the conclusion Browning makes. Reserve Police Battalion 101 was not made up of hardened soldiers. It was made up of middle aged, working-class men. He concludes:
Except for a few of the oldest men who were veterans of World War I, and a few NCOs who had been transferred to Poland from Russia, the men of the battalion had not seen battle or encountered a deadly enemy. Most of them had not fired a shot in anger or ever been fired on, much less lost comrades fighting at their side. Thus, wartime brutalization through prior combat was not an immediate experience directly influencing the men’s behavior at Jozefow. In this sense, brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior.2
There are not good and bad people, broken and unbroken people. We are all broken. We are all capable of the unthinkable. We aren’t broken because we do bad, but because we consistently cannot do good.
G.K. Chesterton, an English writer living in the late 1800s, early 1900s, was invited by a newspaper to submit an essay on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World.” Chesterton responded with a letter that simply read, “Dear sirs, I am.”3
The apostle Paul describes his experience in Romans with these words, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.”4
We are broken at a much deeper level than our action. We are broken in the very root of our being.
God Loves Us So Much
It is in this context of brokenness that God enters. The recorded history of the Israelites, God’s Chosen People, is story after story of brokenness and restoration.
God leads the Israelites out of their life of slavery in Egypt, God appears to them at Mt. Sinai and leads them through the desert. They complain and disobey. God still delivers them into the promised land and establishes their kingdom. Time after time, they move to disobedience, and time after time, God calls them to return to him. The prophets were the voice of God, calling the Israelites back to Him. There are over 30 prophets recorded in the Old Testament.
The prophet Hosea was called to rather visibly demonstrate this cycle to the Israelites. God instructed him to marry an unfaithful wife, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD.”5 Then, after she had been unfaithful, He tells Hosea, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulterous. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods.”6
The Israelites abandon their God, He calls them to repent and return to Him, and, when they do, He forgives them. Over and over again.
It is this same God who enters the physical timeline of humanity as Jesus, the son of God, who shows us what an unbroken life looks like. He lives with us, eats with us, and teaches us God’s character and our character. Further, He dies so that we can experience wholeness. Unbroken, eternal son of God volunteers to be broken, so that we can be made whole. He dies for us.
And, on top of that, He comes back to life. He heals our brokenness and conquers death. He shows us the path to wholeness and to life. And He invites us to join Him. That is the love of God.
In college once, I was telling my roommates about something stupid I had done, and I remarked, “I wonder what God thinks when he watches me.” Immediately, one of my roommates responded: “He’s thinking, ‘I love him so much.’” And that’s the truth. We are broken, unworthy, and God loves us so much.
An Appropriate Response
How do we respond to such overwhelming love? God asks for one thing: surrender. Trying harder doesn’t work. We can’t be whole on our own, nor can we conquer death on our own. The broken and the doomed have no power of restoration. No, it is the active abandonment of trying that leads to healing and life.
Surrender is an amazing paradox. It is intentional giving up. It is not losing, or being overcome. It is active inaction. To surrender our lives to God, is a form of death. We die to our own desires, to our own wants. This is the paradox that Jesus presents when he says that his burden his light,7 but also commands us to carry our crosses.8 Surrender is death, but it results in relief. The crucifixion itself was the supreme act of surrender: Jesus surrendered His will to God on the Mount of Olives9 and then surrendered His spirit on the cross, saying “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”10 But the story doesn’t end there, He conquers death and is raised back to life.11 He surrenders everything, and comes back to life.
Jesus says in Matthew:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.12
When Paul writes about dying with Jesus so that we can live with Him,13 he’s talking about surrendering. We sacrifice our will, and we receive life from God. This is the man who found a treasure in a field and sold everything to buy the field. This is the merchant who sold everything for the pearl of great value. This is how whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for Jesus will find it.14
We surrender to God and receive life.
What “Surrender” Looks Like
Talking about “surrendering” is easy, but what does it look like, practically? There are two ways that I see it playing out in everyday life.
First, is intentional surrender. Intentional surrender is through exercises like prayer, meditating, and fasting. Or even less talked about exercises such as simplicity, solitude, and service. We take time to intentionally surrender our will to God’s will, or our wealth and time to his purposes. We take time to seek out places in our lives on which we have death grips, and surrender them to God, or, at the very least, we ask God for the grace to surrender them to Him.
These intentional acts of surrender are commonly known as spiritual disciplines. And that’s their point, to put us in a position of surrender that allows God to transform us. God transforms, we just have to get out of the way.
Richard Foster explains it this way:
By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside.”15
The second from of surrender is circumstantial surrender. This requires a sensitivity to our surroundings, our attitude, and, frequently, the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It can be surrendering my frustration during a traffic jam, or it can be surrendering my time to a friend in need, or even a stranger in need.
This circumstantial surrender is a life of love. The Apostle John writes in his first letter:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.16
We are all broken, and God loves us so much. We surrender in loving obedience for restorative transformation.
- Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- I couldn’t find an original source, but the story is everywhere. ↩
- Romans 7:15 ↩
- Hosea 1:2 ↩
- Hosea 3:1 ↩
- Matthew 11:28–30 ↩
- Luke 9:23 ↩
- Matthew 26:36–39, Mark 14:32–36, Luke 22:39–44 ↩
- Luke 23:46, John 19:30 ↩
- Matthew 28:1–7, Mark 16:1–7, Luke 24:1–12, John 20:10–18 ↩
- Matthew 13:44–46 ↩
- Romans 6:5, Romans 8:17, Philippians 3:10–11 ↩
- Luke 9:24 ↩
- Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline ↩
- 1 John 4:7–11 ↩