Brokenness and the Grace of Yielding to God 

The high call to be servants in the likeness of Jesus is made all the higher by the fact that few of us naturally desire to serve. Indeed, since the Fall, we humans have been a stiff-necked, headstrong, rebellious, self-centred lot. We want to be in charge of ourselves. 

Many of us have been shaped by the same forces that Paul describes to the gentile Christians in Ephesus; we were 

“…following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air,” and “following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind”

Ephesians 2:2-3 

To fully embrace Christian meekness and zeal requires substantial internal change from us, because these servant-like, godly qualities wage war on our own will and the rebelliousness of our fallen nature. True meekness and zeal cannot be acquired simply by accepting abstract theory. There must be a change within us, a death to ourselves. Some Christians have used the word ‘brokenness’ to describe this necessary change. Rightly understood, this idea can be of great use to us as we learn the meekness and zeal of Christ. 

What Is Brokenness? 

At least two very different images could come to mind when this term is used. One of them is somewhat inaccurate and unappealing. The other can be a valuable aid to us. 


A misleading image of brokenness interprets it as a condition that involves being crushed or smashed. According to this image of brokenness we are something like the porcelain figurine my family had on one of our shelves. One night when we were children, a violent thunderstorm knocked out the electricity supply to our house. A couple of us were playing together when everything went pitch black. After a few moments of consternation and confusion, I said ‘Okay, everybody, single file and hold on to the one ahead of you, we’ll all feel our way upstairs’. I led the way, groping ahead of me in the dark. Unfortunately, the first thing I made contact with was the porcelain figurine. I drew my hand back quickly, but too late. It crashed to the floor and broke in several pieces. Even though we tried to glue it together, it was never the same. Something like this can happen to people who have come through the harrowing experience of brainwashing and torture. They re-emerge ‘broken men’, who are never quite the same. The spirit is crushed; they have no heart left to fight, or sometimes even to live. 

This image is commonly used of someone who suffers a crushing personal defeat or humiliation. In 1938 Adolf Hitler took over Czechoslovakia. Hitler accomplished this without a fight by summoning Czechoslovakia’s president, Dr. Hacha, to Berlin. There, the Czech president, an old man in ill health, was kept up most of the night, mercilessly browbeaten by Hitler and his aides, and threatened with the destruction of his people. Finally, in despair, he consented to sign a statement that authorised the entry of Hitler’s troops into Czechoslovakia. Hacha left Berlin defeated and utterly humiliated, a “broken” man. 

This idea of ‘brokenness’ does not convey what God wants to do in changing us. He does not wish to crush us, to leave us in a weak, decrepit, or miserable condition. How could we be strong, forceful, and confident in serving him if that were the case? How could we display zeal for his house? We would appear defeated rather than victorious. 


A second and more accurate image of brokenness is really quite different. The best horses are the ones with a little bit of wildness in them. The ability to run quickly and to jump huge fences is not given to every mare or stallion. The fastest horses and the best racers are the ones with a little bit of wildness in them. The ones that fight. To become a useful horse however, this wildness needs to be tamed. In order to carry a human or to run in a particular course over a long distance a horse needs to be trained, focused and tempered. Often when a young colt is brought to be trained for the first time it is dangerous and ill-tempered. Skitting nervously about the corral it lashes out with heavy hooves at anyone who approaches and dares try to make it submit to their will. To be of any use, the horse needs to be broken. It needs to submit to the bit between its teeth so that the rider can direct it and the bridle about its head so that it can be guided in the way it needs to go. Some of the wildness of the beast must be tamed and a spirit of discipline substituted. 

This is a good analogy for the kind of brokenness that applies to us. The Lord is certainly not much like a horse trainer, but we are a quite a bit like that wild beast, whom the Lord must corral and then ‘break’ with love, patience, and firm discipline. This notion of breaking a horse is frequently used by cowboys, not in reference to crushing a horse’s spirit, but in regard to taming the wildness and curbing the will of the horse, so that all its strength and ability can be harnessed and made useful. 

Herein lies a key to both meekness and zeal. Our strength must be tamed and channelled by God if we are to be his profitable servants. While he loves us even in our wild, untamed condition, we will only be of limited use to him until he has ‘broken’ and trained us. Once broken, we go from being headstrong, wilful, selfish, and unpredictable to being responsive, obedient, and trustworthy servants of God. Strength is not diminished when we are broken. If anything, our strength increases as we submit ourselves to God’s training, because it is properly channelled and harnessed. 

Breaking Self-Will 

A fundamental internal change – this is what brokenness is about. Part of this change involves letting go of our wilfulness and our determination to get our own way. This letting go should characterise our thinking about major decisions we need to make ‘What should I do with my life?’ ‘Should I take that new job?’ ‘Should we move or stay where we are?” God’s plans for us will sometimes coincide with ours, but sometimes not. If we are not in some way broken, we will not be free to do the will of God. This attitude should also characterise our approach to the small issues of our daily life, where our tendency is to push for getting our own way, even when it matters very little. When there is nothing more than our own preferences at stake, that is when it is not a matter of right and wrong, we can insist less often on what we want, and let others have their preferences more frequently. This is especially true in marriage, where both husband and wife must undergo a certain breaking of their preferences and self-will, otherwise it is impossible to live together. 

For some of us, our self-will is not immediately obvious it only surfaces on certain occasions. It is settled deep in ourselves, in the place of ‘well, I know I shouldn’t care so much about it but, there’s no harm in getting your own way every now and again…’ As every human being has this kind of self-will, it may seem a surprise to us that the Christian should guard against it. It’s, ‘natural’. Although it is natural, however, it tends to rear its head precisely at those times when we are crossed, when things don’t go the way we want them to, or when others find fault with us, and precisely at those times when it is important in the life of a Christian to act in a way that is not “natural” that is in fact ‘super-natural’. If we do not, we are not acting in the manner of Christ.

For instance, one woman I know (let’s call her Sandra) is a very nice, kind person. She’s generous and agreeable. But when Sandra wants something, she wants it and she doesn’t graciously take ‘no’ for an answer, even from those who may have authority to decide. At first resistance she prods and cajoles, but if the no remains no, her eyes begin to flash, her voice gets sharp, and she can become pushy and even nasty. 

Or take my friend Bob. He’s a very talented and likable fellow, who makes a good first impression. Bob is a firm believer, however, in the infallibility of his own opinion, and in the superiority of ‘his way’. A while back, Bob, who teaches catechism in his Catholic parish, was corrected by the director of his program for taking a different approach to the material than the one agreed upon. Bob got irritated and defensive, tried several justifications of his methods, and showed great unwillingness to make the minor changes that his director required. 

Sandra and Bob have a lot to learn about Christian meekness. Some of the necessary internal breaking of self-will still needs to take place. Having their self-will broken won’t mean that they will become weak-willed or that they will lose all their capacity for having strong opinions or preferences. In fact, it is a great virtue to have a strong will, provided that it is exercised toward the proper ends. As Christians, we are to strongly exercise our will toward the accomplishment of God’s will. At the same time, we must learn to lay down our self-will: our attachment to our own way, our preferences, and our desires. 

Breaking Wildness 

The wildness exhibited by spirited animals is not necessarily a bad trait. It is just the way the animals, ‘are’. Approach a racing stallion that has yet to be “broken in” and you will encounter the same reaction as it snorts and neighs in anger, paws the ground and charges in full fury with hoofs flying and teeth bared. Eventually however, animals that are broken become useful because they are willing to serve a cause greater than themselves, just as a well broken but still powerful race-horse will likely do better in the race than one who is not used to taking orders from a jockey. 

As with these examples we can also have a streak of wildness that needs breaking – a tendency to violent emotional reactions when facing difficult situations: a tendency to freeze, or else to bolt and run in fear, or a tendency to lash out in anger. Being broken of our wildness means learning to overcome the unruly emotional reactions within us in such a way that we are free to make the response which is proper to a servant of the Most High King. Being broken, even in the sense used in this chapter, is always a trying and painful experience, but there is no way around it for those of us who would take on the character of the Lord. Our strength must be brought under God’s control, and our self-will and wildness must be broken in order to bring about the full internal change that frees us to be true servants of God.

This article is excerpted from Strength Under Control: Meekness and Zeal in the Christian Life, Chapter Five, by John H. Keating © 1981, 2011 and published by Kairos EME. A free PDF copy of the book is available online for download from the Sword of the Spirit website. Check out other Sword of the Spirit books from the Sword of the Spirit Online Library

Top image credit: Photo of a man riding a jumping horse, from, © by llaszlo, stock phto ID: 183570772. Used with permission.

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