O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:15-17
One of my favorite Gospel songs is “Take my Life,” which is basically a prayer for holiness put to music:
Holiness is what I long for,
holiness is what I need.
Holiness is what you want from me.
So take my heart, and form it.
Take my mind, transform it.
Take my will, confirm it.
To Yours, to Yours, O Lord.
In truth, there has always been a bit of debate in my congregation about the other verses of the song. Each succeeding verse replaces the word holiness with other virtues that we seek to exhibit in our discipleship: “faithfulness”, “righteousness”, and the verse that is the source of debate and controversy: “brokenness.” I remember well the first time it came up: “Pastor, are we really singing “brokenness is what I long for and brokenness is what I need? I long for a lot of things, but brokenness is not one of them. Would it not be better to say “healing” or “love?”
I don’t know why I thought of all this today, except that my Monday morning devotion (on the penitential Psalms!) started off with a prayer from Psalm 51 for guess what – brokenness. There I was again, faced with this troubling prayer, and once again I have a song writer trying to put it on my lips. Do I really want to pray for a broken spirit? A broken and contrite heart? Can’t we just say a holy, a righteous, or a faithful spirit and leave it at that?
So I thought I would help out Bible translators and come up with a better English equivalent to the Hebrew word shabar found in this Psalm. My investigation only made matters worse: shabar – to break, break in or down, rend violently, wreck, crush, quench, rupture, be maimed, be crippled. Down near the bottom of my lexicon alternatives, I found only one other: to cause to break out, bring to the birth. It was then that it hit me. Holiness, faithfulness, and righteousness, all those things we love to pray and sing for, can only be birthed in us if we first allow ourselves to be broken – utterly and completely. God first has to break into our complacency and break down our resistance to change and transformation. God first has to rend, sometimes violently, the false idols from our iron-fisted grasp. God first has to wreck our self sufficiency, crush our false loves, quench our distorted desires, rupture our spiritual illusions, and even maim or cripple us if need be – if it will save us from sin and death (didn’t Jacob walk away from prayer limping?).
So thanks to two song writers, one a contemporary Christian artist, the other an ancient Jewish composer – brokenness is once again something I am going to pray for, though I must admit, I may first pray for God to give me the guts and courage to keep praying for something so difficult, knowing that a broken and contrite heart is the only womb that can give birth to all great things God wants to do in me and through me.