One of my favorite insights from G.K. Chesterton is, ironically, about the brokenness of Christians.
The great strength of Christian sanctity has always been simply this—that the worst enemies of the saints could not say of the saints anything worse than [the saints] said of themselves. . . . Suppose the village atheist had a sudden and splendid impulse to rush into the village church and denounce everybody there as miserable offenders. He might break in at the exact moment when they were saying the same thing themselves.
There is something refreshing about owning your own brokenness. It relieves the pressure. It dissolves pretense. It even enhances your sense of humor, as you have no qualms finding (among many things) yourself and your foibles funny. When answering The Times question “What’s wrong with the world?” with the pithy confession “I am,” Chesterton wasn’t filled with a self-hatred in need of probing therapy on an analyst’s couch. He was simply admitting that, like all the rest of us, he brings his share of brokenness into the world. He, like you and I, was dignified, fallen, and redeemable—the Catholic trifecta.
Recently, I’ve been reading about Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish Whig Member of Parliament who, amid cheers by his more progressive peers, gazed across the English Channel with profound foreboding over the dark future of the French Revolution. While many considered Burke a wet blanket skeptical of a new level of human enlightenment untethered by the clergy, the monarchy, and the aristocracy, Burke stood his ground. In penning Reflections on the Revolution in France, he predicted that the lifting of restrictions on man’s passions would devolve to arbitrary rule, bloodshed, and, ultimately, despotism. Time would prove Burke to be the most prescient of all his contemporaries. No less a (complicated) figure than President Woodrow Wilson would laud Burke for his foresight . . . and especially his foresight during a twilight period of Burke’s own brokenness.
Burke gave the most striking proofs of his character and genius in the evil days in which his life ended—not when he was a leader in the Commons, but when he was a stricken old man at Beaconsfield. . . . What a man was you may often discover in the records of his days of bitterness and pain better than in what is told of his seasons of cheer and hope; for if the noble qualities triumph then and show themselves still sound and sweet, if his courage sink not, if he show himself still capable of self-forgetfulness, if he still stir with a passion for the service of causes and polities which are beyond himself, his stricken age is even greater than his full-pulsed years of manhood. This is the test which Burke endures—the test of fire.
A similar story could be told of Winston Churchill. A “young man in a hurry” who had risen to such heights as First Lord of the Admiralty (age 37) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (age 50) found himself fading into oblivion during the wilderness years of the 1930s. During that decade, he held no ministerial post and found himself on the losing side of the Abdication Crisis, Indian independence, and the campaign to re-militarize in order to defend against a rising, vitriolic Nazi Germany. George Bernard Shaw, a friend and playwright, wired Churchill during one particular lonely fight: “Have reserved two tickets for my first night. Come and bring a friend, if you have one.” Churchill, dour but not to be outdone, responded, “Impossible to come to first night. Will come to second night, if you have one.”
But on May 10, 1940, at the overripe, “washed-up” age of sixty-five, Churchill was called out of oblivion to play the main role in the greatest drama of the century—Prime Minister of Great Britain presiding over the Second World War. In his memoirs, he confessed,
I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Eleven years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary Party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail.
With his determination and organization, with his oratory and his wit, Winston Churchill led the alliance that destroyed Nazi Germany and changed the fate of the world for the better.
Which brings me to St. Peter. For years, St. Peter walked with God on earth. Try to get your head around that . . . When Christ said to Peter (then known as Simon), “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), he was charged with steadfast leadership and heavenly greatness.
And then came Good Friday.
Denying that he could never deny his Lord, Peter would not only break that promise, but he would do so three times. Some leader. In the wake of his shameful collapse, the Gospels record that “he went out and began to weep bitterly” (Luke 22:62). What hope is there in all of Peter’s brokenness? What chance would there be for true courageous witness when, at the very moment God needed Peter the most, Peter would fail miserably?
For in the Gospels, we learn that Christ appears to Peter and thrice asks him if he loves him (which always struck me as undoing the three denials) and charges him, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Be the shepherd I know you to be, Peter. In your brokenness is your need for me. In your forgiveness is your renewal. Be renewed and renew the face of the earth.
Like Chesterton and Burke, Churchill and St. Peter, we are all broken, but capable of enormous recovery. In his illness, a dear patient of mine frequently quipped, “A setback is a setup for a comeback.” Amen to that.
What’s wrong with the world? I am.
In all of my brokenness, Lord, renew me.