The Promise of Shared Brokenness

shutterstock_158680922I get a lot of emails from people who’ve read Sober Mercies, which means so much to me. But I keep noticing how one particular line from the book keeps coming up. Last week, after three people in a row quoted the same sentence, I went back to read it in context (italicized below):

 “The particular brand of love and loyalty that seemed to flow so easily here [in recovery meetings] wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced, inside or outside of church.

 But how could this be? How could a bunch of addicts and alcoholics manage to succeed at creating the kind of intimate fellowship so many of my Christian groups had tried to achieve and failed?

 Many months would pass before I understood that people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs.”

Aha! Clearly, a lot of you have shared my experience—felt a lack of community in a church setting or been surprised by the depth of community in another kind of group. I think my conclusion resonated because it hints at the reason why. After lots of thought, here’s a more developed theory:

  • When folks gather around a system of shared beliefs, the price of acceptance in the group is usually agreement, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being right. Unfortunately, this often creates an atmosphere of fear and performance, which in turn invites conformity.
  • But when people gather around a shared need for healing, the price of acceptance in the group is usually vulnerability, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being real. This tends to foster an atmosphere of safety and participation, which in turn invites community.

I’m not saying recovery or support groups are good and church groups are bad. But I do think the latter could learn something from the former about how to create safe places where intimate community can happen.

Of course, we all face the same challenge on how to foster authentic connection. As much as our souls crave it, our ego fears it. For most of us, it’s fairly easy to share intellectual head space with someone: We know this, we think that. Not much risk there.

But inviting that person into our heart space where we may feel broken in places takes courage, sometimes even desperation.

Last week, a recently widowed friend of mine came to stay in our guest room for a week. As much as she was tempted to isolate at home, she had the bravery to finally admit she needs to be around people right now, and let them into her grief.

And here’s the beautiful part. Dave and I needed this, too. Since all our kids are long gone, her presence in our home felt like such a gift. Having her join us for dinner or watching TV—she in her pajamas—gave us a dose of that family feeling we keenly miss.

On this Good Friday, I find myself thinking about the crucifixion in the context of connection. How the Old Testament Law failed to bring mankind close enough to God. How God sent his Son to die—beaten and broken on the cross—so He could make his home in our very soul.

Maybe God understood that we bond more deeply over shared brokenness than we do over shared beliefs—not just with each other, but with him, too.






  1. Thank you. I think this is beautiful.

  2. My alcoholic father excused his not going to church with “They’re a bunch of hypocrites.” He was expressing an honest heart, for I believe alcoholics have a raw sensitivity to what is real. When that reality is too great for them, they use alcohol as a numbing coping mechanism. Yet, my father was a Christian and knew it. He set me straight on that one day when he told me, “Yesterday you said I am a self-made man. I am not. Jesus Christ made me. My hands, my feet, my mouth. Everything,” Daddy stressed, “belongs to Him. Without the Lord Jesus Christ, I am nothing” (Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father, p. 14).
    I hope you will want to read about our journey:

    • Judy, thanks so much for this comment and for your honest sharing. I always flinch when people talk about hypocrites because I WAS one–pretty much professionally–for the entire 12 years of my drinking. :) I am so grateful for recovery and grace. You’re dad sounds like such a wise man. I will definitely check out your story!! Hope you come back.

  3. In your two bullet points you not only described my own experience, but you informed my understanding of that experience and helped me wrestle with how the organized, institutional church and the organic church come together pursuing intimate, healing community through shared brokenness as the highest value. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for your insights.

  4. Heather, your last post convinced me that perhaps “a group” has been the missing link in my recovery process. I went to treatment back in 2010 but only stayed three of the six month program. I have children and I felt extremely guilty for what I had put my family through. I promised my husband and myself that I would attend twelve step meetings when I came home. I did for a few weeks but soon became “too busy.” It’s probably no surprise, that even though I am very involved in church, I have relapsed numerous times. I am coming up on seven months clean. I’ve been here before and slipped. I don’t want to slip anymore! I have a lot of people in my life who love me but not one person who really knows me or understands. I feel like I need the camaraderie of a group of people who really “know.” I attended my first meeting on Wednesday and I honestly don’t know how I’ve survived this long without it. Thank you, Heather!

    • That is awesome! As our (Al-Anon) group always ends its meetings: “Keep coming back! It works if you work it and you’re worth it!”

    • Darlene, oh this comment makes my day. I’m so so glad for you that you are reaching out. Way to go, girl. I pray you find that person/people who truly get you and make you feel deeply known and understood. It can take a while in recovery to find your people, so I hope you plenty of different meetings and especially women’s meetings. It’s so common that we get our life back because of recovery and then we’re too busy for recovery. :) So get that. It sounds like you’re really more conscious now about things. I’m praying for you, friend. Thanks for reading.

  5. This is probably why so many of my best and closest friends are ones who have been broken, are honest about brokenness, and have learned to love others through that brokenness. It’s rare to find these people, but when you do–you know you’ve found a friend for life.

  6. Love this… like a lot of us, I walked away from the church when I got sober because it was missing that piece – the intimacy, the connectedness, the vulnerability. But I have also found I missing my best friend…Christ. They say you gotta change your friends, and I did, even Jesus. I have been searching for Him again as of late. Laying aside my resentments of church because of politics (why can’t they embrace the 12 Traditions??) Had a “Normie” friend send me this article… couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you!

    • Oh yay! I so understand this feeling… I really struggled with this too, especially early in recovery. I had to totally find a new way to approach God and see how recovery and my faith could be more like lights on either side of a road, both illumining the way… They didn’t have to be in conflict. Find a church that made that seem easy was a huge gift to me. Thanks for commenting!

  7. I have never been an alcoholic or suffered any sort of addiction. However, whenever I read experiences of the brokenness of addicts, I relate on a deep level, because somehow I can resonate with my own versions of destruction. I am starting a series on my blog called, “I am a Terrible Christian” with the hope of creating space to explore the depths of our brokenness. Thank you for your voice.

  8. So impressed w/this…hope u receive it well too.

  9. Reblogged this on #ApproachGod and commented:
    Because brokenness is where we function as real people. Great read.

  10. This is one of the best and most honest handlings of our need for brokenness I’ve read. While it’s something altogether foreign for us to think of brokenness as a good thing, let alone something beautiful, the truth is that there is an intense and quiet beauty to our brokenness, in community, before God. That’s what God meant when He said “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Our weaknesses and brokenness isn’t meant to push us from communion, it’s meant to draw us toward it, so that we might find strength. Thanks for writing this.

  11. Thank you for this. I’m wondering now how we can make church more of a place where we can be honest with each other about who we really are and what we’re really going through. It is so beautiful when you do find a community of people that you can share your weakness and brokeness and need to lean on Jesus with. I have sometimes been a part of accountability/prayer triplets that have grown into something like that. It takes a while to reach the point where you stop pretending everything is OK. I’m wondering what it is that often stops church from being that kind of community though? And what I (as one of the people who make up my local church) could do to help create that atmosphere?.. thanks for getting me thinking!

    • You got me thinking in turn… It’s one of the best questions we can ask, I think. Especially since I love my church.

      • Honestly, I think people are not aware of their OWN brokenness because of BAD THEOLOGICAL/CHRISTIAN CULTURAL TEACHINGS. They don’t understand who God is, and so cannot understand who they are, and so cannot understand the relationship between the two. The best biblical, theological book I’ve EVER read, and I foist it on everyone and every bible study I can, is Larry Crabb’s “Finding God”. Read it, share it, be shocked how much your mind is infected–be set free and set others free.

      • I’m part of a great church too. I love it, but if I’m honest we’re still not great at sharing our brokenness. I guess it feels risky in that environment. Which is a shame. One of the things about the Alanon that made it so great and easy to share in was the absolute commitment to confidentiality as well as the fact that being there at all was admitting that I ‘needed’ people. I’ve been wondering since I read your post how we could extend that into parts of church life, and my life generally. I so much want to be someone who extends grace to other people. It’s a quality which I have appreciated sooo much in others.

  12. I used to think you really had to have been there yourself to help someone else. And then I met the greatest mentor of my life. She came from a conservative family, grew up in the church, never sowed any wild oats, got married after christian college, had four kids she homeschooled, and her husband was an elder. But you could tell her ANYTHING, and I MEAN anything, and she would be so compassionate, and find ways to relate it to her own walk with God–BECAUSE SHE WAS EVER AWARE OF HER OWN BROKENESS. She was sooo humble, feeling that she had narrowly escaped sin and death exactly like any other christian. What the church desperately NEEDS are many, many more people like her. Not people who better understand mental illness and addiction and childhood trauma, Not more people who will admit they are healing from these things. But more christians who know deeply that ALL of us are broken, and brokeness between you and God does not come in sizes small, medium, and oh, my, are you sure you’re even a christian? And more christians who realize we are ALL supposed to be seeking healing from the rift between us and God, whatever form it comes in, that should break every heart. Then, addict and elder, bipolar and Sunday school teacher, prostitute and preacher, etc. will all be on a level playing field.

  13. Though I have not experienced a recovery group, I have experienced people letting themselves be broken with one another, and I absolutely agree. Bonding in beliefs only gets you so far. Bonding in brokenness goes well beyond that. And I think you’re spot on that vulnerability is the key. I have a feeling Brene Brown would agree with you, too! :) Love this. Thank you.

  14. In July of 1955 AA held a convention in St. Louis commemorating the 20th anniversary of its founding. One of the speakers introduced by Bill W. was Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal minister who Bill said was “the connecting link” through whom “most of A.A.’s spiritual principles have come.” He went on to say:

    “To me A.A. is one of the great signs of spiritual awakening in our time. . . . I hope and I believe that we may see a wide effect of A.A. on medicine, on psychiatry, on correction, on education, on the ever-present problem of human nature and what we shall do about it, and not least of all on the church itself. I believe that A.A. has derived its inspiration and impetus indirectly from the insights and beliefs of the church. Perhaps the time has come for the church to be reawakened and revitalized by the insights and practices found in A.A.”

    This was quoted from “Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, ” published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

  15. “But when people gather around a shared need for healing, the price of acceptance in the group is usually vulnerability”. It seems to me that vulnerability is both a prerequisite and by-product of trust. We come to a healer for healing, we join a system of belief in order to try to fix ourselves (ostensibly the way others are fixing themselves as you eluded to in relation to conformity).

    And so, in the organized church, we are invited to believe in the CEO of the system (the historical Jesus) in order to join, become part of the system and reap the benefits of membership (informally or even formally). Then we are “encouraged” to make sure we have nothing wrong with us. And if we do, then get over it quickly, and if we can’t do that then fake it (using all the “faith language clichés” that are part of how people communicate in and about the system). And if we can’t get over things and can’t fake it, then we are gently encouraged to pull back, or at least be quiet, so as not to upset the illusion that the system is working. Working means producing, striving rather than receiving, and bearing fruit is lost because of disconnection from the vine, and from each other. It becomes about comparisons, also known as judgement disguised as assessment of productivity and effectiveness of others and the system.

    Jesus said he will build his church and he invites us to gather around him. A by-product is healing, because healing requires learning to love as we learn to be loved. Just as we are. We can’t do anything to diminish the love, and we can’t do anything to increase it. All we can do is get increasingly comfortable in abiding in it, in him.

    We arrive tired and heavy laden, at an end of ourselves, powerless, and we receive rest. What a great place to start and remain.

    Blessed Easter Heather. The theme of my conversation with Jesus the past couple of weeks has been redemption. What a marvelous dynamic to provide security in the midst of the vulnerability of trust. And then the privilege of sharing it in community with others that are free to share from real places with that same trusting vulnerability.

    • Wow Tom! So much well said here. I was nodding yes as I read. I especially like this part of how you describe what so often happens in church: “Then we are “encouraged” to make sure we have nothing wrong with us. And if we do, then get over it quickly, and if we can’t do that then fake it (using all the “faith language clichés” that are part of how people communicate in and about the system). And if we can’t get over things and can’t fake it, then we are gently encouraged to pull back, or at least be quiet, so as not to upset the illusion that the system is working.” I hope people realize my goal isn’t to knock church or its importance in our lives–I love my church so much. Thank you for taking the time to share what you did here, Tom. Much appreciated.

  16. Anonymous says:

    It’s too bad that we all love a scandal more than we love the person who is sharing. How many times have you shared the deepest, blackest secrets from your heart with a counselor in the church who promised you could trust, only to be rejected later by someone you don’t even know. All because your secret was just too good for her to keep it to herself. It’s a hard lesson, but one reason we cannot be transparent in the church.

    • Oh man, it sounds like you’ve had such a hurtful experience. I’m sorry. I like to think that it’s not always true everywhere, you know? I agree that many of us love scandals more than helping people heal. It’s really so sad. But I hope you have found a safer place to be honest about your secrets and wounds. Thanks for sharing a bit of your own story with us. Maybe it will cause someone to think twice about betraying a confidence.

  17. Thank you for sharing! Years ago my sister was in the rooms & I was in church & I remember thinking how she was able to be real and receive more love & support than I ever could be in the church. Fast forward a number of years and I found myself in the rooms and out of church. The sharing of the brokenness, the fact they understood was life saving. I now have found a church where I can be real and open and share my story & really feel at home.
    Isa. 53:5b “….the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Praise God!

    • Becky, I love this. My sister would greatly relate. I think she’s been a little bummed for years now that she’s not an alcoholic so she can enjoy the community I do. Of course, she has Alanon, but like my hubby, seems more drawn to the drunks. :) I’m so glad you found both–a church and a recovery community. I have too!! Let it be known that I adore my church. Thanks, friend. And hugs to you.

  18. Marjie Douty says:

    how quickly we forget Christ’s brokenness. It was what struck me most when readind Theresa of Avila. And someone quoted the chorus of Anthem at a meeting: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” And everyone nodded in agreement.

  19. Hi Heather!
    This blog should be developed as a book! Having served The Lord over 52 years, I “imploded” and was taken into a drug/alcohol treatment center (against my will). There finally, I received the right help and Hope began to take root. I knew I could not stay same and sober unless I was immersed in a Grace – based community that provided both structure and deep acceptance – regardless of the “undone-ness” of my recovering life. In the “rooms”, I was generously embraced by other people who had known my personal hell and showed excitement that I was one of the few who had survived. As you have so aptly stated, the core value that unites us in “the rooms” has to do with the the healing of the brokenness. This is accomplished by the application of spiritual, proven principles (the sanctification process) in the context of unconditional acceptance and Grace. As for insisting that this community become doctrinally “right”, I’ve come to a clear understanding that the 12-step rooms are not the church and the church is not the movement. However, the most responsive group of people in out society is the massive culture of recovering people who meet daily in the shadows of the church. We have much to share with each other if only more bridges were built. We must struggle with the question as to whether the church is a museum or a hospital. The Lord is risen indeed – with healing in His wings!

  20. We relate better and more deeply over brokenness than over beliefs. Wow, such a powerful statement. Interesting that I have never met a person who’s beliefs did not change over time. Neither have I met someone who did not recognize their brokenness in a greater manner over time too. Keep it up Heather, your writing is awesome, the love is real.

    • Thanks so much, Scott! Of course, I’m not saying beliefs don’t matter (I got an email where someone thought I was saying that). But you make an important point that they change over time, unless we decide to no longer seek after truth or deepen our understanding. I come from a background where beliefs counted more than anything else–and I missed the most important things, like the love you say is real. Take care, bro. H

  21. In our fellowships (as Christians), we have to stop letting wounded soldiers die, especially as in the first place, most of them were wounded by our own hands. Having been in these fellowships all my life, it has been a real shock to me to only recently realize how we drive ourselves (& brethren!) to extents that just make you wonder! This easter season, may God help us remember the reason for His coming, so we can remain in the life He came to give us.

  22. Heather, would you believe that what you say about the church groups x recovery groups is true also in Slovakia? I have been disturbed by that since I started to understand the program more deeply and tried to invite there my good alcoholic friends from different churches – but there is that problem – we in church have to be RIGHT! and who knows about those support groups … So it is better to suffer in our addiction and pretend everything is RIGHT even though everybody knows it is not … it is so difficult for many Christians to receive the help available for them … I am so grateful for your book and for your writings. I just wanted you to know there are people on the other side of the world who understand. Have a wonderful Easter! (Sorry about my incorrect English)

    • Aha!! Yesterday I got the strangest box of my books in the mail. They were written in SLAVIC!! Maybe they were written for you!! (If you want, I can you send you the 5 they sent me, in case you know anyone who might want them. I won’t be reading them soon.:) ) I am sorry to hear that this happens everywhere–the emphasis being put on being right at the cost of being real. Thanks so much for your encouraging words.

      • That strange language is my language:) And I am so grateful that your book was translated into that strange language:) I have already ordered from the publishers your books two times and many of my friends are reading them. It is like a bestseller! I do hope that many people from our churches will read it and be helped by it. As for those 5 books – I know I could give them out in a minute to people who would read them. But you would have to ship them all over to Slovakia:) Thank you again for your wonderful ministry!

  23. Reblogged this on earthy monk and commented:
    once again, Heather speaks so lovely and lovingly to the spiritual truths of those of us in recovery. But this wisdom is for all, so enJoy!

  24. Happy Easter, Heather. I hope it is blessed with peace, joy and hope.

  25. So good! I have the honor of working in recovery work, and we see this truth played out over and over again. Which means we will steal your quote and use it focus our efforts to draw people into healing relationships! Thanks for this!

  26. Heather, Once, when I was whining to you about my messy life, I couched it by adding, “Of course MY suffering about (my addict kids, poverty, my stinking life) ___ is NOTHING like ___.” (So-and-so’s life, My mom’s cancer, The Holocaust).
    You so wisely smiled at me and replied, “But your pain is your pain.”
    I was and am so desperate to have you or somebody see my realness in the midst of all this rightness. We writers go to book clubs, workshops etc and we all have to be so right about our craft and techniques and brands and marketing, oh my! But we long to take off our Writer Outfits and show our wounded souls to one another–all the while knowing there will be those who look at our hands and drive a spike through them just for good measure.
    But. There is this wise and wonderful voice, whispering. “It’s OK–your pain is your pain. Come closer so I can hug you. See how our brokenness binds us together.”
    We can believe. We can agree. We can trust, love, forgive. But the God and the human who sees our crappy broken selves and gathers us in anyway is the most real path any of us can take. Happy Easter, fellow Broken One. Love you. Linda

    • Thanks so much for this, Linda. I am so glad to know I once said something helpful. I so relate to everything you wrote here. I love the way you describe the “most real path.” I’m so honored to be your real friend in real life and so glad we can be real with each other. I’m sorry your pain is still your pain. But the truth is that it’s kind of mine, too. Love and hugs to you friend, and Happy Easter back to you, Linda.

  27. Yes! Yes! Yes! This is absolutely my experience too. XO

  28. teetotaltexas says:

    I think you’re in all of our heads! Just yesterday I was thinking that I used to focus my efforts on discerning right from wrong, especially in judging others, myself, or conversations, debates, arguments, etc. And now my discernment is much keener towards honesty. Who is being the most plain, vulnerable, and taking their own moral inventory most ruthlessly… versus who is still believing some storyline that they like to project and defend. It entirely changes the nature of whom you trust, how you approach discussions, and how you see yourself. You stop caring about being right and start caring about being honest.

  29. Well said. Thanks for this, Heather.

  30. You’re in good company! Frederick Buechner wrote about the authenticity he found at an AA meeting he attended, and how he thought the AA group was more healing and helpful than church often was. Good stuff!

    • I loved that part from Buechner. I think he’s the one who said maybe we’d be better off to have all the church buildings burned to the ground so we’d only have each other. Thanks so much for commenting, Holly! Such a gift to see your name here.

  31. Maria, John's Creek, GA says:

    Heather, I just love how the Lord has gifted you with words that penetrate a heart into saying “she gets it; “she put in words what I have not been able to do”.

    It is my prayer that God continues to fuel that heart of yours with words that some of us cannot find to describe what we feel. I always get so excited to read your blogs–they ALWAYS capture my heart.

    Thank you! The Lord Bless you!

  32. A group of us (at church!!) went through the Stations of the Cross yesterday morning. Instead of using the traditional readings for each Station, the assignment was to choose a story from our own life that parallels or illustrates a Station. It took some time for each of them to even get the courage to sign up to share a story. Last week in our group, they told me they had reservations about it. . .Reservations at Panera!! lol. But these brave women came together and shared their stories and it was so moving to hear them talk about the time when ” a Simon helped me to carry my cross.” or when they “fell the third time” or when they, like Jesus, “were stripped of everything.” It was so powerful, and we will never be the same because we’ve been vulnerable with each other, and we know each other on a deeper level now.

  33. Wow. Just wow.
    Thank you Heather. I’ve been the one in pajamas and SO grateful for the loved ones who’ve opened their hearts and home to my pain. A shared burden becomes a much lighter load.

  34. You have got to get out of my head, woman! I was just about to write about this same sort of topic when I saw the notification come in for this post. This is the second time in a row you have written just exactly what was in my head. I heard in a meeting once something to the effect that a sociologist studied all these sorts of communities and discovered that the truest, most close-knit form of community was found among cancer patients and the fellowship of AA. I could be completely wrong here, but I’m gonna run with it. ;) When we all strip away the masks and stand naked before each other, we are able to connect on such a deeper level because we can see each others’ truths. I have friends in the program whose names I don’t even know, but I am closer to them than some of my best friends out in the world.

    • Isn’t it funny how often we think along the same lines as someone else? I hope you still write your post! This topic is so important. I love your last line so much! Same here!

      • I just put it up. It’s an entirely different take on the subject & much grittier than I had anticipated. I don’t know if I’ve told you, but you were my inspiration for getting started and I am so grateful to you for that. You were the first blogger I ever followed and you’re still my favorite. Don’t mean to be awkward; I am just feeling very grateful today. :)

  35. Heather, I’ve never been in a recovery group, but I do go to church a lot (my husband is the pastor) and you are absolutely right. I don’t get the kind of authentic connection I hunger for at church–which must be I’m always reading blogs like yours and looking for book clubs, writing workshops, etc. where I can connect with kindreds.

    • I know you speak for a lot of women, Darcie. I also know that thankfully sometimes people do find that amazing kind of fellowship in church settings. I wish it happened more often. I also wish we had more recovery groups for people who simply need a community that invites them to share honestly every week and to hear them speak. Parker Palmer wrote about creating “circles of trust” or something like that. I may have to find that again and read about it. Anyway, I appreciate your comment so much.

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