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Christianity did not come in order to develop the heroic virtues in the individual, but rather to remove self-centeredness and establish love. -SØREN KIERKGAARD
The rust-colored stallion stood regally in the sun, the coat on his muscular thighs shimmering in the light. Moments later, the steed darted across the dirt lot, his mane blowing in the gentle Midwestern breeze.
As a young adolescent I stood on the fence and gazed upon the majestic beast. The animal's wild, untamed spirit caused me to keep a safe distance. The horse's defined muscles and flowing gait transfixed my attention for what seemed like hours. No one had ever sat upon his strong, lean back ... until today.
From across the barnyard I watched a man carrying a saddle walking toward the corral. He was a middle-aged cowboy with a ten-gallon hat, cowboy boots, and a bowlegged stance. This sauntering image from the West seemed out of place on an Iowa farm where workers wore T-shirts, overalls, round-toed work shoes, and maybe a cap from the local feed store. We primarily raised livestock and grew corn and alfalfa to feed our hogs and cattle. Our general tools were tractors and machinery, not stirrups and lassos.
Today was the beginning of the end of the stallion'sself-centered life. His unbridled neck would soon be bound by the tightness of leather. His belly would constrict as the cinch fastened to hold the saddle in place. He would taste a metal bit for the first time. Today would mark a noticeable change in the animal's behavior.
As the cowboy neared the fence where I stood, I heard the jingling of his spurs. Although the fence was not high, the man grunted as he flung the saddle onto the top board. He relaxed noticeably after he unloaded his burden.
The horse stopped his nervous pacing. He looked at the cowboy and seemed to sense that something was about to change. From around the corner, the cowboy brought out a five-gallon bucket half full of shelled corn. As the man held up the bucket, the horse trotted over to the concrete deck below the fence. The horse stuck his long nose into the feed bucket, and the cowboy gently approached him and gingerly placed a rope halter around his head, sliding it behind the tall ears. The horse stepped back hesitantly but returned quickly for more corn.
The cowboy spoke softly to me. "He's been halter broken for several days now. Yesterday, we started bridle-breaking him."
"When can you ride him?" I asked.
The cowboy grinned, a seasoned grin. "We're gonna try him today."
The cowboy turned around and removed the halter from the horse's head. He then took a leather bridle from the fenced saddle. He comforted the jittery stallion by putting his arm around the horse's thick neck. He quietly and smoothly placed the constellation of leather straps on the horse's head and fitted the steel metal bar into his mouth. The tall steed resisted.
"Easy boy. Good boy," the cowboy said reassuringly.
He held the reins and began slowly walking the horse around in a big circle in the corral. The horse responded nervously, taking anxious steps to the left and to the right. The cowboy continued to speak encouraging words to the animal. As he returned to the fence, he tied the reins to the post and replaced the bucket of corn under the horse's nose.
Then he lifted the saddle from the fence and walked alongside the tall stallion. The cowboy bent over, and with one hand on the saddle horn and the other grabbing the back edge of the seat, he gently tossed it onto the horse's back. He carefully let down the stirrup on the opposite side as the horse returned to the grain. The cowboy reached under the animal's high belly and grabbed the cinch. The man slowly but confidently slid the straps through the appropriate rings. Then in a swift, strong gesture, he pulled the cinch strap, securing the saddle to the untamed animal's back. The inexperienced animal reeled against the tightness. "Easy boy, good boy."
The cowboy stepped back. He continued to encourage the beautiful beast but gave the horse some space. After a few snorts and halfhearted bucks, the horse returned to the almost empty bucket.
From my precarious perch on the fence, I wondered what the cowboy would do next. Just like in the movies, he untied the reins from the post and cautiously approached the wild stallion. Swiftly he placed one boot in the left stirrup and swung his right foot over the tall horse. For the first time the stallion carried a rider. The horse turned ninety degrees and began running and kicking to the far end of the corral. In spite of the cowboy's verbal affirmations, the stallion continued to resist the rider's invasion. He bucked and snorted and bellowed. The twisting jumps threw the cowboy off balance. Two bucks later, the cowboy tumbled to the dirt below. Like a seasoned veteran, he brushed himself off, picked up his hat, and watched as the horse ran away. As he walked toward the fence he said, "We'll try it again as soon as he gets calmed down a bit."
Sure enough, several minutes later, the steed's frantic pacing subsided and he returned to the replenished corn bucket. Suddenly but smoothly, the cowboy remounted the horse. Again, the stallion jumped left and then right as he arched his back. Several more times the horse trotted and bucked, trotted and bucked, but soon the majestic beast ran smoothly.
The cowboy practiced turning, galloping, and stopping. "Whoa, thatta boy." The horse gave some rebellious snorts and reared up a few times. But within the hour the cowboy was riding the once wild-spirited, now domesticated animal. The horse was authentically broken.
BREAKING THE SOUL
The last definition for the word broken in my dictionary reads: "reduced to submission; tamed."
The human soul is much like an untamed stallion with his unbridled energy. Sometimes it is majestic and powerful, and at other times it is stubborn and destructively dangerous. Regardless of its potential, the untamed soul has limited capacity for constructive use. Just as the unbroken horse cannot be ridden for enjoyment or used to herd cattle, a person's unbroken spirit is confined to the sheer beauty of its potential productivity. An unbridled soul restricts God's work in a person's life. That kind of soul cannot be guided. Energy cannot be harnessed in the untamed state.
This book explores the taming of the soul. I once believed that when a person had a personal experience with God, all that was left was to learn more and "grow in grace." However, I continue to discover, often painfully, that there is a silent, but common and active process in the building of the Christian called brokenness. I doubt that people who have ever achieved significance for a long period of time, or who have been used productively by the Holy Spirit in ministry, have eluded this process. The soul of a person, in its early and natural state, is wildly undisciplined. Whether it aggressively rebels against God's harnessing like a bucking bronco, or passive-aggressively resists guiding like an old, stubborn mule, the human spirit resents the influence of God's Spirit.
An unbroken person refuses to accept difficult challenges and questions unexplained events with frustration. This poor soul seeks success and achievement, but, as master of himself, risks depression, disillusionment, failure, and suicide in order to "do it myself." This same person fights reliance on God in an effort to go "my own way." This unbridled orientation seems natural and acceptable, but it inevitably results in hurt and alienation. The person who demands to follow himself, or others, and not God alone, is destined to a future of futility.
I have noticed three parallels between breaking a horse and taming the soul.
The first is that the world has little use for a wild, unbroken soul. An unbroken soul is primarily a consumer. It occupies space and carries on many of the functions of a broken soul; but it performs little good. Its activities are not very useful in the eternal view of things. An unbroken soul can have natural beauty, but it tends to be one of latent potential and not pragmatic beauty.
The second observation is that the breaking process ultimately strengthens the bond between the cowboy (owner, rider, caretaker) and the horse. Prior to being broken, all that exists is admiration from a distance, and the basic maintenance of life (feeding, watering). Once brokenness occurs, there is bonding and affection. The love relationship is able to grow as trust is manifested. Until a person's soul experiences brokenness, it can do little more than admire God and acknowledge His sustenance. At this stage, intimacy tends to be shallow and sporadic, if it occurs at all.
Third, one would think that the breaking process would sap the spirit, drive, and energy of the horse. It does not. The horse is just as strong after breaking as before, but his abilities multiply many times over and his energy is no longer wild, but directed. The process of embracing brokenness is not a matter of becoming passive, unmotivated, or lackluster. Rather, it is a catalyzing process that ultimately helps the soul reach its potential. All too often we Christians feel that to follow Christ wholeheartedly means to hang up some of our dreams and aspirations. We feel a sense of settling for second best in worldly terms if we allow the breaking process to turn us into true followers of Christ.
A breaking process that results in bitterness, cynicism, or low self-esteem is not the right process. Beatings, poisons, and drugs can break a horse, but that animal will not be helpful for a creative cause. When people become broken in the wrong places, they do not grow into people who are mature, productive, and Christlike.
All metaphors have their shortcomings and this one is not intended to portray God as a spur-digging cowboy riding on our backs. Rather, the breaking process, as it emerges in these pages, allows us the often painful opportunity to grow and reach a level of maturity that cannot otherwise be achieved. You will not here find a book of platitudes and tired clichés. Hopefully, in the following chapters you will recognize a process you have experienced, but perhaps haven't completely understood or have not fully gained from the intended results of God's transforming work.
Excerpted from EMBRACING BROKENNESS by ALAN E. NELSON Copyright © 2002 by Alan E. Nelson. Excerpted by permission.
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