On our worst days, we grieve, writing and rewriting the past in the rhyme of our memory—or we imagine potential futures, mired in philosophical anxiety. On our best days, we become enveloped in wonder. We slow down, entangling ourselves in small splendors: the tender smile of our oldest neighbor, an abandoned parking lot lined with orange trees, the curve of our lover’s lips, coconut chiffon on a warm summer’s day. While we name the former (the grieving) “brokenness,” we call the latter (the losing ourselves in wonder) “beauty.” And as part poets, we often conflate the two.
“Beauty in brokenness,” we say—and perhaps it is our natural commitment to poeticism speaking, or else our need for a happy ending, our need for a salvation story. This principle of locating beauty in brokenness is adopted across ideological and cultural worlds, found in self-help books (see: “self-acceptance”), anti-self-help books (see: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***), and popular songs (see: “Scars to Your Beautiful”). In Japan, people refer to this worldview as wabi-sabi, an aesthetic appreciation of the imperfect and incomplete. A famous example of wabi-sabi is the practice of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with lacquer gold—and rather interesting is the popular Christian use of kintsugi to metaphorize God’s unconditional love.
There exists a plethora of such “kintsugi devotionals” online, and it’s not difficult to see why. The sites, which range from Focus on the Family to personal blogs like BusyBlessedWoman, often use kintsugi to introduce a message of damage and recovery—what they call “beauty in brokenness.” The concept of gold joinery marries our human inclination for tangible beauty with the Christian promise of forgiveness. Existentialism and angst are replaced by meaning and pleasure. Our transient lives are not lost in the void of eternity but rather become ultra-important, distinguished by their gold-strewn cracks. As New York artist Barbara Bloom famously writes, kintsugi is rooted in the belief that “when something’s suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.”
The beauty we find in broken things has nothing to do with their brokenness and everything to do with what that brokenness allows.
Such is the objective of poetry, and, perhaps, of living: finding beauty in this broken life. But is it really the temporality of life that makes it worthy of attention, or the imperfection that makes it lovely? Is damagedness a thing of glory, as Bloom seems to imply? Is it really brokenness that is beautiful?
The simple answer to each of these questions is no. It is not the temporality of life that makes it worthy of attention, not our imperfection that makes us lovely. The definition of “damage” is that it “reduces value or usefulness.” And there is no inherent beauty in brokenness; if there was, kintsugi would not be so admirable, nor unconditional love so radical. The beauty we find in broken things has nothing to do with their brokenness and everything to do with what that brokenness allows. In other words, there is not beauty in brokenness but rather beauty beyond it.
Kate Baer’s poem “Moon Song” beckons towards this sentiment when the narrator mulls,
You can be a mother and a poet, a wife and
a lover. You can dance on the graves you dug
on Tuesday, pulling out the bones of yourself
you began to miss. You can be the sun and the
moon. The dance is a victory song.
The moment of beauty emerges when the narrator recognizes the possibilities beyond rupture, simultude, and transience. It is not brokenness but the potential of healing that is lovely. It is the process of restoration—sanctification—that is precious. Here, beauty comes from existing and dancing despite the graves and the bones. It comes from the promise of something more, accentuated by a seemingly irredeemable state of brokenness. This is not to say that beauty is quantifiable, or that beauty is contingent on brokenness, or that brokenness multiplies the “beauty” of something. But it might be said that brokenness adds to the recognizability of beauty—that it paints our human vision of beauty with purpose. If we apply this moral to kintsugi, then, we realize it is not the broken nature of the pottery that makes it beautiful. It is the redemptive gold that lines the jagged cracks. It is the promise of remission.
If beauty ultimately points to promise, and if the downside of promise is that it is held to a timeline, then the truest examples of beauty eclipse time itself. “Everything beautiful,” French philosopher Simone Weil writes, “has a mark of eternity.” C.S. Lewis, too, explores this theme in his novel The Great Divorce. In one scene, the Artist ascends to heaven and is awed by the grandeur around him. He wishes to paint the landscape and asks, “Isn’t there paint in heaven?” The heavenly Spirit responds, “When you painted on earth—at least in your earlier days—it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself.”
The Great Divorce maintains that the things we regard as “beautiful” are only fragments of the truly Beautiful, the Heaven we were created for. In this Promised Land, there is not a trace of brokenness. And yet Heaven is made accessible by means of brokenness—most significantly, the broken body of Christ for our sins. Heaven (and with it, perfect beauty) is made possible because His body did not stay broken. After three days, Christ rose again, His body restored alongside our relationship with His Father. Thus is the story of the Bible.
In other words, deeming human brokenness The Thing of Beauty means relegating God to the sidelines. Such a process is akin to viewing a house without its walls, eating a cake without its batter, or admiring kintsugi while forgetting the golden repairs. God is reduced to a validating therapist, Christ to an afterthought. But we must remember that in writing 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul does not intend to center our weakness but rather to highlight God’s strength, God’s forgiveness, God’s immeasurable love for us. Shattered pottery, if left shattered, is unusable and deficient. But shattered pottery, when strewn with streaks of gold, is reborn as a new creation. It is doubly beautiful because its promise of restoration has been completed: “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by His power” (1 Cor. 6:14).
Our brokenness in itself is not a delightful thing to God—and the truth is that it isn’t a delightful thing to us, either. How could it be, when it is the source of such heartache, confusion, and guilt? And yet, our brokenness is purposeful. Most comfortingly, it is redeemable.
While our brokenness is a vestige of mankind’s Fall, the beauty it allows us to see is a relic of the greatest Promise: restoration through Jesus Christ. Brokenness is an instrument to glory, but never the source of glory itself. C.S. Lewis writes that “God whispers to us in our pleasures… but shouts in our pains,” and in this way, we are daily reminded of His return. On that day we will rejoice, knowing that the greatest Poet of all has strummed us into His love song, singing, “My power is made perfect in your weakness.” We sing back in full assurance of His grace, chorusing, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, O God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17, NIV). And He holds us for eternity, seeing His blood-streaked Son in our gold-streaked reflection. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” He will say to His children (Matt. 25:21).
But until that day of final restoration, He reminds us through the promise of Christ that we are made beautiful beyond measure. That despite our brokenness, we are beautiful beyond.
Moses was a murderer, Jonah a bitter rage, Paul a persecutor, and David an adulterer. Even the most famous Bible characters were appallingly broken, and yet God redeemed their brokenness for greater purposes, for beautiful purposes. Yet this does not mean there is beauty in brokenness, as most “kintsugi devotionals” claim.
Our brokenness in itself is not lovely, but when it is attached to promise, it attests to great beauty. And when it is attached to the capital-P Promise, the Promise of grace through faith in Christ, it attests to the greatest Beauty of all: salvation from sin (brokenness) and eternal rest in Him.
The apostle Paul famously wrote, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest in me” (2 Cor. 12:9, ESV). But the aesthetically-inclined twenty-first century rendition of the verse often reads like a poetic “love yourself” manual. The potent truth of God’s grace morphs into a shiny decoration—one that celebrates self-gratification and self-forgiveness, and one that implies “beauty in brokenness.” We incorrectly conflate brokenness with beauty, scatter the message of the gospel, and forget the inherent human need for hope that lies beyond ourselves.
(1) Not an actual term, but one that I use to refer to devotionals that mention kintsugi in order to reflect on God, the Bible, and/or Christian life
(2) Taken from Dictionary.com
(3) The New King James Version of 1 Corinthians 11:24 reads, “and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’”
Kaitlan Bui is a senior at Brown studying English.