A broken heart you will not despise

A reflection on Jeremiah 31.31–34, Psalm 51.10 and a cracked pot for Holy Week.

Ring the bells that still can ring,
forget your perfect offering;
there’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.             Leonard Cohen

Did you ever start a job and find half way through that it wasn’t working right? You know, you’ve got this you-beaut flat pack from Ikea and you suddenly realise you’ve put half of the pieces on back to front? All you can do is take it apart and start again.

It happens to God too. Not the Ikea thing, God always assembles Ikea stuff really well. But God does have to start all over again in the Bible more than once. One time God does a restart is the Flood story. Genesis 6 says,

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

Now, this is a very troubling picture of God. It’s not one that I take at all literally; the God who wipes out almost every living thing is a plot device to move the story of Noah forward. The rainbow is a much better picture of God; it is a sign of the covenant God made with every living thing to spare the earth in future.

(I’m glad about that, because I think we must be sorely testing God with the way we’re treating the earth at the moment.)

It seems that God was starting all over yet again in the days of Jeremiah. The people were living under the covenant God made with Moses, the covenant which is symbolised by God’s gift of the Ten Commandments.

But the people weren’t keeping their side of the covenant very well. They were breaking God’s laws all over the place. True to the ancient promise, God doesn’t decide to do away with everyone; instead, a new word of the Lord comes to the prophet Jeremiah (ch.31):

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

This time, God decides to remake people from within. Instead of laws written on tablets of stone, they will be written on the walls of people’s hearts.

No longer an external thing, the law of God will become something people obey from the heart.

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

What do we see? I see wonderful people of faith, who ‘know the Lord’ and live accordingly. I thank God for them from the depths of my heart.

There are also people who try hard to follow the way of Jesus but seem not to make it, people damaged by childhood experiences of neglect or abuse, or by drugs or post-traumatic stress disorders of various kinds.

I say they ‘seem’ not to make it because I believe that in God’s eyes they are making it. As well as they can. And it’s not for those with happy childhoods and less-troubled lives to judge any further.

God has promised to write his laws on the wall of people’s hearts; thankfully, God has also promised to ‘forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more’.

Let me speak to you as people who have the law of God written ‘on’ your hearts. And let me speak to you as people who would love to have more of the law of God ‘in’ your hearts. How do we do that?

I recall reading about what some of the Jewish rabbis thought when they spent time with this passage.

It troubled them that God wrote the law ‘on’ the hearts of people, rather than ‘in’ their hearts. You know, I’ve wondered about that too. Surely God’s law should be ‘in’ our hearts, and not just ‘on’ them?

When these Rabbis reasoned that God’s law should be in our hearts, and not just on the outside they asked themselves, how could that happen?

How could the law get inside people’s hearts?

As they pondered this, they understood that a heart that loves is a heart that risks being broken. It may be broken by the weight of our own sin, broken by the mistreatment of others, broken by the injustice of the powerful and wealthy against the poor and powerless.

Once a heart was broken, once cracks appeared, the law could seep in between those cracks and get inside the heart.

Psalm 51 says,

The sacrifice acceptable to God
is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise.

When a heart is broken and it turns to God, then God’s law can enter in between the cracks.

It’s like the cracked pot in Chris Kerven’s floral arrangements for Easter 2012, captured in this painting by Gerry Wheeler. The pot is by the cross, and the life and light and love of Jesus can enter through the cracks.

Chris's pot

Sometimes, good people get worried or they doubt themselves or their faith when their hearts feel like they may break.

Chris Kerven had the right instincts in placing her cracked jar at the foot of the cross on that Good Friday. And then in placing the self-same pot with the flowers on Easter morning.

Because God comes into our hearts through the cracks. A cracked pot can become a thing of rare beauty.

This pot looks useless. You’d be forgiven for throwing it away. What else can you do with rubbish like this?


There is a Japanese art form known as kintsukoroi or kintsugi, in which the cracks in pots are filled with gold. The pottery becomes even more beautiful because of the way the cracks were treated.

You can make it into a thing of great and rare beauty:

Even really wide cracks can be made beautiful:


Hearts can and do break, but if we keep our focus on God and God’s purposes for us, then the cracks can be made beautiful. We can be made beautiful inside. Where it counts.

God doesn’t use gold though. God uses something far more precious: the grace of Jesus Christ and the outpoured Holy Spirit fill the cracks of our hearts, and allow us to respond to God’s law from deep within our hearts.

Let’s finish with those words from Psalm 51:

The sacrifice acceptable to God
is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise.

Not only that, but God can heal and transform our broken and contrite hearts, and make us into something beautiful.

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