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I’ve had the great privilege of teaching a Service Leadership course at two different schools, and the one thing I try to help students think through in that course is this–giving their lives not to pleasure, profit or power, but to that which breaks their hearts.

I ask them, “What about our world makes you angry? What seems unfair? What breaks your heart?”

And, of course, there is no shortage of heartbreaking things: overpopulated prisons, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence, human trafficking, high divorce rates among the rich and poor alike, child hunger, homelessness, mall shootings, wars and the wholesale slaughter of human beings on every continent, failing schools, generational poverty, child abuse, violence to women of every age, absentee fathers, prostitution…the list goes on ad infinitum. 

The deeper question is, do these things break our hearts? Do they cause us to weep, to get angry, to get active? Or, have we become so inured, so numb, so accustomed to them that we take them for granted? We change the channel, turn our heads, put down the newspaper, switch to a different screen when images of brokenness cross our paths so quickly that we do not have time to grieve even if we wanted to.

The great work is not to recognize that heartbreaking issues surround us everywhere we look; the great work is to be broken by them. We see the despair, hear the mourning in our streets, and then race home to catch American Idol, more concerned with its outcome than our own.

Frederick Buechner said this about vocation (“calling”): “Your vocation is where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”

I think much of the angst we feel, the mid-life crises we face, the despair, loneliness, and emptiness that often engulfs us comes because our hearts have not been sufficiently broken. We do pursue power, pleasure and profit, thinking (ignoring all history, literature, philosophy and theology to the contrary) that these pursuits will suffice, and are surprised and broken when they do not.

The problem, of course, is that the very question hints at the reason we accept the numbed indifference: To seek that which breaks my heart means my heart will be broken.

So, instead, we callous our hearts with such things as “success” and “prosperity” / “sentiment” and “good will” hoping that this will do, really hoping that not much more will be required.

C.S. Lewis said of the love that breaks hearts some of my favorite words: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

So maybe the first question we should each ask ourselves is this: “Does my heart break for anything?” If not, why not?

Isaiah 58:10 says this:

“If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.”

What, if anything, are we spending ourselves in behalf of? What, if anything, breaks our hearts?

**I would enjoy hearing your responses to this! What, in your life, breaks your heart? What are you doing about it? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below. Thanks!