Two translators had given up after months of trying to translate the phrase “broken spirit” in the Karang language of Cameroon. “We put it in God’s hands and moved on to reviewing the Gospel of Luke for audio recording,” said Bob, a Wycliffe staff member.
Even in English, it can be difficult to understand what a “broken spirit” means when it’s mentioned in Psalm 51:17 or Matthew 5. Some might interpret the phrase to mean “depressed” or “without hope.” Others may think it means “guilt-filled” or “riddled with shame.”
Although the Karang translation team had moved on from this challenging question, their thoughts were directed back to it when they reviewed a translated draft of Mary’s praise song in the first chapter of Luke.
When Abba, a local translation team member, read the opening line — “All my spirit glorifies the Lord” — he hesitated because the translated version communicated, “All my things glorify the Lord.” This wording implied more than Mary’s spirit, erroneously including her clothes!
“Wouldn’t it be better,” Abba suggested, “to say all my breath glorifies the Lord?”
At that moment, Bob thought of a solution. “Abba, this is what we need for broken spirit!”
When Abba looked at him curiously, Bob quickly constructed a phrase to explain: “The acceptable sacrifice with which to come and offer to God is viewing one’s breath as nothing.”
Abba smiled and nodded his head. As the team tested this new phrase with others, everyone agreed it worked well. A “broken spirit” was now understood as total abandonment of one’s self to the point where one’s own breath is nothing. Applied to Matthew 5:3, the verse reads, “Blessed are those who know their own breath is but nothing, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This “broken spirit” is not hopelessness, depression, shame or guilt. It is such a yearning for eternity that not even one’s breathing is worth comparing to it. It is a willing offering; it is the ultimate pleasing sacrifice to God.