The Brittle and the Unbreakable


Mark Eberhart earned a Ph.D. from MIT, proving he is smart. He wrote a fascinating book onscience that is accessible to everyone, proving he is intelligent. In “Why Things Break,” Eberhart helps us understand our world by the way things come apart. Who would have thought this was a field of scientific study? After reading this book—and actually understanding a good bit of it, a tribute to the author—I find myself talking about it to everyone I meet. I even brought a sermon to our people based on some of the book’s insights. Here is one of them.

Most people will tell you the Titanic sank in the waters of the North Atlantic because it hit an iceberg. But the ship was designed to handle such a collision without sinking. To be sure, the Titanic’s situation was compounded by too few lifeboats, no binoculars for lookouts, and a captain who persisted in racing through dangerous waters when other ships had anchored for the night. But it was the brittle metal in the ship’s hull which proved the ship’s undoing.

The steel in the Titanic was produced in acid-lined, open-hearth furnaces in Glasgow, Scotland. This type of furnace did not remove the sulfur and phosphorus in the steel, both of which are impurities and weaken the metal. Had manganese been added, it would have formed manganese-sulfide and blocked the weakening effects of the sulfur. When samples of the recovered ship were examined, it was discovered that the steel in the Titanic contained twice the safe amount of sulfur and four times the phosphorus, but only half the recommended amount of manganese. As a result, the metal was brittle—not so much that ship-builders in Belfast, Ireland, noticed, but still brittle.

Eberhart explains, “(A)ll steels are brittle. The question is, at what temperature. Pure iron is ductile at room temperature, but cool it to cryogenic temperatures and it becomes as brittle as glass.” The water temperature in the North Atlantic that night in 1912 was -2 degrees C. When the ship and iceberg collided, the metal of the hull should have absorbed the energy by rupturing perhaps two watertight compartments. However, in the icy water the brittle metal did not consume the energy “until the fractures had propagated along one hundred meters of hull.” Fifteen hundred people perished that night due to the brittle metal that formed the hull of the Titanic.

I know people who are brittle. In sunshine and prosperity, they stand tall and look like a million. They radiate confidence and talk a great game. Let disaster strike and they shatter into a thousand pieces, never to recover. With John, it was a business bankruptcy. With Marlon, it was her husband’s affair and the divorce. With Betty, it was her mother’s illness and death. With Webb, it was the pastor’s sin and the subsequent church split that drove him from God and the church. When Paul’s retirement income disappeared due to the downturn in the economy a few years back, his faith also vanished. Brittleness happens. Why?

In the steel of the Titanic, brittleness resulted from the presence of impurities and the absence of strengthening metals. Brittleness in people can often be traced to impurities in their lives coupled with the absence of fortifying agents.

“Why did you fear? Where is your faith?” said the Lord Jesus to the 12 disciples. They had awakened Him from a nap in the back of their little boat, certain that they were about to be swamped in the storm on the Galilee. Jesus stood to His feet, rebuked the storm, watched the wind and waves settle down, and then turned to steady the shaken disciples. Faith and fear cannot co-exist. One is our strength, the other makes us brittle. Where fear reigns, faith leaves. When faith occupies the driver’s seat, fear takes a hike.

The night Jesus was arrested, Simon Peter’s fears took over. Before morning he had denied three times he even knew Jesus. His brittle faith could not stand the stress.

Through the Scriptures, we are introduced to a select group of believers of the unbreakable variety. Think of Joseph—brutalized by his brothers, sold into slavery, deceived and thrown into prison, and forgotten. In time, he emerged as the champion of Egypt and the hero of his family. There’s Moses—betrayed, exiled, forgotten, hounded, opposed, and harassed. Yet, no one in Kingdom history rises above him in stature. There’s the Apostle Paul. We have his own words to describe the stresses he endured in serving Jesus.

“I’ve…been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.” (II Corinthians 11; The Message) And how did Paul react to all this?

“We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, He does in us—He lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best!” (II Corinthians 4; The Message)

What is the secret of God’s unbreakable ones? What made Paul unbreakable? Whatever it was, it worked also for Joseph and Moses and the others. What’s the formula for the steel in God’s unbreakable saints?

1. Less and less of me. I am the impurity.

2. More and more of Him. Christ is my strength.

John the Baptist, another of God’s unbreakables, voiced the formula this way: “He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

In the early days of television, John Cameron Swayze demonstrated the durability of the Timex wristwatch by subjecting it to all kinds of stresses. At the end, he would pull out the timepiece, hold it up so viewers could see the secondhand at work, and announce, “Takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’!”

“God, make me unbreakable—able to absorb a hurt and keep going; able to fall down and get back up, to deal with doubt and fear and temptation and grow stronger every day. Stand me on my feet, O Lord, and use me once more.”