Brennan Manning brings the message of God’s all-embracing love to campus
by Tamara Cissna
illustrations by Tim Timmerman
To the weary and heavy-laden, Brennan Manning speaks comfort. God loves you, he says — as you are, not as you should be. Take your eyes off yourself — what you’ve done wrong; what you should be doing; how you don’t measure up.
It’s not about performance, says Manning. The Christian faith is about God’s relentless tenderness and love. You are the prodigal child, the pearl of great price, and the treasure in the field, Jesus said through parables. And he instructed his followers to address God as abba, our daddy.
“Christianity is not primarily a moral code, or an ethic, or a philosophy of life,” Manning says. “It’s a love affair. Jesus takes us to the father, and they pour out the Holy Spirit upon us — not to be nicer people with better morals, but brand new creations, prophets, lovers, human torches ignited with the flaming Spirit of the living God.”
Self-condemnation and gloom block God’s way to us, Manning says. “The key is to let yourself be loved in your brokenness.
“Let the focus of your inner life rest on one truth, the staggering, mind-blowing truth that God loves you unconditionally as you are and not as you should be. Because nobody is as they should be.”
It’s been more than 40 years since Brennan Manning was “ambushed by God” on the far side of despair. As an alcoholic who felt completely broken, he discovered an unshakable trust in the love of Christ. Though his setbacks sadden him, he understands that his Savior forgives seventy times seven. He wants his listeners and readers to know that, too.
Manning is the author of many books, including The Ragamuffin Gospel and The Importance of Being Foolish. Manning, the Catholic-priest-turned-evangelist, leads spiritual retreats throughout the United States and Europe. In September, he visited George Fox, sharing over three days with students and area pastors. He also addressed some questions for the Journal:
What is the primary objection you hear to your persistent message that God loves you as you are?
The number one objection is that this message promotes universalism. So I want to make this abundantly, luminously clear: I’m not a universalist. Universalism is a heresy that makes the death and resurrection of Christ irrelevant. The key is that you stretch your mind and stretch your heart to accommodate God’s allembracing love in Jesus Christ.
Does that relate to your comment in chapel that the God of many Christians is too small for you?
Yes. Definitely. That’s a God who loves me when I’m good and hates me when I’m bad — a very fickle God where everything depends on my behavior. A God of legalism, a God of moralism, a God of heavy-handed authoritarianism. And it’s not the Jesus who said, “Make your home in me as I make mine in you.” Home is a nest of warmth and hospitality, welcoming love, intimacy, and a nonjudgmental spirit.
How should we feel when we don’t live up to some of the New Testament guidelines for behavior?
The one regret I have in my life is the hours I’ve wasted in self-condemnation, low self-esteem, and self-hatred, which is all ego-based by the way. Whether you have an incredibly high opinion of yourself or a very low opinion of yourself, they’re both ego-based — the shock and horror that I’ve failed. But I’d never judge any of God’s other creatures with the savage condemnation with which I crush myself.
But some Christians do judge others with savage condemnation. If presented with the story of the woman caught in adultery, they emphasize, “Go and sin no more.”
The problem is that the judgmental people have never really been broken themselves. For example, when my ex-wife Rosalyn divorced for the first time, her best friend, who was a committed Christian, would have nothing to do with her. Seven years later when she herself divorced she called Rosalyn and asked, “Will you please forgive me?”
If God loves those who fear him, isn’t that in a sense conditional? Isn’t it based on some sort of emotional response from us?
Fear is silent wonder, radical amazement, and affectionate awe at the infinite goodness of God. I’m not talking about silent wonder as some kind of an intense emotion. It’s just “I never dreamed that God is like this.” So I don’t see the fear of the Lord as being a highly emotional response.
What about the individual who is just indifferent, who doesn’t care? Does God love that person as much?
God loves that person. It’s just that the person is unable to receive the love — whether through cynicism, skepticism, indifference, or being hurt by the church. I hear that so often: the reason they stop going to church is because “my pastor” did this or did that. There is some kind of moral failing. If God stopped loving, he would stop being God. He cannot not love. It’s just that many people put themselves in a position of rejecting it.
I’m really convinced of this: If I want you to see yourself as a beautiful treasure of Jesus, I’ve got to treat you like a treasure. Then you’ve got some human model. Is it possible that God could love me the way Brennan does? To me, that’s a key — treating others as treasures opens up the possibility that the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price all make sense.
You refer often to the loving nature of the God of Jesus. Of course, we believe this is the same God of the Old Testament. How do we reconcile the apparent contrast?
It’s not by looking at God that you learn who Jesus is; it’s by looking at Jesus that you learn who God is. He’s the image of the invisible God. There is no contrast. Jesus said, I make all things new. The God of the Old Testament is the God that assumes human form in the person of Jesus.
What if we claim to love Jesus but keep falling on our faces? Do we really not love him since the Bible says if we love him we will keep his commandments?
There’s this naïve idea that once I accept Jesus as saving Lord my life is going to be an unbroken, upward spiral toward holiness, this untarnished success story. Once we accept Jesus as saving Lord then nothing’s ever going to go wrong. And it’s almost like being a patient etherized on the table. The simple truth is that after three years with Jesus, Peter denied him. After receiving the fullness of the Holy Spirit and Pentecost, Peter was still jealous of the apostolic success of Paul.
When Jesus was asked by Peter how often should I forgive — seven times? Jesus said, “No, 70 times seven.” At that moment Jesus was describing himself. No matter how many times you stumble and fall, just keep getting up. To me, it’s like a drunk going down an alley. He bangs into the wall, tears his shoulder, then he crawls down and rips his pants; he crashes into the other wall and he gets a black eye but at the end of the alley there is Jesus saying “Get up. Get up. Keep coming. Keep coming. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t give into despair. No matter how many times you stumble and fall, all you have to do is ask for forgiveness and it’s given.”
How do you feel Jesus looks upon the American Church today?
You know, I really have to qualify my answer to that. Some of the greatest men and women I have met in my life have been in the evangelical church. In fact, I started a group in 1993 called The Notorious Sinners. Fifteen guys from around the country, all men, and the three things they had in common were they were serious about Jesus, they were capable of raw honesty about their own brokenness, and they had a sense of humor. The evangelical church is so divided. For example, 44 percent of evangelicals believe that abortion is OK. So I don’t think it’s fair to make any kind of a statement about the evangelical church because it’s so diverse. Some of the places are dynamically alive and other ones are still trapped in the old legalism. And moralism, which is the twin sister of legalism.
Is it difficult for you to keep going into churches and Christian circles with that mentality?
Christian Music Planet magazine listed the 10 most impactful books of the last 100 years, arrived at through extensive studies with religion professors, lay people, and what they call religious aficionados. The 10 most impactful books of the last 100 years. You know what was first? My Utmost for His Highest. Know what was fifth? The Ragamuffin Gospel. And this is an ultra right-wing magazine. The reason I get into right-wing places as well as moderate and left-wing places is because I don’t have any kind of label. They don’t see me as a Catholic, they do see me as a Christian, but I’m not a charismatic, I’m not a fundamentalist, I’m not a born-again enthusiast. You know, I’m just Brennan who’s a vagabond evangelist, and because I only preach of Jesus and the gospel of grace nobody’s hung a label on me yet. It’s because I don’t believe people need to hear me talk about my position on abortion and on pacifism and on nuclear war and all these burning theological issues, many of which are neither burning nor theological. They want to experience Jesus. That’s why, without a label, I get invited to this wide variety of faith communities.
You’re very popular with youth these days.
Yeah, I’ve got an enormous following among young people because they can spot a phony a mile away. If you’re speaking from your heart and you’re willing to share honestly your own brokenness, they find you credible, which delights me.
Do you feel encouraged by this generation of young people?
Yes I do. It is an old cliché that the young are the future of the church. I’m amazed when I see their enthusiasm for prayer, for lives of service, and what they do during their college breaks. They’re going off to Mexico and building homes. They’re going off to Rwanda. They’re going to all these places. This is their free time. Yeah, there is hope there. And they’re always going to be a minority, but it’s that core group who keep the faith alive and are the future of the church.
And they’re honest. This seems evident in many of the emerging churches filled with young people. There also seems an element of angst.
Thomas Merton said the only solution to the angst of man is mysticism. My spiritual director told me, “Brennan, if you don’t develop your mystical life, you will never be the man God intended you to be.”
You addressed prayer in chapel as though it’s accessible, just entering into the presence of Jesus.
The Quakers have a lovely phrase. They define prayer as holy loitering.
Why do so many people cry when they hear you speak?
I really believe this: Back in the 15th and 16th centuries people were encouraged to pray for the gift of tears because it was considered God’s therapy for healing people broken in their past. I admire people who have the freedom to cry and to laugh. There are some churches I used to go to where people sit there very solemnly. They never laugh. They never cry, and they basically say, “Go ahead lay a new word on me because I already know the old one.”
In fact, if I was the Cardinal of New England, I would have sent a team of missionaries up there like I would to a pagan country because there is so much legalism, so much moralism, so much traditionalism, but the people around us there have never heard the gospel of grace. Not all, but a majority.
Some say Paul’s writing has a strong shaming quality. But you quote him often as you speak about God’s love for us, so you must not think so.
Well, you’ve got to be careful with Paul. For example, when he says women must wear hats in church, he’s not offering the word of God; he’s offering his own personal opinion because of the thoroughly male culture of the time.
How do you know when it’s the word of God, or when it’s Paul?
To me, I don’t want to make that judgment by myself, so I go read Scripture scholars, exegetes, those I really trust and who explain the text and help me understand.
And there are those who say they’re literalists, but they are not wearing hats in church.
Billy Graham says he’s not a literalist. He’s approaching his 87th birthday and he said he’s changed a lot.
[Editor’s note: In the August 14, 2006, issue of Newsweek, Graham says: “I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle is from the Lord. This is a little difference in my thinking through the years.”]
You have said you pour yourself into your writing for weeks at a time and then let it sit. Then when you read it later, if it moves you, you know it’s going to move other people. But if it doesn’t, you start over again.
Yes. At Columbia University we had a teacher who could barely reach the blackboard. Her name was Martha Foley and she became famous for putting out great American short stories. She wrote on the blackboard, “When the writer cries the reader cries. When the writer laughs the reader laughs.” My feeling is that I’ve got a normal emotional range. If I laugh or I cry then the average reader is going to be moved in the same fashion.
The Importance of Being Foolish?
What most moves you about your new book,
I think it’s the last chapter — the final judgment. Jesus is appraising, evaluating, and measuring every man and woman in terms of their relationship with him. He calls each person by name. Bob Dylan walks up, and next to him is Adolf Hitler. And there’s Amy Grant and Tom Cruise and all these villains and all these supposedly good people. And then when he calls my name I go up trembling and fearful, and he takes my hand and he kisses me and says, “Come on home.” That conviction grows as I get older. As Billy Graham said, as you age, you think more about heaven.
Trust is relying on the promises of Jesus accompanied by the expectation of fulfillment. Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I’ll raise him up on the last day.” When I read that, Jesus is saying, “Look you’ve got my word on it. You’ve got my word on it.” And that is ultimately the source of all our trust.
Illustrator Tim Timmerman is chair of the Department of Visual Arts. His artistic focus is creating images that depict struggles with truth and the human condition. View more of his art at timtimmerman.com.
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