One of my favourite Christian authors, Brennan Manning, died on 12th April at the age of 78. I was surprised at how much I felt a sense of loss at that news. The sense of loss is not for him: as his family said, there is much comfort “in the fact that he is resting in the loving arms of his Abba.” No, the sense of loss is entirely selfish! I can no longer expect new books, new spiritual insights, further revelations of the Father-heart of God from his pen and that saddened me enormously.
Starting in 1970 with the publication of Gentle Revolutionaries, Manning wrote and published more than 20 books, the most famous of which was The Ragamuffin Gospel. His alcoholism in the context of being a Franciscan priest was the backdrop for much of his spiritual reflection. As we spend this month praying for those who battle addictions, I find it encouraging that God uses us even with our weaknesses and addictions. In fact, Hebrews reminds us “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Heb 4:15) Sometimes we need to be reminded that God uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong (see 1 Cor 1:26-29).
Brennan Manning once described his ministry in this way: to ‘help sinners journey from self-hatred to self-acceptance.’ (quoted in a Christianity Today article published in 2004). He said that we are all on a journey in life: travelling this road daily, never too far from a character he calls the Imposter. Everyone’s got one. It’s “the slick, sick, and subtle impersonator of my true self.” The persona craves to be liked, loved, approved, accepted, to fit in. “It’s the self that refuses to accept that my true self, centered in Christ, is really more likeable, more attractive, and more real than the fallen self.”
One of the things that most challenged me as I read obituaries was this quote from the same article: ‘Beneath Manning’s struggle with alcoholism is his struggle with a fiercer foe: self-hatred. One of the greatest regrets of his life is “all the time I’ve wasted in shame, guilt, remorse, and self-condemnation.” He’s not speaking about the appropriate guilt one ought to feel after committing a sin. He’s talking about wallowing in guilt, almost indulging in it, which is “basically a kind of idolatry where I’m the center of my focus and concern.” ‘
Many of us might think there can be no greater struggle than trying to break an addiction like alcoholism or drugs. But I identified very strongly with this ‘fiercer foe’. My debt to Brennan Manning, as to all authors whose words have illuminated my life, is great. We are all pilgrims on a journey, learning to accept ourselves as God accepts us and to love ourselves and others as He does. As Michael Card said of Brennan Manning, “He has freed me up to be able to show that I have weaknesses, too, and that God still uses me in spite of them and sometimes perhaps because of them.”
We would doubtless prefer God to make us infallibly strong and never to sin; we much prefer heroes to be flawless and without fears. But we need to accept that we are flawed and recognise, nonetheless, that God’s love is greater than any of our weaknesses and sins. It’s not a case of our grip on God being strong enough to keep us safe, but His grip on us being stronger than the strongest glue!