Brennan Manning is the author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, The Wisdom of Tenderness, and Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin's Path to God.
What is a ragamuffin?
Well, there's a beautiful scene in the Old Testament about the Anawim. In the eighth century, they're the poor, the homeless, landless, and God will one day restore their prosperity. But in the sixth century the Anawim took on a meaning of tremendous spiritual depth. The Anawim were the poor in spirit who had an unwavering trust in God and committed themselves entirely to doing his will.
Now, when the Anawim theme comes into the New Testament, the Anawim are those who gather to meet Jesus at his birth. They're the poor ones, the nobodies, the people on the margin of respectability. They're the shepherds. There's Anna, this old lady at 84 years old. There's Simeon, an old man. And all these animals. And then, of course, there's the Virgin Mary, who was considered the last and lowliest in a long line. Those are the ones who are truly poor in spirit. They acknowledge their utter dependence on God even for their next breath, have just cast their lot with Jesus, and surrendered to the Father's will. And that's basically what a ragamuffin is.
What is premise of this book about trust?
The basic idea is in one sentence: The splendor of a human heart that trusts and is loved unconditionally gives God more pleasure than Westminster Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, the sight of 10,000 butterflies in flight, or the scent of a million orchids in bloom. Trust is our gift back to God, and he finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it.
It's what Jesus said we need to bring into the relationship.
Yes. Childlike surrender and trust, I believe, is the defining spirit of authentic discipleship. The supreme need in most of our lives is often the most overlooked: an unfaltering trust in the love of God no matter what goes down. I think this is what Paul taught when he wrote in Philippians 4:13, "There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the one that gives me strength."
But how do we know if we're really trusting? Most people would say they trust God.
The dominant characteristic of an authentic spiritual life is the gratitude that flows from trust—not only for all the gifts that I receive from God, but gratitude for all the suffering. Because in that purifying experience, suffering has often been the shortest path to intimacy with God.
I'd also add that biblical trust grows out of love. My trust in God flows out of the experience of his loving me, day in and day out, whether the day is stormy or fair, whether I'm sick or in good health, whether I'm in a state of grace or disgrace. He comes to me where I live and loves me as I am.
In John 17:26, Jesus says, "Father, I have made your name known. I continue to make it known. And I pray that the same love with which you love me may be in them and I in them." The very same love that the Abba has for Jesus is the same love he has for us when he's in our hearts. The problem is most of us aren't aware of it.
So part of this is an attention problem?
I believe that the real difference in the American church is not between conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and charismatics, nor between Republicans and Democrats. The real difference is between the aware and the unaware.
When somebody is aware of that love, the same love that the Father has for Jesus, that person is just spontaneously grateful. Cries of thankfulness become the dominant characteristic of the interior life, and the byproduct of gratitude is joy. We're not joyful and then become grateful, we're grateful and that makes us joyful.
But there's suffering, too. In your book, tucked away between talking about gratefulness and beholding God, you talk very personally about how, if we're truly going to learn to trust God, we can't avoid the personal suffering.
When I was outside an alcohol and drug rehab center in New Orleans, and I was clutching a pint of Taaka vodka, what I did not want was the lifesaving treatment of detox in a 28-day program.
I kept on drinking, a drunken child crying out, "Jesus, where are you?" How do we experience trust in the midst of pain, suffering, heartache, and throbbing despair? I mean, is it possible to endure and eventually move beyond the bleak and melancholy landscape of evil and destruction, back to the experience of God as unconditional love? That's the problem I ask Christians. Do you trust that God loves you? Everybody says, oh yes, I've known that for a long time. Then just watch the way they live. There's so much fear, so much anxiety, and so much self-hatred. The best definition of faith I ever heard was Paul Tillich when he said, "Faith is the courage to accept acceptance."
Meaning? Faith is a code to accept that Jesus knows my whole life story, every skeleton in my closet, every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty, degradedness darkening my past. Right now he knows my shallow faith, my feeble prayer life, my inconsistent discipleship, and he comes beside me and he says, I dare you to trust. I dare you to trust that I love you, just as you are and not as you should be, because you're never going to be as you should be.
Why are we afraid that God won't love us as we are?
My sense is this, that if I let the love of God run wild in my life, what is he going to demand of me? Is he going to say I've got to spend 10 years in Calcutta with Mother Teresa's missionaries? Is he going to give me cancer? Is he going to tell me I've got to leave my spouse and just go live in a cave for him alone? All these crazy fears have nothing to do with the real God who takes delight in his people.
To me, it's more important to be loved than to love. When I have not had the experience of being loved by God, just as I am and not as I should be, then loving others becomes a duty, a responsibility, a chore. But if I let myself be loved as I am, with the love of God poured into my heart by the Holy Spirit, then I can reach out to others in a more effortless way.
And the trust born of this love is ruthless, you say.
That sounds like a funny thing: ruthless trust. The dictionary defines ruthless as "without pity." In the context I'm using it, it's without self-pity. Self-pity is the first normal unavoidable reaction. I think we just waste our time trying to suppress it. But there comes a time when it threatens to become malignant. It can seduce us into self-destructive patterns like withdrawal, isolation, drinking, drugs, and so forth. And then we simply beg God for the grace to set a time limit on our self-pity.
The poet said that the last illusion we must let go of is the desire to feel loved. There's a monk up in the Genesee Abbey. He's been there 30 years. And a visitor asked him, "Do you still feel as close to God as you did when you went in 30 years ago?" And the monk's glorious answer was, "No, but now it doesn't matter." He was so freed from the need to feel loved that he could indiscriminately accept consolation or desolation, God's presence or God's absence, as one and the same thing. With the rise and fall of my fragile feelings, thank God that the presence of God within me doesn't depend on my fickle feelings, or I'd be in deep caca.
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