As I promised on our Facebook page, we will blog along with our small group discussions of Brennan Manning’s book, “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” Amazon’s number one best-seller under the category of Christian Discipleship. Now is the perfect time to pick up a copy – it is on sale! Last April, I blogged about listening to Brennan Manning’s sermons during Lent and how I was impacted by his message of God’s unconditional love. You can read that post here. Our group is meeting the first and third Fridays of the month, slowly discussing “The Ragamuffin Gospel” chapter by chapter. So April 3rd we talked about chapter 1, “Something is Radically Wrong.”
This chapter in a nutshell is talking about American Christianity’s tendency to talk grace but walk works. We preach a Gospel of grace – “the total sufficiency of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on Calvary” (pg. 15) – but our lives tell a different story. We have “twisted the gospel of grace into religious bondage and distorted the image of God into an eternal, small-minded bookkeeper” (pg. 16). We are all striving, striving, striving for approval from God and from our faith communities, emphasizing personal effort over grace. There are different classes of Christians, where some are given special status because of their works and charisma while others are ignored altogether for their ordinariness. We hide our darker side from each other and live in a constant state of “existential guilt…[and] Sooner or later we are confronted with the painful truth of our inadequacy and insufficiency. Our security is shattered and our bootstraps are cut” (pg. 17).
This was the word that we danced around the most in our conversation, and I have been keenly aware of its presence in conversations with others over the past week. Guilt is a huge issue for men and women alike, but from a woman’s perspective, I see how guilt has become a perpetual state of being for many of us. Yet our feeling of guilt–that we are not doing enough as Christians, as parents, as spouses, as family members, as employees, as citizens of the world–is a blatant rejection of the gospel of grace. The solution is to admit our “shadow side” and accept that there is nothing we can earn by works. All is a gift. We must find our identity in our acceptance and love from God and not in how we perform. Manning expresses this beautifully in this quote from page 25:
When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.
To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side, I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, “A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”
The gospel of grace nullifies our adulation of televangelists, charismatic superstars, and local church heroes. It obliterates the two-class citizenship theory operative in many American churches. For grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is gift. All that is good is ours, not by right, but by the sheer bounty of a gracious God. While there is much we may have earned–our degree, our salary, our home and garden, a Miller Lite, and a good night’s sleep–all this is possible only because we have been given so much: life itself, eyes to see and hands to touch, a mind to shape ideas, and a heart to beat with love. We have been given God in our souls and Christ in our flesh. We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt. This and so much more is sheer gift; it is not reward for our faithfulness, our generous disposition, or our heroic life of prayer. Even our fidelity is a gift. “If we but turn to God,” said St. Augustine, “that itself is a gift of God.” My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.
Let me leave this post with a few more quotes:
“Justification by grace through faith” is the theologian’s learned phrase for what Chesterton once called “the furious love of God.” He is not moody or capricious; He knows no seasons of change. He has a single relentless stance toward us: He loves us. He is the only God man has ever heard of who loves sinners. False gods–the gods of human manufacturing–despise sinners, but the Father of Jesus loves all, no matter what they do” (pg. 20).
The kingdom is not an exclusive, well-trimmed suburb with snobbish rules about who can live there. No, it is for a larger, homelier, less self-conscious caste of people who understand they are sinners because they have experienced the yaw and pitch of moral struggle (pg. 23).
As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness (pg. 23).
Never confuse your perception of yourself with the mystery that you really are accepted (pg. 28).
Often I have been asked, “Brennan, how is it possible that you became an alcoholic after you got saved?” It is possible because I got battered and bruised by loneliness and failure; because I got discouraged, uncertain, guilt-ridden, and took my eyes off Jesus. Because the Christ-encounter did not transfigure me into an angel. Because justification by grace through faith means I have been set in right relationship with God, not made the equivalent of a patient etherized on a table” (pgs. 30-31).