“The faith that animates the Christian community,” Brennan Manning writes in Ruthless Trust, “is less a matter of believing in the existence of God than a practical trust in his loving care under whatever pressure” (page 6). As some of us Christians move through the Gospel of Mark this year, there is no better meditation aid than Manning’s book.
I have almost as much of his text highlighted, underlined, boxed, and/or starred as I do not. I will do what I can to lift up the best carry-out lines in this inspired and inspiring work, but I may not get out of the first chapter before I come to my 1500 words (or so).
First, a bit about Manning himself. Manning was born in New York City in 1934 (just a few weeks after my father, coincidentally). He grew up a good Roman Catholic boy who enlisted in the Marines after high school and served in the Korean War. When he returned, he went to university and then seminary. He was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1963.
A few years later Manning joined the Little Brothers of Jesus of Charles de Foucald and served among and with the poor in a variety of settings here in the States and in Europe. After about fifteen years of ministry, Manning faced and began to wrestle with his alcoholism. His illness bedeviled him all his adult life and contributed to his death in 2013.
Manning later left the priesthood and married Roslyn. They raised a family but were later divorced. Manning was a noted speaker, retreat leader, and author. His best-known book is The Ragamuffin Gospel, but he wrote numerous books. His story has been adapted in at least two movies.
Ruthless Trust is one of the high points of his writing and speaking, produced a decade after The Ragamuffin Gospel. He sought to journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance, from intellectual assent to living trust, from fearing God to loving God. I have connected to his work personally and emotionally because of some similar dynamics in our growing up years. His mother struggled to connect to him and even to want him as a son. That tragic lack of acceptance, affirmation, and love drove him to find life elsewhere – a quest that was periodically successful.
“If we could free ourselves from the temptation to make faith a mindless assent to a dusty pawnshop of doctrinal beliefs,” he writes, “we would discover with alarm that the essence of biblical faith lies in trusting God” (page 6). This seems to be the itch Mark’s Gospel is scratching in chapters 1 through 8. Manning lived by desperate faith, ruthless trust, and courageous hope in the midst of a life careening from triumph to train wreck and back again.
“The basic premise of biblical trust,” Manning suggests, “is the conviction that God wants us to grow, to unfold, and to experience the fullness of life. However,” he cautions, “this kind of trust is acquired only gradually and most often through a series of crises and trials” (page 9). Ruthless trust is sort of like the way my dad described wisdom. Wisdom comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, experience usually comes from bad judgment. I can testify to the truth of that observation.
Ruthless trust comes from experiencing, over and over, God’s reliability in Christ by the power of the Spirit, in the midst of trials and tribulations. Unfortunately, those trials and tribulations often arise because of bad judgment (or sheer bad luck). If, as the Gospel of Mark asserts, faith is resilient reliance on the faithfulness of God in life and in death, then the way we live creates many opportunities to practice that resilient reliance in the aftermath of our own choices and chances. Mark and Brennan would have gotten on famously, I think.
He had me in chapter one, however, with his personal story. It’s worth quoting at some length.
“The biggest obstacle to my journey of trust has been an oppressive sense of insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority, and low self-esteem. I have no memory of being held, hugged, or kissed by my mother as a little boy. I was called a nuisance and a pest and told to shut up and be still” (page 13). My experience was not quite so cold, but there are enough similarities for me to listen and learn.
“My mother had been orphaned at age three,” Manning continues, “both her parents died in a flu epidemic in Montreal – and sent to an orphanage where she lived for several years, until she was eventually adopted. Then, at age eighteen, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, for training as a registered nurse. Having received little attention or affection through those early years, she was incapable of giving any” (page 13, my emphasis). When I read Manning’s story, I was able to begin to think about having compassion for my poor, dear mother – another who received little attention or affection and therefore had not much to share with me.
Forgiveness for others and acceptance of ourselves just as we are – these are steps along the path of ruthless trust in God, Manning suggests. “In order to grow in trust,” he writes, “we must allow God to see us and love us precisely as we are” (page 16). That’s the prayerful work of a lifetime, at least in my experience. But when I do it, I am transformed.
“With a strong affirmation of our goodness,” Manning writes, “and a gentle understanding of our weakness, God is loving us – you and me – this moment, just as we are and not as we should be. There is nothing any of us can do,” he asserts, “to increase [God’s] love for us and nothing we can do to diminish it” (page 19). This is one of the hardest parts of grace to convey to people – that God wants nothing from me and also wants everything for me. Since God needs nothing from me, all God offers me is free, unmerited, and unconditional.
That’s grace. God loves me for nothing. And God invites me to trust that unconditional love. “Trust is our gift back to God,” Manning writes, and God “finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it” (page 2). That’s the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If only we Jesus followers could live that way and declare our message in those terms.
The Way of Trust leads us to “The Way of Gratefulness,” in chapter two. “Gratitude arises from the lived perception, evaluation, and acceptance of all of life as grace,” he writes, “as an undeserved and unearned gift from the Father’s hand” (page 24). Manning helped me to see a simple relationship. Happiness arises from gratitude. Gratitude arises from trust in God’s grace.
This life of ruthless trust is lived in the face of life’s traumas. “How does one dare to propose the way of trust,” Manning asks in chapter three, “The Enormous Difficulty,” “in the face of raw, undifferentiated heartache, cosmic disorder, and the terror of history?” (page 39). Yes, that is the question, eh?
We make this daring proposition because we trust that God is with us in the suffering – that is the meaning of the cross of Christ. “Anyone God uses significantly,” Manning says, “is always deeply wounded” (page 48). Manning’s life is testimony to that assertion. “On the last day,” he continues, “Jesus will look us over not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars” (Ibid).
This leads Manning, as it does all honest theologians, to the via negativa, the apophatic experience of God through opposites. “The more we let go of our concepts and images, which always limit God,” he writes, “the bigger God grows and the more we approach the mystery of [God’s] indefinability” (page 56).
We Western Christians don’t like that very much. We want a God we can analyze, systematize, and legalize. “All that is elusive, enigmatic, hard to grasp will eventually yield to our intellectual investigation, then to our categorization – or so we would like to think,” Manning notes. “But to avoid mystery is to avoid the only God worthy of worship, honor, and praise,” he continues. We are really searching for “a God worthy of awe, silent reverence, total commitment, and whole-hearted trust” (page 57). We find ourselves back in Mark’s gospel, I think.
The apophatic move is the province of the “artists, mystics, and clowns,” Manning writes in chapter five. “Sacred scripture is too important to be left exclusively to biblical scholars. Theology is too vital to be consigned solely to the province of theologians. To explore the depths of the God who invites our trust,” Manning argues, “we need the artists and mystics” (page 68). That is hardly the theological trend in the triumphalist Western church of our age.
In the spirit of the disciples in the boat in Mark 3, Manning writes of the “Infinite and Intimate” God in chapter six. “The awareness that the eternal, transcendent God of Jesus Christ is our absolute future gives us the shakes,” he writes. “One day out of the blue comes the thought of our inevitable death, and the thought is so troubling that we want to live the rest of our lives in a shoe” (page 76). The way we Christians deal with these existential shakes is by trusting in Jesus, God who is both infinite and intimate. “For me and many others,” Manning says, “Jesus is the revelation of the only God worthy of trust” (page 89).
That trust is no simple solution to complex problems, nor is it easily achieved. “Often trust begins on the far side of despair,” Manning writes. “When all human resources are exhausted, when the craving for reassurances is stifled, when we forgo control, when we cease trying to manipulate God and demystify Mystery, then – at our wits’ end – trust happens within us,” he declares (page 117). That trust takes the shape of humble confidence as we come to God through Jesus exactly as we are.
How then shall we live out this ruthless trust? “Trust yourself as one entrusted by God,” Manning says, “with everything you need to live life to the full” (page 145). “Ruthless trust ultimately comes down to this,” he writes in the final chapter, “faith in the person of Jesus and hope in his promise. In spite of all disconcerting appearances, we stare down death without nervousness and anticipate resurrection solely because Jesus has said, ‘You have my word on it’” (page 178).
“To be like Christ,” Manning declares, “is to be a Christian.” Yes, that’s right. It is a life of desperate faith, ruthless trust, and courageous hope. I pray to live that way at least a few seconds each day.