Unconditional, but Variable, Grace

By Bruce Epperly

[Editor's Note: This post is part of a conversation about the new memoir by Brennan Manning, All is Grace, now featured at the Patheos Book Club.]

All is grace.  Such is the testimony of Brennan Manning, substance abuser, failure at marriage, backslider – fully human, yet leaning always on God’s crazy love for each one of us. Like the apostle Paul, Manning lived out the reality that the good I seek to do, I cannot, and what I want to avoid, I end up doing and in so doing, may destroy, as Manning confesses, my health, my marriage, and my life.   In a world in which so many people, self-righteously separate the saved and unsaved, insiders and outsiders, patriotic and unpatriotic, Manning tosses out every dualism, proclaiming the simple truth, that wherever we are on life’s journey – whether we are seeking to follow the straight and narrow, or running as fast as we can from God through substance abuse or infidelity, we will eventually run into God’s arms, and they will save us even from ourselves. I have been there, and remember at such moments the words of a hymn: “Nothing of my own I bring.  Simply to your cross I cling.”

Years ago, in a seminar with homiletics professor Ernie Campbell, I recall the famous preacher proclaim that “there are only two kinds of people: those who are in God’s hands and know it, and those who are in God’s hands and do not.”  That’s Manning’s message.  He knows first-hand the graciousness of God that cannot be thwarted by unbelief, failure, or backsliding.   Sometimes, Manning notes, all we can say is “God have mercy on me, a sinner” and throw ourselves entirely on God’s grace, knowing that we have it not just in spite of ourselves, but because of God’s universal, unmerited, and unstoppable love.  Like a good parent, God’s love embraces the wayward child, never giving up on the possibility that he or she might find her way home both physically and spiritually.

Manning’s All is Grace can be seen as an elaboration of Paul Tillich’s sermon, “You are Accepted.”  On the darkest night, when all is lost, God finds us and bathes us in unconditional love. As Tillich asserts: “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.  After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

Grace is everything, but is it uniform and unilateral?  Philip Yancey makes the following assertion in his Forward to All is Grace: “As you read this memoir, you may be tempted, as I was, to think.  Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t given in to drink. I urge you to reframe the thought to, Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t discovered grace.”

Alfred North Whitehead affirms that God’s gracious gift of possibility in our lives is always the best for that impasse.  Each moment of experience, every moment of our lives, is shaped by God’s unconditional, visionary, and energetic love.  This love embraces and shapes us regardless of our past decisions or present state of mind.  Still, we must ask the “what might have been” question. While I agree that grace is unconditional and universal, and will bring all of us home, despite our brokenness, I also assert that grace is personal, variable, and relational. Grace is not coercive, uniform, or unilateral, but concrete and contextual.   Accordingly, our choices, attitudes, and behaviors, shape our experiences of grace and the intensity of God’s presence in our lives.  While accepting us as we are, God’s ability to bring forth our gifts is, partly, contingent by our experiences and values.  We can’t stop grace, but we can weaken its flow into our lives.  Fully dependent on grace, we are also God’s companions and partners in the synergetic dance of call and response, grace and openness.

From this perspective, whether he was sober or drunk, Manning was a recipient of God’s grace.  But, sobriety and drunkenness shaped the flow and intensity of grace into Manning’s life and into the world through Manning.

Grace abounds, and we are all part of God’s graceful adventure. I believe that God worked through Manning’s brokenness to bring forth something of beauty.  God is the artist of experience, the energy of love moving in and through all things.  God works within our imperfections to create the possibility of “tragic beauty,” as Whitehead notes.  We can never measure the “what if’s” but we can proclaim without reservations that through grace “in our weakness,” we are strong. That grace reflects us as much as it does the divine intent.  Manning’s life mattered, and gave a certain texture to God’s grace. Still grace abounds for each and all of us, revealing itself in the concrete texture of our lives. Such is the witness of Brennan Manning’s life.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, and spiritual guide.  He is the author of twenty-one books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Adult Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.

About Deborah Arca

Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team after more than ten years managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary within the Graduate Theological Union consortium of 11 seminaries in the Bay Area.