Erwin McManus: Greatness Lies on the Other Side of Pain—Part 2

Christianity is a place of unconditional love that also never lets us remain anything less than what we were created to be.

Don’t miss part one of our interview, where Erwin McManus talks about being inspired by samurai movies, finding victory on the other side of pain and capturing a new vision for a Jesus-like humanity.

Fundamentally, then, is The Way of the Warrior recapturing honesty about the human experience?

It’s recapturing ourselves. And you can only do that by being honest. You cannot step into the things you long for if you’re pretending you already have them.

I’m not saying that hope is not a genuine state of being. What I’m saying is that we can live lives of true hope. We can be filled with joy. We can have deep fulfillment and contentment. We are not destined to be trapped in the worst of the human experience. But if you do not acknowledge it, face it, step into it, you will always just have to stand in it.

This is one of the things that have been so interesting about my own journey. I’ve had so many people who have expressed overwhelming gratitude that I have been open about my own struggles. I know what it’s like to struggle with the internal battles of depression, helplessness and insignificance. I know what it’s like to be uncertain, to wonder if you’re ever going to find wholeness or health for your soul. Just opening that conversation and making it real—making it permissible—has given a lot of people healing.

To me, the way of the warrior is not in surrendering to the worst condition—it’s acknowledging that there is a battle in us that must be fought and needs to be acknowledged. That doesn’t make you a lesser human being to own the fact that this is the stuff you’re dealing with.

That brings us back to the paradox at the center of the book—between peace and the need to fight for it. Where do you find the inspiration and strength for the kind of bravery that requires?

At the risk of sounding cliché, you find strength for that in unconditional love.

This is why Jesus is so essential for human wholeness. When you can come to someone, and you don’t have to spend any energy hiding yourself, then all your energy is redirected to healing yourself.

When you step into unconditional love and acceptance, you begin working from acceptance, not for acceptance. That small shift changes everything. This is why community is so important, why friendships are so valuable, why it’s not incidental that when you’re most broken you feel most alone. I try to remind people that when you’re in your deepest struggle, stop running away from people. You need to lean into people. It’s in the context of community that God brings his greatest healing. You must have people who fight for you. This isn’t a fight you fight by yourself.

I talked to someone last Sunday who said, “I’m here because somebody invited me. I didn’t want to come.” [Laughs] She actually said, “I’m mean, jaded and cynical. I don’t believe in God or religion. I think it’s all a sham.”

I said, “You’re really disappointed, aren’t you?”

“Why?”

“Because you like us,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, “I don’t know what to do with that.”

Later, I grabbed one of the people who had invited this woman and said quietly, “She’s just had an unexplainable encounter with the creator of the universe, and Jesus is actually speaking to her. But she’s afraid to admit it.”

The woman broke out crying. “It’s true.”

“You’re going to have a life changing encounter with Jesus,” I said. “You’re going to meet God and he is going to change your life.”

She hugged me and said sincerely, “Thank you.”

That’s a mean, jaded, cynical atheist—by her own description—who comes into our community for the first time and encounters something.

There are people who are desperate for someone to believe for them. It’s like when the man says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Even when we say, “I can get over this. I can get past this. I can break out of my despair and my depression. I can be free of this fear and anxiety”—even then we need other people who are believing for us in the process. We need people who remind us, “There is a future for you. You’re going to rise above this.” When you have those voices in your life, it’s amazing how it strengthens your inner voice.

There are millions of people who don’t have anyone believing for them. I hope when they read this book that my voice resonates with the best of their inner voice and helps them find their freedom.

Can you give us an image from the life of Jesus that grounds this?

My favorite encounter from the life of Jesus is in John 8, when Jesus looks at the woman caught in adultery and asks, “Who condemns you?” It’s interesting. She says “No one,” but there had been all kinds of people who condemned her. They just didn’t have the power to stand there anymore.

Then Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you.” Then he says, “Go and sin no more,” so clearly there must be a life change that flows from such an encounter. He’s not just writing her a pass to go back and do what she was doing. He’s telling her to choose a new way, implying that she can be someone better.

I love this because I feel I’ve experienced that, with Jesus looking at me and asking, “Who condemns you?” I’ve decided that a lot of people have opinions about me, and I’m going to choose to listen to Jesus’.

Even my own brain and inner world are more brutal and unforgiving to my soul than the voice of Jesus. You must be able to stand in that place and say, “If God forgives me, I don’t have the right to not forgive myself.”

Living in a critical public eye has taken its toll on you and your family. What’s kept you engaged—to the point of publishing new work?

Well, I took about a six-year hiatus and disappeared from the public space. I just was with a well-known faith leader who thought that I’d left the church for a while. Isn’t that interesting? We sometimes equate celebrity with being engaged with the church. I left the space of being a (reluctant) Christian celebrity. But I never left the church. That’s the difference. I never rooted my life in any sort of fame. I’ve rooted my life in the people closest to me, whom I love most deeply.

I’ve never had a time in my life when my wife, son or daughter have not affirmed their love and respect for me. That, for me, has been the compass. It’s been the due north of my life. If my wife feels honored to be my wife, and my kids feel honored to be my kids, I’m good.

What are you learning right now about leading Mosaic to experience the way of the warrior?

That often the person who looks the healthiest is the one who’s struggling the most. You almost have to give people time to breathe, time to feel safe to be themselves. It’s not that people are trying to hide or deceive most of the time. Usually they’re just trying to protect their own hearts. It’s counterintuitive to say, “This is a safe place. You can be open and honest about where you are now, so that you can get where you want to go.”

Frankly, one of the funny things is that Mosaic has so many people come who don’t believe in God at all—and they’re the most honest, because they don’t have any reason to pretend anything with you. They’ll be so brutally honest that you’re saying things like, “Thanks, but I don’t really need every detail of your life.” [Laughs]

It’s the people who have grown up in church who have been taught that they can’t be their true self. And it’s hard to help a person change if they don’t open themselves to who they really are.

The average age of a person at Mosaic is 26. One of the things that I’m really learning at this time is a deep passion and love for this generation. My son’s 30. My daughter’s 26. I’ve seen them go through the challenges of their generation, and I’ve watched them rise and become extraordinary human beings—a resilient man and woman of incredible character. I really respect them. I’m proud of them. But they’re not perfect, and they’ve gone through struggles. I love the fact that they have felt safe enough to say what they have gone through, and where they have been.

I feel every human being deserves to have someone they are truly safe with. I hope I can be part of changing the narrative in the church, saying, “Hey, the promises of Jesus are actually real. They can be actualized in real life. But they can’t be experienced if you don’t let people be real.”

I love the concept of that relational safety, but there’s also this profound danger to being exposed and vulnerable.

The church is supposed to be a paradox: the safest and most dangerous place in the world at the same time. Safe because you are accepted and loved unconditionally. But it’s also supposed to be dangerous, because through the church, God calls us to become our highest self. Jesus will never allow you to rest while you are living as less than you were created to be.

That’s the tension that we need to create. It’s an incredible call to heroism—a life of adventure, risk and sacrifice. At the same time, it’s incredibly warm and inclusive. When you mess up, people run to pick you up.

You’re seeing an explosion of baptisms and faith commitments right now at Mosaic. What are some of the numbers and standout stories?

Last year, we had about 5,000 people come to faith. That’s mostly on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea in Los Angeles. We only baptize adults, since we don’t have many children, and we’ve seen over a thousand adults last year follow Christ through baptism. It’s been an extraordinary journey for us. I can tell you—an unbelievably high number of them came in as atheists. People come as agnostics, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus. That’s one of the things that makes Mosaic unique. Our measure of our effectiveness isn’t just counting how many people are coming to faith, but trying to measure how far away they were from Jesus when they came in.

This past year we baptized a formerly Muslim woman who came to faith, then she left for a couple months. When she came back, she brought 20 other Muslims with her. She’d been at the mosque sharing how Jesus had changed her life. It’s been the most beautiful interaction.

My wife leads our church’s work with Syrian refugees. One Sunday we had between 150 and 200 Muslim refugees in our community, because of the love, acceptance and hospitality that our community expressed toward them. That has been so beautiful to me.

One person who came was the brother of a woman who’d come to faith at Mosaic. He was very much a cynical atheist. That day we happened to be baptizing—because we do spontaneous baptisms. I have people stand if they’ve heard God’s voice and believe on Jesus’ name and wish to follow him. It’s a very intense space. And this guy ends up getting baptized.

“Didn’t you come in as an atheist?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, smiling.

“So, what happened?” I asked. “What happened between the time you walked into the building and the time you walked into the water? It’s only been like an hour.”

He laughed. “I clearly wasn’t a very good atheist.”

Another guy grabbed me, soaking wet, and asked if we could talk. “I’m an atheist,” he began, which concerned me a little, because he had obviously just been baptized. “And now I feel all this tension. I don’t really know what to do with it.”

“But you were just baptized?” I asked, trying to make sense of what was happening.

“Yes,” he said.

But you’re an atheist?

“Yeah,” he said, “and I just gave my life to Jesus.”

He was so new that he hadn’t even had time to change his language yet. It was beautiful. Here was an atheist who had such a life-changing encounter with Jesus that he was baptized in front of a bunch of strangers, acknowledging Jesus, and it hasn’t sunk in that he’s not an atheist anymore. He had been an atheist all his life. It was his identity. Jesus met him in the middle of that.

Has there been a shift at Mosaic that you can attribute this growth to?

I’m sure there are many things we’ll point to in the future as we get more perspective on what’s happening. Some things can only be understood in retrospect. But we are still very much in the middle. I always fear doing an autopsy on a living thing. Right now, I am simply reveling in the beauty of what Jesus is doing.

But if I were to say anything, I would point out that we simply expect that people are going to have life-changing encounters with Jesus. Our work is not about debate. We don’t have to have all the right answers to every question. When God is present, reality comes. Our community sees it as our privilege to bring people into a space where Jesus shows up.

That doesn’t just happen on Sunday. It happens all week long, as people work, as they live and create in the wider community.

One thing that has been significant has been our worship. My daughter Mariah has led our worship for the last five years. She’s created an expression of worship that resonates with the people who are in Los Angeles. Our music is organically born out of the space we’re in. I’m amazed at how many people who do not believe in God come and find themselves worshiping with us. They always say things like, “Hey, your talk was OK, but the worship—something was happening to me.”

One of our friends attended quite apprehensively. He was understandably nervous to step at all into church life because he is gay. He sat in the second row, and while the music was playing, he leaned over and said, “Uhhhh … something’s happening to me. I don’t understand what I’m feeling.” And the friend who had brought him basically said, “This is how we connect to the Father. You’re experiencing the presence of God.” He didn’t really have a language for it. But you know what? It’s so much easier to convince a person that God exists when they have already experienced him. That’s been a huge part of our community’s story.

Of course, there are other factors that help. Our language is thoughtful—we work hard to not use any clichés. We avoid Christianese. Our messaging begins where the person is, because that’s the point at which Christ wants to meet them. Most of Christianity begins where the church is—and we just expect people to find their way to us. We try to be very thoughtful about those things, and it makes a difference.

What are you personally taking the most joy in right now?

I love life. I feel guilty sometimes because I truly experience happiness. [Laughs] I hope that doesn’t sound superficial or shallow. I fear sometimes that I’m in danger of making myself irrelevant by saying that I’m happy.

I really have to return to my family and friends. I find such joy in my community. I pastor from a different vantage point than many—there’s not a lot of distance between me and my team. They’re at my house, we’re cooking in the backyard, we play basketball and ping-pong together. We go on trips. We really do life together. These are my friends. We don’t hire employees—we bring family onboard. I love doing life with my team. We celebrate in the small ways—I love cooking, and in another life, I want to be a top chef or something, win my Michelin star. I love making films. I love writing books. In my essence I think I’m an artist. I love creating and work to leave the world something beautiful.

It’s the simple things. I love when my daughter gives me a call because she misses me. I love when my son says I’m his best friend. Kim and I just celebrated 35 years of marriage—and I love the fact that my wife and I still enjoy life and are still best friends.

Yeah. I want this kind of life for everyone.

That brings us back to the greatness that lies on the other side of your experience with cancer. What gifts has that pain left you?

It’s been almost exactly two years since my surgery. That in-between period—between being told I had cancer and waiting the three weeks for that six-hour surgery—was so unique. In some ways, what affected me the most became a desire to leave behind things that are timeless more than things that are timely.

I want the things I write and the things I do with my life to be timely. But I care about the future. I don’t know how long history’s going to last. I’m not one of those people who think that the world will end in five years. I think that a thousand years from now there will still be people who are struggling with faith and to make sense of who Jesus is. Frankly, I want to leave books and leave culture behind—a tiny fingerprint that will point people a thousand years from now to the beauty of who Jesus is.

What strikes me the most is that I’ve been convinced all my life that the church needs a new era of existence. We need to end the evangelical experiments of the last few hundred years and see an entirely new era—a more mystical, spiritual, vibrant, authentic, organic expression of Christianity. Whether I get to see that happen, I have made it my mission to make this a time in history where the church changes and never goes back to its previous condition.

In the big picture, I’m still astonished that I believe. I don’t think I will ever recover from the fact that I’ve had an encounter with the Creator of the universe. I know that the life Jesus has given me is there for everyone, and I want them to experience it.

It matters to me that people meet Jesus. That they experience the life only he brings. The church, for all its limitations, is the most significant endeavor in the world. I hope that the church learns to care less about how to do church “right.” It needs to care more about how to become what humanity desperately needs.

The church is the manifestation in human history of God’s heart, his essence, his imagination.

That is urgent. That is significant.

I’m excited.

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