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Interview: Frank Manno of Spiritual Sobriety

posted by Nell Minow

I was very moved by Frank Manno’s new book, Spiritual Sobriety: Freedom & Recovery from Cultural Christianity. He says, “The purpose of Spiritual Sobriety is to reveal and release what the Bible describes that it takes to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ in contrast to the benign and oft-anemic “pop dedication” that has pervaded the church, especially in the past fifty years. Spiritual Sobriety is the inviting and tangible story of my journey from being a cultural Christian to an intimate follower of Jesus Christ. This book will take readers by the hand and lead them on a scripturally based, real-life journey by a path that winds from tearing down the stealthy façades of man-made religion, around the potholes of legalism and busyness, toward a destination of a grace-filled, authentic, God-empowered Christian life that walks in daily, hand-in-hand intimacy with a loving Father.”

He was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the book.

What is “cultural Christianity?” How does it differ from spiritual sobriety?

Cultural Christianity is what we are left with after centuries of authentic Christianity being sifted through pop-culture values, watered down thought political correctness and conforming the church to more of a business paradigm rather than an organic, living organism, which is how it is described in the New Testament. In many churches and denominations, the Pastor is viewed as a CEO and is evaluated on his performance to grow the church numerically rather than on his spiritual integrity. The congregation has been reduced to consumers needing to have their preferences appeased as opposed to sheep that need to be lovingly shepherded and spiritually nurtured.

Cultural Christianity often purports an “easy-believeism”. If you would only “walk the isle” or “sign a membership card” you’ll be on your way to heaven. I’m not saying that either of those actions are bad in and of themselves, but sadly, that’s where the church stops. There is no development or discipleship. Did you know that nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christians are to make converts? The Bible says that we are to make disciples – literally little pupils – of the teaching of Christ. This is often referred to as discipleship. It is time intensive and requires a transparency and intimacy that most shy away from.

I know I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture so far, and I’m not saying that these things are true of every church. But, in my years of pastoring, church planting, counseling and doing consulting work with churches across the country, I have found this to be the case to at least some degree a good part of the time.

On the other hand, spiritual sobriety is an awakening. It’s a realization. It’s in many ways the Reformation of our generation. It is simply, yet profoundly, getting back to what the Bible teaches about Christianity; both what it is and what it isn’t! When a person searches the Scriptures and realizes what the Bible says it takes to be a Christ follower and then you hold that up to what Christianity has become in our culture, we discover a stark contrast. It’s that contrast that I report about in my book, as well as how to receive and enjoy the loving, life-giving relationship that God desires with us. Unearthing this truth is liberating in so many ways! Yes, there is a personal cost to follow Christ, but how freeing it is when the light bulb goes on above your head and you realize that being a Christian isn’t a list of rules, isn’t dependent on your works or how “good” you are and that you are loved unconditionally by a divine parent we can call Father. It feels so good to be sober!

Why is it hard for us to acknowledge the cost of faith?

Either consciously or subconsciously, we want a god on our terms. Like a potter throwing clay, we want to shape and personalize our deity’s attributes, personality and motus operandi. It’s inescapable that most people feel (whether we are willing to admit it or not) that God is there for us. He is there to bless our plans, heal our illnesses, find us jobs, find us partners, meet our needs AND wants, etc. Even thousands of years ago, in Genesis chapter 11, we read about a group of people building a tower who were basically trying to create a god according to their specifications.

The truth is that we exist to worship God. He owes us nothing; we owe Him everything. If God never lifted a finger to redeem our souls from sin and the devil via the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, He would still be God and still worthy of our worship. This line of thinking so contradicts what might be considered simple human logic. That is why we have trouble with the cost of faith.

So, when we approach God or religion with that consumer sort of mindset, it’s very disturbing to think that I must sacrifice some of my personal desires and, dare I say, sacrifice my own will to follow God. You can see how churches might significantly shrink in size if this sort of message were preached. This is just one contrast between cultural Christianity and spiritual sobriety.

How do we learn to relinquish our pride?

This can be so hard, especially if we approach it from the wrong perspective. So many people fear giving up their pride and being humble because they envision humility as something lowly and embarrassing; leaving them frighteningly vulnerable. Pop psychology has made such a significant issue of blaming a majority of our personal problems on a lack of self-esteem. I don’t think that is true. When you look at what is happening on the world stage, the escalating divorce rate, and dare I say, the abortion issue, I think some may have too much self-esteem!

I feel the real issue is not that we lack self-esteem, but rather, we lack God-esteem. If people got to the point where they saw themselves through the eyes of God and how He sees them, so much would change personally and globally. If people realized how much they are loved, valued and treasured by almighty God Himself, it would be easy to let go of pride.

Pride and self-esteem say, “This is who I am… check me out… value me for what I’ve accomplished… I survive on your admiration and approval…” God-esteem says, “This is who I am… loved and cared for by God Himself, who desires a personal relationship with me… I’m created in His image… I don’t need to prove myself to you for I am already fully accepted and unconditionally loved by my heavenly Father… I am content…”

How does fear become an obstacle to our connection to God?

The answer is found in this simple but pregnant equation:

-The root of fear is the loss of control.

-Control is the opposite of faith.

-Without faith, it is impossible to know God or please God.

I think we see this formula laid out much more elegantly in Scripture. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”

If a garden hose is our relationship with God, then fear is a hole in that hose draining off water and diminishing pressure. When I am fearful, I am basically saying, “God, I love you and all, but I don’t fully trust You”. Now, imagine saying that to a close friend or spouse. What would that do to the relationship? It wouldn’t end it, but it would certainly hinder the intimacy and the quality once experienced. This does not mean that God loves us less when we are fearful. God is immutable; He doesn’t change. We don’t lose our salvation when we are fearful. However, that object of fear in my life becomes the hole in the garden hose of my relationship with Him, draining off the intensity of my connection with God and diminishing the joy and contentment I experience with Him.

What do we learn from pain?

Whether it is emotional, physical or spiritual, “pain” is something to which all people can relate. Pain is the great “sifter” – dividing what really matters from the frills of life. I think one of the greatest (but not only) lessons learned from pain is that trials and suffering force us to take inventory of our lives, our relationships, our values and our choices. It can bring focus and clarity in ways that nothing else can.

One of the great promises of God toward His children that is so comforting during these times is found in Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” It doesn’t say that all things that happen to us in life are good, but that God can take a bad situation and use it for our good and His glory. To know that your pain, despite the source, can be used for good, both in the physical and spiritual realms, is a very comforting lifeboat to be in during the storms of life.

What is the importance of waiting?

As Tom Petty once penned, “The waiting is the hardest part.” No one I know likes to wait and I am the chief offender. When you place this aspect of human nature in a fast food, instant gratification, microwaveable, info-on-demand Internet society, waiting becomes a dirty word.

In fact, waiting and patience are so difficult for us that in Galatians chapter 5, the apostle Paul tells us that patience is a “fruit” that the Holy Spirit grows in us. This tells me that I need divine help in cultivating patience in my life!

But, waiting can be so valuable though contrary to our nature.  Simply, how much more do we value an object; say a car, after years of waiting and saving up for it? How much do we value a person, perhaps a loved one serving overseas, after years of waiting for them to return? Not only does waiting lead us to value people and things in our life, but perhaps more importantly, waiting forces us to exercise that flabby muscle of self-discipline. The beautiful thing here is that when we show self-discipline in one area of our lives, it is usually easier to exercise it in other areas as well.

So, waiting can change our outlook, improve our character and fine-tune our values system.

How do we use “busyness” as an excuse?

Some people are legitimately busy. In our society, it is no longer the exception for both parents to be working, raising a family and even holding a second job. Some people are just plain busy, but there are others who “keep” themselves busy for ulterior reasons.

For some, the busier we keep ourselves…

- The more in control we feel.

– The less intimate we have to be with others.

– The greater worth and pride we experience.

– We can play “the victim” for sympathy and attention.

– The more we are distracted from important issues in our life that need attention.

– Busyness is a pain-killer and can be as equally addicting.

There is some gray area. For many, it’s one or a combination of the above excuses. For others, they are legitimately busy, but often add to that in order to employ one of the above excuses.

In pastoral counseling, many people have come to me and said, “I’m just too busy – I can’t take it.” My immediate reply to their shock and chagrin is, “Then you are out of God’s will.” I go on to explain that God has a clear purpose for our lives and wants us to be faithful in fulfilling that purpose with passion and energy. When we are busy to the point of neglecting God, our family, our church or our health, that clearly can’t be the normal will of God. So, if you are “too busy,” the questions become: 1. What are you keeping busy with that God never intended for you to take on? 2. What are you running from by keeping so busy?

It’s amazing to see the can of worms that these two questions can open up.

What is the importance of learning to “abide?”

While the concept of abiding (actively resting and living in Christ) is defined, illustrated and discussed at length in Spiritual Sobriety, I’d sum up the answer to the question like this: Abiding is the element in our relationship with God that transforms it from impersonal, man-made religion to an authentic, life-giving relationship.

Without learning to abide, we miss out on so much! We forfeit a genuine relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We never get to experience the contentment of hearing His voice and direction. It’s the difference between staring at a picture of a loved one and holding hands with them in person over an intimate, interactive conversation.

What is “legalism?”

Legalism is taking the teaching, tradition, preferences, rules and dogma that are man-made, and putting them on an equal par with the word of God. Matthew 16:9 sum it up pretty clearly: “Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.”

Whenever we use the math that says, Christ’s sacrifice + ________________ = salvation or acceptance by God, we are legalists. People have filled in that blank with church membership, denominational affiliation, a specific Bible version, style or expression of worship, dress code and so much more. Now, I do think that various groups are entitled to preferences in how they conduct themselves – diversity in the Body of Christ can be a beautiful thing – but when those preferences are held on the same authority of Scripture and, in turn, divide the church or keep people from entering a saving relationship with God, then it is legalism and is a sin.

What is your advice to those who are on a journey toward a more authentic connection to the divine?

Seek truth. Period. Simple, but not always easy as so many of the world’s religions and cults offer themselves as “the truth.” “Seek truth” was my experience as I was part of and studied with a number of world religions and what some might call cults. I firmly believe that if you are seeking God and the truth about Him apart from your preferences in a sincere way, you will find Him.

One real interesting thing I discovered is that truth isn’t a concept or body of beliefs – it is a Person. In John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Jesus made two bold and amazing statements. He didn’t say that He was “a” truth; He said He was “the” truth. Second, He said that He was the only way to the Father.

Many people simply believe that Jesus Christ was a good man, a benevolent healer, a wise teacher or an itinerant prophet. Some believe that He is “one of many expressions” of God in nature, but in that statement from John 14:6, we really have to rethink those romantic, but broad ideas. Jesus said He is the way, the truth, the life and the path to the Father.

I knew that there was a God out there, but I wanted to know Him in a deeper way – that was the start of my journey toward the divine as a 21 year old rock band guitarist playing in the seedy bars of Manhattan.

How should our faith be expressed in our relations to others?

Are we talking about the dreaded E-word? Evangelism?? The only word known to strike fear and terror though Christians and non-Christians alike?? Of course I’m having some fun here.

There are a few simple things I’ve learned over the years. People are not projects. We shouldn’t be trying to convert them to our religion or way of thinking in order to put another notch in our Bible or add to the church membership role. People are to be treated like individuals. They are to be respected. In fact, the Bible says that people are to be loved despite where they stand spiritually.

I used to share my faith because I felt I needed to do that to be a “good Christian”. I did it because it was expected of me, but more recently, I share my faith when I care about the other person. See, the Bible teaches of a literal, eternal place called Hell. I don’t want my friends or family to go there because I love and care about them.

That is why I share my faith. Not because my way is the right way or to win someone over to my philosophy, but because I care. I think when people see you sharing your faith because you care about them, it defuses all of the landmines of awkwardness and discomfort that usually are associated with such conversations.

If I didn’t share my faith, I’d be a selfish, indifferent, uncaring, boorish person. I just want to make sure that I’m not that same horrible person when I am sharing my faith. I want people to see the love of God through me.

Do you have a favorite Bible passage?

Yes. Over the past few months I’ve changed to a new one that means a lot to me: 1 John 4:9-11:

“By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

What a tremendous passage! There are so many beautiful and profound concepts packed into those few, short verses. Think about:

-       God loves us!

–       He expressed His love by sending Jesus into the world.

–       God has given us eternal life though Jesus.

–       God loves us before we ever loved Him.

–       Jesus paid for our sins.

–       We ought to love one another.

Just think if people could live by that tiny passage alone. We would receive God’s love and salvation and, at the same time, love others with that divine depth of amazing love! Spiritual sobriety is a beautiful thing!

 

 



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