Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Darkness of Doubt and the Light of the Gospel

Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith

Mother Teresa of Calcutta died ten years ago today. And since that day, evangelicals (i.e., those who affirm the good news that Jesus died for our sins) have been speculating on what happened to her next. That is not the point of this post (though I will say that I think it is presumptuous and oversimplified to assume “practicing Catholic = does not know Jesus = destined for hell”).

Rather, I am interested in what it means for us that Mother Teresa, the universal icon of Christian service and spirituality, would write:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
According to a newly released collection of her private correspondence, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the depth of spiritual darkness expressed here was not the exception for her. It plagued her for over six decades—virtually from the time she founded the Missionaries of Charity until her death. Time’s associate editor David Van Biema has written an illuminating cover story on the book. He reports that she referred to her spiritual experience as “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness,” “torture,” even as a sort of hell. Once she even wrote that it caused her to doubt the existence of God Himself.

Why? Why would such an apparently devout woman struggle so mightily with unfulfilled longing and unshakeable doubt? Biola’s Fred Sanders has offered a compassionate list of ten edifying (to me, at least) speculations, beginning with: “Maybe it’s depressing to be immersed in the lives of the poor of Calcutta, every day for your whole life. Think about the last thing you saw that ‘ruined your day.’ Then think Calcutta.”

But more important for me than the “why” question is the inescapable “so what?” What does Mother Teresa’s spiritual crisis have to do with me?

At the very least, it warns us against an experience-based, emotion-driven approach to the Christian life. Mother Teresa’s testimony reminds us that we must “believe our way” rather than feel our way through the Christian life. Pastor Rick Phillips has posted an excellent analysis of Mother Teresa’s testimony in which he writes:
Why was her faith so dry and dead, as she lamented for over sixty years? One key answer seems to be that her faith was not rooted in the Word of God, but in experiential ecstasy. In this, parallels can be seen between Mother Teresa and Christians of many stripes -- many of them evangelicals -- whose faith is driven by spiritual experiences instead of by the truth of God's Word. How much of the frantic, sterile restlessness of the evangelical culture today is charged by this same drive.
But I see an even larger issue at stake here. Mother Teresa’s struggle forces us to reckon with the veracity of the Christian faith. If Christianity is real—i.e., if there really is a God and He really has sent His Son and His Spirit really does commune with His children—then why would such a devout, self-sacrificing follower of Jesus suffer such an intense silence from God?

As I mentioned briefly already, I do not think it works to dismiss Mother Teresa’s darkness as the unavoidable experience of an unbeliever who simply doesn’t qualify for real fellowship with God. While I am deeply troubled that she was not known to articulate the good news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, I am also forced to reckon with her incredible selflessness, her compassionate love for the needy, and most of all her many statements of intense personal longing for Jesus—all of which the New Testament considers to be fruits of a true work of God’s Spirit. I will certainly concede that all of these “fruits” could be worked up by human effort, but that only backs the question up a step and forces me to ask why I (and most other Christians) do not live with the Spirit’s help anything like she lived without Him!

So the question remains: in light of Mother Teresa’s internal struggle, can our faith really be true? Before suggesting an answer, I want to affirm the normalcy and even the value of times of deep spiritual depression. Countless saints of history have admitted going through seasons of profound darkness: David Brainerd, William Cowper, and Charles Spurgeon are the three that come most quickly to my mind. And though these seasons are painful, they can be extremely valuable because they teach us to “walk by faith and not by sight,” in other words, to trust God’s words rather than our own ideas or emotions. Nothing forces us to rely on our flashlight (cf. Ps 119:105) like pitch darkness.

As for the question of the truthfulness of the Christian faith and the reliability of the Christian gospel, I would suggest that the answer is found right in the gospel itself. The gospel tells us that our salvation has been secured entirely by Jesus Christ—through His sin-free life, debt-paying death, and hell-conquering resurrection. A necessary consequence of this message—and a clear biblical teaching—is that salvation comes to sinners completely by God’s free grace, not by working to earn it but by treasuring and trusting Jesus, who earned it for us.

“Trusting Jesus.” That is the response called for in the gospel, and I would suggest it is the answer to the even bigger issue of whether the gospel itself is even true to begin with. Trust Jesus. Look to Jesus. Consider Jesus.

When we take a closer look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, we will see that no one lived like this man. No one loved like He did. No one spoke with His wisdom. No one had His power and authority. No one brought together such diverse qualities in perfect proportion as He: strength and tenderness, justice and mercy, submission and sovereignty, meekness and majesty.

The accounts of His life in the four gospels are so compelling, we are forced to listen to His words. And when He speaks, He says things like this: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45) And this: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Lk 22:20)

Apparently, Jesus Himself believed that His own life and death would make it possible for sinners to be ransomed and forgiven. In other words, Jesus believed the gospel was true. And if this most incredible, compelling Man thought it was true, I’m willing to trust Him in that, too.

As with yesterday’s post, I am going to wrap up with the fitting words of Al Mohler:
Our confidence is in Christ, not in ourselves. We are weak; He is strong. We fluctuate; He is constant. We cannot trust our feelings nor our emotional state. We trust in Christ. Those who come to Christ by faith are not kept unto him by our faith, but by his faithfulness.

I possess no ability to read Mother Teresa's heart, but I do sincerely hope that her faith was in Christ, and not in her own faithfulness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I couldn't help but think of this discipline of Jonathon Edwards as I read your post. It affirms that the emotions are valid -- but usually because they need to drive us to the cross!

"Resolved, whenever my feelings begin to appear in the least out of order, when I am conscious of the least uneasines within, or the least irregularity without, I will then subject myself to the strictest examination."