Friday, August 24, 2007

Mother Theresa’s Faith

The most recent Time Magazine has an article about Mother Theresa. The article is based on various letters she wrote in confidence over much of her lifetime. In those letters she expressed doubts about her faith, felt that Jesus was not with her, and described how she experienced a sort of darkness of the soul for a good part of her life. I recommend reading the article because it gives some insight into what was apparently going on deep inside of this godly woman who devoted herself to doing God’s work. I have a few comments on Mother Theresa’s “darkness” and her doubts for your consideration.

First of all, I’m no shrink but it seems to me she may have been suffering from clinical depression. Being a devout follower of Christ does not, unfortunately, make us immune from the bad things that can happen. Many godly people have suffered from clinical depression, including Oswald Chambers, who wrote the devotional book My Utmost for His Highest among others. Descriptions of what earlier saints experienced seem to point to depression. Martin Luther is another example of a godly person who experienced depression.

Second, most, if not all, believers experience some sort of doubt about various aspects of their faith. That doesn’t mean your faith is weak, but that you have questions. For example, why does a supposedly “good” God allow bad things to happen to “good” people? Why is there so much suffering in the world? In addition to these practical matters, people have doubts about various doctrines: the Trinitarian nature of God, how Jesus can be both truly human and truly God, the nature of the Eucharist, heaven and hell (and how you get there), how can there be salvation by grace through faith. The list goes on.

I think everybody who has prayed for something feels that God hasn’t heard their prayers, God is absent, or God doesn’t care. Nevertheless, we are encouraged in the Bible to pray. Jesus prayed and exhorted us to pray, bringing our requests before God (Luke 18:1-8, the parable of the persistent widow).

Sometimes the answer God gives us is different from what we wanted, but it is still an answer. The Apostle Paul prayed to God to have his “thorn in the side” removed, and here’s what happened according to 2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (NRSV):

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Third, Mother Theresa witnessed terrible suffering among the world’s poorest. How can you be upbeat when all you see, day after day, is misery? Yet she continued in her grueling work, including a regimen of daily prayer, and that could only happen because of God’s supernatural strength working within her. Maybe she didn’t “feel” the Holy Spirit enabling her and empowering her, but he was there, upholding her. Otherwise she would have burned out or given up years ago.

Fourth, like many believers, I suspect she was trying to experience God through her feelings and emotions. I believe one of the reasons the Pentecostal churches are so successful is because they provide an emotional experience of God on a weekly basis. She experienced a “spiritual high” when Jesus spoke quite clearly to her early in her ministry, telling her that she was to give up teaching and go into the streets to care for the poorest of the poor (see Matthew 25:31-46). Nothing can compare to such a clear experience of the presence of God. In comparison, God seems absent on a day to day basis, even though God is with us continuously in the form of his Holy Spirit.

So don’t feel bad if you have doubts, questions, or sometimes feel God isn’t there. We are told frequently in the Bible to persist in the faith. There are unanswerable questions, there are tensions between the various attributes of God, and there are doctrines that make us uncomfortable. But that’s why it’s called “faith.” If it were easy, no faith would have to be involved, only logic or reason. I encourage you to do what God through St. Paul tells us in Colossians 2:6-7 (CEV):

You have accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord. Now keep on following him. Plant your roots in Christ and let him be the foundation for your life. Be strong in your faith, just as you were taught. And be grateful.

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