Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Mother Teresa and doubt

It's been in the news a lot lately that Mother Teresa (1910-1997) struggled more than anyone knew with doubt and a sense of alienation from God. What strikes me about this is that people are surprised by it. The public figured all along that if there's anyone (besides Billy Graham perhaps) who was perfect, it was Mother Teresa. Even Christians invoke her name when trying to illustrate the standard of perfection to which God calls human beings.

Time magazine called her doubt "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith." Raymond Flynn, former Ambassador to the Vatican, called it "the work of the devil." Whatever (or whoever) the source of her struggles, I'm sure atheist Christopher Hitchins feels vindicated for calling Mother Teresa "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud." I prefer to think of her as an ordinary woman who knew and expressed the love of Jesus a lot better than I do.

Not that I wish doubt upon anyone, but in a way it's good the world is talking about Mother Teresa's feelings of emptiness. Perhaps it will lead some to the truth that Christianity is not a "things go better with Jesus" kind of religion. Perhaps it will lead some to read portions of the Bible like Psalm 13 ("How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?"), Psalm 22 ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"), Psalm 55 ("My heart is severely pained within me, and the terrors of death have fallen upon me"), or the books of Job, Lamentations, and others.

I ran across an excellent essay on Scriptorium Daily called "Why Was Mother Teresa Sad?" The author, Fred Sanders, offers these 10 possible reasons Mother Teresa often went through the dark night of the soul:

1. 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.

2. Maybe she was very empathetic. See point 1, repeat.

3. Maybe her sense of God’s nearness was so intense for a brief time in the 1940s that everything after that seemed, by comparison, empty. The key is, “by comparison.”

4. Maybe she inherited from her religious culture an unrealistic set of expectations about the level of spiritual intimacy to expect in her emotional life. Whether it is the expectation of “being visited by extraordinary consoling graces” in a Catholic context or “he walks with me and he talks with me” in an evangelical context, the gap between the rhetoric and the daily reality can be a steep drop.

5. Maybe her special gift was more about outward activity than inward contemplation, and whenever somebody asked her to write down her big sins, she came up with besetting doubt. So her life is 95% obedient service, and 5% darkness and doubt. (A corollary of this one is, Maybe she wasn’t perfect)

6. Maybe the twenty-one thousandth time you wake up thinking, “Hey, I’m pretty cool, I bet Jesus is really pleased with me,” – only to catch yourself at that nonsense — you get a little depressed that this sinful self-congratulation thing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

7. Maybe she developed, over the years of prayer, Bible study, church attendance, and service, an appropriately elevated sense of how high and exalted God is compared to any human achievement or conduct. It could be that the people who throw themselves into obedience the most whole-heartedly are the ones who are most able to see how exalted God is, and how petty, partial, and weak our best response is.

8. Maybe a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ is a life-long relationship with a person whose presence is spiritual rather than physical, whose standard conduct is not to reply verbally when spoken to, whom “having not seen, we love,” and who is currently at the right hand of the Father from which he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

9. Maybe prayer is talking to a God who is invisible and silent, and everything in our nature cries out that visible and speaking would be more gratifying.

10. Maybe all creation groans for the revelation of the glorious freedom of the children of God, and those who have the Holy Spirit groan in greatest solidarity with the rest of creation.


Matthaeus Flexibilis said...

The Washington Post's "On Faith" feature has comments by a variety of Christians and others on this topic. The atheists are brutal, calling her a hypocrite and so forth. Everyone else is more forgiving. A Rabi there wisely says that her letters "remind us that any faith that is certain is no faith at all just as any love never doubted is very shallow love." (Cf. erstwhile Covenant Seminary prof. Esther Meek's essay and RTS prof. John Frame's entry for the IVP Dictionary of Apologetics -- both on the subject of certainty.)

Hypocrisy is, of course, one thing the Bible itself condemns soundly. "Judge not lest ye be judged" in context (Mat. 7) is not a warning against making any moral judgments, as some relativists have asserted, but a condemnation of hypocritical judging. Likewise, Isaiah 29 speaks with disapprobation: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." Hardly is there a harsher word from Jesus than when he repeatedly says, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!"

Yet, doubt is not an uncommon feature in the Bible either. Many characters suffered doubts, most famously Thomas the disciple. Jesus calls his contemporaries as a whole an "unbelieving generation", and in the same context, an unnamed man cries out, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." Even those who "believed in [Jesus'] name when they saw the signs that he was doing" were rejected as "Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them" (John 2). Indeed, a major theme throughout the rest of the Gospel of John is the notion of belief.

All this is to say that, even in the Bible, belief and doubt are a complicated matter, but doubt is not the same as hypocrisy.

Mike said...

Thanks for the insights MF.

Nancy said...


I so appreciated this entry. I've had an intense encounter with doubt lately myself. I think the ten explanations offered are on-target. One aspect of Jesus' character that drew sinners to him was his sense of authenticity. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with our grief. I believe doubt is often an expression of grief, a sense of angst for something lost. (lost relationship, lost confidence, lost purpose, lost understanding, etc.) When I read Mother Teresa's words, I see authenticity. Hyprocricy never entered my mind. I also believe that doubt is often a "suggestion" from our enemy. "Are you sure he said you couldn't eat this fruit?" Anyway, THANKS for maintaining a great blog. You are so appreciated. Nancy Schneider