Sunday, September 02, 2007

Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith

I wanted to post on Time's article about Mother Teresa early last week but got behind. By now, you've probably read about this in other places but I thought it might be interesting to raise the topic here.

If you haven't read the article, here's the gist. Time Magazine's religion writer, David Van Biema has written a piece entitled Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith where he peers into the private doubts and spiritual life of one of great humanitarian icons in the history of the world. Most of the content for Biema's article is based on Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, a newly released book by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk.

Biema writes:

A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, "neither in her heart or in the eucharist."...Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain...She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.

Documented examples of Mother Teresa's struggle include the following quotes from her:

Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979

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.
Mother Teresa, addressing Jesus in a letter

Biema's article is interesting because he takes the time to carefully note the different responses from both supporters and detractors.

Why did Teresa's communication with Jesus, so vivid and nourishing in the months before the founding of the Missionaries, evaporate so suddenly? Interestingly, secular and religious explanations travel for a while on parallel tracks... Kolodiejchuk finds divine purpose in the fact that Teresa's spiritual spigot went dry just as she prevailed over her church's perceived hesitations and saw a successful way to realize Jesus' call for her. "She was a very strong personality," he suggests. "And a strong personality needs stronger purification" as an antidote to pride... The atheist position is simpler. In 1948, [Christopher] Hitchens ventures, Teresa finally woke up[to the realization that religion was a human fabrication], although she could not admit it. He likens her to die-hard Western communists late in the cold war: "There was a huge amount of cognitive dissonance," he says. "They thought, 'Jesus, the Soviet Union is a failure, [but] I'm not supposed to think that. It means my life is meaningless.' They carried on somehow, but the mainspring was gone. And I think once the mainspring is gone, it cannot be repaired." That, he says, was Teresa.

Of course, Hitchens exposes his atheistic bias and as Christians, we not only disagree with his analysis of Mother Teresa's dilemma, we also strongly oppose his premise.

However, I wonder if this peek into Mother Teresa's private life can serve to teach us anything about the nature and struggle of faith. Since I don't know much about Mother Teresa beyond this Time article, I wouldn't want to venture to judge the quality or authenticity of her faith. Nor do I question the breadth and depth of her humanitarian works performed out of a devotion to her calling. Yet, as I read the article, a few thoughts some to mind:

1. Faith is a gift. Make no mistake about it - true faith in Jesus Christ that brings about soul satisfaction and eternal life is a gift from God. It cannot be manufactured by our emotions or created by cognitive reasoning. In Ephesians 2, Paul reminds us that saving faith comes from God.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast

2. The kind of faith that pleases God and endures through the darkest nights isn't based on what we achieve - "not by works, so that no one can boast". Instead, it is firmly planted in celebrating what Christ achieved on our behalf.

Our acts of righteousness, no matter how sincere, only pay tribute to our pride when they are performed apart from the work of Christ. When this happens, our joy dissipates and we can find ourselves hopeless. And, self abasement does nothing to such an insidious form of pride.

Let me be clear - I'm not implying that this was the source of Mother Teresa's problems. Only that in some way I find myself similarly affected whenever I forget the bounty of mercy I've received from Him. As I've mentioned in a prior post, we must never "serve Christ" as though He needed anything from us. Our service to Him must be marked by a receiving from Him.

3. Unbelief, not doubt, is the enemy of faith. I think there's something "normal" about the doubts that enter our minds from time to time. Yet, in the Bible, it is not doubt that is broadly condemned but unbelief - a turning away from trusting in a holy God, who has revealed Himself as all-powerful, supremely loving and incomparably wise.

4. While I don't know much about Mother Teresa's faith, I know that many Christians over the centuries have suffered from prolonged battles with depression and struggles of faith. Sometimes, what emerges from their struggle is a vivid picture of God's grace. One such person is William Cowper who penned one of my all time favorite hymns - There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Washed all my sins away, washed all my sins away;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply, Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die. And shall be till I die, and shall be till I die; Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.

Perhaps, you get the pure light of the gospel only after you struggle through darkness.


Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

I wish that I had something more profound to add than "amen and amen".

Real Live Preacher said...

I was also moved and interested by this article. This information about Mother Teresa came out a few years ago, but not in as much detail.

I read with interest your conclusions. Mine are similar. I wonder if you could define "unbelief" for us. "Unbelief, not doubt is the enemy of faith."

I do know that the New Testament word for belief is tricky, slippery, hard to get a handle on. I believe that belief includes the freedom to choose. I can't choose to have childlike faith. I can't choose whether or not I have doubts. But I can choose to believe.

what do you think?

Ted M. Gossard said...

ESI, Yes. It is puzzling in that our faith should find a resting place in Christ, living in that rest.

This "dark night of the soul" that Mother Teresa experienced, only God knows what really was going on there.

I am reminded of Paul's thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan which tormented him. And how, though he petitioned the Lord three times to remove it, found comfort, ultimately in the Lord's reassuring words that it was present for a good reason and purpose.

L.L. Barkat said...

Sometimes we act like doubt is a terrible thing. But who among us has not doubted even ourselves, our friends, family, or spouses?

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for "amen-ing"


Yes, I thought someone might call me out on that "unbelief, not doubt is the enemy of faith" ;-)

I'm referring to the doubts that may creep in to have us question "is what I believe really true?" I know it's a rare occurrence for me but I'd be lying if I said that it never comes up. I think it's somewhat normal. In fact, if doubts don't arise, I wonder if I'm even living as a Christian ought to.

Unbelief is not trusting, but rather turning from the holy God when He has given us every evidence of his love, wisdom and power. (this is my humble, unsophisticated definition!) I get that from Hebrews 3 and elsewhere in the NT.

Doubt is certainly not celebrated as "good" but it's not treated with such strong negative language. In fact, in Jude, we are exhorted to be merciful to those who doubt.

I may be wrong on this so if anyone can offer better biblical perspective, please join in the conversation.

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for your thoughts on this. RLP has gently challenged me to define unbelief.

What do you think the difference is between doubt and unbelief?

Ted M. Gossard said...

Maybe doubt could be looked at as the phenomena of liviing in a world in which we walk by faith, not by sight. So that the sight we do have may go against what God has promised, or his will. But that is the very time to defy "reality" and doubts that are just part of the order of things, and walk in faith out onto the water of God's promises and will for us in Christ Jesus.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Maybe in the context I mention we could see doubts as being what is apparent apart from the eyes of faith. That's ever in our face. But we can't live by that, if we're to be followers of Christ in this world.

Craver Vii said...

I feel badly for the late Mother Teresa. She had requested that the letters be destroyed, and not only were they preserved, portions have been made public!

Could the severe bouts of depression be a symptom of spiritual warfare? I would not hold it against her that she had these pains. Elijah fell into a deep stupor immediately after the amazing triumph at Mount Carmel.

Then again, Kolodiejchuk suggests that the trials came from the hand of God. “…a strong personality needs stronger purification as an antidote to pride…”

Also, the letters suggest she struggled with faith, not that she gave up on it. There are issues I might take with her theology, but not the stuff that’s making the news.

HALFMOM said...

I don't know that I think sometimes we are even free to choose to believe when we want to - that even that is a gift from above - I am thinking specifically about those in scripture like Pharaoh - who was chosen for another path - could he have chosen to believe earlier on before God hardened his heart - hard to know.

I love Mark 9:24 for this same reason - at least we get to confess unbelief - or doubts - or questions - however you define them with, "I do believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!"

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

I like Mark 9:24 on this one. "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

So, however we define it, it seems that even believers go through it. One of the books that I'm rereading right now is Francis Schaeffer's "True Spirituality", which talks about his re-examination of his faith at a time when he was very mature and had been in ministry quite a while. I think, perhaps it would be a good thing for all of us to do.

I'm with Craver - private should have been private and destroyed as she wished. However, God is sovereign, even over these matters and He certainly could have "consumed" them had He chosen too - so perhaps they stand as a lesson(s) to us.

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

OK - so now I've left three comments and only meant to leave one. I have to figure this blog integration thing out because I thought I rejected my original comment - so I wrote another one.

ARRRGHHH computers - or rather my lack of understanding how they work!

Every Square Inch said...


It's somewhat true that doubt is the natural effect of living by faith, not by sight. One day we will see face to face and it'll be glorious and free from doubt.

What about unbelief? Is that the same as doubt?

Every Square Inch said...


You're right - many godly men and women, including Elijah, struggle with depression.

I don't know much about Mother Teresa or her eternal state but I do feel somewhat sympathetic toward her owing to the fact that her private doubts are so publicly exposed.

Every Square Inch said...


I get frustrated with technology from time to time as well. :-)

Thanks for bringing the Schaeffer example to the discussion. I'm not familiar with his re-examnination of his faith in Christ...but that's anecdotal evidence that doubt and reaffirmation of our faith is part of normal christian life.

Ted M. Gossard said...

ESI, I look at unbelief as the embracing of doubt. For doubt to occur and "not getting it" I don't think is necessarily unbelief, unless one embraces it.

Maybe I don't question things much, but I hardly struggle with doubt at all. Having said that I may set myself up for getting hit by it. I think faith does bring a kind of certainty or sense of certitude with it. But that faith often flies into the facts of a world that seems set against it. As we see in scripture.

Ted M. Gossard said...

“Lewis gives us permission to admit our own doubts, our own angers and anguishes, and to know that they are part of the soul’s growth.”—Madeleine L’Engle, author, A Wrinkle in Time and other books

On C.S. Lewis. This certainly reminds me of the psalms.

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for referring us to that quote about CS Lewis' point of view