November 22, 2017

Mother Teresa and the Mystery of God’s Absence

070129_rain.jpgUPDATE: I am not going to publish comments claiming that Roman Catholics are not Christians.

Critics- atheistic, fundamentalist, truly reformed and those too correct to be labeled- will probably go completely bonkers with pleasure at the revelation that Mother Teresa struggled with the dark night of the soul much of her life and ministry. In letters kept after her death, her doubts and struggles confided to spiritual directors and confessors tell a story of lifelong struggle with a sense of God’s presence and the certainties of faith. Time Magazine’s detailed quotes from an upcoming book and sympathetic story and analysis will only feed those who already consider Mother Teresa to be a phony, over-rated, medieval throwback and Roman Catholic myth.

Of course, many of us will recognize in Mother Teresa’s words the familiar story of our own faith and the faith of others we revere and seek to emulate. While none of us are cut from identical cloth or have identical experiences of God’s presence or absence, there is a familiar aire to what Mother Teresa writes. Many of us have been there; some of us for years; some for a season; some of us for longer than we can recall. If you are familiar with the stories of the spiritual journeys of other honest human beings, you will recognize in Mother Teresa a fellow pilgrim down what is often a dark road.

Christianity’s promises of the present presence and apprehension of God are not simple. In many ways, it seems to me that neither scripture nor recorded experience gives a coherent, teachable view of the subject. (Anyone out there heard a sermon or teaching series lately on the Experience of God’s Presence? It takes some pretty confident Charismatics to go there.)

What we do know is that from Job to David to Jesus to Teresa to Jack Lewis to Michael Spencer, those who belong to God and have His Spirit go through times, even entire chapters of life, where God’s presence does not come in simple, “felt” ways. God seems to be hiding; to be purposely staying out of reach and out of touch. To what end? For what purpose?

Such questions do not have simple answers, and even if someone were to undertake a survey of the most eloquent writers on their own experience of God’s absence, I dare say that no two would be so alike and instructive that any of us would be able to avoid the experience. We would be affirmed that we are not unique, atheists would be encouraged to announce the death of God, and religious bigots and bullies would put their targets on our backs and fire away.

It is interesting to me that Teresa’s experience seems to be, in some way, tied to the same personality that worked tirelessly and cared endlessly. We learn, according to the excerpts, that at the times she was the most devoted and sacrificial, God’s face was often hidden from her. Of course, those who point at Teresa’s experience of darkness might want to look at the testimony of joy and divine presence that is part of the story of many other Christians. We are not, in any way, cut from the same cookie-cutter spiritual material.

I remember the depths of my own dark night in September of 2001. I was at the point of breaking down and being unable to preach or teach, a condition I had never faced before. I was as far from God as it was possible to be, and I felt myself in the grip of despair. But I came to work every day. I taught. I preached–with unparalleled fear and shame–and I ministered to others. In my community of faith, these daily activities filled in the empty places, and in these moments I experienced the mixture of despair and faith that the Psalms report to us again and again. Where are you God? I cannot see you or sense you, but you are there. In the very absence, there is a different and sustaining kind of presence. This was not a certain absence–which so many flippantly assume–but a mysterious presence, entirely congruent with what I know of myself and of the God of the Bible.

The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction. I reject the kind of “victorious life” formulaic teaching I grew up hearing in fundamentalist circles, and I must also reject the kind of consumeristic emotional junk food that is found everywhere in evangelicalism as a substitute for the presence of God. As much as I count myself a Christian hedonist, I am suspicious that “Delight yourself in the Lord” is often deeply and significantly misunderstood.

The assurance of God’s presence and the certainties of answered questions are not the same thing. I find far more rational certainty in the resurrection than I do existential experience of the presence of Jesus. Spiritual experience takes the shape of the incarnation itself, with God inhabiting a fallen world where human beings have become insensitive, fearful and callous to the glory of God that pours forth from every crack of the universe. If the fall is true, then none of us are “in tune” with the presence of God, and particular theologies of God’s presence may let us down profoundly.

The kinds of doubts that I read in Mother Teresa’s memoirs make me wonder what kind of expectations of God’s presence are made in the Roman Catholic theology of religious vocation? What kinds of stories of God’s presence are collected around the theology of the Eucharistic presence of Christ? I am not the person to answer these questions, but I know my own tradition has its own collection of promises and mythology that ignore the typical experience of human nature.

Where do I look for the presence of God? I have learned that looking for such signs in a spirituality of isolation is pointless. For me, the presence of God meets me in community. In worship. In narrative. In story. In communal prayer. In the imitation of Jesus in serving others. At times, it arrives with surprise, and departs abruptly. The wind blows where it will, and we are pilgrims in the life of prayer and faith. We are not called to be pretenders of certainties that do not exist in our experience.

Because my tradition devalues the sacraments, I can rarely look for the presence of God there, but I surely would come to the Lord’s Table as often as possible, not for a magic dispensation of awareness of God, but entirely because God does meet me in the places where He promised to be present, even if I am not emotionally registering that presence. The life of faith is exactly that: the silent moment of believing the promise of a God who may overwhelm, or hide; come near in glory or hide in darkness.

Mother Teresa will become a more human fellow pilgrim through this book, and that can only be good. We do not need saints unlike us, but saints like us, including those voicing questions, doubts and lament in the context of prayer to Jesus whom we do not see, but who gives our lives meaning.

Comments

  1. “The kinds of doubts that I read in Mother Teresa’s memoirs make me wonder what kind of expectations of God’s presence are made in the Roman Catholic theology of religious vocation?”

    When asked if her choice of name was for the “Big Teresa” (St. Teresa of Avila) or the “Little Teresa” (St. Therese of Lisieux), Mother Teresa answered, the Little Teresa. Anyone familiar with Therese of Lisieux’s spiritual journey knows that her most severe trials were temptations to atheism suffered throughout her final years of illness and suffering.

    Saints like Therese; the Venerable Cardinal Newman’s bouts of depression; the experiences of the Desert Fathers; these all teach Catholics that the expectations for religious vocation and indeed for normal Christian life will include absence and silence. Mother Teresa certainly knew that; I wouldn’t doubt that she chose her religious name at least in part for that reason.

    Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence,” if you haven’t read it, is much to be recommended.

  2. AMEN

    I am reminded of the emotional manipulation you wrote of in a previous post (Dead Wrong). I lot of that goes on with the idea of “feeling God’s presence” as well. “If this meeting tonight/this morning didn’t set you on fire then your wood is wet.” Or some other likeminded saying. When such people don’t “feel” God’s presence anymore, down the aisle they have to come again and get really saved.

    Good Article.

  3. Reminds me of Wurmbrand, who at times during his imprisonment could remember no more than the two words, “Jesus Christ”.

    Luther also suffered from depression – and anybody who has read the life of David Brainerd knows how he struggled.

    Bunyan in part 2 of the Pilgrim’s Progress comments on these depressed souls, saying that they are like the deep, low notes in a great piece of music – sometimes barely audible, but absolutely fundamental to the harmony and melody.

  4. I am at this moment watching Web of Faith on EWTN(the Catholic Network) and they are discussing this very subject, and mentioned Mother Teresa’s years of darkness.

  5. Requiring people to “feel” God or question their relationship with Him definitely does sometimes lead to emotional manipulation, and far too many self-help theologies. On the other hand, when we can accept that our ability to interact with the Lord on an experiential level can vary from person to person, even from moment to moment, and that experiencing Him in ways beyond the intellectual doesn’t confer some “holier than thou” status, maybe we can be more honest within our community. (And “feeling” Him, 24/7, is NOT a qualification of salvation!)

    Something of interest, though: Mother Teresa and Therese of Lisieux had both experienced this dark time of the soul after having had times of experiencing the Lord’s presence very closely. Mother Teresa had a period of time where she literally heard the Lord’s voice directing her in a new calling in India. Then, as she set out to accomplish her mission, the silence began. In spite of that silence and lack of concrete encouragement from God, she continued in obedience. Therese also had felt the Lord in a close relationship before those last few years of her life.

    What occurs to me is that the times of silence, whether they come for a short time, just a season, or years, are more acutely felt when a person knows what they are missing. It is like times of blindness for someone who has been witnessing scenes of great beauty. And when those times come, you can hope to someday experience the Lord, again, but in the meantime you continue in faith, being obedient within your abilities in prayer, worship, etc.

    One last thought. When you are in the midst of this, one of the best gifts are loved ones who don’t sit in judgment, but just come along side you and add their faith to yours. My grandmother had always felt very close to the Lord, and had experienced His presence, especially in prayer. When she was dying of brain cancer, a day arrived when she said to my mother, “For the first time, I feel like my prayers are just going up to the ceiling and bouncing back.” My mom replied, “It’s okay. It’s your turn to rest. We’re doing the praying for you.” And my grandma was able to relax.

  6. I only read the first 2 sentences, but this made my day. Even Mother Theresa doubted. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one, if there’s something wrong with me. Thank the lord for testamonies like this, to let me know I’m not alone.

    And thank the lord for you Michael. Every time I’m down, you join me and let me know I’m not alone.

  7. My dear brother,
    Posts like these are why I keep coming back to this site.
    Thanks for sharing your heart.
    Thanks for keeping it real.
    Thanks for the link to that article.

    The church I grew up in villainized Mother Theresa for the simple fact that she was Roman Catholic, and our pastor told us she was basing her salvation on works alone. Seems he had insight into her motives that brought him to this conclusion. [tongue-in-cheek]

    Thanks for giving me a glimpse into her view of her own heart and her God. I’m going to look up this book.

  8. PS

    And, oh how I relate to the dark nights of the soul and a hiding God.

  9. Michael…I appreciate this post. 🙂

  10. When I first saw this story break, my first thought also was that it was a great opportunity for the Romaphobists to pounce. Thank you for posting on this in such a timely manner.

    I would seriously question anyone who has been a Christian for a long period of time and claims to never have had serious doubts about God. For whatever reasons, known only to Himself, God dances with us – sometimes closely, like a lover; other times, whirling us in a frenzy while we just try to hang on to His hand. Then the music breaks and we just have to wait silently for it to begin again and the dance resume.

  11. From pg 4- ‘…she agonizes incessantly that “any taking credit for her accomplishments — if only internally — is sinful” and hence, perhaps, requires a price to be paid’

    I wouldn’t presume to guess how much of her feelings were due to depression, and how much was due to a combination of her circumstances and personal theology. But if she had been told (and taken to heart) the proposition that she cannot contribute anything to ‘pay the price’ and that she had already been justified, maybe her despair wouldn’t have been as dark as it was.

  12. Brian Pendell says:

    Fascinating. Just fascinating.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  13. I’m right on board with your thoughts, Michael. I blogged on this subject yesterday after reading the Time article, albeit less eloquently and with less thought than you have put into it.

  14. When a preacher gets up at a revival and says “Oh I can feel the Lord’s presence strong in here tonight, God is going to do wonderful things…” I get a sinking feeling in my spine. It’s not that I don’t believe it is possible, I just believe God’s presence is rarely, rarely an objective reality perceptible in an outside sense. I believe its internal and mediated through apprehension of God revealed in His word and focused usually in times of prayer.

    When I was a young Christian, the YM gurus fed us promises of God’s presence as a kind of spiritual junk food. Need a quick boost? get God’s presence. This led me to freeze up during decisions when I didn’t “sense” God. I would give into temptation on days when I didn’t “feel” God just because I thought I couldn’t stand against sin if I wasn’t “in the midst” of His presence. Mainly I think I was looking for God when emotions were there only. Sometimes faith is the only assurance God is there.

    It took long periods of doubt and drudgery to get me to realize sometimes God shows up fewer times than we claim, and when He does its quieter, yet stronger than those other times.

  15. I agree, Chris, when I’m in the middle of a dry time, a dark night, often the only comfort is hearing and knowing I’m not alone, and that others have experienced similar times, and have come through them whole.

  16. There’s plenty of people who do feel the presence of God fairly often. But generally this is a sign that one is not particularly deep in the spiritual life. God is still feeding one on milk — baby food.

    This is not to say that baby food is a bad thing, or that the person isn’t earnest. But people who are called to go deeper and higher generally find themselves struggling harder. If you read the great mystics or the psalms, you’ll be prepared for this. If not, it may come as a big surprise.

    I think, however, Mother Teresa’s problem was that her dark night lasted so long, and that she didn’t have a spiritual director who would tell her the things she needed. (Which was probably itself part of God’s design of her dark night — God can play rough. Heck, He may even have prevented her from figuring stuff out, as this is not an obscure concept in Catholicism. Ordinary knowledge and the mind notoriously get darkened by the Dark Night, too.)

    Usually, there’s a lot of back-and-forthing, with consolations as well as desolations. However, there have been people who’ve experienced even worse and longer dark nights (one of whom was beatified in the last few years, IIRC).

    But I think the major thing here is that the mass media misunderstands the expression “dark night of the soul”. They think it means disbelief. Really it’s persisting in the will to belief and love despite not knowing what the heck is going on. Meanwhile, God is working on your soul “behind your back”, as it were — hidden — in the dark. So it’s just when you feel weakest and most abandoned that you are most like Christ and God is most with you, sanctifying and transforming you like gangbusters. This is not an easy concept to get across; maybe the book will do it.

  17. Nicholas Anton says:

    I like the statement by jmanning that “Sometimes faith is the only assurance that God is there”. And yet, in the absence of true faith, we so often revert to works. It is not true that when faith fails, then revert to works to supplement God’s grace, as has been the plight of many so called saints. They attempted to reinforce their lack of faith by their works, rather than resting in the promises of God. Are we not, like the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews, to stand firm when we are in assurance and emotional euphoria as well as when we are in doubt and in an emotional hell? Luther was right when he stated;
    “If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is merely flight and disgrace it he flinches at THAT point.”
    Sometimes the greatest battles are in our inner being, far removed even from our closest friends, who see only the scars and wounds of our conflicts. May we exercise the same love and compassion on those whom we do not understand as Christ commanded and as we would covet for ourselves in similar situations.

  18. CAndiron,

    Your remarks make me despair. Surely you don’t believe that Catholic theology encourages the state of mind Mother Teresa describes having suffered through? Or that, if her theology had only been more correctly Reformed, her sufferings would have been less?

    I think you may have exactly missed a point that Michael has tried repeatedly to make.

  19. Michael,

    I had read bits of this information — that Mother Teresa experienced dry, hard spiritual times — but I’m glad to know her full thoughts have been preserved and published. I appreciated your blog and the comments on it, as well as the Time article, because it shows me there are other ways to look at her suffering that the one I was inclined to.

    When I first read of her long dark nights of the soul, I admit my own faith (never all that sturdy) wavered. My thought wasn’t “Well, that proves there’s no God,” but rather, “God isn’t what we thought He was. He’s cruel and indifferent, even mean. He abandons his most devoted friends when they need Him most. Worshipping such a Being is useless; it would be like worshipping the Sun or some other force of nature, something utterly indifferent to human lives.”

    My own experience of God (sorry for the phrase!) has been otherwise, for as long as I’ve believed in Him. (I was an atheist through much of my younger adulthood.) Even when I’ve been angry with God, or didn’t “feel” His presence, I still believed He was there.

    My thoughts are still hovering around the question: Why? Why did God treat someone like Teresa so horrifically? If He could have relieved her pain, why didn’t He?

    hat I come to tentatively is a more natural, physically-based explanation. First and most obviously, she suffered from depression; no one would argue with that. I know from many years of grim experience that depression not only warps ones judgment but pretty much invalidates a lot of ones emotional life. In other words, it is simply impossible to discern either material or emotional or (maybe?) spiritual reality when one is depressed. The love and presence of God can break through depression *sometimes* (I was coverted from atheism when I was still very depressed), but that extraordinary sense of love and presence can’t be sustained even in the cheeriest person on earth, let alone in someone who is depressed.

    If I sound as if I’m saying “God couldn’t cure her but Prozac could have,” that’s only half true. I truly don’t believe that God can cure depression any more than He can cure cancer. (Yes, there are miracles, but a patient had better not count on them!) Teresa’s depression had her by the throat most of her life, and God was able to break through into her emotions only a couple of times.

    But He was able to keep her as His own child, working for His kingdom, even without the reward and joy His presence would have brought her. For that alone we must rejoice.

    And by the way, there’s the answer to the atheist who said (in the Time article) that her experience was like that of the Communists who told themselves, “Gee, this system is a failure, but I’ve got to keep pretending it’s a great success, or my life will be meaningless.” Mother Teresa’s problem was the *opposite.” Her *system* was a fantastic success! It was her feelings that weren’t in sync with it, and she didn’t pretend at all with her “confessors.”

    If there is an afterlife (I told you I’m a waverer), she is free at last from the hell of the physical disease of depression, and she’s rejoicing with the other saints. If there is not, she is at least free.

  20. Eliz Normandin says:

    Mother Teresa was our modern day version of Job.
    She suffered though so many trials and never gave up.
    Whatever she revealed to individuals in true confidence during times of darkness,was priviledged information.
    The “Dark Times” were between Mother Teresa and her God.
    What was said should have remained priviledged.
    Her sacred trust was broken by revelations of her inner hell.It was something that she never wanted.
    On the other hand, I think God is pleased that we will now know just how much she suffered. To all,including myself, she was a “Living Saint”. We never tried to see how the human side of her was faring.She was this very frail,little woman doing the works of God.She lived and worked amongst the most downtrodden on Earth for a half century.She was portrayed as constantly smiling & happy.
    The only time I ever saw her look anything but, was in the video called “African Calvary”. She was in Ethiopia in 1985 during the terrible famine. Her whole demeanor was that of despair.She was always looking directly,at some truly horrific scenes all around her. Her face was the personification of pure agony.I cried when viewing this film.
    I was a member of the first American Medical Team which was allowed to set up our own Medical Camp in Ethiopia.
    I was there for six months in the Ethiopian Highlands and saw many of the horrific scenes that Mother Teresa was witnessing. I can’t begin to tell you just how many long, dark nights spent in my tent having the very same conversations with God..asking why! why!
    I just can’t imagine the many long, dark nights endured by this frail human being. She was not a “Living Saint”
    she was a “Living Human Being” with all the doubts and feelings every human feels. She never truly lost faith.
    Faith has to exist before one can truly question it.
    We must remember Mother Teresa was a human being, with all the trappings.Her continuing on, despite all of the inner struggles, makes her the “True Saint” the peoples of the World always regarded her as.

  21. Michael,

    As a Catholic, I know that we who long for holiness, tend to accept that dark nights of the soul are to be expected. Not that it makes it easier to survive. And when you are in that darkness, everything looks dim and dismal. Sometimes, just taking one step is all that we can accomplish.

    Perhaps, our belief in the presence of Jesus in the bread of the Eucharist helps. Especially, if we pray where one is saved (and according to our theology, Jesus is in the tabernacle.) Not limited to that time and place, of course, but nevertheless there.

    And yes, it would be easier to believe that you only had to make 1 decision to follow Jesus, and you were done for the rest of your life. I find that I have to make that decision daily or even hourly. I do so much want to allow others to see Jesus in what I say, and do. It is a constant challenge.

  22. “Mother Teresa will become a more human fellow pilgrim through this book, and that can only be good. We do not need saints unlike us, but saints like us, including those voicing questions, doubts and lament in the context of prayer to Jesus whom we do not see, but who gives our lives meaning.”
    ————

    In a way, Mother Teresa is more unlike us in her trials of faith than like us. If I were to experience what Mother Teresa experience, I know I will pass it on to others and they become victims of my own darkness. Yet, because of her experience and St. Therese of Lisieux’s experience of trial of faith that taught me how to bear my itsy-bitsy problem with my eyes fixed on God (as described in Thesese’s Story of A Soul where she described herself as a little bird facing forever to the Sun because even the clouds covering the Sun from her now, the Sun is there.)
    “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Col 1:28)
    I am sure Mother Teresa didn’t “feel” it this way when she was in the midst of her dark night, but that is what she had done for us. The only explanation possible is that the Spirit of God is working in her.
    Thanks for your reflection and for letting me post my own thoughts.

  23. Amongst all the wise commenters here someone mentioned a “spiritual advisor”. Forget it, It is a lonely journey to be done alone without any confusing input from preachers, teachers, advisors, friends…. Now I’m on Xanax and at a loss for words how one might evangelize telling people “this what you might expect”. I wasn’t warned.

    The only response I can muster is Peter’s reply after Jesus asks “you want to leave ,too?”

    “Where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life”.

    Strange explanations creep in. To share in Christ’s sufferings, perhaps? Does that mean He feels horrible right now?

  24. I wrote something on my blog along these lines.

    It’s amazing how she carried herself through the dark night.

    When I found myself in it after the first year of my salvation which was filled with a glorious sense of God’s existence and presence, I had a near nervous breakdown. On the couch crying all day, for days. By God’s grace I learned to walk in the night as well as the day, but I almost wasn’t able to function, let alone carry on a ministry like she did. All God’s grace.

    Blessings.

  25. Maureen
    “There’s plenty of people who do feel the presence of God fairly often. But generally this is a sign that one is not particularly deep in the spiritual life. God is still feeding one on milk — baby food.”

    Where is that to be found in the Bible or in the writings of the history of the Church?

  26. OK, I’m going to solicit some advice from those of you who are reading.

    See, I’m coming at this from completely the opposite POV — as a teen I notably “felt” the presence of God on a few occasions, but then again I also once “knew without a doubt” that there was a demon in the back of my car.

    Now, in my late 30s, I’ve begun to suspect that most people, when they “feel” that “presence of God,” are likely to be… well, hallucinating is a strong term. “Superimposing a spiritual meaning onto their own emotional states” is more accurate.

    A few years ago, before I met my wife, I dated a woman who came from a Bible-cult background. (Shepherding Movement. The Fort Lauderdale Five. That sort of thing.) A decade and a half earlier, her mother had had a “vision” that she should marry a particular man in her church. After that “vision” was confirmed by others in the church, she married him. He beat and raped her for fifteen years, and beat their three children, and there’s strong evidence that he may have sexually molested their youngest boy, who is autistic. She eventually found the courage to leave him.

    Learning her story woke me up to something: not everyone who thinks they’re hearing God’s voice really is. And now I’m wondering if it isn’t safer for us to assume that we probably won’t ever legitimately hear God’s voice more than once or twice in our lives — at best.

    Personally, I don’t feel God much in my life. I try to do the right thing, I take assurance that He cares about me, and I ask Him to forgive me when I do wrong. I *don’t* think he’s totally inactive, mind you. I even think I can point to a couple recent instances when He’s been at work. But because I am human, and therefore an idiot, I assume I am more or less incapable of determining whether any particular sensation, conviction, or event is notably Divine, or just my ‘magination.

    All I can do, as an idiot human, is say, “Whatever good happens, and whatever good I might do, is God’s doing. The crap is all me. And right now, I’m not going to assume I know which is which.”

  27. Ha! After all that, I forgot my question, which is this:

    Is my approach a realistic and healthy approach to faith, or am I being overly cynical thanks to the combination of my former girlfriend’s story and the subsequent reading of Haanegraff’s “Counterfeit Revival?”

  28. It is in the suffering of God’s absence that He is found on the cross. This was Luther’s root breakthrough in theology of Cross versus theology of glory. In our suffering, “where is God in all this”, and it’s highly individual so we cannot set mine as standard, yours as standard, mother T’s as standard or any other Christian’s as standard, there we find God on the Cross for us. We always desire to “look” as it were to time and space and things that are “glorious” to us. To some its health and wealth ministries, to others its “conversion experiences”, grand conquerings of sin (we think) about us, some even make “persecution by the sword” (an unhealthy martyr syndrome) out to be a “theology of glory”, and so forth. But it is in the suffering of NOT having these things that we find Christ for us. It forces us there.

    For example a suffering saint wonders why he/she cannot conquer sin in their life, they begin to despair, but it is this very thing that forces them to look at the Cross, not around it for some “other gracious power” and not through, but dead on it. We never tire of not wanting to stare at the shame and scandal of the Cross, but there, where God does not appear to be (surely He is in some power empowering me if I’m His), THERE HE IS FOR US. This is how He gives grace and answers prayer for grace. Not as Newton put it at “some preferred hour of favor” in which we might receive some grace (power) to subdue our sin (or some other thing we are looking for), but rather IN THAT very aggravation of sin (or the other ‘where is God’ glory we are looking for) we assess and despair ‘God must have forsaken me else I’d be getting…I must be doing something wrong’ (the old Adam trying to work, but is really being slain by this) – BUT it is here at the point of despair that we must and only can NAKEDLY look at and receive Christ (God), theology of Cross, our suffering leading us to HIS Suffering FOR US. This why Jesus said to Phillip when asking to see the Father, “…if you have seen ME, you have SEEN the Father”. Translation, “I’m the revelation, look elsewhere for God and you be searching for an idol thinking you search for God and you will be thrown down…I’M it suffering for you.” Or Hebrews which says that Jesus is the radiance of His glory and the perfect representation of His nature. There God is revealed for you so that literally rain or shine in life, not hair can fall from your head that is NOT working and subservient to your salvation, even painful suffering. OR Isaiah in the OT who says, “Truly you are a hidden God, oh salvation of Israel.”

    Markus Wriedt writes of Luther as pastor, “Pastoral care for Luther is not only consolation and help. Most of the distress that motivates Christians in the 20th century to be engaged with the church in social work Luther judges derogatorily as carnal temptation: misery, poverty, hunger, homelessness, imprisonment, persecution, torture and war. For Luther the spiritual temptations are severe weapons of the devil to lead the children of God astray. Spiritual temptations are blasphemy, heresy, unbelief, sorrow about the salvation and doubt in the mercy of God.”

    At the end of the day the death or threat thereof of the body is a childish thing, it is the second death that the sting is deadly eternally. THIS is what Christ removed from us, not the first death. So that now the first death should not be feared, per se, and the Christian should not fear it anymore than lying down to sleep, because this is what it is. Now that doesn’t mean that pain is removed. But the sting of death, will deliver me from wrath in the end, the second death, THIS Christ took away from you. This bears you up under all suffering, even though the suffering is STILL suffering and very real. It’s not a “chip up ole boy and take it like a man”, but a way to bear up under it, the real pain.

    The theologian, theologian here many all men because we are, of glory in us looks to time and space and tries to assess “is God here for me” (e.g. am I conquering sin enough, where’s the power, where’s the signs that I’m converted, reborn, saved – all theologies of glory, that is fallen religion). We are thrown down from all these “Towers of Babel” we construct to “reach up” as it were into heaven. Despairing, the Cross of Christ is all we have. As Luther said well if you have the revealed God, Christ alone crucified and risen for you (and not another false Christ like WWJD) then you have the hidden God (the one your normally despairing over in the night of the soul). BUT loose the revealed God, again Jesus and what He DID for you not you for him (as if), THEN you loose the hidden God as well. And eventually you are seeking an idol even if you give that idol the name “God of the Bible”, “the spirit”, “or Jesus”.

    Blessings,

    Larry KY

  29. !!!!!!MISTAKE!!!!!!!

    In the second paragraph I meant, “AS Newton put it…” NOT “NOT as Newton put it…”. Crucial mistake.

    Sorry about that, that one I couldn’t let go…too crucial to the statement. Slow brain!

    L KY

  30. Fr. Mike Creson says:

    Michael, Whatever our religious affiliation we want to claim the Truth. But we have no way for our team to prove Truth. Is it possible that someone believing different from me could be right? All we can do is ‘believe’ we are right. We package our comfort Scripture, emotional experiences, pot-luck dinners, tongues and sacraments and we roll the dice. We keep dancing with our cradle faith,or we change partners. Maybe my neighbor has more truth? Then we feel the encroaching darkness that Mother Teresa speaks of when I look anxiously for evidence better than the other guys’. I also recommend Endo’s “Silence” and Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory” for working through the night.

  31. o.h., I didn’t mean any offense. I don’t think Catholic theology leads to such despair – I just feel it doesn’t emphasize aspects of its theology enough (such as God’s grace and the necessity of Christ’s work, regardless of hair splitting distinctions about sacramentalism), that might have helped her. She endured to the end under conditions I could not have. I don’t think 10 minutes in a room alone with Greg Bahnsen would have solved all her problems.

  32. This is the quote from the book that I believe is pivotal. Is the primary response to ‘feel’ God’s love? or persevere in the knowledge of God’s love in Christ?

    “The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on, And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn’t ‘feeling’ Christ’s love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘Your happiness is all I want.’ That’s a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms.”

    vapor

  33. Yah, Michael: that’s why “in hope against hope he believed” and “though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” are 2 of my bottom-line “motto” verses.

    Jay: “Superimposing a spiritual meaning onto their own emotional states.” Very true! And personally, I think you’re right on the mark with the healthy skepticism. Better that than gullibility and serious error. (Just look @ the history of cults to see the misery caused by the latter.)

    Now, my question is: if a believer is a “T,” would that person gravitate more towards the distrust of feelings in the Christian walk, vs. if a believer is an “F,” would they perhaps incline more towards the emotional interpretation of things? Just wondering… (I myself am a “T” 🙂 )

  34. PS: I’m convinced Eve was an “F” (most women are). 🙂

  35. I heard on Catholic radio this morning that Fr. Cantalamessa, preacher to the the pope, had preached on this some time ago after the initial revelation of Mother Theresa’s suffering. He outlined three purposes – to provide the humility necessary to counteract the exaltation the world would shower upon Mother, to enable Mother to experience the isolation and desolation of the sick and rejected she would minister to, and as a special gift – a share in the Lord’s spiritual suffering during His passion. What is lacking in most discussion of this is the Catholic understanding of redemptive suffering. Rather than a problem to be solved, or trouble to be gotten rid of, it was a hidden cross for the salvation of souls. Mother Theresa accepted this cross day after day for decades, joining her suffering to the Lord’s through an act of her will, so that graces would flow to souls and hearts and minds would open to God’s love and mercy. Her confessor referred to it as a “spiritual work” the Lord had given her.

  36. Jay H.

    I,personally, don’t think that your view is too realistic, but completely understandable. What your girlfriend went through is WRONG. (I,too, went through a period similar to yours, when I thought that I was both very aware of God’s presence, and of demonic. I never was under the kind of control that your girlfriend went through). For me, now, it is, at times, similar to when you know that your beloved wife is in the house, but silent, or if she quietly walks up behind you.

    I tend to be bothered by your idea that whatever we do that is good comes from God, whatever we do that is bad is our own doing. That both makes us helpless in front of God, but full of power when doing evil. I had problems with that kind of thinking at my last Baptist church. Don’t get me wrong, I think that God created us to love Him, to serve Him and to do His good work in earth and in heaven. He does call, influence, encourage us, but we still can choose whether to follow, to do good or to reject, to do bad. Just like a toddler can come toward Daddy, when playing on the floor or can scoot away.

  37. Joshua Manning says:

    I’m going to re-comment and it will sound like a contradiction to the previous comment I made, but its not really. God’s unmitigated spiritual presence may be rare, but God’s mediated presence through Scripture I think is constant. The dark night of the soul may last a while, but joy should not be absent from that experience. I am not a fan of duldrum Christians, but the joy of the Lord should be a constant thing that is always with us, even if coated with several layers of malaise.

    So God’s presence doesn’t come with every revivalist who is trying to whip up a frenzy, but the joy of the Lord is something that hangs on the word in our lives, and attends to our works for Christ (not in the RCC sense of works)

    As Piper says, joy is a commandment. To persist in refusing joy over the things of God is disobedience. That doens’t mean everything is hunky dory, but it does mean to take God at His word that He is good and rejoice over Him.

  38. What an encouraging thing to learn about Mother Teresa! She lived in this sometimes dark spiritual world after all. The same one we all live in, not some rarified, ethereal place I’ve no access to. It’s been said that some folks read books for information/knowledge, some for formation/shaping. I’ve found that I read a lot of books (and blogs) for confirmation, to know that someone else has been down this road before me, and that I’m not out in left field by myself. Can’t wait to read this one.

  39. All right, what are the real issues here? After reading all this, I am tempted to ask “Would you like some cheese with that whine?”

    Is the issue that God is both transcedent and immanent, or that we forget the need to persevere no matter what, or that we feel that God owes us an explanation for our suffering? Just because we sing “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” doesn’t guarantee that the bottom will drop out of our lives at some point and that we will be in despair.

    So Mother Teresa doubted. What would happen if tomorrow Billy Graham said the same thing? Can’t people “be real” about what is going on in their lives? And those of us not going through such times at present can stand/sit/weep with them. Our time will come or come again when it hits us.

    In my opinion, we do no good by elevating folks like Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, etc. to such a level that they seem unreal or otherworldly. I like Martin Luther who faced it head on. When in despair, he would often put his hand on his head and say, “Baptismus sum” (I am baptized). I have no illusion that he suddenly felt better, but he affirmed his faith in doing so.

    Remember also that Jesus said that those who follow him need to deny themselves daily, take up their crosses, and follow. That journey may not always bring what we’d call happiness, but to be faithful, in my opinion, we keep walking with Jesus.

  40. I meant to say that “the bottom will not drop out of our lives….”

  41. To the guy whose moderated comment I just deleted instead of publishing:

    I just deleted your comment.

  42. I will not publish comments that say Roman Catholics are not Christians. Sorry.

  43. “I am not going to publish comments claiming that Roman Catholics are not Christians.”

    Thanks, Michael. Any separations in Christ’s Body, of which there are far too many, should grieve us all. But failing to recognize our common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in spite of what separates us, is the most egregious of all. I think we can agree that there is “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (RSV Eph. 4:4-7)

  44. BlueSkyJedi says:

    The Lord is constant

    I am inconsistent

    God is true and every one else a liar.

    All I can say alot of times is

    “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness, I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus name”

    Blesings from Iraq,

    V

  45. I read a long review of the book and couldn’t help but wonder,” If one were to actually be in the very presence of the Glory of God and speak with his son, would not normal every day reality seem like a void- a horrible separation from the pure light that he/she previously experienced”. Maybe God only reveals his instense self in pure form to only a few because most people cannot psychologically handle it? Maybe Teresea isn’t an exception-

  46. Mother T’s doubt and struggle give me hope and comfort. Even the most pious of us doubt and struggle if we would only admit it.

    Mother T lived what many of us choose not to live and admits what many of us refuse to admit.

    We followers of Christ, need to get off our high horses and risk living faith with all it’s ups and downs.

    If we were a little more real about faith….the church might grow again.

  47. Thank you so much for posting this. I was weirdly glad to learn that Mother T. struggled with these things, because it is further confirmation that the things I’ve gone through are part of the journey, not the end of it. It’s good to know too that her faith has turned to sight, and she is no longer struggling. I wonder how it must have been for her to hear “Well done”. I remember an 80-something year old man in my old church who, when asked what he would tell young believers, said simply: “I’ve been to the bottom,and it’s solid as a rock.” Thank God for letting His saints struggle, so others will know they’re not alone.

    As far as the discussion here, I think that as a friend of mine said, if you can always feel God, you don’t need faith. So many of us have been taught to associate faith with emotions, so when the feelings go away, we think God has as well. (I’m only a few years out of the whole youth group scene, and I think the whole faith=emotions thing is especially dangerous with teenagers) In contrast, I think that the nature of faith is that it assures us of what we cannot otherwise perceive, be it by our emotions or sight or anything else.

    Write on, Michael!

  48. For Jay H., my two cents (or less) worth: Certainly your modest skepticism is better than the sad case of your former girlfriend’s mother, who assumed her “vision” was straight from God.

    I try in my later life here to follow a sort of “checklist” proposed by the Quaker writer Hannah Whitehall Smith. She said that if you believe you have a call from God, check on it this way:

    1. Search the Scriptures.
    2. Pray about it.
    3. Check it out with other believers. (*This* is certainly a crucial step your friend’s mom skipped.)
    4. If the first three checks are positive, then, if it’s from God, “a way will open” for you to answer the call.

    When I felt I was called to go with a peacemaker team to Iraq, in the spring of 2003, I followed these steps exactly. Even though I “felt” and sort of “heard” God calling me to do this, I wouldn’t have trusted or followed such an outrageous venture without spending lots of time on the first two steps, and talking about it extensively with my believing friends and my minister. And then the way did open.

  49. One of the writers here states, “What is lacking in most discussion of this is the Catholic understanding of redemptive suffering.”

    I think this *is* a uniquely Catholic understanding, and my Protestant brain has never understood it. I have a Catholic friend who suffers horribly from depression. Her suffering truly does not seem redemptive to me in any way. She is utterly miserable, has congestive heart failure, is a binge eater and weighs nearly 300 pounds, finds it difficult to walk, and for several years spent about 18 hours a day in bed (though her new anti-depressants have cut down on that some).

    She is a kind person and has a brilliant mind, and even with her physical problems she could enjoy things like writing and the Internet, but she is too depressed to make any moves to do anything. She has told me how Catholics think suffering is good, and she is therefore terrified to talk to God because she believes He has sent her the suffering and will, basically, send her more if He “notices” her.

    I’ve always been pretty sure Catholic theology doesn’t really say this, yet comments about “Catholic understanding of redemptive suffering” make me wonder. Maybe someone can explain, to me if not to her.

  50. Anible – what you said about emotional manipulation resonates with me. It’s at the times of the “dark night” that we’re tempted to idolatry, to create an image of God that makes us feel better about his presence, rather than doing the harder thing of just waiting on him.

    In Exodus 32:1-6, we see the Israelites, nervous about the delay of Moses, could wait no more and asked for Aaron to fabricate God’s presence via an idol. For many years, I misunderstood and thought they’d asked Aaron to create a different god (little ‘g’). Actually, they believed that the golden calf WAS God (big ‘G’), the one who delivered them from Egypt. Paul’s (seemingly odd) proof of their idolatry in 1 Cor. 10:7 was that the people stopped waiting, and instead “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play”.

    How important during those times – when God seems to be communing with others but seems withdrawn to me – that I not take a shortcut and re-fashion God into an idol who exists to satisfy my emotional need.