Ten years after her death, Mother Teresa is on the cover of Time again—this time because it turns out she wrestled with doubt. Not just passing questions in the back of her mind from time to time, but a lingering, maddening inability to sense Christ’s presence almost the entire time she was serving the poor and the dying of Calcutta.
It turns out the woman who demonstrated God’s love for the poor better than anyone in modern history struggled so long—and, for the most part, so unsuccessfully—to feel God’s love herself.
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 and darkness…
For anyone who believes that being a Christian means radiating an inextinguishable sense of confidence and wearing a permanent smile on your face, words like these are difficult to swallow, to say the least.
But I think Mother Teresa’s doubt may be her greatest gift to the church.
As I read the article in Time, I couldn’t help but think about the man in Mark 9 who brings his convulsing son to Jesus—after the disciples are unable to help. Jesus rebukes either the watching crowd or his disciples (or both) for their lack of faith, which was apparently the reason the disciples’ efforts to heal the boy failed.
In response, the boy’s father pleads with Jesus: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus picks up on the uncertainty: “‘If you can?'” he says. “Everything is possible for the one who believes.”
The desperate father blurts out, famously, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” What amazes me is that Jesus says nothing about the paradox of belief and unbelief expressed in the same breath. He doesn’t point out the seemingly obvious contradiction in the man’s words. Instead, Jesus seems perfectly satisfied with this response. Without another word, he heals the man’s son.
Apparently Jesus is willing to act on faith, even when it’s mixed with doubt.
Then there’s the time John the Baptist—imprisoned at the very moment God’s kingdom was supposed to be crashing onto the scene—sent his followers to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
You can almost hear the frustration—the impertinence—in his demand for answers. It’s as if John says to Jesus, “Look, if you’re the messiah, then start acting like it. Otherwise, quit wasting our time.”
You’d think this kind of doubt wouldn’t sit well with Jesus, especially since he was in the midst of a miraculous free-for-all at the very moment John’s disciples showed up. But Jesus simply instructs them to return to John and tell him what they’ve seen.
No rebuke. No warnings about the dangers of doubt. No list of 88 irrefutable reasons to believe. Just…
The blind see.
The lame walk.
The dead live.
The poor have hope.
According to Jesus, these are the most compelling reasons to believe in a loving God.
The orphaned child who is given a warm, loving home. The vulnerable widow whose rights are defended from those who would take advantage of her. The untouchable leper (or AIDS patient) who is touched with compassion, despite every social taboo against it.
Each of these is more powerful evidence of Christ than the most impressive, well-reasoned argument. Every time someone cares for the poor, they prove Christ real all over again because it is, in fact, Christ they are serving (Matthew 25:31-40).
Those of us who are tempted to believe the gospel can be summed up in a sermon—or that intimacy with God can be achieved through inner spirituality alone—would do well to remember these words from the prophet Isaiah:
Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7 TNIV)
The great irony—and blessing—of Mother Teresa’s life was that she experienced her own doubts precisely as she was giving the rest of us the best possible reason to believe in the transforming power of Christ.
The fact that the poor continued to find hope, the untouchables continued to be touched, and the dying continued to be loved even as Mother Teresa quietly confessed to God her own doubts about his love is, to me, the greatest proof that God never stopped loving Teresa or the ones she served. Mother Teresa may not always have been able to see or hear God’s love for herself—but she never stopped radiating it.
Which should make it easier for the rest of us to believe.