September 5, 2007
“If anyone is in heaven, there is no question Mother Teresa is there,” is a sentiment shared by millions of Americans, believers and non-believers alike. Yet her own words suggest it was a sentiment Mother Teresa struggled with and may well have not believed.
A new book just out from Doubleday, “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light,” reveals a previously unknown side of Mother Teresa through her private letters written over a period of 66 years. It should be noted that this book was not produced by her detractors, but rather by those seeking sainthood for the venerable nun. The letters sound what Time magazine calls “...a hodgepodge of desperate notes not intended for daylight.” In the letters, written mostly to confessors, Teresa candidly—and at times with great anguish—expresses not only serious doubts about her faith, but seems resolved that she possesses no genuine faith at all.
Christopher Hitchens, an evangelist for atheism, recently used Mother Teresa’s inner turmoil as revealed in her letters to invalidate any and all belief outside of what can be validated by human reason. In a recent piece for Newsweek Hitchens gloated,
Now, it might seem glib of me to say that this is all rather unsurprising, and that it is the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.
Hitchens may be right. If all we have is our innate reason to validate for us what otherwise seems impossible, then indeed our efforts are futile, resulting in a chaos of the soul like that demonstrated in Teresa’s letters. But the ability to believe impossible things—like the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and ultimately in our own resurrection—results not from innate reason, but from faith. And that faith is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God.
Faith does not come from our making sense of things or from our ability to reason things out. Faith is not positive thinking. Faith is not doing more good things in the hope that by doing so faith will come. Faith is the free and unmerited gift of God granted to those who truly hear His word. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Faith germinates in the soul when the soul receives with meekness the engrafted word which is able to save it. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith begins where reason ends. Faith assures us precisely because our reason doesn’t. In the words of the hymn writer Edward Mote, “When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.”
In spite of his agenda to demonstrate the futility of belief, Hitchens has made an astute observation when he says,
It seems, therefore, that all the things that made Mother Teresa famous—the endless hard toil, the bitter austerity, the ostentatious religious orthodoxy—were only part of an effort to still the misery within.
Again, Hitchens may have a point. It would appear from her letters that when everything around her was giving way, Mother Teresa opted to work harder rather than to trust more. Mother Teresa is evidence that no amount of effort on our part can “still the misery within,” granting us assurance of a loving relationship with God. After all, who among us has worked harder and yet had less assurance than Mother Teresa? Assurance comes not from what we do, but from faith in what Christ has done.
Jesus himself said, “Many shall say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? And in your name have cast our devils? And in your name done many wonderful works?’ And then I will profess unto them, ‘I never knew you’” (Matthew 7:22-23).
Could it be that Mother Teresa is among the “many” that did “many wonderful works” in the name of Jesus, but were trusting in their works to vindicate them in the end rather than the One they were working for? Do Mother Teresa’s letters suggest that she could be among those who will hear Jesus say, “I never knew you”? You are aghast at the thought because such a sentiment is so contrary to the conventional wisdom that says Mother Teresa, of all people, is in heaven because she served the poorest of the poor and gave up her own life in doing so.
But that’s precisely the point. If anyone is in heaven, it won’t be because of the many wonderful works they did in Jesus’ name. It will be because they received faith as a gift from God, a faith that sustains in the midst of doubt, a faith that gives evidence of the reality of our relationship to Christ even when our innate human reason suggests—as it evidently did in Mother Teresa’s case—that the prudent course is to abandon all hope.
Paul Edwards is the host of “The Paul Edwards Program” and a pastor. His program is heard daily on WLQV in Detroit and on godandculture.com. Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.