"The moment the word 'why' crosses your lips, you are doing theology."
—When Life & Beliefs Collide                

Monday, September 3, 2007

Telling Secrets

The cover of Time Magazine’s September 3, 2007 issue features the familiar lined face and penetrating gaze of Mother Teresa, a.k.a. the “Saint of the Gutter” for her sacrificial and tireless efforts on behalf of Calcutta’s hungry, poor and dying.

To millions she embodies closeness to God. Even today her name serves as a synonym for saintliness. Yet a decade after her death (and against her wishes) Mother Teresa is back in the headlines. This time, instead of being duly honored for her life's work, she's suffering the kind of invasion of privacy most feared by people in the public eye.

Turns out Mother Teresa had something to hide.

A collection of private letters she addressed to her spiritual guides has surfaced, disclosing the fact that behind her saintly public persona Mother Teresa was a tortured soul for the last half century of her life. Contrary to the world’s perceptions of her, she wrestled with deep doubts of God and was tormented by long-term spiritual dryness.

“When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven,” she writes with unveiled honesty, “there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

Although these revelations are shocking and will alter the public’s perceptions of her, I find it hard to imagine Mother Teresa sailing through life on a spiritual high when she daily faced an ocean of misery and was fighting a losing battle against poverty and human suffering.

Oddly enough, Teresa’s despair reminds me of Naomi, a woman whose story I’ve been pouring over for months. I can easily imagine Naomi writing the words like those found in Teresa’s letters. After watching her whole world swept away without a flicker of interference from God, despite her desperate cries for help, Naomi felt the darkness of soul Teresa describes. “The LORD’s hand has gone out against me,” Naomi lamented. “I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. . . The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me" (Ruth 1:13, 21).

Some might feel inclined to criticize Mother Teresa, after all, it seems difficult to reconcile her pious image with the soul-starved wasteland she lived in for so many years. Historically, we’ve been very hard on Naomi—calling her a bitter, complaining old woman, without investing much effort in attempts to comprehend what it was like to walk in her sandals. Yet in recent years Naomi’s image has undergone something of a transformation, and she has emerged with greater credibility as a female Job. The parallels between the two sufferers are striking and this fact alone revolutionizes our understanding of the book of Ruth.

Reading about Mother Teresa’s confessions in Time and contemplating Naomi’s story (which has been in the public domain for centuries) made me think seriously about finding a better place to stash my journals. But at another level, I find these unsettling disclosures about both women strangely reassuring.

At a minimum, they dispel all notions of the super-spiritual believer. If the stories of these two women don’t do the job, there are plenty of others who have similar tales to tell. Abraham, Sarah, Hannah, David, Job, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, C.S. Lewis, Joni Eareckson Tada—all struggled to make sense of God, His silences, and the evil in this world. If we take their words seriously, the evidence seems pretty compelling that God’s children don’t have all the answers, but may well be the ones who are asking the hardest questions.

In the aftermath of my brother-in-law Kelly’s death and the ongoing wait for the recovery of the bodies of his two climbing partners, writing my new book, The Gospel of Ruth, would have been completely unbearable for me if Naomi had dusted herself off and moved on with head held high and a victorious smile on her face as she endured unimaginable personal devastation. Instead, I found this female Job to be good company as I wept and began wading through my own doubts and confusion over what had happened. Her brutal honesty invites my honesty, moves me towards God, and opens a path to growth.

We may, like Mother Teresa, put on a brave face before others. But behind closed doors we all struggle to trust God. We all wrestle with discouragement and doubt, while at the same time struggling to put one foot in front of the other and inch forward in obedience to God. This is the path of faith, not of unbelief.

But the disturbing revelations about Teresa and Naomi also bring awareness to me that the dry, empty, dark stretches I experience are an important part of my journey with God. God does His deepest work in me when I am troubled, hurting and confused. At these low points He is my focus and I know beyond a doubt that I desperately need him.

What is more, the struggles of these two women give me hope that God can and will work through me to advance His Kingdom, even when I’m spiritually depleted and He seems so distant to me. It is a marvel of God’s grace and power that the doubting, faltering Mother Teresa found the stamina and courage to persevere in ministry against hopeless odds. Her humble ministry of mercy ultimately caught the attention (and earned the respect) of the entire world and inspired others to follow her example.

It makes me smile to think that Naomi, in her darkest hour, was God’s chosen evangelist to reel Ruth into the Kingdom, and that He was recruiting the broken-down Naomi for a strategic mission to fortify the spiritual backbone of the royal line of Jesus. The darkness that engulfs the soul of God’s child doesn’t limit and may even be vital to what He will do through us. According to Paul, God’s power shines brightest in us when we are at our weakest (2 Corinthians 12:9).

I still may bury (or destroy) my journals. But in the meantime, I am comforted to know that those painful and despairing entries I have written (and those I will yet write on the blank pages in my journal) are not signs of spiritual failure or God’s abandonment, but indications that He is here and He is at work.

"Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you"
—Hebrews 13:5