Skip to main content

Come be my lightOn and off over the last few months, I’ve been reading Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta. The first half of the book recounts the lengthy process by which Mother Teresa finally received permission to move to Calcutta and begin the Missionaries of Charity.

In 1953, after her work had begun and after years of silent suffering, she wrote this letter to Archbishop Périer.

Your Grace,

. . . Please pray specifically for me that I may not
spoil His work and that Our Lord may show
Himself—for there is such terrible darkness
within me, as if everything was dead. It has
been like this more or less from the time I
started “the work.” Ask Our Lord to give me
courage.

        Please give us Your blessing,
        Your devoted child in J.C,
        M. Teresa, M.C.

A couple of things strike me here. The first is how Mother Teresa’s thoughts echo what we read in Psalm 88, which is the darkest of the Psalms. God’s presence has abandoned the psalmist, and the closing line reads: “my companions are in darkness.”

Actually—not to geekify this post more than necessary—but the NRSV has it wrong. For one thing, the psalmist is the one in darkness, not the psalmist’s companions.

Also, there is no “in” in the Hebrew. It simply reads, “my companions [are] darkness.” Darkness is the only companionship the psalmist has.

Second, and more important, Mother Teresa does not sit alone in the darkness but confides in another.

I think that is the hard part for many—letting someone else in, letting down our protective armor, casting aside the fear of being shamed or dismissed as having “weak” faith.

I imagine this would have been a particularly difficult admission for Mother Teresa, given how long and many letters it took her to convince her superiors to leave her order and venture to the slums of Calcutta. Her letters read like sales pitches; how ashamed she must have felt when she finally got her wish and was quickly overcome with a sense of darkness, of God’s abandonment.

Perhaps this is why it took her so long to let the archbishop know what was happening to her—the shame of admittingThe Sin of Certainty God’s absence when God’s presence had been so clear to her for so long, and about which she had been so forthright in her letters.

Still, she wrote the letter.

I wonder sometimes how difficult it might have been for the writer of Psalm 88 to put his thoughts in writing. In any event, I for one am glad he did.

A true believer’s worth is not measured by how well they are able to keep doubt at a distance. Doubt is not a sign of a “lack” of faith but a normal and expected part of the journey of faith.

[My next book, The Sin of Certaintyis about letting go of the preoccupation of needing to be certain and accepting not knowing as an unavoidable and spiritually necessary aspect of the life of faith. It is available for preorder now and is coming out April 5.]

 

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

35 Comments

  • Gary says:

    As one comfortable confiding with others in matters concerning faith and its lacking, my personal experience is that there really isn’t a context for such for it to be considered “normal.”

    Maybe, it’s normal as in it’s part of healthy growth and development. But it’s not normal in that commonly the institutions, rituals, clergy, and laity don’t really know what to do with such openness.

    When pluralistic analogs and levelness of playing field for the justification of belief are part of the conversation, it only takes a few conversations to be avoided.

    I think the easy part is “letting someone else in, letting down our protective armor, casting aside the fear of being shamed or dismissed as having ‘weak’ faith.”

    I think the hard part is finding faith that actually makes sense.

    • Fred Fauth says:

      I have been more open recently with folks at my church (what I would consider to be a more progressive PCA church–which is to say not all that progressive 🙂 and I have been pleasantly surprised with their reactions. There’s very little trying to “fix” me or my beliefs (or lack thereof, depending on the day).

      • Gary says:

        Great to hear. In some more conservative church environments, they have a bias against in these matters–they think its because your underlying motivations are immoral, etc.

        Yet, in some more progressive church environments, they have a positive bias. They assume that it’s because you’re sincere and actually wanting to have something real and sort it out for yourself.

        Personally, I was shocked to even discover the latter exists. It’s as if they value your spiritual journey and transformation more than superficial confirmation of their own.

        Be thankful and press in. It may or may not last, depending upon individual your interacting with and time. While some tolerate, in between the categorical two different styles of reaction, some people will simply run out of patience with you, in what they want to be some sort of “phase.”

  • Gary says:

    As one comfortable confiding with others in matters concerning faith and its lacking, my personal experience is that there really isn’t a context for such for it to be considered “normal.”

    Maybe, it’s normal as in it’s part of healthy growth and development. But it’s not normal in that commonly the institutions, rituals, clergy, and laity don’t really know what to do with such openness.

    When pluralistic analogs and levelness of playing field for the justification of belief are part of the conversation, it only takes a few conversations to be avoided.

    I think the easy part is “letting someone else in, letting down our protective armor, casting aside the fear of being shamed or dismissed as having ‘weak’ faith.”

    I think the hard part is finding faith that actually makes sense.

    • Fred Fauth says:

      I have been more open recently with folks at my church (what I would consider to be a more progressive PCA church–which is to say not all that progressive 🙂 and I have been pleasantly surprised with their reactions. There’s very little trying to “fix” me or my beliefs (or lack thereof, depending on the day).

      • Gary says:

        Great to hear. In some more conservative church environments, they have a bias against in these matters–they think its because your underlying motivations are immoral, etc.

        Yet, in some more progressive church environments, they have a positive bias. They assume that it’s because you’re sincere and actually wanting to have something real and sort it out for yourself.

        Personally, I was shocked to even discover the latter exists. It’s as if they value your spiritual journey and transformation more than superficial confirmation of their own.

        Be thankful and press in. It may or may not last, depending upon individual your interacting with and time. While some tolerate, in between the categorical two different styles of reaction, some people will simply run out of patience with you, in what they want to be some sort of “phase.”

  • charlesburchfield says:

    I’m going through a dark time now of uncertainty. What does the rest of life hold for me? I’m 64 in bad health at the end of the train wreck of my life. Whatever time is left I give to the Lord. I suppose I shall find out what it means to be strong when I am weak. *]:D

    • Ross says:

      For what it’s worth and without meaning to patronise or belittle your own experiences, there is some comfort in not being alone in the train wreck of my own life. There is some great darkness in feeling alone and grubby in a church full of what appear to be squeaky clean “brethren”. I often wish that I could share in a community of those who’d hashed their own lives up as much as I have. I have a sneaky feeling that this is the community Jesus calls us to share in, but it often doesn’t look that way.

      • Gary says:

        From what I’ve observed, there’s a comfort zone of confession–not too much and not too little. When it’s time to share, it’s too self righteous to say such as, “I only pray an hour a day” and it’s too sinful to admit such as, “I killed my neighbor.” In between, there’s a “safety zone” of sins to admit. Sociologically, I expect it’s little more than a masked peer-based trust-building exercise. People who sin a little and repent some are trustworthy. Spiritually, it is as much as anything within the realm of what Jesus of Nazareth might have considered the way of the world as it just doesn’t have the all-in trust that is centered in redemption rather than trust that is centered in safety. I suspect this is why the likes of AA’s style has to be done on the fringe and not in the center of Christian expression.

        Similarly, prayer has a comfort zone of petition. It’s too little to pray for a hangnail in these settings; it’s too great to pray for the healing of all cancer. The comfort zone is to pray for such as the relief of symptoms for one beloved person and where the outcome is unknown. (I’ve found it fascinating that the boundary between what’s prayerfully petitionable to be between what’s known vs. unknown and not happened vs. not-yet-happened.)

        Continuing, expression of doubt similarly has a comfort zone of admission. Most significantly, the admission of doubt 1) has to be generic (it has to be stated in the form of “trust God,” and nothing specific such as 6 Days, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection), 2) has to be tied to proximal events and personal wishes (“will for my life” such as for schooling or job and nothing as large as All Creation Groaning, 3) has to exclusively sectarian (not fairly reflective across religions or even broad Christian traditions), and 4) must resolve into self doubt (I didn’t try hard enough, desired sin, am still growing, or other major-to-minor character faults which can get driven in through shaming or similar).

        I think as one progresses through what we prior discussed as Fowler’s stages of faith, we become dissatisifed with these otherwise limited zones of social experience of religion. And as we continue, I’d suggest we even begin to see the limitations that others put on themselves more clearly. Somehow, it seems the intended ecclesiology of Ephesians 3 has not come to be.

        No where do I feel more like an alien than in settings where Christians share with each other. I respectfully find Dr Enns grossly wrong on this topic. The normal Christian life stays in the comfort zones of confession, petition, and admission when “not sitting alone” and “confiding in another.”

        Not yet sixty-four, I’ve got my own train wreck of a life. I’ve already wasted too much time trying to find community in the Christian church. I’m not yet sure where or how I find it; I’ve only got a few ideas where not to expect it as it is most definitely *not* “the normal Christian life.”

        • Ross says:

          I think there are better and worse places for this desired for community. I could speculate forever as to the causes for it and hopelessness in not finding what I desire. However I suppose the challenge is to try and do something about deepening the relationships I have and not blaming “them” that they are not providing the place for me.

          One thing that really gets my goat are the comments such as “obviously someone doing drugs is not following the Lord” (which I did read in some crappy “a biblical view on………” book. Which really sums up the utter idiocy of all too many Christians. Unfortunately too many live in this comfortable Christendom which seems created specifically to keep Jesus out of their lives and church.

          • Gary says:

            Watching election results come in and listening to the commentary about Evangelicals, I’m pretty confident I have a very different bent than the center of American Christianity.

          • Fred Fauth says:

            Well you’re definitely not alone in that assessment.

        • Fred Fauth says:

          Gary – all great points. I don’t have much to add – but this added a lot to Enns’ post above.

          • Gary says:

            There are two definitions of “normal.”

            One “normal” is a statistically average range, such as “normal” weight for a given height.

            The other “normal” is an authority’s idealized range, such as “normal” weight for a given height.

            Perhaps, in the blog Dr Enns was referring to one kind of “normal” Christian life and not the other. All I was merely saying was, “let’s be honest and not equivocate.”

            Because what’s normal isn’t normal. It’s actually the road less travelled.

        • Veritas says:

          It seems that what Dr Enns is describing is a not an uncommon part of what Catholic and Orthodox Christianity might expect to find in their Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation). That Mother Theresa experienced this and wrote about it only makes it public, when it is usually under the seal of confidentiality. It may not be the ” norm” in a statistical sense, but it is certainly discussed and examined by confessors and spiritual directors and in historical accounts of Catholic Mystics.

          • Gary says:

            I’m familiar with this. It’s fascinating that even this is generally on the left-behind side of things in Anglicanism’s Via Media. This, systematically, is oh-so-*not* normal from a Protestant, or Evangelical, perspective.

            In my anecdotal experience, an Evangelical pastor has time for you if 1) you ditto-head-nod, 2) you give loot well, 3) you contribute time and effort to programs as directed. This kind of reconciliation or spiritual direction conversation is quite distractive to those ends. As such, I think Evangelical spirituality is generally better at mass approaches to lower-numbered stages of Fowler’s spiritualities.

            I’ve read the Eastern and Western Mystics. But this has been despite my past church going. In the larger swaths of the American church-going public, not only is the suggested ideal not only statistically abnormal, it’s also not even idealized.

            It seems easier to run those aforementioned programs, get lots of folks saved, and then they identify with “the Lord” and Christianity, and then those lots of folks be justified in what they’re supposed to culturally hate. I think you’ll find Trump Train Evangelicalism more “normal” than the Sacrament of Reconciliation or spiritual direction.

            Many Evangelical leaders seem surprised by what’s been created. While the Holy Spirit doesn’t speak to me, I would have guessed he would have something to say all along.

          • Veritas says:

            I don’t think I believe that the Holy Spirit doesn’t speak to you…(if you really meant that). Could it be that what you are experiencing is the Holy Spirit calling you?

            After his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus out into the desert for 40 days, and when He was finished, He was tired and hungry and Satan tempted Him….we know the temptations, stone to bread, earthly power, test God to see his protection…

            There seems to me a parallel with Mother Theresa; the Spirit led mother Theresa out into the desert of the slums of Calcutta for 40+ years, and she became tired and “Thirsty” and the devil tempted her and said, I will give you an empire of sisters, she said “I have Jesus”….are you hungry to feed the poor,and she said “God will provide”….if you worship me…. And she said, “I serve Jesus in the least of these”

            Her darkness was The Spirit leading her to seek the face of Jesus in everyone she met… Even her darkness was The Spirit driving her to Christ. Sometimes we don’t recognize The voice that’s calling, at least I don’t. Mother Theresa’s mysticism had a hands on feel we can all touch and is poetic in its action…

            maybe that is a good place to start, i think the spirit calling is why you commented and maybe why you read the Mystics?

          • Gary says:

            Either that or I just have good imagination (or there isn’t really a difference between the two).

      • charlesburchfield says:

        I think you are on holy ground! *]:`D

  • I’m going through a dark time now of uncertainty. What does the rest of life hold for me? I’m 64 in bad health at the end of the train wreck of my life. Whatever time is left I give to the Lord. I suppose I shall find out what it means to be strong when I am weak. *\]:D

    • Ross says:

      For what it’s worth and without meaning to patronise or belittle your own experiences, there is some comfort in not being alone in the train wreck of my own life. There is some great darkness in feeling alone and grubby in a church full of what appear to be squeaky clean “brethren”. I often wish that I could share in a community of those who’d hashed their own lives up as much as I have. I have a sneaky feeling that this is the community Jesus calls us to share in, but it often doesn’t look that way.

      • Gary says:

        From what I’ve observed, there’s a comfort zone of confession–not too much and not too little. When it’s time to share, it’s too self righteous to say such as, “I only pray an hour a day” and it’s too sinful to admit such as, “I killed my neighbor.” In between, there’s a “safety zone” of sins to admit. Sociologically, I expect it’s little more than a masked peer-based trust-building exercise. People who sin a little and repent some are trustworthy. Spiritually, it is as much as anything within the realm of what Jesus of Nazareth might have considered the way of the world as it just doesn’t have the all-in trust that is centered in redemption rather than trust that is centered in safety. I suspect this is why the likes of AA’s style has to be done on the fringe and not in the center of Christian expression.

        Similarly, prayer has a comfort zone of petition. It’s too little to pray for a hangnail in these settings; it’s too great to pray for the healing of all cancer. The comfort zone is to pray for such as the relief of symptoms for one beloved person and where the outcome is unknown. (I’ve found it fascinating that the boundary between what’s prayerfully petitionable to be between what’s known vs. unknown and not happened vs. not-yet-happened.)

        Continuing, expression of doubt similarly has a comfort zone of admission. Most significantly, the admission of doubt 1) has to be generic (it has to be stated in the form of “trust God,” and nothing specific such as 6 Days, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection), 2) has to be tied to proximal events and personal wishes (“will for my life” such as for schooling or job and nothing as large as All Creation Groaning, 3) has to exclusively sectarian (not fairly reflective across religions or even broad Christian traditions), and 4) must resolve into self doubt (I didn’t try hard enough, desired sin, am still growing, or other major-to-minor character faults which can get driven in through shaming or similar).

        I think as one progresses through what we prior discussed as Fowler’s stages of faith, we become dissatisifed with these otherwise limited zones of social experience of religion. And as we continue, I’d suggest we even begin to see the limitations that others put on themselves more clearly. Somehow, it seems the intended ecclesiology of Ephesians 3 has not come to be.

        No where do I feel more like an alien than in settings where Christians share with each other. I respectfully find Dr Enns grossly wrong on this topic. The normal Christian life stays in the comfort zones of confession, petition, and admission when “not sitting alone” and “confiding in another.”

        Not yet sixty-four, I’ve got my own train wreck of a life. I’ve already wasted too much time trying to find community in the Christian church. I’m not yet sure where or how I find it; I’ve only got a few ideas where not to expect it as it is most definitely *not* “the normal Christian life.”

        • Ross says:

          I think there are better and worse places for this desired for community. I could speculate forever as to the causes for it and hopelessness in not finding what I desire. However I suppose the challenge is to try and do something about deepening the relationships I have and not blaming “them” that they are not providing the place for me.

          One thing that really gets my goat are the comments such as “obviously someone doing drugs is not following the Lord” (which I did read in some crappy “a biblical view on………” book. Which really sums up the utter idiocy of all too many Christians. Unfortunately too many live in this comfortable Christendom which seems created specifically to keep Jesus out of their lives and church.

          • Gary says:

            Watching election results come in and listening to the commentary about Evangelicals, I’m pretty confident I have a very different bent than the center of American Christianity.

          • Fred Fauth says:

            Well you’re definitely not alone in that assessment.

        • Fred Fauth says:

          Gary – all great points. I don’t have much to add – but this added a lot to Enns’ post above.

          • Gary says:

            There are two definitions of “normal.”

            One “normal” is a statistically average range, such as “normal” weight for a given height.

            The other “normal” is an authority’s idealized range, such as “normal” weight for a given height.

            Perhaps, in the blog Dr Enns was referring to one kind of “normal” Christian life and not the other. All I was merely saying was, “let’s be honest and not equivocate.”

            Because what’s normal isn’t normal. It’s actually the road less travelled.

        • Veritas says:

          It seems that what Dr Enns is describing is a not an uncommon part of what Catholic and Orthodox Christianity might expect to find in their Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation). That Mother Theresa experienced this and wrote about it only makes it public, when it is usually under the seal of confidentiality. It may not be the ” norm” in a statistical sense, but it is certainly discussed and examined by confessors and spiritual directors and in historical accounts of Catholic Mystics.

          • Gary says:

            I’m familiar with this. It’s fascinating that even this is generally on the left-behind side of things in Anglicanism’s Via Media. This, systematically, is oh-so-*not* normal from a Protestant, or Evangelical, perspective.

            In my anecdotal experience, an Evangelical pastor has time for you if 1) you ditto-head-nod, 2) you give loot well, 3) you contribute time and effort to programs as directed. This kind of reconciliation or spiritual direction conversation is quite distractive to those ends. As such, I think Evangelical spirituality is generally better at mass approaches to lower-numbered stages of Fowler’s spiritualities.

            I’ve read the Eastern and Western Mystics. But this has been despite my past church going. In the larger swaths of the American church-going public, not only is the suggested ideal not only statistically abnormal, it’s also not even idealized.

            It seems easier to run those aforementioned programs, get lots of folks saved, and then they identify with “the Lord” and Christianity, and then those lots of folks be justified in what they’re supposed to culturally hate. I think you’ll find Trump Train Evangelicalism more “normal” than the Sacrament of Reconciliation or spiritual direction.

            Many Evangelical leaders seem surprised by what’s been created. While the Holy Spirit doesn’t speak to me, I would have guessed he would have something to say all along.

          • Veritas says:

            I don’t think I believe that the Holy Spirit doesn’t speak to you…(if you really meant that). Could it be that what you are experiencing is the Holy Spirit calling you?

            After his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus out into the desert for 40 days, and when He was finished, He was tired and hungry and Satan tempted Him….we know the temptations, stone to bread, earthly power, test God to see his protection…

            There seems to me a parallel with Mother Theresa; the Spirit led mother Theresa out into the desert of the slums of Calcutta for 40+ years, and she became tired and “Thirsty” and the devil tempted her and said, I will give you an empire of sisters, she said “I have Jesus”….are you hungry to feed the poor,and she said “God will provide”….if you worship me…. And she said, “I serve Jesus in the least of these”

            Her darkness was The Spirit leading her to seek the face of Jesus in everyone she met… Even her darkness was The Spirit driving her to Christ. Sometimes we don’t recognize The voice that’s calling, at least I don’t. Mother Theresa’s mysticism had a hands on feel we can all touch and is poetic in its action…

            maybe that is a good place to start, i think the spirit calling is why you commented and maybe why you read the Mystics?

      • I think you are on holy ground! *\]:`D

  • Lewis says:

    “Jesus whose humanity was simply a necessary step so he could be sacrificed.”
    This is the nub of the issue.
    Most have learned to view incarnation in this impoverished, mechanistic, transactional way.
    Paradigm change please!

  • Lewis says:

    “Jesus whose humanity was simply a necessary step so he could be sacrificed.”
    This is the nub of the issue.
    Most have learned to view incarnation in this impoverished, mechanistic, transactional way.
    Paradigm change please!

Leave a Reply