When God Seems Far Away
Such was the secret pain of Agnes, who is better known as Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa wrote letters (intended only for her spiritual directors) on the torment of her soul. After her death, the process of canonization made these public. They were published to much astonishment (Come Be My Light, ed. by Brian Kolodiejchuk, Doubleday, 2007).
How are we to understand Agnes's story? In the midst of what seems like the perfection of Christian service, how could God abandon her to such spiritual desolation?
For starters, it should warn us about easy formulas. One old saying goes, "If you don't feel close to God anymore—guess who moved." But I wouldn't want to have asked that of Mother Teresa.
She never overcame her pain over God's silence. In a strange way, it became a part of her. In the midst of this struggle, a wise spiritual counselor told her three things she needed to hear.
First, that there was no human remedy for this darkness. (So she could not control it.)
Second, that "feeling" the presence of Jesus was not the only or even the primary evidence of his presence. (Jesus himself said that by their fruit—not their feelings—you shall know his true followers.) In fact, the very craving for God was a "sure sign" that God was present—though in a hidden way—in her life.
Third, that the pain she was going through could be redemptive. That Jesus himself had to experience the agony of the Absence of God: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" His suffering redeemed us. Like him, Mother Teresa could suffer redemptively by clinging to God in the midst of darkness.
Am I a "Spiritual Glutton?"
Mother Teresa's story highlights the difficulty of defining spiritual vitality. It feels like Augustine's definition of time: as long as no one asks me what it is, I know what it is. How can we define being fully alive spiritually?
Paul calls the Holy Spirit "the Spirit of Life." From Genesis the Spirit is the one who animates and energizes human beings. So in the times when I am most energized to do ministry: when I am motivated to pray, when sermons come easily and preaching is a joy, when sin looks bad and my "360 evaluations" look good—then I feel spiritually vital.
But this is not the ultimate test.
I'm learning to distinguish spiritual vitality from simply being in a good mood. The danger for most of us is that we desire a particular state of being (feeling good) more than we desire God.
Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith says the fastest-growing religion in America today is neither Christianity, Islam, nor some eastern religion. It is what he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). In MTD, the most important "truth" about God is that he wants us all to be nice, to feel happy, and to be delivered from pain (that's the therapeutic part). Outside of being available when I need him, God will not interfere much with my life (there's the deism).
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.