The Cries That Bind

Why Doubt Puts Us In Good Company

Twenty years ago, on August 31, 1997, Princess Diana died in a tragic crash in Paris in a car with her boyfriend while her husband and two children waited for her in London. Five days later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta died due to complications that apparently developed after a decades-long battle with heart disease that worsened with her contracting malaria the year prior. Over the next three months Princess Diana graced the covers of the major news magazines Newsweek and others at least nine times. The world grieved. Her story led the evening news every night and her funeral was broadcast live to millions. Sir Elton John even re-wrote a song for her.

Meanwhile, Mother Teresa barely warranted mention in the news tsunami that left her swamped behind the flash and glitz of the princess. This said more about our cultural values than Mother Teresa ever could have said herself.

But this week that changed. Suddenly, Mother Teresa is newsworthy … the lead story no less … cover material. This week Mother Teresa has even supplanted the backwash tsunami of the ten-year remembrance of Diana’s death. But it is not the ten-year remembrance of Mother Teresa that the press has found so marketable. It is not even a belated appreciation for her 60 years of work with the poor and dying in India.

No, what is so tantalizingly important about her now is that she had a “crisis of faith” that has recently been revealed in letters which she had specifically requested not be made public, but rather destroyed. (Funny how the press’s commitment to its sources’ privacy changes from time to time — especially when they can scoop a story like this one). The hook, you see, is that Mother Teresa, a world-renown icon of religious commitment, sometimes questioned her faith. Time magazine reports that …

… one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.

That, to a secular press hell-bent on de-legitimizing faith or anyone who claims to have it, is too juicy to not be shouted from the rooftops. Mother Teresa has become a target for their secular wrath. And that is the only reason they have any interest in her now. In her crying out to God, militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens see nothing but an opportunity to exploit. Hitchens despises a:

… Church [that] should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe.

But just what was Mother Teresa’s “crisis”? At various points in her life, she questioned the existence of God because He seemed hidden and unreachable amid the squalor and misery of life that engulfed her. God’s hiddenness was painful to her, her longing for Him palpable:

For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves but does not speak … Such deep longing for God—and … repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal.—[The saving of] Souls holds no attraction—Heaven means nothing … What do I labor for? If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true.

How is it that someone as smart as Christopher Hitchens; someone who claims his vast intellectual superiority will not allow him to accept the mindlessness of faith; someone whose presuppositions preclude any possibility that his own anti-theism may be wrong; someone who blithely rejects all possible evidence for the existence of God without consideration — someone, in other words, who blindly accepts his own atheism — How is it that someone like him can fault someone like Mother Teresa for succumbing to the false deception of a “blind faith” when he reads those words?

Read her words again and listen … Are these the thoughtless ruminations of someone who accepts her faith unquestioningly? How could anyone read those words and not see the intellectual wrestling match that is going on within Teresa’s tortured head? Call it doubtful, or despairing. But please don’t call her faith “blind.” The fact is that Mother Teresa, like any legitimately thoughtful seeker, struggled to see God in the misery of a fallen world — yet committed herself to demonstrating His presence to others anyway. And she did so while still being honest enough to ask herself the toughest questions of all.

Can any of the so-called “new atheists” claim such an honest pursuit of the truth for themselves?

Finally, those who are so quick to disparage both Mother Teresa and her religion on the basis of her questioning faith should know that Mother Teresa is not alone. Other fairly famous believers have shared the same sentiments:

  1. How long, O LORD, will I call for help, and You will not hear? Why do You make me see iniquity, and cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; strife exists and contention arises … Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?
  2. Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.
  3. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
  4. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”— “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The first is Habakkuk. The second is Job. The third is David. The fourth is Jesus himself, speaking in agony from the cross in his human nature with the only words he could muster, in a call for his hearers to remember David’s similar cry.

I don’t make a habit of quoting the Bible here but in this case I will make an exception. I do so because this last quote of Jesus is a line commonly used to question not only his commitment to “the cause,” but His very divinity itself. Though his physical condition would only allow him to speak the first lines of this passage, those who knew and understood the Scripture to which he was referring would have instantaneously recognized that the rest of the Psalm 22 to which Jesus alludes is not only prophetic in its description of His actual circumstances on the cross, but ends in a radically different light:

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.

4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.

5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.

7All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads
:

8“He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you
even at my mother’s breast.

10 From birth I was cast upon you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

11Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help
.

12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

13 Roaring lions tearing their prey
open their mouths wide against me.

14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.

15My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet
.

17 I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me
.

18They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing
.

19 But you, O LORD, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.

20 Deliver my life from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.

21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the congregation I will praise you.

23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

24For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help
.

25From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows
.

26The poor will eat and be satisfied;
they who seek the LORD will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

27All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him
,

28 for dominion belongs to the LORD
and he rules over the nations
.

29All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive
.

30Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord
.

31They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn—
for he has done it
.

The tone is completely different from the one we are led to believe Jesus held. These are not the words or thoughts of a skeptic. They are the clearly confident claims of a victor who holds to an overall eternal view of a temporarily hidden God.

It seems, in other words, that when considered more closely, Mother Teresa’s groaning for an absent God puts her in the company of faithful giants. Her pleading and doubt is far from an admission of a loss of faith. Instead, it is a demonstration of the inevitable result of the fallenness of rebellious creatures. Our yearning for a hidden God is an inevitable but temporary condition — the result of our separation from our only Source of hope. It is a recognition of the futility of life without Him that drives us to despair.

But that despair, it must be remembered, is self-inflicted. The hiddenness and separation in the relationship between God and humanity did not begin with God. We hid from Him first.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:7-8)

Our cries for God to reveal himself to us — to stop hiding from us — are the common lament that defines the human condition. From the most skeptical unbeliever to the most honored of the saints, those cries bind us together in the search to recapture meaning from an otherwise meaningless existence. From the labs of modern scientific laboratories, to the editors’ desks of the “new atheists”; from the Hollywood rehab clinics and the overcrowded jail cells, to the filth of the ghettos of Calcutta, the cry is always the same — and the answer to the cry is never far away and never hidden from our sight:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

An Unexamined Faith

In the spirit of open discussion and a defense of an approach to faith issues that is predicated on thinking for one’s self, I dug up an old USA Today article that demonstrates what I believe to be an important distinction between the culturally accepted view (that faith amounts to an unjustified “blind leap”) and the biblical view that faith is a thoughtful act of trust. This story, published several years after the 9-11 terrorist attack [linked here: Those Touched Most Deeply By 9/11, A Turning Point In Faith], provides a short but telling insight into the way many approach issues of faith in our culture. The gist of the piece is that the tragedy of 9/11 had a significant impact — in both directions — on the faith of those who were personally affected by the terrorist attacks.

The “violence and pain” of the worst terrorists attack in history brought out not only the dangers of religious fanaticism, but the problem that all religions must face in addressing the problem of evil in our world. As the article notes,

Many whose lives were changed that day are still coming to terms spiritually with 9/11. Some have taken comfort from their faith; others have found it lacking. Some have a stronger faith, a different faith or no faith at all.

I admit that this is nowhere near a scientific study of the issues surrounding how people consider their faith (or lack of it), but I do believe the anecdotal evidence in this story reveals a lot about how many approach the topic. A few examples …

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Peace With The Bedlamites

“Black Friday” chaos, “Cyber Monday” deals, Amazon Prime, stress, retail profits, travel disruptions, and finding the “right gift” (which, apparently, demands a trip to the Lexus or Mercedes dealership) have all come to define this time of year. The only thing that seems to change is how early it starts. Santa in Walmart in October? No problem. A giant, inflatable snowman writhing in your front yard? Of course.

‘Tis the Season! Happy Holidays!

Welcome to the cultural event formerly known as Christmas. How did we get here? Has our society lost its mind? It seems that with regard to the celebration of Christmas the answer is clearly, “yes.” But maybe a little history will help to put things in perspective …

In 1247 the sheriff of London, a man named Simon FitzMary founded a priory for the sisters and brethren of the order of the Star of Bethlehem just outside the city walls. It was used, as one of its special purposes, for the housing and entertainment of the bishop and canons of St. Mary of Bethlehem, its mother church, and thereby became known as the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem.

By 1330, records show that the priory had become a hospital and that by 1403 some of its patients began to remain there permanently. When King Henry VIII later dissolved the Catholic monasteries in Britain, the priory was given to the city of London and, in 1547, officially sanctioned as an insane asylum which soon became infamous for the brutal ill-treatment meted out to the insane and the clamor, commotion, and pandemonium that could be heard emanating from within it. Because the local residents spoke in a dialect that didn’t quite live up to the King’s English, their cockney pronunciation of Bethlehem came out as “bedlam.”

So, in a way that only human beings could contrive, the word we now use to describe lunacy and chaos actually has its source in the name of the city of Jesus’ birth: Bethlehem.

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God Is Good. Period.

Every year, as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I see plenty of people I know and respect making lists of things they are thankful for. I understand their thinking and I share their gratefulness for all our “first world” blessings. No doubt about the fact that all of us owe some thanks for those things we mostly take for granted.

Because of the religious origins of Thanksgiving in this country, I also understand why our thankfulness is many times tied to God. Within the greater Christian community, being grateful seems to come with the parallel understanding that the blessings we get are a part of the healthy, wealthy, prosperous, and happy life that God truly wants for us. Our “best life now,” you might say. When things go our way, we are quick to add-on the heartfelt announcement that “God is so good!”

Being one that has his antennae up to detect cultural assumptions that find their way into the church, it occurred to me that this might just be one of them. After all, we are called to have “the mind of Christ,” and it was Christ who said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

So, if Jesus promised us we would have trouble:

  • I’m wondering why would expect the Christian life to be without it …
  • I’m wondering why we think we deserve “our best life now” …
  • I’m wondering why we would think the words we speak have the power to make things turn out the way we desire them to be, when He never said any such thing …
  • I’m wondering why we’re always trying to figure out “God’s will for our lives” when He has already told us very clearly and very simply that “[His] will is that we be sanctified.”

To be sanctified … or to be healthy, wealthy, prosperous, and happy? That is the question.

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“Time To Move Along”

Joseph F. Vincent West Point Class of 1955

Joseph F. Vincent
West Point Class of 1955

The first concrete memory I have of Joseph Fraser Vincent, Sr. was on the day after the night I brought his daughter home from a date an hour and a half after her curfew. In my “defense,” both he and his wife, Fran, were out of town until Sunday night — this was on Friday. Who comes home from an out-of-town trip three days early, anyway? Beside that, Mary assured me that if we had called and asked permission to stay for the second movie of the double feature, her parents would have been fine with it. I mean, it wasn’t our fault they wouldn’t invent cell phones for another 20 years. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate rationalization to me.

I slowed to a rolling stop and dropped Mary off at the curb behind her house. The next day is when I first remember being introduced to the giant of a man whose physical stature was rather slight. He told me how he had trusted me with his daughter and that I had disappointed him. He told me that he expected more of me than that. As he talked to me, I shrank ever more deeply into the shag carpet at my feet. He never raised his voice above a calm, conversational tone that day or any day over the next 38 years that I knew him.

He didn’t have to.

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The “Faith” Thing

Many of us have understood atheism to be defined as a claim that God does not exist. This, in fact, is the primary definition of atheism we find in the dictionary, and is based on the simple fact that a (Greek: not), attached to theos (Greek: God) forms a compound word meaning “not God.”

noun
1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

The new atheists, however, have become fond of insisting that their stance regarding deities is that they “really just believe in one less God than you do.” Another way of putting it is that atheism is not really a belief at all; it’s just a “lack of belief in any god.” This video is supposed to explain this point of view for those of us who just don’t seem to get it.


From The Video

“Belief and Faith are not the same thing … Faith can be thought of as confidence in that claim in the absence of evidence … The more faith they have, the further away from evidence they travel.”

On the first point (“belief and faith are not the same thing”) I would have to agree. I have often illustrated the differences between some of these concepts like this:

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Nothing To Believe In

When it comes to spiritual issues, I am always amazed that people will accept and defend things that they would never, ever accept when addressing any other subject. People will convince themselves (and try to convince you) that the most illogical, nonsensical claims make perfect sense as long as they are attached to religion, spirituality, or questions surrounding ultimate meaning for our existence. Case in point: Nica Lalli, who wrote a book entitled, Nothing: Something To Believe In. In an interview about the book, Lalli proclaimed that:

I am an atheist. I have never joined, or been part of, any religious group or organization. I was raised without religion, and without much understanding of what religion is. I have never had much of an identity religiously, and I stayed away from much thought or discussion on the matter. It is only recently that I have really explored the many options for religious beliefs and have decided that rather than saying, ‘No comment,’ I now call myself an atheist.

Though she admits that she has had little training in religious matters and that she really doesn’t even understand what religion is, she seems to feel comfortable making judgments about religious ideas — especially those attached to “organized religion.” What Ms. Lalli fails to see is that by calling herself an atheist, she is in no way laying claim to a neutral position. Contrary to the deliberately provocative title of her book, she is most definitely not believing in “nothing.” Ms. Lalli is, by definition, making an explicitly religious claim.

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Why Get On The Bike?

Why Get On The Bike?

What is it that motivates you? What is it that gives your life meaning and purpose? Is it simply the chemicals and biological material that make up your body, or is it more than that? Is it something that makes no sense in a purely physical world? My friend Tim’s story not only defies the odds; it defies the Naturalistic paradigm we all have been told to accept.

Tim is a physical therapist and a triathlete. The guy is not only in the best physical condition of most anyone I know, he helps fix other people who are trying to get that way. More importantly, Tim is a husband and father who loves his family deeply because he loves his God sincerely. Six weeks ago Tim felt lousy after returning from a bike ride. He was anxious about work and moving to a new house so he attributed his worn out feeling to the stressors in his life. He was tired and weak. The next day he was feeling even more out of sorts. His wife told him to go for a run. Afterward he felt worse. That night he contracted a fever with a temperature of 104.5. The next day he went to the doctor who gave him some antibiotics and drew some blood. Three days later Tim was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).

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