In "The Scrupe Group-" the email group I run for Christians with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder- folks often complain that they don't feel their love for Jesus, or His love for them; that they don't feel appropriate gratitude for what He has done for them (who does?), that they fear that their prayers may be insecure, and that they are convinced (mainly on the basis of their emotions, or lack of them) that their faith is wanting.
I customarily point out that periods- sometimes very long periods indeed- of spiritual dryness and feelings of abandonment by God are a common theme in the lives of the saints; that feelings of personal unworthiness are in fact a positive sign, so long as Christ's sufficiency is borne in mind; and that, in any case, emotions are an utterly unreliable guide to the status of our relationship with God. This last, of course, strikes at the very heart of the shallow pop theology that dominates "evangelical" circles, and conflicts especially with our modern notion that reality is subjective by its very nature, and that our subject emotions and reactions are therefore our closest contact with it.
But Jesus warned that a disciple is not greater than his Teacher, nor a servant than his Lord. Jesus had His Gethsemene; why should be expect to avoid ours? One cannot have Jesus as his Lord, Luther warned, without having Satan as his mortal enemy. The Father of Lies and spiritual master of misery doesn't bother with those who already belong to him. His efforts- and his fury- are rather directed, as Luther never tired of pointing out, precisely at those who belong to the Father through faith in Jesus Christ. Against them, he will never cease to storm and rage. They, he will never stop trying to afflict. It is precisely those who treasure the grace of God who are afflicted by the thought that they have lost it. It is precisely those who love God the most who will be the most devastated by the thought that they do not. The mark of Jesus is the mark of the Cross, not the mark of the Smiley Face; it is he (or she) who suffers the assaults of the devil and is most tormented by doubt who is walking in the steps of the Savior. In fact, it is only that person whom it make sense for Satan to bother with!
Yet God permits these attacks. And not only does He permit them, but He uses them to draw us closer to Him. Most Christians are aware that never are they so aware of their need for God as...well, when He seems furthest away. C.S. Lewis compares this phenomenon to a human father who is trying to teach his toddler to walk. At first, he holds her hand. But at some point, he has to let go... or else she'll never learn to walk.
He stays close beside her, and is there to catch her should she stumble. But at some point, he has to let go. So it is with God. Faith, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." It is precisely trust that the hand of God is there to save and to sustain precisely when the eyes of our heart and the imaginings of our intellect do not perceive it. Screwtape, Lewis's fictional demon, levels with his nephew, Slubgub, when he tells him that "the cause of Hell is never in such dire peril as when (a human) looks out upon a world from which every trace of The Enemy seems to have disappeared- and yet believes."
Luther did not hesitate to ascribe his own Anfechtungen- his own periods of spiritual dryness and near-despair (complicated, of course, by what was doubtless a genetic tendency toward depression and raging OCD) to attacks by the Evil One- attacks unleashed precisely in order to drive him to actual despair, and to cease to cry out to the only One Who could save him.
We have learned this week that the one modern person most closely associated in our minds with sanctity- Mother Teresa of Calcutta- suffered dreadfully for many years from a spiritual dryness which left her convinced that she could not trust or love or even pray. Still, she soldiered on. Still, bearing the sufferings of the derelict on the Cross in her very soul- she walked the way of the cross.
Some of the reactions by unbelievers reported in the article linked to above, and also the remarks made here, are quite ironic. No, Mother Teresa was not an atheist at the time she secretly complained of her own lack of faith; in fact, it was her continuing faith which paradoxically turned the unbelief of which she complained- not unlike that of the Roman officer who pleaded with Christ, "Help my unbelief!-" into compelling evidence of that very faith. She continued to cry out even when "her lips could not form words," to show forth the love of Christ at the very time she herself could not feel it, and to minister in His name at the very moment the temptation to give up must have been overwhelming.
It was not from within Mother Teresa whence came the force that continued to drive her. It was from Someone Else- from the One she feared was absent, and was itself proof of His presence. She- like Luther, and like the hypothetical believer so balefully described by Lewis's Screwtape- looked out upon a world upon which every glimpse of God seemed to have disappeared- and yet, precisely, believed.
And the world is better for it. We are all better for it. And not the least should her story strengthen and inspire those among us who do not feel God to nevertheless trust that He is there, manifesting Himself mightily in the midst of our failure to perceive Him. Not the least should it prove beyond all doubt how, through the love of Christ and through His grace, even those who doubt their own love of Him can be moved by it in such a way to be even thought a living saint, and so show forth the love they themselves, for the moment, cannot manage to feel.
The superficial notion that emotions are a reliable guide to spiritual reality is not, it seems, the unique provence of naive and theologically simplistic Christians. Atheists and other unbelievers, it seems, often buy into the same absurdity.
Except the work God did through Mother Teresa abides, precisely as evidence of the love they deny, and which through much of her career she could not feel.