Money and Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa lived her life according to a particular Christian belief about money and poverty. The foundation of this belief is that Jesus taught his followers to adopt a life of poverty. Mother Teresa lived her life in compliance with this belief. Her conviction took her to Calcutta where she served the poorest of the poor. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.
The mega-hit movie, “The Secret,” perpetuates this assessment of Mother Teresa. According to the movie, she knew and used the “Law of Attraction,” and did “so much good in the world.”
To challenge this public image of Mother Teresa as the epitome of Christian virtue is something like saying you don’t like dogs, that you are against motherhood, and you hate baseball and apple pie. It's a taboo, a sacred cow. Who could possibly say anything critical of Mother Teresa?
The Secret Life of Mother Teresa
The Time magazine issue of September 3, 2007 devoted its cover story to Mother Teresa. The article, “The Secret Life Of Mother Teresa,” concerns a book about letters that Mother Teresa wrote over a period of fifty years. These were letters that she herself wanted destroyed. At this point, I have not read the book. I have only read the excerpts from the article in Time. (See also Time's article, Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith.)
The letters make clear that Mother Teresa was a woman who lived with great conflict at her core about her relationship with God and with Jesus.
I must acknowledge that I always had my doubts about Mother Teresa and her model of Christian service. Contrary to widespread belief that Mother Teresa was living the exemplary life of a true saint, I saw Mother Teresa as a prime exemplar of misguided devotion in the service of profoundly unbiblical theology.
Although I cannot explain everything I mean by this statement in a single post, the place to begin is with her apparent core belief that she herself was worth nothing. She wrote that Jesus commanded her to serve the poor with these words:
You are I know the most incapable person — weak and sinful but just because you are that — I want to use You for My glory. Wilt thou refuse? (Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith.)
Teaching of Jesus to Serve the Poorest of the Poor
In other words, the only way she could glorify Jesus was to fulfill what she regarded as the essence of what Jesus said about money, She was supposed to serve the poorest of the poor and to be poor herself. Yet, despite her willingness to be poor to glorify Jesus, she could not feel that God or Jesus loved her.
Underneath Mother Teresa’s noble service was her belief that she herself was nothing. She wrote pained letters to spiritual advisors for more than fifty years. While Mother Teresa shared her anguish with spiritual advisors, she spoke publicly about living with the kind of love and joy that she herself didn’t feel.
Her letters, which are so contrary to her public image, lead to the question: Was Mother Teresa a hypocrite? At one level, she was. She knew that her public image didn’t match her inner experience.
The Deepest Truth about Mother Teresa
Yet, hypocrisy is not the deepest truth about Mother Teresa. At her core, Mother Teresa endured anguish because she never felt loved. This is not all that surprising. How can someone who is nothing feel that she is loved? Nothing is nothing. How do you love nothing?
Mother Teresa devoted her life to Jesus but had no assurance that she mattered as a person. While she spoke of God’s love for others, she herself felt abandoned, alone, unloved, and bereft of God’s love.
In this brief post, I can only begin to write about how much this core belief lies at the heart of so much Christian anguish, not just for Mother Teresa, but for others, including myself as a young child.
Learning to Be Nothing
My own Christian education taught me what Mother Teresa learned. I deserved nothing. At the same time, I was obligated to meet the needs of others. This is a burden that is especially heavy on girls and women, who often learn that loving God means surrender of self in the service of others.
As a young female child growing up in a family where being female meant that I was flawed to the core, I learned from church that “God loves all men.” There was never a moment when I felt included in that love, because I was that most defective of all creatures: I was a female child. I believed at the deepest core of my being that "God the Father" had no love for me.
Gospel of Wealth or Poverty?
My book, Gospel of Wealth or Poverty, is my own response to the kind of anguish I read about in the letters of Mother Teresa and the anguish I experienced as a child growing up unloved by anyone.
I have encountered so many others who doubt their own worth. Much of it goes back to distorted Christian teaching that the only people who matter are other people, not you.
I have spent much of my adult life as a biblical scholar. I learned the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. I studied the economic and social conditions of the ancient world. I immersed myself in religious beliefs of the era. My study demonstrated to me how much of what I learned as a child in Sunday School violated the Bible itself.
After all of my study, I understand how Christian teaching can create anguish in the lives of both believers and non-believers because of what I call Distorted Bible. Distort means to twist, warp, deform, misinterpret, or pervert. Distorted Bible is not about the Bible itself but about what people do to the Bible when they twist or misinterpret the original intentions behind biblical writings. One example is Mother Teresa's belief that God creates human beings who are not worthy of love. This kind of perverted theology becomes a powerful weapon against the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable.
For me, Mother Teresa is the best example I know of the effect of Distorted Bible on the vulnerable. The tragedy of her life is that she devoted herself to be an instrument of the kind of love that she herself could not feel. She offered compassion that she herself did not experience. She tried to relieve suffering while she herself suffered. In reality, no one can feel truly loved who is taught to think of herself — or himself — as nothing.
Although Mother Teresa deserves compassion for her suffering, I return again to my central point. Mother Teresa is a prime example of misguided devotion in the service of profoundly unbiblical theology about money and the Bible.
My book, Gospel of Wealth or Poverty? How Do Bible Verses about Jesus, Wealth, Poverty, and Heaven Affect Your Income?, puts Bible money verses into biblical context, to show that much of Christian money education is unbiblical because so much of it distorts what the Bible really says about money.