It’s hard to put into words why I came to love Kolkata, the City of Joy. Its mayhem of movement and noise were overwhelming to my introvertedness, its poverty and need overwhelming to my sense of compassion and empathy, its emotionally honest and exuberant people overwhelming to my midwestern reserve. I don’t know why I loved it, but I did.
I think it had something to do with the community I found there. In the midst of heartbreaking and hopeless situations, I heard story after story of God’s people moved by compassion into the middle of the hardest places and worst neighborhoods. Their commitment inspired me. I wanted to become more like them. I wanted to take part in changing the pain of the world into joy.
I found a similar sense of kinship with the most well-known figure to have ever left home and country to serve God in that city, Mother Teresa. In reading her personal letters in the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, I discovered powerful truths about where to begin to change the world: it starts with the love of God. (If you missed my first post on that topic you can read it here.)
However, a proper response to the life and letters of Mother Teresa falls short if it ends with my solitary pursuit of Jesus. Mother Teresa’s impact in the world occurred precisely because she didn’t follow her vision alone. If we let Mother Teresa further mentor us toward becoming Jesus-loving, world-changing people, we will hear her urge us not only toward love of Jesus, but toward community. It is out of a community, a group of believers centered in the love of God, that real change becomes possible.
Discipling Others to Love
After Mother Teresa had her mountaintop vision experience with God in 1947, she took great care to develop a path to walk it out. She considered the end right from the beginning, planning things out in great detail. Mother Teresa knew that her vision from God was not something she could pursue as a solitary servant, but something she needed to do with others. Passing on that vision and developing others to serve God along with her was absolutely critical.
It’s likely that if God hadn’t given Mother Teresa a vision that included leadership development—if she had simply served the poor on her own—that none of us would have ever heard of her. Mother Teresa maximized her impact because she recognized that God’s call to her included bringing others along and developing the same vision and strength in their hearts that she had discovered.
A crucial element of that development plan was discipleship, specifically helping each new Sister connect with the love of God (as described in my other post). The first year for each newcomer was set apart for discipleship in the spiritual life and connection to God. That's it. Mother Teresa didn’t want to develop missionaries who served the world with their focus on external results or circumstances, but wanted them to have “a complete knowledge of the spiritual life—so that in the street or in the holes of the poor, or at home in the convent they would live the life of close union with God.” She wrote that “the interior must become the main power of the exterior.” It took great intentionality and sacrifice on her part to build this into her order.
The Cost of Love
Can you grasp the emotional cost of this commitment? The only way to possibly comprehend it is to step back into the mayhem on the streets of Kolkata, true in Mother Teresa’s time as well as today. Surrounded by desperate poverty and need and with the burden of God’s own love for the poor affecting her every waking moment, it would have been the natural urge to mobilize as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But Mother Teresa chose a super-natural way. Despite the pressure, she made the costly choice to delay.
Mother Teresa knew that it would cost far more to mobilize missionaries who didn’t deeply love Jesus. As she wrote in her letters:
“For if they are not in love with God—they will not be able to lead this life.”
Growing up, I received a lot of vision for what a life devoted to God could accomplish. I met missionaries and read biographies that excited me about great exploits for God. But I also internalized a great pressure to not waste time. “Seizing every opportunity” became something that drove me to want to take short-cuts to spiritual maturity. My burden to reach others and meet the needs of the world became a pressure cooker where I lost sight of God's love for me. Despite the pain of disconnection from God’s heart, I refused to stop my activity long enough to relearn the truth of his love. After all, people were dying every day without knowing Jesus. How could I justify more delays?
The wise voice of my mentor, Mother Teresa, gave me a reason. If you don’t love God, you won’t be able to live this way, no matter how much you want to. She understood that the pressures of need, of frustration, of witnessing pain, and of limited ability to solve the world’s problems will destroy us if we let them lead. The only sustainable path to living a life of sacrificial love is to know the love of God ourselves. Separated from that foundation, ministry easily becomes a recipe for burnout and disaster.
Living in God's Love for a Lifetime
Written into Mother Teresa’s developmental plan was a belief that learning to rest in the love of God is not a one-time thing, but something we have to intentionally return to throughout our lives.
Thus, the initial year of contemplation, with the sole pursuit of knowing God, would be repeated for the sisters every six years. The main thing—loving God—would stay the main thing.
Mother Teresa's commitment to keep love of God at the center of ministry led her to develop a powerful group of women who would be able to thrive in the hardest places of the world. Many visitors have given testimony to the sweet spirit of humility and service with which these Missionaries of Charity have performed some of the most heart-rending work.
Mother Teresa taught others to put love of God first and weave it through every part of life. She formed a community in love with God, able to keep that love in the forefront while serving others. The result has been a movement of compassion that has expanded far beyond Kolkata’s streets and even survived her death.
As I spent my own short season in Kolkata, surrounded by unsung heroes, I heard many stories of discouraging and even tragic circumstances where God’s love and face had been hidden from view. It was only the love these believers had for Jesus, and the way they were able to compassionately show that love to each other, that kept them moving forward with God—and consequently, moving forward in service. In the midst of their fellowship, I learned the power of togetherness to bring about lasting change in a hurting world.
In our desire to change the world, we must begin by being developed to know the love of God. And then, we must live it out with others.
Take the Next Step
1. Let yourself be developed—find a mentor. No matter how far along we are in our spiritual walk, we can always benefit from letting another trusted believer speak into our life. That mentor may be someone you have frequent contact or fellowship with, or may be someone who speaks into your life indirectly, like an author. Who do you know that keeps the love of God at the center of their activities? Who do you aspire to be like?
2. Open your life to others. There is power in a life lived with others, both to change the world and to be changed. Who could you connect with who would help you become more like Jesus? Whose vision for God could you join in on with a full heart?
3. Look for opportunities to develop others. As you learn the importance of taking time out to know God’s love for yourself, look for ways to pass on that knowledge to others in your sphere of influence. Do you know someone who may be letting the world’s burdens take over and cloud their view of God’s love for them? Who can you support or encourage to prioritize that foundation of love for God in their life?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Megan (Beehler) Reynolds and her husband Dean live in Aurora, Colorado. Megan has been involved with the InnerCHANGE Denver team and enjoyed getting to know refugee neighbors from many nations. She has been with CRM since 2014 and with CRM's Communications team since 2015.
For further reading: Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk
This post was originally shared in 2015.