Living with a Lion

15 12 2007

As Christians we don’t tend to talk much about doubt. There are probably many good reasons for this, but often it can leave those who struggle with this dreadful problem in isolation and despair. With regard to depression, Winston Churchill once famously said that it was as though he lived his life with a black dog following him. Living with doubt is a little more like being stalked by a lion (1Peter 5:8).

I write this post as one who has lived with the problem of doubt on more than one occasion in my life. For me there have been two kinds to wrestle with: that of doubting my faith in general, and that of doubting that I truly belong to God. Both are a wretched state of affairs. For those who have never encountered these problems it is difficult to describe the effects of doubt. It is an all consuming issue, which might arise with no apparent reason. For me it has rarely been the playground polemics of devils like Dawkins which have brought me down, but more the erosive effects of living as a believer in this world. It has rarely been a condition that I have been reasoned into, and even more rarely can I be reasoned out of it. Doubt affects everything. It wastes worship into a shrivelled shell of formality; it renders meaningful relationships with other believers redundant; it smudges the words of Scripture in the mind and heart and shakes the foundations of one’s whole interpretative take on the world. I could write more, but no amount of vocabulary can portray how doubt dampens the heart and soul.

I don’t often write personal posts on this blog, but I have good reason for putting this one online. You see, I have a sneaking suspicion that other people wrestle with this lion every bit as much as I have done in the past. From my pastoral experience I know that there are countless Christians who at one time or another find themselves floundering, wondering what they believe, or if they are truly accepted by God. I want this post to simply say: you are not alone, and there are ways of dealing with doubt which limit its destructive effects.

At one time in my life I couldn’t sense or see the prowling lion of doubt until he had declared himself with roar and show of teeth. I was off-guard and unsuspecting, and found myself quickly pinned to the ground in fear and anguish. Such attacks of doubt seemed sudden, symptomless, and took weeks (if not months) to recover from. I would go along joylessly, enduring the motions of Christian living and ministry, trusting that soon the lion would leave me alone. It was a horrible feeling to fall victim to such a ferocious enemy.

Over the past few years, however, I’ve become a little more proficient in catching the lion’s scent, and fending him off before jaws and claws are all that I can see. I’ve learned to recognise that he has certain behaviour patterns which, while powerful, are entirely predictable. He likes to attack when I am weary: when I’ve been busy and active in ministry and work, or when my sleep patterns have been disturbed. He will often use distraction, perhaps waiting in the long grass of wandering thoughts, or else he keeps himself in the cover of legitimate enjoyment of media and secular arts, waiting for just the right moment to make himself known. The most common characteristic of his attacks are that he often waits until I’m isolated (shunning fellowship with others) or not listening to the Lord as I ought(when reading the Word becomes a routine) and then pounces with deadly force and timing. All of this is merely personal – he may attack you at differing times, or in different ways.

What can be done against such an enemy? My strategies are simple, and yet in God’s grace have been effective in keeping me from major maulings:

1. Catch the scent early:
this has been a process of recognising the very first symptoms of the lion’s approach. This means living with a consciousness that doubt and difficulty could be around the next corner and asking that 1Timothy 1:7 might be my testimony. The lion never sleeps, and it is worthwhile everyday to make doubt one of the temptations which we ask the Lord to protect us from in our prayers.

2. Rest and regroup: I’ve noticed a connection between tiredness and trials of this kind. When I deprive myself of sleep or rest (even in the the work of ministry) the lion is sure to be on the prowl.

3. Read ’em and reap: human remedies for doubt can have a limited effect, but I find there is no replacement for God’s Word and good reading. Talking to some friends might make them doubt us, or even worse doubt God or their own salvation. Talking to other more stable friends (or our minister) can be hugely beneficial in getting things off our chest, and out in the open. But there are a number of books which I keep in the gun cabinet for when I catch the scent of lion. A Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and a few others are kept constantly on standby.

4. Avoid lion territory: there may be certain programmes, newspapers, books, or forms of music which indulge doubtful feelings. These can leave us wide open to the pain of this problem, and ought to be studiously avoided. There is a whole world waiting with open jaws, hoping and trusting that we might teeter between its teeth – there is no point in making oneself into spiritual bait!

I don’t know whether any of the above resonates or is of benefit to anyone else, but I thought I’d share some of my thoughts in the hope and prayer that those who are dealing with doubt might find some fellowship and help at their own point of darkness. The lion is strong but he is not supreme. He cannot be cornered or caught, but he can be kept at arms length.

POSTSCRIPT: it must be the week for blogging about doubt. Libbie has an interesting post on the same theme over at her blog. Click here to have a read.

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