I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God.
The poem does eventually bring a degree of resolution and certainty, but only after Tennyson has articulated the pain and wrestling which spiritual equivocation bring. 'I falter where I firmly trod' might be written across the mouth of the seemingly endless cavern known as doubt. The path of belief, which once appeared smooth and seamless, now corkscrews through territory that seems lined with precipices, and which may well terminate in a bottomless canyon.
The causes for doubt, however, are much less universal. For many, sudden loss or trauma such as that experienced by Tennyson shatters the myth of a linear life, and exposes fault lines in their faith which they were previously unaware of. For others the erosive effects of a media which seeks to mould the mind on the anvil of science and humanism are felt deeply and ultimately lead to a slackening of their grip on what they once held tightly. For others still, doubt can seem to have little rationality, and may be the consequence of tiredness, isolation from fellowship, or excessive energy expended in serving God.
Given the many strains of the doubt virus (and its ability to mutate under treatment) is there really any point in trying to address the issue? Surely if this condition has so many causes, no article or series of studies can really hope to eradicate it?
This may be so, but underlying the individual symptoms which many experience are certain common elements which can be treated, and certain truths and foci which might allow relief from the embittering experience of a loss of certainty. As with any condition, realising that one is not alone, that others suffer too, can be a huge source of encouragement and support - and can lead to the embarrassment factor of doubt being reduced considerably. The enemy is then viewed as common to many Christians, and what was once unspoken and internalised becomes possible to articulate and ultimately address.
Isolation and feelings of doubt make for a potent and dangerous cocktail - and yet one does inevitably follow upon the other. In the context of local church life doubt is rarely addressed, and sentiments of victory and certainty often take top billing. In this kind of atmosphere doubting souls can find themselves feeling disconnected and disillusioned, staring across a seemingly yawning chasm between their actual experience and the projected experience of others. In this kind of relational vacuum it is almost impossible to make one's voice heard, or to feel that there is any resonance for the sense of malaise which is crippling the heart. And so begins an introspective spiral, in which minor doubts which could easily be addressed cast a disproportionate shadow across the spiritual life, magnifying the mouse-like dimensions of our actual doubt into a monstrous shadow which puts a lag on all of our best efforts at self-treatment.
This post is simply an attempt to whisper into the darkness of doubt's cavernous depths, and to reassure any struggling soul that just as doubt has been entered by certain routes, there are definite ways to exit. Doubt need not be an abyss, but can be an opportunity for growth, for fellowship, for a renewed sense of God's faithfulness, and a deeper empathy for others who find themselves entangled and trapped by uncertainty and misgiving.