These 'ghosts' are commonly known as Brochan Spectres, and an explanation for them is found not in the world of the paranormal, but in inversion, sunshine and cloud. Brochan Spectres are an optical illusion where one's own shadow is cast on to clouds below, making a large shadowy giant who at times carries what is known as a 'glory' of rainbow around them. Many hillwalkers have been startled, frightened and amazed at these appearances, tricks of the mind, natural phenomena.
In the shadowy world of Christian doubt there are also all manner of images and contortions which rise to frighten those who find themselves in this deep valley. A believer who has once enjoyed a glowing sense of God's nearness and reality suddenly finds themselves surrounded by giants whose ominous presence threatens to overwhelm them with fear and uncertainty. One way to deal with these spectres is to understand where they come from, understand their component parts, and seek to neuter their effect on the mind, heart and soul.
Treatments of doubt in Christian literature are fascinating for how much of the spirit of the age they reflect. In his treatment of discouragement - 'A Lifting Up for the Downcast' - begins with the premise that being spiritually depressed and doubtful ought not to characterise true Christianity, and then moves to trace the steps which lead to this condition. His work treats much of sin, and urges strongly to repentance as a means of finding certainty and joy again in the Christian walk. The onus is on the believer to exercise self examination and trace the reasons for discouragement in the heart. William Bridge lived and ministered during the Puritan era. By way of contrast, Philip Yancey writes on the same topic in his 'Disappointment with God', but his diagnosis and suggested treatments are slightly different. In elevated and fluent prose Yancey describes the condition of those who find themselves to be doubting, and spends much time in depicting how one feels about God and his actions when doubt arises. While Yancey brings his treatment round to broadly evangelical counsel at the conclusion, the difference of approach between both authors is at once marked and telling.
Doubt loves to keep company with self-pity, forming a partnership which almost guarantees the temporal defeat of those who socialise with them. One of the key ways to overcome doubt, then, is to seek to dissolve this connection - and to take a clear eyed view of one's own attitudes and actions. Self pity will lead us to believe that doubt has overtaken us, or that God is in some way to blame, or that the actions of other Christians have led us to falter where we firmly trod. While some of these element might be factors which lead to a doubting heart, they are often not the root cause.
In my own experiences of doubt there is always somewhere a root sin which backs home my spiritual malaise. It may not be a strikingly public iniquity, but perhaps a wrong attitude, a resentful spirit towards God or others, or a habitual sin whose roots are hard to choke. Such attitudes and actions immediately do two things. They rupture my sense of fellowship with God and they bring a lack of certainty to my mind. Sin grows in the soil of suspending belief in God and his imminence, albeit in a momentary way. The mental trick is almost imperceptible but it gradually leads to an erosion in communication with the Lord. Guilt and shame make the way to prayer seem hedged in with hostility, and a deep seated desire to ignore wrong actions means that confession is avoided for a period so as to let one's sense of shame cool off for a time. All of this is potentially disastrous in spiritual terms, leading as it does to estrangement from God, and a devotional chill which ultimately finds its way to the intellect. The world is no longer faith shaped, God is not at the centre, and other issues and problems begin to gain a leverage which they had otherwise not enjoyed. This is what happens when we live in the home of doubt and self pity.
But there is an exit: self-examination and repentance. Bridge, not withstanding his cultural and historical distance from us, was right. Often the ghosts and spectres which haunt our mind and heart are but projections of our own sinful actions and attitudes. Once this is understood and acknowledged a door is opened and the stifling air which we have breathed is permeated with a fresh sense of God and His glory. The act of pretense has passed, we lay our hearts open before a holy God whom we can't ignore, and admit that we are sinners and that He is real.
This is but one experience of doubt, but it is common to many I believe. In the next few posts we will look at some other species of doubt and ways to approach them.