RUOK? J.B. Phillips and depression


Vera Phillips & Edwin Robinson,
The Wounded Healer — J.B. Phillips,Triangle, 1983.

From $15 used online. In Public Library system. Reviewed by Ted Witham
110 pages – paper-back

Sometimes an old book comes into your hands at just the right time. I have surprised myself with a severe bout of anxiety and depression: maladies I believed I was exempt from. Apart from the symptoms of feelings of doom, breathlessness and general fatigue, my mental ill-health has stopped me in my tracks, and I have felt I’ve had to give up most of my activities. I’ve stopped (for the moment) teaching French, creative writing and much of my church activities.

I’ve felt a real tension: my therapists warn me of withdrawing from social contact (because being out among people is the best treatment for depression), and yet I simply have not had the energy to keep up with my usual activities.

One of the disappointing symptoms of this depression is that I have lost “the sense” of God. I had had a heightened awareness of the divine when I received communion and in my daily prayers. That has disappeared, just at the moment when it could help.

A friend of mine mentioned that J.B. Phillips, one of the pioneers of translating the Bible into modern English, and the author of Your God is Too Small, suffered from depression. It turns out that Phillips received mountains of correspondence in response to his sales of six million books, and that he answered every letter. Often these letters were to encourage people who opened up to him about their depression.

He also reached out to other notable Christians who had disclosed their depression publicly, seeking their advice, sometimes begging for their help.

Vera Phillips, Jack’s wife, and Edwin Robinson, a long-term friend, have compiled a selection of these letters resulting in a short book (110 pages) of practical help for Christians with depression.

In them, Phillips recounts some of his psychological challenges. He wanted to live up to the perfection he believed his father demanded of him, so was constantly disappointed that he wasn’t the best ever Vicar, or the greatest ever writer. He shows that while these psychological issues were related to his depression, they weren’t the sole or main cause of the illness.

J.B. Phillips was an English evangelical whose faith is attractive and accessible. His voice, the voice of his letters, is practical, compassionate and liberal. I found his advice helpful, and I am sure those who received the letters originally were even more encouraged by their gentle empathy.