Mental Affliction and Faith: the Experience of Bible Scholar J B Phillips
J.B. (John Bertram) Phillips (1906-1982) is remembered today chiefly for his paraphrase of the New Testament: The New Testament in Modern English. A canon in the Anglican church, he realised that people did not easily understand the English of the Authorised Version, so he began his own, readable version in the air-raid shelters of London during the Blitz of 1941. It was described by one reviewer as “making St. Paul sound as contemporary as the preacher down the street” and “transmitting freshness and life across the centuries”.
What is less well known is that Phillips suffered mental oppression for many years – and wrote about it. It seems his father was never satisfied with anything John did as he was growing up. This turned him into a perfectionist. Yet, because he was always falling short of his own standards, he constantly struggled with self-recrimination and a fear of failure. He could not bear any criticism.
Phillips received hours of counselling, but to little avail. Throughout his life, even as he helped others with their spiritual doubts, he knew mental troubles of his own (including ‘visitations’ from C S Lewis, who was already dead). Yet he never let the fears and guilt overcome him. He worked hard, writing, counselling and addressing large audiences.
One fruit of his struggles is that Phillips thought through the dark things of human life, prayed, then wrote about them. Here is how he describes his battles:
“I can with difficulty endure the days, but I frankly dread the nights. The second part of almost every night of my life is shot through with such mental pain, fear and horror that I frequently have to wake myself up in order to restore some sort of balance.”
His writings offer a rational, sensible account of the Christian faith, devoid of frills and triumphalism. It is no surprise that his biography, by his widow Vera and Edwin Robertson, is called The Wounded Healer – because this is what Phillips became. They write:
“While he was ministering to others he was himself powerfully afflicted by dark thoughts and mental pains. He knew anxiety and depression from which there was only temporary release. And while he never lost his faith in God, he never ceased to struggle against mental pain.”
Phillips won through, in part, by choosing to be a giver. Through his books and his wide correspondence, he ministered to people going through their own darkness. At times, the most helpful thing he could offer was his own experience. In one letter to a fellow struggler he wrote:
“As far as you can, and God knows how difficult this is, try to relax in and upon Him. As far as my experience goes, to get even a breath of God’s peace in the midst of pain is infinitely worth having.”
Perhaps, in the final resort, Phillips’ experience was akin to his paraphrase of 1 Peter 5:7 : “You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern.”