Wesleyan Wisdom: J.B. Phillips stands as writer worth remembering

I am showing my age and the younger generation’s loss when I ask if they have read J.B. Phillips, and hear them say no. For a half century nearly every preacher and many laity had read the books of the Anglican New Testament scholar and parish minister. Indeed, his books sold more than 6 million copies from 1944-1984.

When his London parish was being bombarded by the Nazi Luftwaffe, Phillips recognized the gap between the language of the church and the language of the street. His Letters to Young Churches was a paraphrase of the epistles for his youth during the Nazi blitz of London in the early 1940s. His translation of Romans 12:2 has never been improved on: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” So many times I have turned to his books, such as Your God Is Too Small or Ring of Truth or Plain Christianity.

In God Our Contemporary, he lamented, “The traditional churches do not always seem to realize that the premises for sensible argument, which are basic to themselves, are probably neither valid nor comprehensible in the world

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

outside the Church.” Writing out of a British culture where the church had declined a generation before it would do so in America, Phillips observed that “the man whose idea of God is nebulous to the point of negligibility . . . may ask rudely but pertinently, ‘Who are the churches anyway and by what right do they attempt to speak with authority to me?’” He preceded by more than a half century Diana Butler Bass’ newly published Christianity After Religion, in which she makes the same point.

Phillips was not a Methodist, but his life has much in common with John Wesley, and his thinking is comparable to the theological “middle way” of United Methodism. Listen to this: “Although . . . the phrase ‘the Bible says’ may carry fervent conviction, the intelligent [person] who has read the Bible knows perfectly well that it can be made to ‘say’ a lot of things. . . .” He notes the sad history of Christians who have used biblical passages to justify slave owning, witch hunting and apartheid. Wisely, he observes, “No intelligent seeker after truth imagines that [s/he] is the only one on the right track, and the time has gone by when complete ignorance of another [person’s] point of view could be considered a virtue.”

As important as Phillips’ genius, popularity and prescience may be, that is not my primary reason for taking us to his profoundly spiritual life. Rather I write about him because he was a lifelong sufferer from depression and was candid enough to share that with those who wrote him about how his writings had helped them recover their faith in the midst of suffering, disillusionment or depression. From his days at Cambridge, Phillips was told he could never serve in the rigors of parish ministry. Until his death, he was intermittently under the care of a psychiatrist.

Phillips drove himself unmercifully. He paid a price. He wrote at age 38 that he realized his intermittent depression. In his diary are jottings about “distress because of unsatisfied demand.” Then: “Have discovered my own limitations but still feel the demand of 130 percent.” He wrote in 1945: “Have to plunge in. It must be done: ‘lose life to find it.’” He even wrote to himself: “Rather die than be ordinary.”

Hidden fears

From the strain of huddling with parishioners in air-raid shelters and his own church being firebombed, Phillips was transferred in 1945 to a “landed gentry” parish. His church members were no longer losing their houses daily to bombs, but were much more demanding and critical of their new vicar! This man who was writing books that liberated Christians from their cribbed and confined faith acknowledged the difficulty of aligning his theology with his emotional needs: “I just can’t bear anyone to criticize me, anyone to see me fail. The center of my worship and energies is, ‘I’ll show them.’”

Under psychiatric counsel, this brilliant mind and faithful Christian recognized that he was still trying to please his perfectionist father and was projecting his earthly father’s expectations/demands onto his Heavenly Father. Over a period of several months in his new parish and in post-war Great Britain, he wrote among his daily jottings:

“No praise, no admiration—just usefulness. How I hate just to be useful. Much of the upholding of the faith depends on me. So they all look to me as example. I must perform properly. The job has got to be perfect, not a chink anywhere. No one shall ever see that I am afraid. I must live by my wits, my cleverness. I’ve got so little hold on life that if I’m criticized, or fail to impress, or if for some reason the trick fails to come off, I’m utterly lost.”

Has not every pastor and most human beings thought those same thoughts?

But then we see a new day dawning for him: “For the first time discovered real God and was able to worship Him in spirit and in Truth. The God I have been looking for is not a grown-up God at all.” He could write, “If I let go, I find myself not so weak as I thought, happy, able to both work and play.”

J.B. Phillips

All these jottings were never intended for publication, but they give us a clue for understanding Phillips’ continuing need to find one’s security in trust, not in emotional assurance.

Candid correspondent

Sadly, the “demon” of depression recurred throughout his life. Some cynics will say that his books and voluminous correspondence of private letters were hypocritical. Not so. What he discovered, and what makes his journey so helpful to all of us, is that he separated his emotional assurance, made of the stuff of his own psychological chemistry and childhood, from trust in God that he elicited from the Bible, the tradition of the church and the reasoning of his mind.

The title of Phillips’ autobiography is very significant: The Price of Success. As late as 1966, when his name was a household word in many circles, he wrote:

“The fact that the sales of my books is over six million . . . leads me to a large correspondence, but it does little to cheer me. In my own eyes, unless I am doing something, my own sense of worth decreases. Even when I receive continual plaudits and encouragement, it does not seem to alter the nature of the terrors at night and the occasional panics by day.”

As Phillips began to share his own struggles with depression, his mailbox was flooded with letters from Christians whose preachers had implied or flatly stated that when we give our hearts to Jesus, he takes away all our inner struggles and replaces them with a perfect peace. Indeed his loving widow named her book the same title later used by Henri Nouwen: The Wounded Healer. To one woman who had been encouraged by his candor, he wrote, “Thank you so much for your letter. Unhappily I am drug-resistant to a ludicrous degree so that none of the psychotropic drugs produce anything but the most dreadful mental pain. It is strange to me that I have been able to bring faith and confidence to so many people when I am wounded myself. However, my faith in God remains completely unshaken by the mental pain which is quite often excruciating, especially at night.”

In his autobiography as he relates his years of psychiatric care and ability to work through his darkest hours and renew the presence of God’s love, he writes, “Where, you may well ask, does the Christian faith come into all this?” You might not like his answer; I do:

“The answer is that probably emotionally it is of little help at all. It is only at the very center of our being that, despite any negative or evil attack, we can rest on the eternal and unchanging God. We may well have to learn to trust this living God without any comforting feeling whatever, and this is no easy lesson to learn. . . . Temporarily at least we have no one who can understand what we are going through. We are alone in this bewildering world and our only hope is in God, not probably the God who has satisfied us in past years, or the God whom we imagined for our comfort, but the Spirit behind all creation. It is to know more deeply this real true God that we are permitted to go through the pains and humiliations of mental pain. I do not write these words lightly. . . . It may be that we have relied too much upon our own abilities, our own emotional security or upon the props of true and earthly friends.”

Ability to balance

In the early 1960s, Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson’s book Honest to God sent shock waves through much of Christendom, with its challenge to orthodox understandings. Phillips responded with his little volume The Ring of Truth in 1967. Out of his own journey, Phillips distinguishes between “outside truth” and “inside truth.” Outside truth is the “evidence of things not seen” but witnessed in the Bible and in the experiences of other people who have a different psyche than we do. Inside truth is what we know within ourselves: “It grows out of fear, disappointment, and doubt as well as joy, conviction, and confident faith.” It is the theology of the inner self.

Did not St. Paul go through this same process as he recorded it in Romans 7:24 (CEB): “I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse?” Phillips was able to balance his depression with his faith by separating feelings from what John Wesley called “trust and confidence.”

We must do the same.

Dr. Haynes, is a retired elder from the UMC’s West North Carolina and author of  On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals.


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Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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Jan Espinosa

I was reading some of J.B. Phillips' writings about Jesus' life, and he said the first disciples were called at the Jordan River (Jn 1:28-) "Bethabara beyond Jordan" but in other places of the gospels it seems Jesus called them at the Lake of Galilee, which makes more sense since they were fishermen and I never heard their boats were in the Jordan River.?

Thank you if you can clarify this for me.

Janis Espinosa

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