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Book review: Struggling with God by Christopher C. H. Cook, Isabelle Hamley, and John Swinton

15 September 2023

Anne Holmes praises a book about mental health and spirituality

THIS fine book is the product of the collective wisdom of three distinguished authors. Concerned about the relationship between mental-health issues and Christian communities, they have identified stigma as a key problem that exacerbates existing struggles. The authors refer to mental-health challenges as one way of addressing this stigma rather than usual references to mental illness or psychiatric conditions.

The book is divided into six chapters, each of which ends with a biblical reflection, prayers, questions to facilitate individual or group study, and pointers to further reading. Each author self-identifies using the pronoun “I”, but otherwise the various chapters could have been written by any or all of the three.

This deeply Christian book names and identifies with the holistic way in which Jesus approached people. It draws on “biblical insights, the lived experience of those who struggle with mental health challenges, the insights of psychiatry and the mental health sciences, and the resources of theology”. This makes it a vital resource for all those wishing to support those thus challenged and for those who care for and about them.

Particular features are a useful summary of specific illnesses in chapter one and close encounters with biblical narratives throughout, notably that on Job and his friends. The authors suggest that Job’s struggles were not outside God’s presence, but were “a valid and essential expression of faith in the midst of utter darkness”. This sense of despair is picked up in chapter three, in a reflection on the dark night of the soul as explored by St John of the Cross in the 16th century. Comparison is made with characteristics of a depressive disorder. The difficulty in disentangling spiritual and psychological struggles is named. This difficulty was the research object of the psychiatrist Glòria Durà-Vilà, who was troubled by the over-medicalisation of deep sadness and published her findings in Sadness, Depression, and the Dark Night of the Soul (Jessica Kingsley, 2017) (Books, 9 March 2018).

The book is wide-ranging and tackles the contextual struggle for those with mental-health challenges who are part of church congregations that favour upbeat songs and psalms. I remember hearing a talk by a woman whose post-natal depression could not be received or accompanied in her Evangelical church. This was not about stigma so much as the perceived need to be positive all the time.

The issue of stigma is addressed seriously, and, if there is a mission statement of the book, it is to contribute to the de-stigmatisation of mental-health challenges in some church settings. Where continued illness is judged to be connected with a lack of faith, spiritual harm compounds the struggle with the illness itself. This is the witness of relatives and carers, too, who can find themselves excluded from the heart of their church.

As a group analyst, I welcome the emphasis on communities of faith. This book would be an ideal focus for house groups or Lent discussion groups. The more people in congregations of any denomination who read this and, changing their attitudes towards those who struggle with mental-health challenges, adopt a more Christlike acceptance of them, the better for us all. This beautiful book is an ideal guide for this process.

The Revd Dr Anne C. Holmes, a former NHS mental-health chaplain, works as a psychotherapist and SSM in the diocese of Oxford.


Struggling with God: Mental health and Christian spirituality
Christopher C. H. Cook, Isabelle Hamley, and John Swinton
SPCK £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

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