Louie Giglio: Passion for a Generation—Part 1

“God is saying, ‘This isn’t going to be a story of your adequacy. This is going to be a story of my sufficiency.’”

One day in 2008 Louie Giglio awakened suddenly at 2 a.m. and bolted upright in bed. Sweat beaded on his forehead. His heart pounded like a piston. He got up, rinsed his face with cool water and tried to walk it off. It didn’t work. As daylight streamed through the window, he still felt haunted by a dark cloud of dread. Then over the subsequent days, he experienced a barrage of bewildering symptoms: convulsions, numbness, blurred vision and intense pains. Months of doctor visits and tests revealed no physiological problems. The diagnosis? Depression, anxiety. But it was no less challenging than a physical disease. The 2 a.m. wakeups continued with clocklike cruelty and Giglio found himself in the fight of his life.

Until being blindsided by depression and anxiety, Giglio’s life had been a ministry highlight reel. He led a large campus ministry at Baylor University in the ’90s before moving to Atlanta to found Passion City Church and Passion Conferences, a global movement of gatherings that draw thousands of college students to worship Jesus and fight injustice. We talked to Giglio about his new book The Comeback: You’re Not Too Late and You’re Never Too Far, his battle with anxiety and depression, and how church leaders can reach the next generation.

Your new book is entitled The Comeback. But you’ve had phenomenal success in ministry. Who are you to be talking about comebacks?

When we see people elevated on certain platforms we tend to think they must have a secret to making everything work. But we’re all made out of the same dust. Every leader in Scripture struggled. Even Jesus struggled, though he never succumbed to temptation. But he sweated great drops of blood in Gethsemane. There have been a lot of comebacks in my story. In 2008, I fell into a hole. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know how to get out of it. I was in a really dark, frightful place. Finally I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. It was a huge struggle.

How did you pray during that time?

A lot of people might hear about what I went through and wonder why I didn’t just pray more or quote more Scripture. We did all that. But when you’re decimated, emotionally and physically, you’re not operating at full capacity. I have a lot of knowledge and a tremendous history with God. But you get to this place where it’s hard to access all that because you’re in a fog. My prayer life in those days was extremely simple: “Dear God, help me.” That was about the extent of it. It was day to day. It was doctor visit to doctor visit. “Please God, you just got to help me see.” I wasn’t asking God for healing so I could get back to preaching. I was just asking God to let me glimpse over the horizon. I wanted a little glimmer of hope.

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The tipping point came a few months into this. I had a string of 2 a.m. wakeups where I felt this incredible fear and dread. One night it came and I was in tears. My wife Shelly was asleep next to me. I just lifted up very feeble hands to God. I said, “I can’t do this anymore. You’ve got to help me. Please help me.” And the Holy Spirit brought a Scripture to my mind from Job, “God gives songs in the night.”

That uncorked something in my mind. I’d been a big proponent of the power of worship. So I said to God right then, “I’ve been to six doctors. I’m taking medication. Things aren’t changing. You haven’t healed me yet, but I know that you’re a healer.” That brought sanity to me in that moment. And I said, “If you give me a song in the night, I’ll sing it.” And the song he gave me was out of the Psalms: “Don’t be downcast, O my soul. Put your hope in God.” So I came up with a little melody and started singing these lines to God. “Be still my soul, there is a healer. His love is deeper than the sea. His mercy is unfailing. His arms a fortress for the weak.” I just sang that over and over that night, all through the night.

The sun came up and I struggled that day, too. I went to bed that night knowing that 2 a.m. was coming—and it did. But when it came that night I had a song to sing. And I sang that song that night at that cloud of dread above me. That was the pattern for a few weeks, until there was more song and less cloud. Then finally it was all song and no cloud. Anxiety and depression is still around. Right now it’s a couple miles east of me, but it’s there. And it will probably always be there. I think it’s a thorn in the flesh that I’ll carry all my life. But it doesn’t dominate my thinking anymore. It doesn’t intimidate me like it used to. I just thank God that worship is a weapon. I’m grateful to doctors. I always encourage people if they need help psychologically to please get help. I’m grateful to my family and friends for their help. But worship was the key to getting through that situation.

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What do you say to someone who comes to you in the middle of a dark and desperate time, like you went through?

I always try to take people back to a clear view of who God is. If we just say to people, “You’re strong enough to get through this. You have what it takes,” we’re setting them up for disappointment because we always let ourselves down. Let’s get back to who God is. One of the best tools pastors have in that situation: the Psalms. They remind us of the sturdiness of God, his steadfastness. They’re a reminder that God is with you; he’s not going to leave you.

I also remind people that God doesn’t dispense a generic grace for their situation. So when you lose a loved one, it’s not like God says, “Oh, what happened? You lost your son? Here’s the grace you get when you lose a son.” No, you get specific grace for the moment you hear the news, the hour after you hear the news. He gives you grace for when you have to tell your family members what happened. He gives you grace for the first night when you have to try and get some sleep. He gives you grace for the next morning when you wake up praying it’s all a bad dream. He gives you grace for when you go to the funeral home and pick out a casket. He gives you grace for when you walk through the cemetery and pick out a plot. He gives you grace for the viewing, grace for a graveside service. Grace for that week, that month, that year, for five years later. Grace, grace, grace.

I tell people, “God is big. God is able. And his grace is going to sustain you through this.” It’s not about just giving people happy talk. The marker for me is always the cross. I point people’s eyes to the cross. It’s there that we see God can take the worst and make it the best. We see there that God understands our pain. He understands the depths of what we’re walking through. And we see that he’s always working, sovereignly above the fray, to accomplish purposes for his glory and our good.