Long time Christian philosopher JP Moreland shares a side to himself that many people who have read his books are not aware of—his battle with anxiety and depression. In his new book, Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices that Brought Peace, JP shares his struggle openly and has wonderful, practical advice for those who wrestle with these mental health issues. Join us for this heartfelt conversation.
More About Our Guest
JP Moreland is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here today with our special friend and colleague Dr. J.P. Moreland, who's Distinguished Professor of Philosophy here at Talbot. We've had him on several times before. He keeps producing new books.
Sean McDowell: That's right.
Scott Rae: And so is a great opportunity having him on. J.P. Thanks so much for joining us today. We appreciate you taking the time.
J.P. Moreland: As always. Oh, listen, it's my pleasure to be with you brothers and I love your show.
Sean McDowell: J.P. you're the first guest we've had three times, so that makes you pretty special.
J.P. Moreland: Well, thank you. I feel a lot of love right now.
Scott Rae: You're your best known for your work as a Christian philosopher, apologist for the faith, but in your newest book Finding Quiet, there's another side to you that I don't think a lot of people know about. And I so appreciate your vulnerability, and the risk you took in writing this most recent book called Finding Quiet. So tell us first, what are the events in your life that gave rise to you writing this book? I know it goes back a ways, but there were a couple of really seminal episodes in your life that you talk about in the book that gave rise to you writing it.
J.P. Moreland: Yes. Just to quickly give a little context, I was born with a genetic predisposition towards general anxiety. My mom and that whole side of the family was really, really anxious. I went through my life, then I was kind of high strung, but I it never made me dysfunctional. However, at the end of the school year in 2003, I had what I called a nervous breakdown. I woke up the day after graduation was finished and I had a sabbatical in front of me, and I woke up at 2:30 in the morning and I was sweating, and my heart was pounding and I didn't know it, but I was having a panic attack. And I started having panic attacks and my body was in a fairly continual state of anxiety for seven months except for when I slept at night.
And it happened to me again 10 years later in 2013. It just hit me out of nowhere and lasted five months. And so, guys, I kind of purposed in my heart that I wanted to do everything I could for this not to happen again. And there are never any guarantees on this but I did a tremendous amount of research and study and practical application. And given that I knew that anxiety and depression are the number one psychological mental health problem in America today, and that I know what it's like to be wracked with anxiety and depression, that I thought that I would share with my brothers and sisters some of the things that helped me. But that's what motivated me. Scott, I think it was those two nervous breakdowns that I had that lasted seven and five months respectively.
Sean McDowell: Hey, J.P. you wrote a book previously on kind of The Virtue of Happiness. Was there a process in your mind, an experience, where you had to overcome maybe embarrassment or potential shame to be willing to share this story with people? Because there're so often a stigma that's associated with depression from people who just don't really understand. What was that process like for you to be come public and even share this?
J.P. Moreland: Well that's a good word. I really do understand and respect people who fear sharing this, I really get that. In my case, I just didn't care. I think it was because I was raised in a blue collar family outside of Kansas City, a little town called Grandview and nobody put up with people that had their nose up in there, if you know what I mean, that kind of stuff didn't go well. So I kind of the have been a pretty open person, and I wanted to my own kind of revelation of my own story for two things to happen Sean.
Number one, I wanted people to know that I understood what they were going through, if they read the book or give it to somebody. And the second one was that you don't need to be embarrassed or ashamed in sharing your struggles with other people. We're also broken. I mean, have you ever heard of the fall? It's actually true. And we're broken people, and we all are broken in one way or the other, so I didn't feel a tremendous amount of shame or guilt in sharing this with people.
Scott Rae: J.P. let me take that question Sean had one step further. You've talked about this stuff that you've gone through a lot at churches and you did a lot of speaking on this once you decided to go public with it before you wrote the book.
J.P. Moreland: Right.
Scott Rae: In some church circles, this has been very well received, but in others not so much.
J.P. Moreland: Yes.
Scott Rae: Tell us a little bit about the different reactions that you've gotten when you've gone public with this in a local church setting?
J.P. Moreland: I think the good news is that there are an awful lot of people out there who are suffering from this and are hungry for hope, that they want hope that they can get well, and they want some very practical suggestions, and so, how to get there. And so, that's the good news.
But I think the bad news is that I believe that medications are an important part of a solution for some people and that it's important to check with your doctor, or a psychiatrist, and see if medication might be for you. And I think that, that's biblically... I give a biblical basis for that in the book. I don't think it's not having faith or not relying on God. I think it's just taking medicines. I would never recommend somebody take medication and not do other things like counseling and certain spiritual practices. But as a combined package it can be helpful.
I think, Scott, other people are a little bit concerned about psychology and counseling and I certainly think that it's best to get a Christian therapist if you at all can, of course. And I think some people are a little bit afraid of what are called spiritual formation practices because they think they're catholic and they're not biblically rooted. And so, those are I think the three issues that cause people to look unfavorably at this whole approach.
And what I do in the book is I give a kind of a brief biblical basis for these sorts of things.
Sean McDowell: So take us back to the beginning. You described how, I think you said 2003 and then about a decade later kind of fallen into a bout of depression anxiety attack. How did you get out of this abyss and what did you learn through this process of research that can help other people?
J.P. Moreland: Oh man, that's a great question. Like I said I do think the counseling I got, and some of the medication I got helped me. But there were two things that were really kind of major in my mind that got me out of this. And it kind of really put me on a much more solid footing.
And the first one that it is to inventory your life and get rid of all the stress you possibly can. Now you can't get rid of all of it, but stress is enemy number one for those of us who are suffering with an inclination towards anxiety and depression, and you want to try to see if you can get rid of things that you don't really need to be doing.
The second one was the role of habit in dealing with anxiety and depression. In the book I mention that anxiety is partly a learned habit. It's not entirely but it's significantly. In the literature they say that a lot of it is a set of grooves in the brain and in the nervous system and heart muscle, that are triggered by negative self talk and events that are sort of habituated inside you. And what you have to do is you have to start replacing those habits with health peace inducing habits. And that takes time. I think it takes about three months of failure and of hard work, with the Spirit's guidance to replace habit, the good habits over the bad ones, just like learning to play golf or anything. But the role of habit formation and being patient with myself in the early stages of forming new ways of thinking and feeling was just a game changer for me.
Scott Rae: J.P. let me take this a little bit further. It sounds to me like what you're suggesting is that these practices actually have the capacity to reshape your brain, is that what you're saying?
J.P. Moreland: I am indeed.
Scott Rae: Spell that out a little bit further.
J.P. Moreland: Yeah. Our feelings and our memories and all those things are not in the brain, they're in the soul. And just like a music is not in a C.D. or some kind of a recording instrument, because you can hold the CD up to your ear and you can't hear anything, but what is in the C.D. are grooves. And if the C.D. is not damaged and if it's placed in the right retrieval system, then it will trigger sound, music in the room.
Now, in the same way, my anxious sensations and negative self talk and all that, my thoughts and feelings, aren't in my brain. But there are groups in the brain that when triggered automatically produce fear, worry and negative ways of talking about yourself.
In the book, finding quiet, I list four specific practices that I discovered from reading... I must have read 40 books on this. I just did a lot of research. And I boiled what I found down to four major practices. But they all assume, Scott, What you said. And what they assume is what is called neuroplasticity that by changing the way you think you can literally change your brain grooves so that your neurons are no longer grooved to automatically trigger anxiety. Instead they're grooved to automatically see the glass half full and trigger peaceful emotions instead of negative ones.
They've actually done brain scans on people who have had anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorders. And they've told them, for three weeks practice thinking these thoughts instead of the ones you're thinking. And when people start doing this, they don't believe the thoughts they're practicing thinking, but they're still going to do it anyway. And lo and behold after three weeks of this, they do a brain scan, and Scott and Sean, their brains are restructured and are healthier than they were three weeks ago. And so, yes, this is hopeful. I want the listeners to hear this.
This is a word of great hope to you because if your anxiety and depression is something that you're a constant worrier or you're constantly down, you have the power, if you will practice certain exercises to re-groove your brain and heart muscle because it has neurons in it too, so that they are working with you and not against you. And thank God that this is not locked in and we're condemned the rest of our lives to have to be like this. That's a word of great hope.
Sean McDowell: That really is good news. And I can imagine, myself included, people listening that have wrestled with this to greater or lesser degrees, can feel such a sense of hope and empowerment in their lives by certain practices and the strength of the Holy Spirit, not just condemned to dealing with this level of depression that's debilitating necessarily in a lifelong matter. There's hope is really what you're saying.
J.P. Moreland: Yes I am.
Sean McDowell: On the flip side of that, let me ask you this. You comment that one of your main frustrations with God is that He seems to be a 'no show' at certain times in your life when you need him most. Can you explain what you mean by this? And especially coming from a philosopher, an apologist, I'd love to hear what you think.
J.P. Moreland: Well, Larry Crabb wrote a book on this and he starts off with a story. And he says, "There have been times when I've been late to an appointment and I have got to get to see this person. And I pray for a parking spot. And lo and behold God opens up a parking spot right in front of the place where I need to get in there." And he says those are wonderful. But he says, "There is a little boy in our church... or was, that was four years old. He was suffering for a year with a horribly painful, a terminal disease. And it wasn't just that the little guy was dying, it was that he was in pain. And the church held prayer vigils and there was more prayer based over this little boy and absolutely nothing happened. Not only was his life not saved but his pain was not alleviated." So Crabb says, "God was a no show, where was he?"
Now, when I mean God is a no show, couple of things that I want the listeners to hear. Number one what I mean by that is that there are times in one's life when it looks like it would be in God's own best interests for his cause and in the interest of his children for him to manifest his presence, that's what I mean by showing up, and for intervening in a situation.
We all know when God does that, how the word spreads throughout the church in other people and how encouraging it is. There are times when for the life of me God doesn't do that, and it's very hard to understand why he didn't show up. And I mean by that, manifest his presence and intervene. I don't mean He's not there, that He might be working, but that's still a frustration.
The second point is that by expressing this frustration, I'm in good company. Because I think it's something like almost 30% of the Psalms are what are called Individual or Communal lament Psalms. By that, they are Psalms that are praying and complaining to God about the way He is, about, He doesn't seem to be keeping His covenant. He let this happen and why. And they're actually speaking against God and calling him into question, to be honest with you. And if you remember this was the hymn book of Israel. It's a little odd that 25% to 30% of the hymns were complaints. It's not that... this is the third point.
It's not that God wasn't there and didn't have, obviously, some larger purpose for letting this happen and not intervening. That's got to be true. But I don't think it's good to start there when you're hurting and you're crying out to God, I think what you need to do is tell him and express your emotions honestly, if you're angry at God or whatever it is, you tell him. And I have biblical roots basis for that in the lament Psalm.
Now, the goal is not to stay there. In the last chapter of the book, I give examples of different ways of expressing your frustration with God who seems to apparently not to be interested in, or in helping you. Now the goal is to get back to where in your gut and in your heart, you have had restoration in believing that God really was with you and had a plan that was for your overall good in the long run. But you can't start by just saying, "I believe that," when deep in your heart you don't. That's going to make matters worse. So, I'm recommending along with the Psalms, that people just be honest with God, that's all, and express their frustration, even though, this is insanity, we all know that God is good. But if you don't really honestly believe that deep down in your feelings, then you have to be honest and express it with the goal of getting back to where that's a part... you deepen your trust in God by doing that.
Scott Rae: Well it's not like we're actually hiding our feelings from omniscient God to begin with.
J.P. Moreland: You think maybe He knows what's going on?
Scott Rae: I think so. In fact-
J.P. Moreland: Highly likely.
Scott Rae: ... Yeah. One of my favorite books on these lament Psalms is entitled Nobody Says Please in the Psalms, which I think captures that flavor really nicely.
J.P. Moreland: Yes.
Scott Rae: And I think it's important I think for our listeners to know too that all of those lament Psalms do end on a note confession of trust.
J.P. Moreland: Yes.
Scott Rae: And so it's crucial, I think your point, that they lead with lament, they lead with being honest about their feelings and where they are. I think this is one of the things I've tried to do with these lament psalms, is actually read them out loud, and to try, and replicate the facial expression, and the tone of voice, that psalms would use in this.
J.P. Moreland: Wow! That's powerful.
Scott Rae: It didn't take much to imagine. I think some of the Psalmist is actually screaming this at God.
J.P. Moreland: Oh absolutely.
Scott Rae: But it always ends on a note of trust. I've often wondered, initially when you read it that sounds like Pollyanna. It just sounds like they got all this honest emotion and said, "But, okay, I trust God, end of story." And I don't think that's it. But I think that this is deep. At a very deep level, they said what you affirm, is that we know even when we don't feel it, we know that God is good, and we know that there may be reasons that he's not intervening at least in the way we would expect. I think deep down we know that, that's true.
And that's the affirmation of trust, that I think colors a lot of the lament and give us the freedom actually to be open and honest with God about how we're felling.
J.P. Moreland: Well, you are just so on the money here, Scott, I just couldn't agree with you more. And in the last chapter, I make the point that that goal of this is not to stay there and lament, it's to move back to reaffirming deep in your soul, God's goodness and His presence. But you don't want to do that prematurely, you want to be honest to work through how you're feeling, but the goal is to get there, and I think you're absolutely right about that.
Scott Rae: And I think sometimes since we read the lament Psalms all in one sitting, and they were all written in the aftermath of what the psalmist had been through, reflecting on that, sometimes I think we don't recognize that it may have taken time for that person to get to that confession of trust, and have it be really heartfelt.
J.P. Moreland: Absolutely.
Scott Rae: J.P. let me ask you for some specifics here for people, what it might look like in their daily life. You have talked about relabeling, refocusing, reframing. What would this just look like in practice for somebody in their daily life to start implementing these ideas?
J.P. Moreland: Oh man, you guys, these questions are so good. At the end of the book I have a very small brief chapter wrapping it all up where I actually describe what a day might look like in practicing these. And we don't have time to go through kind of the four major things that I spend a lot of time on. But let me talk about one of them, and it's the one that you mentioned. And it's thoroughly biblical. It's called a four-step-solution, and it's what you do with negative self talk.
And the problem with negative self talk is that it's so habitual that it is almost subconscious. A lot of times you'll be saying things to yourself, "I'm never going to get well, I'm weak, I'm not like other people. Everybody else has got it good, I don't. Why am I this way? I always make mistakes," and so on.
And so, you end up anxious and depressed and you don't know why. You get up in the morning and you ask the Lord to be with you during the day in the sense of Psalm 139:24-26, "Lord, please search me and know me inside, would you examine me and come to know the thoughts in me that are anxiety producing and would you lead me in the way of Shalom or peace or flourishing righteousness and help me to become aware of these." And so you go about your day and even if... if you have ten minutes in the morning, you might just relax and invite the Lord to help you become sensitive.
So, are you dreading your day, are you anticipating things that might happen? And so if you catch a negative self talk, "I don't think I can make it through the day," the first thing that you do is you relabel this and say, "Wait a minute! This has got nothing to do with reality, this is just a habit I'm in. It's a bad habit. I'm not paying any attention to you."
The second thing you do is that you reframe the thought and I give in the book, I think it's something like ten to twelve thought distorters. And these are ways that our thoughts are distorted. Like you might engage in what's called All or Nothing Thinking. If you do something wrong, you tell yourself, "You know what? I always mess things up. I just never get it right!" Well, that's distortion. And so what you do is you say, "You're a brain message, that's all you are. I recognize that you are just a All or Nothing Thinking, and you're nothing but a bad habit. So I'm not going to get down in the mud and try to argue with you and spend time telling you why you're wrong." Because they've discovered that if you spend time obsessing and wrestling with these negative self talks... except in the early stages when you start beginning to have them... but if they become habits, it's no longer fruitful.
What you need to do in step three is to refocus and get into what's called Flow. And that means that just focus your attention away from that thought and get wrapped up in this something that you lose track of time. An example, I never read novels but when I had my second breakdown, Scott there, drove all the way to my house and brought me some novels that were espionage novels about a guy named Mitch Rapp.
Well I started reading those darn things and I got hooked on them. They were so good. Well, if I was having a negative self talk, I'd pick that sucker up and I'd read it for 10 minutes or 15, before you know it, that negative self talk no longer had power over me. It might be check into your favorite sports team online, it could be checking your email, it could be going and reading the Psalm. It could be anything that allows you to turn away from it and really get absorbed in something else for... Early on I needed 20 minutes or so but I got down to like five. And then at the end of the time you re-evaluate and see, "How did I do on this."
And what happens over time is that you take the power out of that negative self thought and replace it with a positive one. You'll fail in the beginning and I give us some tips on this, because you're trying to reform a new habit. But that's one practice that you can begin your day with and you can ask the Lord to help you be sensitive throughout the day to when you're doing that, and then step aside for 10 minutes and practice this four step solution.
Scott Rae: J.P. thank you for the specifics on that. That's really helpful. And I think you read some of the right stuff because I don't think Mitch Rapp ever engaged in negative self talk.
J.P. Moreland: No he didn't.
Scott Rae: This has been incredibly helpful. And I think for our listeners, it's really important that you know that J.P. is an incredibly accomplished scholar, philosopher, author, teacher, and yet has had these debilitating episodes with anxiety and depression, for some time has been in a battle that he's dealt with for a long time. Praise God that you're getting on top of it and with these practices, with medication, it's very encouraging. It gives tons of hope to people.
And I think for our listeners it's really important to know if this is what your life looks like you are not alone. In fact, you're part of a pretty well populated group, and that there's hope, there's ways to get out this abyss of depression and anxiety. The book Finding Quiet, subtitle; My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices That Brought Peace, is more about the practices, is not really an autobiography, your stories were framed that, at the beginning and the end. But the book is all about the practices that helped you get on top of this.
J.P. Moreland: Yes, that's right.
Scott Rae: And I think this will be an invaluable contribution. I'm so grateful for your courage and vulnerability to write this down, to be open about your struggles. I suspect that there are a whole lot of people that are going to find an awful lot of hope out of this.
J.P. Moreland: Well, thank you brothers for having me and I appreciate the show.
Scott Rae: Well, thanks so much for coming on with us. This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Learn more about us and today's guest Dr. J.P. Moreland, and his book Finding Quiet. Find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically.
If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.