Dealing with Debilitating Anxiety: Jeremiah Johnston
How do you cope with debilitating anxiety? Author and scholar Jeremiah Johnston has lived with crippling fear—and quickly tired of the answers from bumper-sticker Christianity. He unpacks his story, and realizations that have gradually brought healing.
About the Guest
- Connect with Jeremiah Johnston on his podcast, listen to other episodes he's been on and see his website on how to become a Christian Thinker.
- Find Jeremiah on social media on Insta, Twitter, and Facebook.
- Intrigued by today's episode? Think deeper about anxiety in our blog post, Anxiety: What You Need to Know.
- Grab 25% off all FamilyLife's small-group studies at shop.familylife.com
- Find resources from this podcast at shop.familylife.com.
- See resources from our past podcasts.
- Find more content and resources on the FamilyLife's app!
- Help others find FamilyLife. Leave a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify.
- Check out all the FamilyLife podcasts on the FamilyLife Podcast Network
How do you cope with debilitating anxiety? Author and scholar Jeremiah Johnston unpacks his story, and realizations that have gradually brought healing.
Dealing with Debilitating Anxiety: Jeremiah Johnston
Dealing with Debilitating Anxiety: Jeremiah Johnston
Dave: This morning we had a devotional with our team here at FamilyLife®, the audio team, and you missed it because you forgot your iPad had to run back home. [Laughter] That never happens.
Jeremiah: Ann can do no wrong in my eyes, Dave.
Ann: Thank you!
Dave: She didn't do anything wrong.
Ann: I have never forgotten it, actually; then my shoe broke. I've slept past my alarm, so I need what we're going to talk about today.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: The reason I'm telling you this, it was phenomenal. Jeremiah Johnston did it—
Jeremiah: Thank you.
Dave: —and he's sitting in the studio with us. Jeremiah, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Jeremiah: It’s so great to be here. It's like coming home.
Ann: We love having you.
Dave: Is it really?
Jeremiah: It is, yes.
Ann: We don't even care what you talk about. Just come be with us. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, but I mean, you're an apologist. You're a scholar, Christian thinkers.com.
Jeremiah: Yes, Christian thinkers.com. That's right.
Dave: You know why I've never been there? Because I'm not a Christian thinker.
Jeremiah: [Laughter] Yes, you are. Are you kidding?
Dave: No, I am. It's great stuff and we've talked about a lot of things with you over, really several years. But as you talked about anxiety today in your own life, but also the peace of God that you've experienced, I just thought share with us and our listeners what you talked about today.
Jeremiah: Well, thank you, and it was an honor. My prayer this morning waking up was that I could minister to the amazing team. We just need to thank God for the amazing staff of FamilyLife that make these broadcasts so, not only full of quality and excellence, but I mean it hits the pulse where people are at. That's why this ministry has been around for 40 years. That's why people need to keep supporting it because you all have this great ability to hit the pulse of where families are, where marriages are today. You have real talk. You don't hide away from things that we do need to discuss.
I was asked as a guest to come and—
Dave: Yes, I was just going to say thanks for that plug.
Ann: Yes, that was amazing.
Jeremiah: It was the truth, man. No, it's why I'm so delighted to be here, and I was honored.
Dave: You probably know this, but there are listeners that do financially support this ministry and that's why we're here.
Dave: When you said that, it's like there's people who believe in this so much they say, “I want to write a check every month.”
Jeremiah: And they, and we should because the resources and the content and the way that you all present it is so greatly—it's done with such excellence, and it makes such an impact. Last night in my hotel room I was messaging a family that I baptized recently saying, “Hey, you’ve got to check out the parenting and family materials at FamilyLife.” They responded “Oh yes, I will. This is amazing. This is exactly what we need.”
This morning I was asked by Jim to give the devotion. I like to share what God's doing in my heart right now. I had a moment recently. There was a press release that went out from the world's largest publisher that they had partnered with me to produce a Bible edition called The Peace of God Bible by Thomas Nelson, Harper Collins.
Ann: Everybody’s like I'm buying that; Peace of God.
Jeremiah: Yes. My wife and I were sitting there over coffee. We didn't say a lot and we just started weeping because I am the last guy that should write The Peace of God Bible. At one time in my life, I would have thought I would have been the last guy to write it, because even though I'm in full-time ministry, even though my marriage is awesome, through an interesting series of unrelated events I began to realize I was struggling with the debilitating anxiety.
And I have a high capacity. I work eight days a week. I'm used to—you know I haven't slept in six years since the triplets were born; first name basis with the guy at Costco buying 700 diapers a month at one time. I have a high capacity; you know what I mean?
Ann: You have five kids.
Jeremiah: Yes, five children, travel and speak. I mean, I'm not a wuss. [Laughter] I'm not weak. But at the same time, I found myself wracked with so much anxiety. I was in an airport lounge like the United Club, and I had a panic attack. I'd never had one of those in my life and I never want to have one again. And I'm being very transparent because I think I can be vulnerable on this show that—
Dave: Oh yes; did you know it was a panic attack?
Jeremiah: No. I thought I was dying.
Ann: What was going on?
Jeremiah: I couldn’t breathe. I had so much anxiety and I didn't know how to manage the anxiety and uncertainties in my life.
Ann: What were your symptoms of your panic attack?
Jeremiah: I was coming home from a great ministry. It felt like I was having a heart attack, couldn't breathe, had to sit down, worried I was going to die, catastrophic thinking. And it was all related not to physical challenges but to anxiety. And this was coming off an incredible minute. I mean everything outward looks great. You know, I was speaking at a church, flying home, you know, doing my thing, blowing, blow up, blow out for Jesus and going home to the next thing and it was a miracle I got home that night.
Audrey, my amazing wife, said “Jeremiah. I think it's time that we talked to someone.” I think this is the first time I've ever said this on media, but I went to a Christian psychologist. You mean, “Jeremiah, you have a PhD in New Testament. You're an expert in the resurrection. You've written 14 books. You’re a dad. You've been married 20 years and you had to go to a Christian psychologist?” Shame me all you want; yes, I did, and it literally transformed my life.
When you are going through anxiety, you believe a lot of lies. You believe lies that “You're a second-rate Christian, because a real Christian would never struggle with this like you.” “Maybe you're not even a Christian at all because you're so depressed.” “Maybe there's something wrong with you.” I became paralyzed by these thoughts, and I have a mind that already won't quit. But at the same time, not being able to grab, crush, and kill every one of these intrusive thoughts was starting to debilitate me.
I had to start living in the discipline of God's peace, His Shalom. And so fast forward five years, I learned to live in freedom, and here's some of the truths that somebody needs to hear today. Anxiety is not sin. I had to deal with a lot of bad teaching that I grew up with in certain circles that anxiety was always sin.
Dave: It’s like you’re not trusting God.
Jeremiah: Why don't you just believe and why don't you believe more? Anxiety is not sin. Here it is, anxiety is suffering. So we have to figure out how to live in that suffering and how to manage it. And then we can develop skills and tools that will lead us into freedom, not perfection, freedom.
Dave: We had Jen Wilkin on the program, and she was incredible. She really described rest from God's perspective and how it affects anxiety and even those around us in a real beautiful way.
Jen: When we think about the Sabbath principle in our current day and age, so often we equate Sabbath with the notion of self-care.
Ann: Oh, this is big.
Jen: Yes, and so I'm not here to dog on self-care, although it needs to be dogged on a little bit, but we'll save that for another time. When it comes to thinking about a practice of Sabbath, if you look at the way the command is worded, it says that not only will you rest, but every person, animal, whatever, that laborers on your behalf will also rest.
Ann: When I read that, I remember thinking, “I have never thought of that before.”
Jen: Well and think about how incredible this command is because the gods of Egypt commanded labor without rest and so will the gods of Canaan. But we serve a God who commands that we sit still, and that's just unbelievable.
Think how it would have landed on the ears of people who were coming out of 400 years of slavery. What we so often can forget is that we too chase after the Pharaohs. We too want labor without rest. That's what our whole culture is telling us. You know that you have to—you know time is money. You’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep grinding. And that if you do rest - for many of us, our only concept of rest is a rest in which others serve us while we are resting. But Sabbath rest requires nothing of anyone else for you to enjoy.
Jeremiah: Shalom and Shabbat, two interesting words in the Hebrew; to be at rest and to live in the peace of God. I think Jen nails it here because as an act of worship to rest, think about that for a minute. You know worship that requires nothing but just setting in the goodness of God, trusting in His faithfulness. And when we project that kind of peace in Shalom on Shabbat, what does that say to our family? What does it say to our kiddos? What does it say about our priorities?
We live in a world that people are working eight days a week. There's so much noise, and this ability to enjoy the solitude, not thinking about ourselves, but focusing on the Lord, focusing on His goodness, focusing on the grace for today, that is what Shalom looks like. And I think this notion of Sabbath can be taken further even. I think, you know they taught the jubilee year every 70 [after every seventh Sabbath year, thus, every 50 years], and listen, Leviticus 25, the Jubilee year, Isaiah 61; that was a sign of Messiah that you were going to have a year of Jubilee. So not just rest, but also celebration.
And so, for me, what does that look like? That looks like short, frequent sabbaticals based on the Sabbath. You think about sabbatical, Sabbath and they don't need to be in a far off, distant land. I can have short, frequent sabbaticals at my home where I live, where I just refocus on the Lord, refocus on His goodness, His faithfulness, His peace. And yes, it's going to affect everyone around me because I'm going to minister and live in renewal and I'm not going to minister from an empty cup. And that's the beauty of what Sabbath does for me, for my family, for those that we love.
Dave: Now, how did you step into peace? As you were walking through, you know sessions with your counselor—and I've done sessions as well, man, light bulbs start going on.
Jeremiah: Thank you for sharing that, yes.
Ann: He just reached out yesterday.
Dave: Yes, I literally texted my guy and said, “I need some more help.”
Dave: And he's like “When, where, how? Let’s do it.” And again, I think you're right. A lot of people think “You guys—
Dave: —"meet with people behind closed doors and talk about stuff that's really bringing a lack of peace in your life?” Oh, yes; yes.
Jeremiah: Well Paul had an anxiety attack in 2 Corinthians, chapter 2.
Dave: Is that what it was?
Jeremiah: He had no peace of mind at Troas. He left and was never going to come back. God brought him back to Troas. Then he raises someone from the dead in Troas. Troas, which was his trigger, became his triumph. There's a sermon for you.
Jeremiah: And so yes, if Paul can have an anxiety attack like he did in 2 Corinthians 2, I can. And Paul, it took seven years and that's—so what did I do to answer your question? I studied all 576 passages on peace in the Bible.
Dave: Oh, I just go study 576 passages. [Laughter]
Jeremiah: I just had to study it. And as I began to study, it wasn't a feeling. It wasn't something that people worked up for. It was a discipline. They kept rewrapping themselves every day in truth, no matter what they felt. Our feelings will lie to us. And they kept preaching truth to their heart. Psalm 42 and 43, the psalter keeps saying, you know, “Hey, you know, I literally, I don't feel it. I don't see it but three times I believe it even though I don't see it or feel it.”
Ann: Will you read part of that?
This is “My tears have been my food day and night,”— anyone there? —“while all day long people say to me, ‘Where is your God?’ I remember this as I pour out my heart; how I walked with many.” This is Psalm 42:4. Verse 5, he begins to preach truth to his heart. He doesn't listen to his heart. The cultural mantra, you know, just do what feels good. No, he says “Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in so much turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior, my great God.”
And he repeats this mantra to himself throughout it three times. Same thing; Why are you downcast? Why are you so rejected? Regardless of how I feel, I know God will be faithful to me. That's what the psalmist is saying. I don't—I feel really bad right now. I'm on all kinds of emotional thin ice right now. And yet again, verse 5 of Psalm 43 repeats the same thing, keeps it going, “Why are you downcast or why are you dejected? Why are you in so much turmoil? Focus your hope on God.”
I can see here literally the psalmist is preaching to his own heart. And that's what I began to do, and you know, praying the Psalms. I also learned we all pray way too religiously, you know?
Ann: What do you mean?
Jeremiah: [Laughter] I opened up the 56 verses of Habakkuk and studied Shalom and Habakkuk, which is going to be in my new Bible, and he literally begins a prayer, “God, are you dead?”
And so, if a prophet can open a prayer that way, “God, are you dead?” and then he says, “God, you give me an explanation” and he says, “Hey, if I gave you an explanation, you wouldn't believe it” because things were about to get worse, and Nebuchadnezzar was coming. Then God begins to give him a little explanation and he passes out and he says “God, don't give me anymore explanation.” [Laughter]
You know I just see myself in Habakkuk. And “Lord, I don't want to pray too religiously. I need to just—you already know. I'm not informing you when I pray. You know how messed up I feel right now.” I would encourage people that are listening, study the peace of God, live in his Shalom, make it a daily discipline. Just like you drink water trying to hydrate more every day or diet or exercise, wrap yourselves every day in the truth of the peace of God, have that peace plan for your life. It's absolutely essential. It’s a game changer.
Dave: Yes, I know that—you know this morning as you were sharing about the peace of God and anxiety, I thought, “We had an interesting conversation, Ann and I, last night about anxiety.”
Ann: [Laughter] Of course, you're sharing this.
Dave: No, I mean, I'm not going to get into it. But it, you know, Ann’s like, “Oh, great, great, great timing, honey.” That's what she said to me at dinner, “Great timing.”
Ann: It was a money conversation.
Dave: Fear, money, anxiety, stress, pressure, and again, just this morning, your words even that Solomon—
Jeremiah: Yes, 1 Chronicles 22:9.
Dave: His name comes out of Shalom which I had never heard of.
Jeremiah: Yes, Shlomo.
Dave: I have a Bible scholar, Jeremiah—
Ann: Yes, read that one to us too.
Jeremiah: Yes, this floored me. Again, just working on my devotions for The Peace of God Bible, doing my thing and I come across 1 Chronicles 22:9. The only place this word is used for Shalom in the whole Bible; 22:9, David is promised “a son will be born to you; he will be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies, for his name will be Solomon”—or Shlomo, Shalom Shlomo, Solomon—"and I will give him peace and quiet, and all Israel during his reign.”
Here's Solomon who became not only a person of tranquility—that's how I talk about it in the devotion. The best way to translate this is he will be a man of tranquility—and his tranquility brought peace and rest to all Israel. And so that's why Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” They're going to see God. I need to be an agent of tranquility and not conflict in my environment.
And you know, this is where, again, I have to push back from the desk like you guys probably have when you're writing and say, “Lord, you're working on me first. Before I write another sentence in this book, I need to be more like Shlomo, Solomon. I need to be an agent of peace to my community because, man, if I'm living in the peace of God and exemplifying it in my life, my kids are going to be more at peace, more at rest.
Dave: Yes, and one of the things that hit me this morning when you shared that was, you know we're walking in this anxiety, this fear and we think the answer is certainty.
Dave: If I can just know for sure this is what the future looks like. Here's where the money's coming from, whatever it is. And you made a really important point that I've said before, but I need to hear now today was, you know faith is not certainty. Doubt is not—and explain that a little bit because we don't need certainty, we need faith.
Jeremiah: I’m a certaintyaholic. You know I'm a researcher. I need to have certainty about things. But we just will never have certainty and so faith does not equal certainty. According to the Scriptures, faith equals trusting God through the uncertainty. I want to say that again, according to the Bible, faith does not equal certainty, otherwise it wouldn't be faith. Faith equals trusting God through the uncertainty. My faith is not what I feel. My faith is what I believe. Anytime I get out on emotionally thin ice, I remind myself of the truth that I believe because it doesn't matter what I feel. It matters what I believe.
Ann: What brings you anxiety when—like for Dave, I've known since we've been married, it's money. It's maybe because we've been in ministry all these years but if he's not certain about it, then he's anxious. What brings you—
Jeremiah: Right now, my children. You know if—anything with my kids right now gets my—I mean it can change my whole day, and so I try to do intentional things. My daughter Lily travels with me a lot. We just have great experiences. I want her to meet people like you all over the country and see how vast the body of Christ is. But I'm like a lot of people listening, my kids more than anything—
Ann: It’s mine too.
Jeremiah: —bring me anxiety. I’m constantly evaluating. You know I think I need to be God's chief of staff. [Laughter] I need to give God pointers and helps along the way and help him know how to help my kids better. And so just trusting the Lord, allowing my kids to make mistakes though and build resiliency too is a big one for me.
Ann: Have you shared that with your kids? Do you think parents—it's okay to share the things or have a conversation about, “These are the things that make me wake up at night and not be able to go back to sleep?”
Jeremiah: Absolutely. We have very open dialogue in our home because you know, even Justin will come down some and if—some of us have a genetic predisposition for worry and anxiety. JP Moreland, your great professor does. I probably do. A lot of people, a lot of us—I mean, this is a genetic thing. It's a brain dysfunction at some level and so yes, I do talk about it with the kiddos, because I want them to know they can—I'm going to be the guy to help you manage your anxiety, stress and uncertainty.
I want to encourage you; how would you answer that question? I hope FamilyLife is one of the ministries that helps you manage your stress, uncertainty and anxiety because we need each other. I notice that everyone in the Bible who lives in peace, they do it in community. Nobody finds the Shalom of God alone.
Dave: Yes, that's good.
Jeremiah: When we're alone, we're like Elijah. We want God to kill us. [Laughter] Solomon brought peace to everyone. It was in community.
Dave: I remember—Ann’s heard me share this before, but I was having back surgery. Boy, it's been 15 years now. I did what you should never do. I went on YouTube and watched one and I'm like, “What in the world?” [Laughter] I mean, it's a hardware store, hammers—
Jeremiah: That's a trigger.
Dave: I should have never done it. [Laughter] So I'm laying there in bed, and I'm the first surgery in the morning. It's going to be 6:00 AM or whatever, and I am ripped with anxiety.
Jeremiah: Right; that's normal.
Dave: The Bible’s right there and I just open it up and here's what I read. Psalm 34, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to Him are radiant; and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his trouble. The Angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and delivers them. We'll taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” And again, I had preached that before. I’d walked through that Psalm word for word for our congregation, and in that moment—and again, it wasn't certainty. It was just like, that’s where—
Jeremiah: Yes, you still had to go do the surgery.
Dave: Yes, but it was a good reminder of “Okay, I can freak out or I can go “You know what? There's one—
Jeremiah: Because God's got me.
Dave: —got me and that’s the answer to anxiety.
Jeremiah: And no matter what, I know God's got me.
And I'll leave you with this. I've now studied the frequency of Shalom. And it's amazing who uses the word the most in the Bible. And it's not the people you would expect. The great thinkers of the Scriptures like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who really struggled, use the word Shalom the most. The psalmist used the word Shalom the most. You might be facing a lot today. You're in good company because those guys were effective, and yet they relied on the peace of God.
Shelby: You know, I love what Ann said there about not necessarily going to the Scriptures to do my duty and meet with God and check off a box, but going to God's Word because I'm desperate. You know, one of the things I've learned from a mentor of mine is to pray this every day. And I do pray this every morning as soon as I'm conscious. “I'm a person, God, of incredible need. Would you bring your avenues of grace into my life to help me in my need? And may I be humble enough to accept those avenues of grace when they come along?” You know God's Word is one of those avenues. I ask him every day to help me in His Word. Let's run to God's Word in humble desperation, because we are people in need. What a great posture to be in.
I'm Shelby Abbott and you've been listening to Jeremiah Johnston with Dave and Ann Wilson on FamilyLife Today. You know Jeremiah has written a book called Unleashing Peace, and who doesn't need to do that in their life right now? You can find a copy of his book at FamilyLifeToday.com.
You know in times of desperation, the times that I feel it the most, is the times of parenting. Because I found that God really helps to refine me when I'm dealing with my kids, and you know parents need help. And one of the ways that we want to help you at FamilyLife is to give you a couple of resources to help you in your parenting. All this month when you become a partner with FamilyLife, you can unlock two fantastic gifts from our Resource Center.
There's one that fosters character, relationships, and identity. It's a game called Ferret Flush. It helps you connect with your kids in a fun way to be able to instill in them those important characteristics that are really difficult to talk about with our kids sometimes without them tuning out, and so this game helps them to focus on character relationships and identity in a fun and creative way.
In addition to that, when you become a partner, we're going to give you access to the Art of Parenting® online course. This is a video series with sessions that help deal with common obstacles in raising your children. You can make your donation today at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again, that's 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
And feel free to utilize traditional mail if you'd like by sending us your contribution to FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832.
Now, if there's someone in your life who could benefit from today's conversation, we'd love it if you'd share this program on your favorite podcast platform. While you're there, we'd love it if you'd leave us a review and help others discover FamilyLife Today.
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be joined by Ed Welch as he talks about the need for companionship and support in our daily struggles.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a donor-supported production of FamilyLife®, a Cru® Ministry.
Helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.
We are so happy to provide these transcripts to you. However, there is a cost to produce them for our website. If you’ve benefited from the broadcast transcripts, would you consider donating today to help defray the costs?
Copyright © 2023 FamilyLife®. All rights reserved.