How to Overcome Anxiety and Depression: An Interview with J.P. Moreland
Nearly 20% of Americans suffer from mental illness—including anxiety and depression—according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and people in church pews are not immune. Because prominent philosopher, author, and professor J.P. Moreland experienced it himself, he has now explored the spiritual and physical aspects of mental illness, and has discovered sound sources of information, treatment, and recovery.
Bible Gateway interviewed J.P. Moreland (@jpmoreland) about his book, Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices that Brought Peace (Zondervan, 2019).
Please explain how you have a genetic predisposition to anxiety.
J.P. Moreland: We’re born fallen and broken people in great need. Part of the fallenness at birth includes genetic predispositions we inherit from our parents. This is a scientific fact and is part of the biblical idea that we’re fallen. My entire mother’s side of the family was plagued with anxiety and it was passed on to me and I passed it on to one of my two daughters who has more genes from me than my other daughter who has more from my wife’s side. This predisposition does not mean that I’m biologically determined to be anxious. It does mean that I have a natural inclination toward anxiety (and depression) that’s been present throughout my life. But I have the ability to do things to stand against it and minimize or get rid of it altogether. Finding Quiet contains what I’ve discovered to really work in this process.
Did you expect to be healed of anxiety when you became a Christian as a college student?
J.P. Moreland: I did, indeed, hope to be healed of my anxiety when I became a Christian. And I did make some progress. But due to a lack of knowledge, I didn’t really know how to cooperate with the Spirit to make significant progress until I had my second nervous breakdown in 2013. After that, I dedicated myself to reading all I could on anxiety/depression and Finding Quiet contains a distillation of the best helps I found.
How did your severe panic attack in 2003 set you on your healing course?
J.P. Moreland: My breakdown in 2003 motivated me to get really serious about seeking God’s healing and learning how I could co-labor with him in this process. But it wasn’t until my second breakdown in 2013 that I was desperate enough to find a way to get rid of my anxiety/depression. You won’t get rid of these horrible things by just coasting along in the Christian life. You have to be dedicated to change and, most importantly, to gain the knowledge about how to most effectively pursue change, and I gained that knowledge. It’s expressed in a practical and readable way in Finding Quiet. Many of my other books have been a bit academic and somewhat difficult to read, but Finding Quiet is not like that.
What do you mean “the Bible has a holistic, functional view of humanity”?
J.P. Moreland: The human person is a soul that contains the faculties of mind, emotion, will, spirit and so on. We also have a body. So we’re a duality of body and soul, but all aspects of us (mind, emotions, body, soul, etc.) function together as a unit. My mind can affect my emotions and vice versa, my soul’s faculties depend on my body (stomach, brain, heart muscle, etc.) to be working properly for me to think and feel good, and my soul can affect my organs (for example, my brain) positively or negatively. If I’m anxious a lot, it causes grooves in my brain that automatically trigger anxiety. It also causes my brain chemistry to be messed up. By practicing the things in Finding Quiet, I can change my brain (this is called neuroplasticity). And my brain can affect my soul. So all aspects of the human person need to be employed to get rid of anxiety/depression.
How are anxiety and depression formed habits?
J.P. Moreland: A habit is a tendency to think, feel, or act in certain ways without choosing to do so. One can have bad habits in penmanship, gold, and so forth. Character is the sum total of your habits. The body is what contains our organs (brain, stomach, etc.) and regions (our facial area, lips, chest area). When used negatively, flesh is the ingrained, habituated habits that reside in our bodies. That’s why in Romans 6, Paul says we’re to present our members (organs, regions) to God as instruments of shalom instead of instruments to sin. Finding Quiet explains in great detail what this means, how to do it, and why it’s crucial to getting rid of anxiety/depression.
What do you mean “don’t waste your suffering” and “you have a moral duty to be happy”?
J.P. Moreland: “Don’t waste you suffering” means that if we suffer, we should not only seek to get rid of it (for example, by going to the doctor), but we should also try to learn things from our suffering (for example, how much we need God day by day). Every circumstance in life is an occasion for deformation (becoming more broken, bitter, etc.) or formation (growing in the Lord). Not wasting one’s suffering means that we seek formation and reject deformation.
We “have a moral duty to be happy” is clearly taught in Scripture (though there are proper times for grieving and not being happy, for example, when a loved one dies) and is common sense. Scripture tells us we should have shalom (a sense of well-being), joy, peace, and a zest for life in the Kingdom. Further, when we’re happy in this way, the people around us at work, in our family and circle of friends, and in the church are uplifted in spirit, encouraged, and motivated to grow and serve. When we’re anxious and depressed, we tend to have a negative impact on those around us. If this is the case, we should not respond with guilt and shame. Rather, we should seek the help and knowledge we need to grow out of these things.
What is self-compassion and what does the Bible say about it?
J.P. Moreland: Self-compassion is an attitude we take toward ourselves that implies being kind and loving toward ourselves because we’re made in God’s image and, thus, have value. Since God feels this way about us, we should imitate him. We should not constantly beat ourselves up or engage in negative self-talk when we sin or fail in some way. Rather, we confess what we need to and move on by focusing on growth. And self-compassion should also focus on loving and serving others better. Narcissism is something altogether different. A narcissist is inappropriately infatuated with himself, constantly makes everything about him/her, and treats others as mere objects for his/her own pleasure and goals.
What is the Four-Step Solution?
J.P. Moreland: In Finding Quiet, there’s a lot of ideas that readers will find helpful, refreshing, and new. My book provides insight into a number of practices that most Christians, sadly, have never heard of and, thus, have never used. I also give close and practical attention to four specific practices that have been absolutely central and crucial to my own healing.
The Four Step Solution is really a set of insights and practical application of Psalm 139:23-24 and 2 Corinthians 10:5 (we’re taking every thought captive to Christ, an important verse that no one ever tells us how to obey). The Four Step Solution provides practical insight as to how to make these verses a daily reality, especially in the area of obsessive thoughts and negative, distorted, habituated self-talk.
How does expressing gratitude alleviate anxiety and depression?
J.P. Moreland: Studies have shown that if one practices the daily activity of expressing gratitude, it’ll have a strong effect on the mental health and happiness/joy. And the Bible is filled with exhortations to express gratitude to God (and, of course, others). If one gets good at this, it literally changes one’s anxious/depressive habits, and replaces a half-empty view of life to a half-full (or more!), positive attitude towards life; especially life in the Kingdom.
Why do you write that “our worldview is the most important aspect of our lives and our mental health”?
J.P. Moreland: Our worldview is the actual way we see life and the world. It contains what we actually believe and not what we say we believe or tell ourselves what we believe. It contains how we see ourselves, how we react to circumstances, how we talk to ourselves and so forth. It also includes our view of our purpose (or lack thereof) in life; why we were put here. Clearly, we need ways to grasp what our worldview really is and find ways to rid ourselves of those components that are contrary to Scripture and that produce in us negativity, anger, anxiety, depression, and so forth. Finding Quiet explains some ways to do this.
How does a routine of engaging with the Bible affect mental health?
J.P. Moreland: Engaging with the Bible on a regular basis is critical for gaining and retaining mental health. But we have to be careful here in what we mean by “engage.” While regular Bible reading is good, there’s a deeper way to engage with the Bible. In an appendix to Finding Quiet, I list several verses that are deeply helpful for getting rid of anxiety and depression. I suggest that a person pick 4-5 favorites (or favorites not on the list), memorize them, and spend daily a period of quiet (start with 10 minutes), relax, set aside for a moment your problems and responsibilities, and embrace one or two of your favorites by starting with repeating them to yourself, then praying them to and with God, and invite God to move the verse(s) down to you heart and feelings as well as retaining them in your mind. This is real engagement.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
J.P. Moreland: One of my favorite verses is Psalm 46:10 which in the NASB (and using the marginal reading) says, “Let go, relax, and know I am God.” To bring out the sense of the Hebrew and context, in Finding Quiet I paraphrase this verse as follows: “Let go of your life and all that is troubling you for a while, concentrate on relaxing in the present moment, and experience me as God.” Obviously, reciting and practicing this several times a day is really helpful.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
J.P. Moreland: I pray that if you or someone you know is facing anxiety/depression, Finding Quiet will be of real help to you.
Finding Quiet is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: J.P. Moreland is one of the leading evangelical thinkers of our day. He is distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and director of Eidos Christian Center. With degrees in philosophy, theology, and chemistry, Dr. Moreland has taught theology and philosophy at several schools throughout the USA. He has authored or coauthored many books, including Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Christianity and the Nature of Science, Scaling the Secular City, Does God Exist?, The Lost Virtue of Happiness, Body & Soul, and Love Your God with All Your Mind. He is coeditor of Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. His work appears in publications such as Christianity Today, Faith and Philosophy, Philosophia Christi, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, and The American Philosophical Quarterly. Dr. Moreland served with Campus Crusade for ten years, planted two churches, and has spoken on over 200 college campuses and in hundreds of churches.
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