At first glance, Louie Giglio’s life might look like a business chart with an arrowed line tracking steadily uphill across the page. His impact on the Kingdom of God and the church has grown steadily over the decades since he first gave his heart to Jesus as a freshman at Georgia State University in 1977. As the multitalented Giglio (pronounced GIG-leo) became a speaker, Bible teacher, worship leader, pastor, author and record-label founder, his influence cascaded across the globe. A love of seeing young people blossom in their belief led him to launch Choice Ministries, a Bible study at Baylor University; Passion Conferences, a worldwide collegiate movement; and 7:22, a young-adult-focused Bible study in Atlanta. One of the first Christian leaders to design a modern worship service that appealed more to younger generations — casual, visual and conversational — Giglio branched out by launching sixstepsrecords, which has signed and produced artist / worshippers such as Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Crowder, Christy Nockels and Kristian Stanfill. Giglio has taken courageous stands against the evil of human trafficking and in defense of biblical ethics and values. He authored books including The Air I Breathe, I Am Not But I Know I Am, Wired: For a Life of Worship, and Lost in Wonder, and delivered messages that have attracted millions of viewers online. Behind the scenes, though, Giglio’s fast pace eventually led him to fatigue and a trough of despair, culminating in total burnout in 2008. Through his journey into and out of that pit, the pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta has learned to view life, faith and ministry with fresh eyes. His hard-won lessons inspired his latest book, The Comeback: It’s Not Too Late and You’re Never Too Far, as an encouragement to anyone who has faced grief, loss, heartache, or deep disappointment and wondered if all hope was lost. Gloria Gaither spoke with Giglio about the pain of crashing and burning, the miraculous beauty of restoration, and the constancy of God amid the rough-and-tumble of everyday living.
GLORIA: I am so glad we are able to talk today and I’ve enjoyed your latest book, The Comeback. First of all, how do you know about comeback? What perceived failures in your own life taught you that life is not a straight line to success, even spiritually, but maybe a circle, a cycle, a slow upward spiral?
LOUIE GIGLIO: Well, I know about comeback for two reasons. One, I’m a pastor, and when you’re a pastor you have a privilege — and I use that word really carefully — you have the privilege of being invited into people’s pain. When a spouse is dying of cancer, or a child loses their life in an accident, or when a business goes under, people turn to their pastor looking for encouragement. So I’ve had the privilege of walking through a lot of very difficult, painful valleys with people.
But I also know about comeback because I’ve had several in my life, not the least of which was that in 2008, I hit the wall. I think in the old days, we called it a nervous breakdown, but we don’t use those terms anymore I think it’s too pejorative for our politically correct world to say that, so now we say people have a panic disorder or an anxiety attack. I definitely had both of those things, but it was worse than that — it was more than that. The symptoms were crazy, and the result was that I was incapacitated— out of work, didn’t leave the house a lot of days, going from doctor to doctor, living under a cloud of doom and dread and worry … just stagnant.
I honestly didn’t think I would ever be sitting here having an interview with you, eight years ago, when I was in that tunnel. I thought I was off the rails for good, but as God does, He meets us in the dark, and He leads us into the light. He did that for me — it wasn’t a simple or easy process, but God did bring me back, all the way back. I’ve seen Him do that, time and time again, in other people’s lives as well.
GLORIA: You say you have more than one — it probably was physical and psychological, but where was your spiritual comeback? And more than one? I think we think “comeback” means a final fix, sometimes…
LOUIE: Right. Well, we’re living in a broken world, obviously, and the result of that is that things are done to us every day that harm us. We do things to ourselves that harm us, and a lot of times, we make decisions that actually harm people around us. All this is the fallout of the fall, and we’re caught in between what God intended and what God is going to restore. Because of that, no one is perfect, and no story is perfect.
If I meet someone who tells me, “You know, I’ve never really struggled with my faith — I’ve never really had that rock-bottom experience in life,” I just kind of look at them like, really? Because when I read the pages of Scripture, every person in those pages struggled with their faith at some point. And Jesus, as the Son of God … He was perfect, He never sinned, but He certainly was pressed to the limit in temptation, and He was pressed to the limit in desperation on that night where He said, “God, if there’s another way, let this cup pass from me.” So I think all of us walk through life, if we’re honest, with all kinds of ups and downs.
I came to faith young in life; I grew up in a fantastic church under amazing teaching and preaching and leadership, but for me, freshman year in college was really when I decided to follow Jesus. I probably was a believer before then, but it was at that moment, the crossroads that so many believers are at — where it was the world or Jesus. It was really my way or His way, and I was kind of sick and tired of my way. I remember kneeling down by my bed as a freshman at Georgia State University and saying, “Jesus, I’m going to follow you. I’m old enough now. I believe that I may have met You when I was 11; I heard about You when I was 7. But now that I’m an 18-year-old college freshman, I decide today that I want to follow the Jesus road with my life.”
And that’s the path that I’ve been on. My wife and I have been on that path of wanting to serve people and lift up Jesus, but I’ve watched both my parents go through debilitating diseases that ended in very painful deaths. Our family has been touched by divorce; our immediate family has been touched by alcoholism. We’ve been through many, many struggles of every kind. But I’ve seen God come through time and time and time again.
GLORIA: This hitting-the-wall experience happened after your freshman commitment to Christ, right?
LOUIE: Absolutely, it happened when I was 50 years old.
GLORIA: The theology that we often hear is that if we give our lives to Christ, then it’s just a matter of claiming the wonderful … everything. (Louie laughs) But your experience has been more of a process than that.
LOUIE: Yes, and you know, there’s nothing in Scripture that says that when we give our lives to Jesus, our lives are going to be suddenly clear. In fact, the contrary is true. Scripture more often says that when we submit ourselves to following Jesus, our lives are going to be more difficult. We’re going to face opposition spiritually, so we know we’re going to be up against the enemy at every turn, but we’re going to be persecuted in this world and suffer loss — the Scripture says the loss of all things.
But the hope is that we’re never going to be without Jesus and we’re never going to be without that power source of the Holy Spirit within us. So whatever the circumstance — whether we’re on the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, whether we’re in plenty or in want, we say with Paul, “I’ve learned that secret of being content.” And what is that secret? It’s that Christ in us, the hope of glory, is sad with us.
I say in the book, God doesn’t give a miracle in our sense of the term “miracle,” meaning “fantastic ending with a glorious bow, and everybody lives happily ever after.” That doesn’t happen every time we ask for it. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask for it every time.
So that’s my theological lens; just because every time I pray for a friend to be healed or for a marriage to be restored or for financial breakthrough for somebody who really has a need … Every time I see that need, I want to ask the God of all creation to do a miracle, but that miracle doesn’t happen in the way that we define miracle every single time. So the story of this Comeback book is not that if you just give your life to Jesus, everything will be wonderful and rosy and pain-free. The message of the book is no matter what happens in life, God is going to be sufficient, Christ is going to be sufficient, and He is going to pray you through, bring you through the darkest night and the fiercest storm. And sometimes, that’s the biggest miracle of all.
GLORIA: You know, when we lose, we tend to think that there’s someone else to blame, yet you say in your book, and this is a quote, If you’re looking for a comeback so that you can stick it to somebody who’s been unfair to you, then stop right there. Talk to me about that.
LOUIE: Well, I think that the spirit of revenge is obviously not the spirit of Christ, and we all would have our layer of that down in our sinful flesh somewhere. But our hope in life is not to get ahead of other people; our hope in life is to get closer to Jesus. I think if we can keep that in our focus, then we’re going to have healthy relationships, and we’re going to be able to understand that getting close to Jesus requires Him to forgive us 70 times 70 times 70 times 70 times seven million. I’m going to try to respond to you in the same way that He has responded to me.
Every comeback story is not complete if it just lifts us. Comeback stories are complete when they lift us, and as a result, they lift all the people around us.
GLORIA: It sounds as if you’re saying we don’t get a comeback for a payback, but the marvel is that we get grace as the gift. To me, the marvel that somebody who has been unfair or unjust or even mean to you, that with your experience with Jesus, you would get not just the ability to forgive, but to look at that person with grace. I mean, isn’t that pretty marvelous?
LOUIE: It is miraculous, and I think that we always talk about a miracle where someone was healed of cancer, or a financial windfall came to someone who can’t explain how this all happened, and those are miracles. But the greatest miracle God does is save us — hands down. There’s just no bigger miracle than salvation. We were dead, and Jesus brought us to life. It wasn’t that we were bad and we became good, or we needed a boost. We were dead in sin, and Jesus made us alive — that’s the greatest miracle of all. It’s the seedbed from which we have hope that He can do anything in any situation. But when we stay planted in that garden of the Gospel, then that informs our thinking all the time and we realize what a miracle it is that we’re alive in Christ.
The second great miracles of life are the ones where He changes our character — that is a miracle. Walking on water is impressive, but God changing a revengeful heart or a selfish heart or a prideful heart or a self-deflating heart … when God changes us, this is greater than walking on water. This is the greatest thing imaginable, and the Scripture says He’s giving us a heart of flesh for a heart of stone.
So, I want to keep asking Him to change me, and I want to keep being in the crucible where He can do that. And when I’m focused on that, it gives me a lot more grace for the person sitting right next to me, because I don’t hold them up to a standard higher than the one I know God is holding me to. Where I need grace, I know they need grace. I don’t think there are many things more Christ-like than being wronged by someone, actually having God come through for you and putting you in a position like He did with Joseph — and that’s where this story is all kind of coming from. Joseph had the opportunity to really hand it back to his brothers, but he had this incredible God wisdom, this God perspective, and he could see that God was painting on a bigger canvas, that God was writing a bigger story.
So when I’m vengeful, I’m diminishing God. If I try to get even with somebody, I’m diminishing God. What I’m really saying is, “What you did wrecks God’s story,” and the flip side of that is to say, “Even though you tried, God’s still gonna prevail.” What man may have meant for evil, God actually meant, the whole time, for good.
GLORIA: You’ve mentioned something twice now … it seems to be that when we transfer from the earthly perspective, which is the kingdom of this earth, to the kingdom of our Lord, there is going to be a crash point. And those crash points maybe continue as we understand, more and more, the value in the new place, the values of the new kingdom. That is why, instead of revenge, maybe, when somebody has really caused you to fail, you say that is a reaction of the old kingdom.
Let me put it another way. The word “comeback,” in our culture, is a sports, usually, or a performance term, as in old movie stars, TV stars, football players, basketball players, wrestlers, boxers. Is this book about our success as a player, a performer?
LOUIE: Well, the book is really about the sustaining power of God, and that’s really the message. You know, when we think about normal comeback stories, they focus on the individual. So-and-so loses his business and starts a new business, and he works hard and he’s smart and savvy, and look, he’s made all of his fortune back and then some. All of the credit from that moment goes to the business owner.
So, I think the difference between the stories in The Comeback — some finished and some still unfinished … there’s a young mom of three kids, who’s now widowed after a tragic accident. There’s the story of a young man who lost 16 years of his life to drug and alcohol addiction before God gave him a wake-up call. There’s a story of a woman healed of cancer, and a story of a young athlete who lost a leg and has become a world record-holding paralympian.
But in each of these stories, you don’t walk away from the story thinking Oh my goodness, that athlete, he’s amazing! Oh my goodness, that young widow, she’s amazing! At the end of each of the stories, you walk away and say, Wow, Jesus is amazing! Jesus is doing something amazing here, Jesus is sustaining, Jesus is working; Jesus is holding, healing, restoring. And I think that’s the difference; the world’s comebacks typically end with the person who has orchestrated the turnaround, but in our story, this new kingdom story that we’re talking about, Jesus is the originator. He’s the firstborn from the dead, it says in Scripture, the firstborn of many brothers. He started the comeback story by the power of God, and He’s still the one who’s working the comeback stories by the power of God. And if I have one, or anyone else in this world has one, the glory goes to Jesus. We might honor and celebrate the person and what is happening in their life, but the glory is going to rest with Jesus only.
GLORIA: What do you think God says about our expectations? Should we just lower our expectations and settle for less, or do we get different kinds of expectations?
LOUIE: Well, to me, our expectations fall into two broad categories. Number one, the expectation is that each one of us will be conformed into the very image of Jesus. So that’s a high expectation. That is a high calling. It has nothing to do with our bank account, our status in life, the number of people that follow us on social media, the position in our corporation, or the size of our family. It really is a transformation of a person into the very character of Jesus, and that is a huge expectation for everybody who comes to life in Christ.
The second big expectation is that we can be excellent at whatever it is God calls us and gifts us to do. Everyone’s not going to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company; everyone isn’t going to be the award-winning schoolteacher in the neighborhood. But everyone can be excellent, and they can do whatever it is that God has given them the opportunity to do in such a way that it reflects His goodness, His glory, His excellence to the world.
I think when we try to set our goals more concretely than that, like “I want to make a million dollars” or “I’m gonna get XYZ job”— I’m not saying goals are bad, but those are lower goals. The big goals in life are whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly, as unto the Lord — and every single person reading this article can do that today — and the major goal of goals is to be conformed to the very likeness, the very image of Jesus, and that’s a work in progress for all of us that isn’t going to be finished in full until the day that we see Him face to face.
God gives us different capacities, and the perfect example of that is you and Bill. God has given you an extraordinary, enormous, unusual capacity, and somebody else can come along and say, “Well, we want to become the greatest songwriting couple of this generation.” Well, that’s a good goal, but that might not be the capacity or the stewardship that God’s given them. So the better question is, “God, what have you given me today? I want to be excellent at that today, and I want to show You that I can be trustworthy with what You’ve given me today.” Then, lean back on “he who is faithful in little will be given much.” I don’t really think that probably means on Earth — I think it’s more a promise of things to come.
So, those are the goals and expectations I think that we aim for … I want to be like Him, I want to be excellent at what I do, and I want to glorify Him on this earth; I want my life to count for His glory. If we focus on those things, all the rest of it, He says, will be added to us.
GLORIA: You used the word today. I’m not sure Christians can have long-term goals, by the world’s standards. I think serving God is exactly that — doing what is on your plate with all the energy you have today. And there aren’t status jobs in the Kingdom. I mean, I go to retreats all the time, and the person that scrubbed the commodes and made the bathroom a pleasant place for the women to go is just as important as if I was called to speak and I speak.
People who accomplish something don’t start out and say, “I’m going to be great in the Kingdom.” You just get up and take food for the neighbor who has just lost her husband, and you take the interruption of a teenager who walks in and says, “Can we talk?” And at the end of the day, you can’t figure out what you did. Piling enough obedience daily, into a big pile, maybe sometimes turns out to be a bio, which, when you look back at it, is almost a joke.
I’m looking at you — why do you think your voice was the one chosen to speak in a positive way to the young generation?
LOUIE: Well, you know, I couldn’t agree more with your comments, by the way. You have a really insightful way of just cutting through all the clutter, and it really resonates with me. And the answer to that is probably pretty simple when you get right down to it — it’s because God decided that. And that’s the only answer there is.
God does what God does. God chooses who He chooses, He appoints who He appoints, He anoints who He anoints, He sets up and He sets down. He puts rulers in place, and He puts them down. He raises up nations, and He puts them down. And He picks people, and He picks them because that’s what He decides to do. No one is worthy of it; no one deserves it. It has zero to do with anybody’s abilities or what they think they’re good at. I mean, Moses was not the best spokesman, but that’s the man God chose. Paul was not eloquent in speech, but he spoke with power and with force. So it’s not all about, “Oh, you’re a good speaker — that’s why God picked you.” God doesn’t need a good speaker; God doesn’t need a good anything. God just needs God.
And so, I think I’m in the position I’m in because that was God’s doing and choosing… The plan is, follow God today, trust God today, and hope that if you wake up tomorrow, that you’ll have the opportunity to do that again.
I’m taking it a day at a time, and God gives the assignments, and we just follow them. I just want to be faithful.
GLORIA: Well, I’m glad that on this day of our Lord, you accepted this interruption to talk to me, and I can’t wait to see what He’s going to do with the rest of our day.
LOUIE: Well, I’m so excited about that as well. Thank you for the invitation.