We all know his music and we each have a favourite. He is Geoff Bullock. But what do you know about the man? About Geoff as a Christian? About Geoff as a sufferer of bi-polar disorder?
Join Geoff as he discusses his life and ministry with Terry Allen.
Geoff, what have you been doing for the last decade or so?
Oh, what a question! What have I been doing for the last 10 years? I would say I have been learning grace and un-learning working to prove myself.
Now, that is not just in a spiritual situation, that is in a whole of life situation: in my relationships with my kids, with my friends, with [wife] Victoria, especially as a step-father. Learning how to be rather than to do.
Spiritually, that has huge impacts on my life. I wrote two books at the beginning of the century, which was the beginning of that journey. Jesus’ story painted in a way that I hope you could see or visualize the impact he was making on society and the lives of broken hearted people; people without hope.
In the last 10 years I suppose, I would say, combined with that, I have been battling with mental illness: bi-polar type two which has caused all manner of symptoms in my life which has been confronting. One of the main ones being high levels of anxiety, which has seen me come and go publically three times.
I am now 10 years on and I feel the illness is manageable and the greatest gift, I think, is that I have been forced to learn insight into the way I think and the way that I do. I have learnt that by reflection on my past and reflection on the times where I can see the illness in that.
Also, over the last decade, I have had a most surprising return to public profile to tie that journey in to the life of Christ and the hope we see in the cross. So, I think that’s what I’ve been doing.
Life as a Christian, especially with bi-polar disorder, must be difficult. Some Christians believe it is demonic & should be dealt exclusively by prayer. How have you managed it?
Well, the first thing I want to wade in swinging is that I wish the evangelists and those who visit churches, and they arrive one day and leave the other, who drop such dangerous bombs on people’s medical situations; I wish they would go and do some research by sitting down with a psychiatrist and realizing how dangerous their teaching is.
You wouldn’t dare say that to someone with diabetes, but this irresponsible message; all it does is heighten the symptoms twice. You know, they go off medication, they get worse and then, getting worse, they think they must be possessed by demons, so that makes them feel worse and then they are totally without an anchor. Of course the hope of medication and a good psychiatrist is taken away from them, so I get furious about that.
And it’s also totally irrelevant to the gospel. There’s no resemblance to the life of Christ whatsoever. So, those are my little swinging punches.
For me, I do a lot of thinking, prayerful thinking and I think about the life of Christ all the time. Trying to strip away all of the things we’ve said culturally and theologically: strip it away. The drama that was Jesus when he walked into somebody’s life or somebody’s social circumstances: that is of great help to me.
I have a little saying: receiving grace compels us to begin the journey towards becoming gracious. Receiving grace is free but becoming gracious will cost you everything. It will cost you every opinion you have in your life and every bias.
So that has made a huge difference in the way I react to my symptoms because often my symptoms are feelings of rejection and a lack of affirmation and a feeling of isolation.Then I will expect people to do as I want them to do which is to work to prove their love for me as I am working to prove my love for them. So meditating on the life of Christ helps me to challenge that works based expectation of myself and others.
Bi-polar disorder is often suffered by artistic and creative people and one of the symptoms is depression. Have you suffered depression?
Yes, I’ve been absolutely lost in it. It was in 2007, actually it started back in November 2006, I remember vividly when i suddenly realised that I was falling into depression, I was sitting on a sun drenched balcony overlooking the sea and feeling absolutely miserable and that lasted for just on a year.
Obviously, talking to my GP and then my psychiatrist, I began a journey of trying to balance medication and cognitive therapy. I ended up as a day patient at a psychiatric clinic in Sydney, which I think was the beginning of helping me to have insight and, strangely enough, 2008 saw the rebirth of what I’m doing now and I spent a good 18 months of it depressed, but it was wonderful having a mission.
Have you ever felt Christian condemnation over your condition?
No, I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation, but look, I can be a little outspoken and I have thought really deeply about my condition and so I feel that I have ammunition now. If, for example someone said to me, “Oh, it’s the devil”, which did happen to me once: one of my very, very oldest friends: he is not a man with insight. He does not think deeply and so he has a book of rules that he applies. He started a conversation with me about my depression being demonic and I think my response was strong enough for him to realize that even if he thought I was wrong, he would be wise to step away.
15 years ago you left Hillsong. Why?
Well, I’ve got to say that I was always a round peg in a square hole there. From the beginning of Hillsong’s association with the Word of Faith churches in America, their prosperity doctrine and their very works-based doctrine of spiritual and physical rewards, I just could not tie the gospel together with what they were saying. Not when I looked at Jesus at the cross; I couldn’t understand how they combined the grace of Jesus found in the gospel with the laws of conditional blessings and rewards found in the Old Testament.
They teach that Jesus rewards us according to our works. That is not the work of Christ. Grace is never a reward. We receive grace as a gift according what Jesus accomplished for us.
I actually tried to leave in 1992, but got turned around. It’s important that I say I chose to stay and rededicate all that I could to continue being part of their vision and the outworking of it.
Then, in 1995, I had two major things happening: I had this sensation that I really didn’t know Jesus. I knew Paul’s Jesus, I knew the epistles’ Jesus and Hebrews and I knew my movement’s Jesus: all the preachers and teachers who came through and spoke about him, but in my own life I felt I did not have this sense of meeting him. And so I started a search.
That’s when I wrote the song Jesus, God’s righteousness revealed. Towards the middle of the year, I started to really burn out because I was trying so hard to prove myself worthy of being who I was and trying to prove myself worthy of God’s presence on a Sunday: I had this poor, misguided feeling that if I play really, really well, God will come. It might sound stupid to say it, but it was where I think lots of Church musicians still are.
But after Hillsong ’95 I just felt so broken and so failed, I thought, “Look, I could just fall over dead and no one would notice.” But then I had this profound sense, and it grew: in fact, I would say it was the strongest spiritual encounter I had with God, where he said, through a whole lot of ways, to do something: that I had to go.
And it took three months and a whole lot of conversations, but eventually I wrote a letter and handed it on by a friend. I didn’t have the courage to do it to their face, but I knew that if I didn’t do what I felt God was saying… I had a choice: either I follow God or follow the church.
In the end, I’d rather build my relationship, my spirituality, on trying to discern what God’s saying to me and that’s how I left. And it really was the great divorce. It was unnecessarily bitter and divisive and that I found very confusing.
By saying it was bitter and divisive, do you mean you were stabbed in the back?
Yes, absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt. There were letters written to other churches, there were approaches made to other churches, there was a statement made to the whole church leadership team. They just couldn’t understand what I was doing, but in the end that’s just human and it’s very painful.
One of the hardest things was when my marriage ended three months later people jumped to a conclusion which was so far from the truth. This sad piece of gossip is still believed to be the truth.
Even last weekend I had to retell my story to put events back into the order that they occurred. It would have been lovely if Hillsong helped to put things right. However I simply became the invisible and forgotten man and that hurts deeply. Very deeply. I would have thought that my work there was seen as a blessing.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that rift has ever been repaired. There is nothing to indicate that it has.
Has there been any reaction at Hillsong in recent times to your current ministry?
Well, firstly, I made contact within six months with Brian Houston who was my very best friend at the time. This is really painful stuff and I can fully understand how he felt. I tried to explain as I was slowing gaining insight into what eventually would be bi-polar. I talked about co-dependency, I talked about my spirituality and I would often find that Brian would understand and ‘get it’. I had a chance to go and see most of the elders and senior pastors at that time and try to explain that I was sorry it happened the way it happened. I could have handled it a whole lot better: I handled it very, very poorly. I suppose we both did, but I can only be accountable for myself.
I met with Brian many, many times because I didn’t like the thought that he thought ill of me and misunderstood me, but I also felt that I had wounded him in a way that I wished I hadn’t and that somehow I could take those wounds away or help heal them. So, we’ve had good contact, but as far as the church is concerned, nothing. There’s just been silence, absolute silence.
I must say, when I left and obviously it was getting rather sad, I decided not to contact any of my friends because I felt that if I did, the worst thing they could do is try to understand me because then they would misunderstand the church and I didn’t want to put my friends in the middle of something that was unnecessary but very human. So, I walked away too and that has to be understood.
Funnily enough, I could see something of my bi-polar going way back to when I was 17 and I was at a very good school in Sydney and all of a sudden I decided I had to leave and I left at the end of year 11. I’ve had almost no contact with that school ever since.
The same thing when I left the ABC and the same thing when I left Hillsong. There is a part of me: I just cut my ties and run.
In realising this I have to take responsibility for my actions and not blame others for my sense of isolation. This is a difficult lesson to admit. I must have hurt so many people. However, no matter how I set about leaving I always come back to believing that i made the right decision.
You wrote some of our generation’s favourite songs. They are ones we all sing in Church. How does that make you feel?
Weird. I’ve always been a musician and always written songs but it hadn’t really defined me all that much, so it was very weird when all of a sudden I was writing songs that were defining me. My claim to fame in the early to mid 80’s was that I was a former cameraman with the ABC. I worked on virtually all their programs for 10 years, so that was my claim to fame.
Then I wrote The Power of Your Love and The Heavens Shall Declare and off it all went. And I have really badly battled with it at times because I would feel it placed on me a responsibility to try to be someone I wasn’t. And that was hard and unnecessary, but I would still feel this pressure. People would come and tell me these stories and I wouldn’t know how to answer.
The way I relate to it now is that I just feel like I have very successful children, which I gave birth to. They’ve now gone and travelled the world, they’ve made a huge impact in their own right and I look back remembering their birth, but looking at their independence. I think that’s by and large how I relate to it now.
Many of the songs you wrote, you now sing with revised lyrics. Why?
Well, I suppose it’s because I remember who I was when I wrote the song. I remember my approach to God and I remember what was a real disfunctionality. Yes, it was the result of an undiagnosed illness, but it was also an error of theology. An error of grace or rather an error of works in grace.
When Paul says in Galatians, “You foolish Galatians.” ‘You silly things. It had to be done by the Spirit; what are you doing completing it by works?’
Well, that was me. I sort of felt like it was a one-time grace or two-time grace. You went back to God asking for forgiveness, you hung your head in shame, but then you tried to prove yourself worthy of it all. I was constantly striving and therefore constantly burning out.
I was so fierce on myself. I would just push myself and push myself and I would never receive any comfort because I would always be measuring myself and coming up short. I didn’t count myself worthy of comfort. I could never be than man of god that significant others were telling me I should be.
In the middle of this sad and broken time I became aware, ever so gently, that grace was embracing me. I started to realise that I hadn’t fallen from grace, I had fallen into it. I was no less righteous; I had simply lost my sense of self righteousness. Yes, there were consequences but I became increasingly aware that Jesus had come to give me hope and to help me to be accountable to all these consequences.
So, grace became my only anchor, sort of like lifeboat drill. When you’re a sailor and you do lifeboat drill it is usually in an Olympic swimming pool, but when you are in the middle of Bass Strait, you suddenly discover how effective this lifeboat is.
And so the phrase, “Lord, I come to you,” I was saying that in frustration. “Oh Lord I’m sorry. I should be there with you but I’m not. Here I come again. I come to you again.” And then the prayer, “Lord, hold me close” is like saying “Please hold me close because I don’t think you are holding me close at the moment. I think perhaps you turned away again because you are as frustrated with me as I am.”
The wonderful truth is that the “Lord you come to me to let my heart be changed, renewed flowing from the grace that I found in you” that the “weaknesses that I see in me are being stripped away by the power of your love.” Isn’t that so wonderful? Sometimes I wonder if we simply don’t understand what God has already done for us in Jesus.
So I changed that song to a confession of what God has done. It’s not “hold me close” but “you hold me close”. No matter how dry and disappointed I am, to be able to say to myself, “It’s okay, he’s holding you. You’re depressed, life is tough, but nothing’s changed between you and God. You’re not a disappointment.” And perhaps that also relates back to my experience with my father.
You would hope every Christian, certainly evangelicals, would be pleased that you are looking for ways to ground your songs in God’s word, because if they are not Scriptural we should not be singing them. However, in the case of The Power of Your Love, and I’m thinking in particular of that line you mentioned: “Lord I come to you,” Jesus said in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who are weary and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” So the idea of us coming to God is not un-Biblical, therefore there is no need to completely re-hash all of your songs is there?
No, but you see the greatest thing about Jesus saying “Come to me,” is he wasn’t calling to me from the other end of heaven waiting for me to work and struggle all the way to him. Jesus came to mankind to say “Come to me”. And that’s outrageous when you really think about that. God put on flesh to come personally. I mean, he could have sent a postcard, he could have written in the sky, but he came personally to dwell as a human being.
Jesus has come to hold us close, to draw us to his side, to comfort us, to speak healing to our wounded souls. He comes propelled by a mission of such eternal and unconditional love.
For this current generation, singing in church has become synonymous with worship. Why is that? And how would you describe the current state of Christian music?
First, I think we need to look at ‘worship’ again. And I think ‘worship’ as our response to Jesus could be a whole lot of other things before we turn it into songs. The intimacy between a husband and wife is expressed many ways before it becomes a love song and that love song will speak of a life of love rather than a love song about love itself.
And I think we’re in error here. I’m not saying don’t sing or play. I think that’s fabulous; it gets down into the soul. Many of the lyrics we sing are great theological truths, mind you, many of them aren’t, but if we could get a grip on God becoming flesh to come to us, Jesus living a life of grace, love, forgiveness, mercy with his last dying words announcing forgiveness and then living a life that responds to his life. How wonderful could that be.
For me worship is my response to the grace of Jesus. This response is my choice to become gracious, to become loving, accepting, merciful, forgiving. This journey needs grace for every step, however, this journey will start its work of transformation in me and hopefully through my life: a worship that flows from grace becoming graciousness in us. A worship that is seen in our relationships with the world around us. A worship that cries “grace” to our leaders, the media, our friends and our enemies.
Does this mean we don’t sing anymore? Not at all. It simply means that our songs are more about worship rather than being worship. Yes, of course there is time for celebration, for adoration, for a corporate time of singing songs of love thankfulness but we will be on a wonderful journey discovering that there is so much more than we have ever realised. I think our songs would be more wonderful, but I think our worship lives would be even more wondrous and I think the way the church’s interaction with our world could be far more a work of love than us simply singing songs on a Sunday morning.
So now I’m wondering what elements have to go in to make a good Christian song. Is it difficult to write a song which has both a good “hook” and good theology?
Yes it is. I must admit, these days I write from experience first, or from meditation first. Almost every song I write is about brokenness being repaired in the most extraordinary way. So I start, I suppose, with my own sense of being overwhelmed with who God is when I see him from my own brokenness.
Then I try and work that into good poetry that has flow, a little bit of repetition but especially that each line contains a picture that is bigger than the words. Then, working that into a melody that can fly; that can float, so you can close your eyes and be caught up in just a beautiful melody.
Or you can turn the melody off, just read the words and become caught up in the words: a piece of poetry. But you put it together and I suppose I hope that people go, “Oh, my goodness, that’s me. How wonderful!” That it hits their life, not just their soul.
You have been a Christian for over 30 years. You’ve had highs and lows. Looking back over that time, what can you say you have learnt about God and what advice would you give to a young Christian about how they should prioritise their life?
What I’ve learnt about God is just the overwhelming amazement that God would do the Jesus story. He didn’t have to. He just didn’t have to. He lived in this huge creation of trillions and trillions of stars and constellations and whatever. That God would make a bee line to broken people finds me simply awestruck!
It appears to me that Jesus did not come to establish Christianity, he did not come to start a movement, he came to meet one person here, and one person there. Broken people, hopeless people, people like me, like you. Jesus did not come to reward us; there’s no reward in it. He came to give hope and he came to affirm the most unlikely people.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why he was crucified, because he put everybody’s nose out of joint, he was a disappointment to so many people who wanted a messiah in the image of their needs and theologies. Jesus was not a preacher of righteousness, he was a bringer of hope to the unrighteous, the poor in spirit. He didn’t start a campaign to overthrow the Romans, he affirmed a Roman centurion as having more faith than all of Israel.
He allowed a prostitute to anoint him with oil with her hair… Jesus was decidedly “ungodly”. This Jesus excites me because the more I look at him, the more I meditate on his life, the more grace I see.And that’s a growing thing, it continues in my life. This is the truth, it’s not just something I’ve learnt to do to get myself seminars & concerts. It is a constant source of amazement.
So I would say to a young Christian, “Look, this is different to any other relationship you’ve got. You don’t have to prove yourself worthy. You don’t have to dress up, know the right words to say or the right actions to make. You are totally free to be just who you are. You don’t have to have faith. There is no hurry. Ahead of you is a lifetime of discovery. Jesus offers his life, he holds it out to you. It’s free. It’s a gift. God comes to bring hope to the good times and the bad times, the times when we make mistakes, some truly awful mistakes. This Jesus shows us an acceptance that gives us the hope that we can walk forward with his comfort, his peace, his grace and his love. I have found that, in my life, a life that has had its considerable challenges, that I am slowly being renewed and transformed. And that’s really quite amazing.
Geoff, thank you for what you have given in service of the kingdom over the years and for enriching the lives of so many congregations who have sung your songs over and over. We pray the Lord will bless your ministry in whatever time remains. May you make the most of it.
Thank you for the opportunity of being part of what you are doing. And if you hear of anybody who wants that message, you know where I am.
Geoff Bullock’s blog is at geoffbullock.blogspot.com.