Carlos Whittaker was a full-time worship leader at pastor Andy Stanley’s Buckhead Church, one of North Point Ministries’ six campuses in the metro Atlanta area. Then he and his family were thrust into the national spotlight in 2010 when video of them singing Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” turned to tears—and the clip went viral, eventually winning a People’s Choice Award. Whittaker went on to record albums and lead worship for President Barack Obama at the White House Easter breakfast in 2014. He then changed the focus of his career toward speaking and writing.
Now Whittaker has a new trajectory for life, confronting the fact that he lived so long without true freedom. He openly shares his story in his new book, Kill the Spider: Getting Rid of What’s Really Holding You Back. I sat down with him at Catalyst Atlanta a few weeks ago and talked about anxiety, everyday lies and confronting our culture.
Why is your book important for Christian leaders?
A spider is a lie you’ve made an agreement with. So at some point in leaders’ journeys, they have made an agreement with a lie that has then defined their leadership, their charisma, everything. A cobweb is a medicator that brings false comfort to that lie.
What happens is, the reason the book is called Kill the Spider—churches and leaders spend way too much time dealing with the cobwebs. Clean the cobwebs: 5 steps to a better marriage, 3 steps to budget your money, 4 steps to stop looking at pornography. You know, that stuff is important, but that’s not going to give you freedom. Because what ends up happening, what happened to me, is I did that over and over and over—but I kept going back to the same mistakes. I realized I needed to stop cleaning the cobwebs and find the lie that I made an agreement with and break it. When that happened, I’m telling you, friend, it was freedom. I thought I was living a free Christian life. I was on stages, leading worship, but I hadn’t even touched the potential of freedom that was available to me once I broke the agreement with the lie, once I killed the spider. That’s why it’s important.
Was there a fallen leader in your life who inspired this topic?
“But we’re walking in it, we’re swimming in spiritual warfare, but we don’t want to talk about the devil, don’t want to talk about the enemy. But he is a roaring lion, pouncing around the world trying to devour us, but we don’t want to talk about it.”
It was me. I fell. I had a traumatic moment in my life in 2011. It’s in the book too. I lost my family. This was right at the height of my worship leading, two record deals in. Even after the Lord reconciled my marriage and things were awesome, I remember sitting in marriage counseling and my wife looking at me and going, “The goal is not to fix our marriage.” She’s like, “No. That’s over. That marriage is over. You’re putting a bandage on and you have internal bleeding.” I had to realize in that moment, I had been trying to fix my marriage, I had been trying to clean the cobwebs. And that’s what people do. Honestly in marriage counseling, you look at statistics, and it’s not working. People are trying to fix up something as opposed to getting to the root of where they’re bound and in chains.
In my book I really help people identify, locate, corner their spider, their lie. I think you can do all that in therapy. But you’re never gonna kill the spider in the therapist’s chair. That is where you’re going have to step into spiritual warfare that, to be honest with you, most of the churches I’ve been a part of, don’t talk about. But we’re walking in it, we’re swimming in spiritual warfare, but we don’t want to talk about the devil, don’t want to talk about the enemy. But he is a roaring lion, pouncing around the world trying to devour us, but we don’t want to talk about it.
So my book, what I feel like it’s doing, it’s helping people maybe who’ve never stepped into this world of spiritual warfare. Because forever I didn’t. But I found freedom through that, through the Holy Spirit coming in and me confessing, rejecting and replacing that lie with God’s truth. And then freedom came. All I want to do is give people freedom and let them have it. Because I thought I was free, and I wasn’t.
You have ministered full-time in the church in the past and now you’re traveling and seeing the breadth of congregations across the country. What are churches lacking?
They’re not focused on the agreements people are bound to. . . . But Jesus gave us the same authority, the same power in his resurrection. The same power that moved that stone when he was resurrected—it says in Scripture it’s in us. Here’s the thing about Christians: they don’t want to go there because it’s scary. This is why it’s scary: what if I pray the blood of the cross, the power of the resurrection, the authority of Jesus in me, to heal my cancer—and it doesn’t get healed? That’s why people don’t pray that. Because they’re scared. We’ll pray for miraculous things but what if God doesn’t answer it? Maybe He’s not real? And we’re scared of that. But the second we’re done being scared of that. I’ll tell you, friend, my prayer life, it’s daily that I am like blown away. I’ll stand up in coffee shops and say, “Did anyone else see the Holy Spirit just land here?” Because Jesus is just so blatantly in everything.
I just think the American evangelical culture, they’ve done a version of church that is very attractional. “Let’s get people in here by doing cover songs,” things like that. But I think they’re finally at the point where they see people will come because they’re desperate for Jesus. Jesus is going to give them freedom. I’m encouraged because I’m seeing that happen more and more and more.
John 10:10 says, “I have come that they may have life.” Most people put a period right there. But it says, “I have come that they may have life to the full.” Some translations, “life with abundance.” What I did forever, I struggled with anxiety and depression, panic attacks. And I stopped. I said, “I just wish God would give me life—period. I just wish that I could not have anxiety and then I could breathe and get to heaven.” That is like the worst version of Christianity available to us. Because I didn’t see “and abundance.”
Romans 8:6 talks about life and peace. Both of these show life and something else. There’s this whole extra we’re missing out on as Christians because we just want to exist. We just want to become a Christian and wait for heaven as opposed to become a Christian and bring heaven. And I feel like that’s our call. We have that authority to bring heaven to earth.
I took antidepressants every day for 13 years. And that’s OK. Counseling, exercise, medicine, I did it all. I was like, “God’s given me enough strength to handle my anxiety.” I would say that out loud, onstage, in interviews like this: “God’s given you guys enough strength to handle your anxiety.” But Jesus didn’t come and die on the cross so we could cope. He came and died on the cross so we could be free.
Did all of this happen after your transition out of music?
Yes. After. Even after I was a worship leader and started speaking, I hadn’t stepped into this full authority that I have. I would really say only in the last 18 months. It’s funny I started writing Kill the Spider three years ago, but only about six months ago did I actually kill my spider. I was writing it as I was doing it. That’s why it took so long for the book to come out. I had finished a version of it and I was like, “I don’t know. I’m not free.” Once I finally got it, I feel like that’s how God had prepared me to walk it.
I’m not just talking about massive agreements and wounds and lies and spiders that were birthed when we were children. I’m talking about every day. Here I’m speaking at Catalyst. And I’m speaking right before Brené Brown. A lie that can form in my head is, “Oh, I’m her warm-up act. No one is going to pay attention to me.” I can make an agreement with that lie. Suddenly when I do that, now I’m not going to fulfill the potential that God has for me. So when that lie starts forming, I break it. I confess it. I reject it. I replace it. Now I get to step into the authority again. So it can be massive or little itty bitty spiders every day.
You’ve been in the spotlight, in front of President Obama, getting national attention with the “Single Ladies” video. How does that compare to life when you step offstage?
This stuff, you don’t need a lick of courage to do that. This stage does not give you courage. The courage you need to find is offstage in the deepest darkest corners of your soul. That’s where real courage steps in. Courage takes asking Jesus to reveal to you the lies and agreements you made, and when he does it’s not pretty. There’s a lot of leaders operating off of lies that they believe. I used to be life of the party. That was a part of me trying to cover up for something else. Now I’m just relaxed.
I spend time in conversational intimacy with Jesus every day. Through the Word, through my prayer—him speaking to me, me speaking to him. God tells me so many things all day every day. When you’re finally in the space of conversational intimacy, it’s nonstop. He is talking all the time if we’re listening.
Our culture obviously needs to step into freedom. We’re so divided and on edge right now. What can help us?
The word that defines my generation is hustle. I can’t think of anything that can lower the volume of God in our life more than the hustle we’re experiencing. I think one of the biggest answers to how on edge we are as a culture is slowing down. Everything is 1,000 miles an hour.
When Moses led the Israelites to freedom, they get to the edge of the Red Sea. The Egyptian army is coming after them. They start to freak out. “Why’d you lead us to Egypt to die in the desert? We’d have rather been slaves.” Moses said, “Stand still and you will see the Lord today. Stand still.” And sure enough, they stood still, took a breath, and the sea split wide open and they were rescued.
If we stand still, we’re going to hear from God more, and we’re also going to hear other people. We’re so opinionated. In our Twitter culture we’re so back and forth, trying to convince people of our way. I think if we slow down and listen, gosh I think there can be a revival that happens inside our hearts. Peace. Pause. Less hustle. More hesitation.
Find out more about Carlos Whittaker and his new book: carloswhittaker.com