Hey, I’m Matthias Roberts

Matthias Roberts profoundly understands what it is to be ashamed. In fact, the psychotherapist has written a book about the subject. Entitled Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms, he explores the topic with deftness, questioning the ethics and paradox of sex and how Christianity makes taboo what is a natural part of the human experience. Using stories of unnamed clients and his own personal struggles growing up queer in a conservative Evangelical Christian household in rural Iowa, we see how harmful ideas about sex and sexuality are reinforced through religious dogma. He mentions, for example, that among his first encounters with sex was his mother asking him to close his eyes at the sight of nudity, be it a Victoria Secrets ad, a billboard for a sex shop or a TV show. There was something inherently “bad” about seeing the human body in its most authentic state, even though, unbeknownst to his parents, his interest, lay in the men’s underwear aisle in Walmart.

It’s no surprise his mother would share in this puritanical worldview. If you read the Bible, the very first recognition of shame occurred in the book of Genesis when the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat from the tree that God forbade. Eve later shared her bounty with Adam, bringing both of them awareness of their shame and nakedness. Replying to God Adam said in Genesis 3:10: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

It is both remarkable and paradoxical that, as humans, much like Adam, we choose to hide ourselves as a means of coping with shame. One would expect the act of being open and vulnerable and figuratively naked would absolve us of shame, but it has been perverted through religion to be shame’s accomplice. It forces us to hide the parts of us that make us self-conscious, that make us uncomfortable and that make us hate ourselves, which Matthias explores in his book: “Shame makes us turn away. When we feel its flush, we automatically look down, or to the nearest exit, or anywhere but toward its source.”

It was at 11 years old that Matthias became aware that he was “different” from other boys and also that this difference was something to be abhorred. In an interview with Christian music and Grammy-nominated recording artist Jennifer Knapp, Matthias describes this period of his life, “I started begging God: “Please, can you just make me normal? I don’t want to live this way. I don’t want to be gay. I don’t want to go to hell.” This awareness was exacerbated when he went to summer camp the following year and glanced at an opened copy of The Extreme Teen Bible which had a list of hot-button questions and the corresponding scriptures of what the Bible says about them. When he saw: “What does God think of homosexuality?” he knew he had to get the book.

He asked his parents to buy it for him and did chores to amass the $15 that it cost. He described the moment it arrived at his house in the interview with Knapp, “I remember getting it in the mail, waiting for my parents to leave the house, opening it up, finding that question and opening the Bible up to Leviticus and seeing ‘men who lie with men should be stoned and thrown into the pit of hell.’ I shut the Bible and just was terrified, and remember thinking, “Oh no, that’s me, I don’t want to be stoned, the Bible actually says this is horrible?’ I was terrified, I was terrified.”

At 15, Matthias came out to his parents. Of this disclosure, he said they “did the best they could.” His mother told him, “You are going to have to make some hard choices in your life. You cannot be in a relationship with Jesus and another man at the same time.” Throughout high school and college, his parents would suggest conversion therapy. Instead, while a freshman at John Brown University, a small Christian college in Northwest Arkansas, he spoke to a therapist who taught him the idea of “separation,” which was the official position supported by his university. Separation meant that you could affirm your sexuality without practicing homosexuality; in other words, live a life of celibacy.

Matthias couldn’t accept that there was no other alternative. He made it a mission to further educate himself on the subject to also combat the unwavering opinion of his parents, which he described to Knapp: “I kept my parents in the loop, as I started kind of diving into scripture, because I think I thought at the time, if I find all these arguments and then present them to my parents in ways that make sense to me, they’re going to change their mind just like I will. I started getting these 10-page long letters from my dad telling me how wrong I was, and I think that was kind of the thing of me realizing like, “Okay, wait. If I’m going to convince my parents, I need to know this way better than I currently do.” So, if I get a master’s in this, then maybe my parents will change their minds.”

Matthias did get his master’s but has given hope that his parents will evolve in their perspective.

What led him on a path of self-acceptance was a lot of therapy and discovering that there were other queer people out there who found a home in Christ in a church community that didn’t force them to forsake who they were, “That was when I started really diving into theology and scripture, and trying to parse out is there another way in here that I haven’t been told about, and sure enough, there was.”

Given all his struggles and the trauma of his youth, it’s a marvel that he was able to find wholeness beyond shame, as he describes in his book: “When we experience shame from our parents, the church, or society at large, we find our thoughts narrowed, our stress hormones raised, and even our ability to fight disease diminish. Fundamentally, when we feel sexual shame, we feel unworthy of love and belonging from those we love and from God. We are profoundly isolated, and we believe we deserve it. To put it simply, shame hurts, and pleasure heals.”

Certainly, the pleasures Matthias has gained through professional and spiritual successes the past three years have brought him great healing as well. While toiling away in Chicago for a non-profit post-undergrad with a degree in graphic design and a longing to be a writer, he went on to The Seattle School to study theology and culture. He later completed his second master’s in counseling psychology. So, it was a crowning achievement for him to tie all the loose ends of all his interests in a career that serves his soul and his life’s purpose. In addition to his work as a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington, he also hosts Queerology: a Podcast on Belief and Being, that various publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, have recognized for its important work.

Matthias has interviewed an array of voices with expertise in theology, psychology, literature and the arts that bring their own unique perspective to the discussion of how queer people can find a home in the faith community, one that doesn’t force them to deny or alter who they are and recognize their true virtue as children of God.

All the extraordinary work Matthias has dedicated his life to in dismantling shame and fortifying the spirits of his queer clientele and listeners has been to help restore faith in LGBTQ people and LGBTQ people in faith, starting with himself. His mission echoes a hopeful scripture from, Zephaniah (3: 19-20), an obscure book of the Old Testament, where Yahweh, the god of the Israelites, spoke about the restoration of the exiled Jewish people: “Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.”

We spoke to Matthias about how his childhood trauma was a catalyst for his successes and about his work at the crossroads of religion and psychology.

What does it feel like to be an abomination? 

In some ways it is hard to put language around it because it’s such a feeling of shame. I think shame is the best word for it; there’s something so wrong with me that if people knew they wouldn’t even want me in their lives. I’ll be ostracized. I’ll be kicked out. No one will want me. That’s genuinely what I believed when I was a kid. I read the verse in Leviticus that says “Men who lie with men should be stoned” or whatever that verse says. Even though it’s not like people were going around stoning people in my community, it felt like a real possibility for some reason.

What advice would you give to a young queer person dealing with the same struggle you endured?

I think the first thing I would say is you’re not an abomination. No matter what people are saying in your community, no matter what people are telling you, no matter how you read it in scripture. Hold on to the reality that you are made unique, that you are special. It may not feel like it right now, but eventually your queerness will become something that you celebrate and it’s a beautiful thing, so hold on until that can happen. 

Is there anything that you are still ashamed of? 

Of course. We don’t ever get rid of shame. I think it’s a lifelong journey and I think much of our work is to realize shame is present. It’s part of human nature. It’s part of relationships. I mean that it’s there. The question is how do we work with it? How do we learn to work with our shame in a way that helps us be healthy with it instead of moving into unhealthy coping mechanisms?

Why did you go to theology school?

I had so many questions about myself, about my queerness, about my faith. My faith was and has continued to be something that’s really important to me and it didn’t feel like something I wanted to give up. Yet, I was surrounded by all of these people who were telling me that I couldn’t speak for myself or I couldn’t speak on what I was learning or reading about scripture or theology. So, for me, I hope that going to theology school would give me this feeling of authority within my own self because, quite honestly, I was doubting my own experience and my own voice. I also wanted to learn how to reconcile my faith with my sexuality. I had done some work before going to get my theology degree, but I wanted that space to actually be able to ask these big questions and be able to explore it in a way that felt like there was space. I dove in and got formally trained in how to do theology. I also realized in the process it didn’t matter to the people who were criticizing me or questioning my voice, what qualifications I had. but I started to realize and trust that my experience is valid, and I can rest in that.

You also pursued a degree in counseling psychology. What exactly is narrative-based therapy, and can you explain how it helped you to heal, if it did? 

Narrative-based therapy is a form of therapy. People practice it in different ways. The way I practice it is diving deep into your story, your childhood memories, these things that happened in life that would be considered trauma in one way or another. I’m not necessarily talking about what I would call “capital T” trauma but the smaller things: these stories that kind of stick with you, where there might have been a little bits of hurt—your parents might have said one thing that you always remember and can’t forget but can’t really realize like, “Why do I remember that?” Diving into those stories and seeing places where there was actual trauma. Like for me, personally—that little boy who needed something in that moment and he didn’t get it. So how do we work with that? And then what happened? What did that little boy do to himself to say, “I’m not going to need that from my parents again” or so on and so forth. It’s a lot of story work. 

What can you say to anyone reading this about trauma and the healing that therapy can bring?

Queerness is not super accepted, whether it be in society at large or especially if you grew up within a conservative Christian home. So much of our harm and our trauma come from relationships, and relationships with specific people. That does something to us and makes it hard to live life. I think the beauty of therapy, at least some modality of therapy, is that you’re doing work within a relationship and so much shame work, so much trauma work. Because it occurred in the context of a relationship it can only be healed in the context of a relationship. We don’t have the ability to see and work with those things just by ourselves. And so, I think the beauty of therapy is you’re bringing in someone to rework that relational harm and find actual healing.

As your practice and focus is centered around helping LGBTQ folks, I wonder whether you think that you are treating the symptoms rather than the source of the problem? And if so, what can be done to treat the problem more holistically? 

Absolutely! It very much depends on the client that I’m working with, their goals and what they want. Sometimes families are open to it and if a client wants to bring in people for a session or two, we can work on some of that stuff. Oftentimes, though, a lot of the queer folks I see their families are very resistant to it and don’t want to do that work. And so, then our work starts being, “Well, how do we actually still heal them when we don’t have family who’s going to engage in that healing with us?” 
 
There’s a huge difference between therapy and working on those larger issues. I see therapy as being a place for healing and I want to work with queer folks on how we actually heal from the harm that’s been done to us. The bigger societal change I think also needs to happen. So, working on activism, working on changing laws, working on kind of those bigger things. I see my work intersecting those areas. Therapy, working with queer folks on healing, with my podcasts, my writing, the work that I do in community is a lot more focused on that kind of structural change in some ways. 

Why does it seem that the Christian faith would prefer to keep people from learning or thinking independently? Why is information deemed inherently bad?

I think there are a couple reasons: one is it’s just a natural human nature to fear what we don’t know, and I think there are many different ways that they start working with that fear. I think in the Christian church, at least in the last 15 hundred years but arguably throughout history, the way that they work with that fear is through control, is through setting up very strict kind of black-and-white roles around what is okay and what is not, what makes you in what makes you out, as far as in the church. That’s a very effective way of working with fear. It’s a very effective way for people to be able to say, “Those people are not us and here’s why and they’re not welcome here.” Of course, no one would ever actually, well some people do actually say that out loud, but a lot of people in my community that I grew up in, they would say things like well, “We love them but…” So, I think it comes down to fear and a lack of imagination around difference in the world and difference in God’s creation. 

Are some religious people unable to be “saved”?

The short answer, I think, yeah. The longer answer—the way I work, there’s a difference between the people who are so adamantly convinced of their positions and just want to debate and argue and fight versus people who are actually curious and wanting to look at their beliefs and figure out what is actually going on here. There’s a vast difference between those kinds of people. Do I want to say that all of the people who have their heels dug in like there’s no hope for them? I don’t know, but I also know that I have given up in some ways of working with those people because they have to make some movement within themselves for there even to be work possible. My mind goes to a passage of scripture where Jesus is talking and says, “There will be a moment where people will come to Jesus and say, ‘Lord, Lord, I have done all of these things in your name.’ And Jesus will say to them, ‘Depart from me. I never knew you.’” That passage was given to me as a queer person, saying, “You’re blasphemous, you’re saying all of these things in God’s name. And he’ll say this to you.” I now think about that passage of flipping that right back around. All of these people are doing things that are so harmful to queer people in the name of religion, in the name of Christianity. And I think we’ll be in for a surprise. I do.

You have a peculiar focus at the intersection of theology, psychology and culture, what have you learned in your studies about the religious mind?

I had a professor in graduate school who would say, “Your theology can only be as good as your psychology.” When I first heard that I was like “This is so interesting.” but as I’ve sat with that, I think it’s true because I think that starts to explain how religion can be used in so many different ways. There’s the religion that is so harmful and is used in such harmful ways. There are also people in the world who practice their religion in a way that actually embraces compassion and love and goodness and are bringing that into the world. I think a lot of that speaks to our psychology, whether we’re operating out of fear or a place of being grounded. I could go on and on, but I think that gets to the root of it. Some of us use religion to conquer our fear and we buy into these systems of black and white, rigid control. Others find religion to be a much more expansive space about connection. 

Does God live in the mind? 

That’s a question that people have been debating about for millennia. I don’t know that I have a necessarily good answer for that. I love the way that Brené Brown talks about spirituality. She uses a simple definition of “that which connects us.” There is something that connects people, a metaphysical energy, the divine, the universe, whatever language you want to put on it. Both exist within us but also outside of us and what that balance is? I’m not sure. I don’t know. 

How is your relationship with your parents today?

It’s not what I wish it was. My parents aren’t supportive of me. I do still have a relationship with them. It’s not great, it’s not bad. We talk to each other, we get together.

What advice would you give to a young queer person who hasn’t yet had their ‘aha moment’ or know how to recognize it?

I would say, “Keep looking.” Also, “Just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you need to be an activist. Just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you need to jump into a public life or even living a life where you feel like you have to be working on changing these systems.” Some people feel really passionate and called to do that. Other people just want to live a life. Living just an ordinary life is a beautiful thing and a very good thing. This idea of finding your passion, sure, keep looking for it, keep searching yourself for what that might be. If your passion is just finding a spouse or a partner or not finding a spouse or a partner and living a life that’s wonderful. That’s a good thing. 

What’s the best piece of advice you never got?

I’m going to tell you some advice I got but it came later on in life. It’s advice that I wish I would have gotten as a kid. A woman by the name of Kristen Bell—and not the Kristen Bell that’s on TV—but Kristen Bell said, “You’ll be criticized for who you are and who you are not, so you might as well be who you are.” That was deeply meaningful to me.

If you didn’t have to worry about being successful, what would you do with your life?

I feel like I sit in a place right now where I am doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I feel like this work that I’m doing, I feel like I’ve been working so long and so hard to get to a point where I can actually do this work and survive from a monetary perspective. It still blows my mind daily that this is the work I get to do in the world and realize it’s a huge privilege. But I wouldn’t change what I’m doing right now.

Know a Freshfruit of the Week, send us your nominations and reasons why they should be selected to contact [at] freshfruitinc [dot] com with “FFOW Nominee” in the subject line.

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