Reformers Interview: Untangling Emotions with Alasdair Groves and Ed Welch

Watch our full interview with Alasdair Groves and Ed Welch here.

Here are some short clips from the interview.

Why we should love biblical counselling?

 What book is a good introduction to biblical counselling?

 What do emotions communicate?

How can we engage with one another's emotions? --- Alasdair's answer 

How can we engage with one another's emotions? --- Ed's answer  

 How can we engage with God in our emotions? --- Alasdair's answer 

How can we engage with God in our emotions? --- Ed's answer 


Full transcript:

TE: G'day, Tom here from Reformers Bookshop with another Reformers Interview. We're very privileged to have Alasdair Groves with us. Welcome, Alasdair.

AG: Thanks for having me.

TE: As well as Ed Welch, Ed, it's great to see you.

EW: Thanks Tom.

TE: Alasdair and Ed, you're both involved with biblical counselling, can you tell us why we should love biblical counselling? What do you love about it?

AG: Well, I love getting to train with guys like Ed. Ed's at fault here for getting me into this whole thing from the start. But I think for, the short version for me of biblical counselling and why I love it, and I appreciate the question being framed that way, is that it is the gospel coming into the hardest parts of your life. So as a Christian, I've believed the gospel all my life, but there's something about asking the question, okay, how does the bible, how does a relationship with the Lord? How does being designed for a certain purpose? How does having a certain understanding of what the problems are of sin and suffering? How does that shape our theology and our applied theology, our practical efforts to say, okay, this is really hard in your life and where would the Lord meet you in that? I just love it. It's ever fresh, its new. It works differently with each person, and yet the core, hey, you were made to be in a relationship with the Lord, and that is gonna have some profound impact on whatever your struggle is, is a simple generating source. So, that's what I like about it.

EW: I'd say something similar that, how would you like to, to number one, to be inviting and hear the things on people's hearts, the good things on people's hearts and the really hard things on people's hearts. That's a privilege in itself, its people entrusting their lives to you. Second, how would you like to, together with that person, hear really, really good things from scripture, no matter what the struggle is, that scripture is good news through and through. So who can beat that? For good news, it goes deeper than anything a human could invent, to the details of life. It's what we all wanna do with scripture.


TE: And so to that end, you're both involved with CCEF, which is a biblical counselling organisation. Can you tell us a bit about what CCEF does?

AG: You've been around it longer than I have, so that's you.

EW: Let's see, we've just had our 50th anniversary, which it's been quite a while, we've been going at it and really essentially is the question, how does the scripture speak to the details of life? And, it's this wonderful enterprise that we recognise, we are part of this flow of church history and we wanna be responsible with it and hand it on to people like Alasdair who will do it better than we have.

AG: That CCEF, we have three sort of areas of ministry. There's a counselling ministry, where we do a lot of counselling and then, it's actually kind of looks like a little castle, it really is like the grand parts at the top of the wall in Philadelphia, where in the US where the site is, but so there's counselling that happens, and then there's a fair amount of teaching that happens in the School of biblical counselling. And then we produce resources like the ones that have brought us here today. But it's been really, it's really neat to see how those intersect. And in the counselling room, what we do, shapes our understanding of who people are and the questions we're missing about how Scripture speaks into people's issues, and it sharpens us and gives us sensible, even if we have a clear bead on what do you need, how do you actually communicate that in a way that someone will receive and that can help them, all the wise thoughts in the world aren't very effective if they're not communicated in a way that someone can receive. So that then spills over into our teaching and our teaching that intends to ultimately crystallise into books and blogs and other various resources on our website. And then those are the things that people hear and see and read, and lead people to come for counselling. So it's kind of a neat cycle that the ministry has.


TE: Yeah, that's very holistic. And you mentioned teaching, you're over here, you have been brought over by Biblical Counselling Australia, to do a teaching series around the country. And so, us Australians, we can connect with a biblical counselling group in Biblical Counselling Australia. And I think in all those ways around the getting training, they run these workshops as well as you provide access to counsellors on their website. So there's that counselling aspect. And then there's also, the accreditation sign that's coming on board which is great.

AG: The trick with with BCA is their website name. If you're listening from the US, it's, but it's counselling with two L's, so I will never be able to find the website, I just, it's not gonna work for me, I don't think my keyboard even will let me type two L's in a row. But that's the place to go to get the details on them. It's really, if I can just quickly add, it's been really cool to be here and to see that this is a live and growing thing and I wasn't sure exactly what to expect not having been here as an adult and I came to Australia as a kid, but I am, it's just, it struck me today as we were teaching just how much of a sense of momentum and movement there is, of people really saying this biblical counselling thing I really want to engage with. I want to be a part of this. This really matters to my church and to to our life. And so anyway, I'm seeing what BCA is doing has been exciting to me personally.


TE: Excellent, excellent. Now I've been asked a few times, working in a bookshop, I've been asked by people who are interested in biblical counselling, what they should read first. Now apart from telling them to go to Biblical Counselling Australia, what book do you think is a really good introduction into biblical counselling?

EW: That should not be such a stumper.

AG: He shouldn't have to think about this, shouldn't he?

TE: He said that there's too much.

EW: It's, I wouldn't say that we have not devised together, here's this logical entry into this burgeoning material. So, in that sense, there are all kinds of entries, it can be, if you're struggling with a particular problem, there are booklets and books on particular problems. And that becomes an entry into this larger material that speaks to all kinds of different things and it gives you the pleasure of learning a little bit more how to help others. Caring for one another would be one book that within it has the guts of biblical counselling. It's offered in a very practical way. But the theological background for that particular book is less with biblical counselling is based on.

AG: I would actually I think say something similar on that, I think from most people find biblical counselling not because they're saying like, oh, wouldn't it be interesting to learn about biblical counselling, what books sort of gives the layout of the whole limb but people find it because their friend is depressed or they're experiencing shame and someone named a Ed Welch sort of book called Shame Interrupted, about something about the Bible and shame, that's where I need to go. So I think most people find their way in through that felt sense of I need help here. And Ed's really, I think, the one who's written the most number of fear and anger and shame and depression and addictions that Ed's written books on, so I think those are probably the most common ways to find your way in. If you are going to do a summary though, if you're just say, where do you start? I actually think either side by side or caring for one another would be my choices because those are the books really saying, what is the most straightforward way I can capture the breadth of scriptures instruction to us about how to love people in a very accessible way that does then invite lots more jumping off points.

EW: But I think you captured it well, where I don't think any of us came into biblical counselling because of a systematic theological texts that sort of drove us in that direction. It was issues in our own life, we saw scriptures speak more profoundly than we ever anticipated. Oh, the scripture is really alive and active. I want more, I want to see it in action. So it really did, I think for almost all of us, our personal stories are, it's scripture spoken new ways, and how does this happen and we want more of it, and we want to be part of it.


TE: Thanks, well, I mean, your most recent book with Winston Smith is Untangling Emotions. And I guess we all deal with emotions. So maybe this is a way that felt me can be an entry point for almost anyone. And I myself, found it very helpful. So thank you for writing it. One of the things in there that you talk about is how emotions communicate something. Can you tell us a bit about what it is that emotions communicate?

AG: Sure, I think that for me, one of the key insights into how does scripture process emotions in general was this realisation that as you read the Bible, once you see what's unfolding in terms of understanding our emotions, that it's really what we love, drives what we feel. If I love my child, I will feel fear when my child is in danger. I will feel anger when my child is being mistreated, I will feel hope my child has some exciting possibility, I will feel contentment and satisfaction when my child is growing in the gifts of the Spirit. And so I just, I wonder, not I wonder but I find it profoundly helpful to look at emotions as expressing a kind of value. Think of your emotions if, whenever there's big emotions, whether they're negative or positive, or whether they're godly or ungodly, they're telling me that the thing I'm feeling about is really important to me. So when I say emotions communicate, I'm fundamentally trying to underline this idea that, emotions are this expression of what we care about. And so if you listen to emotions, again, whether those emotions are leading you well or poorly, they're telling you, you really value this. It's a map of what you treasure, what's important to you.


TE: So that has implications for how we deal with our own emotions, which you flush out in the book. But one of the other things that you flush out, which I think links really beautifully with Ed's book, Caring for One Another, is how it can help us engage with other people. So practically, how do you see that working out in relationships?

AG: I'll take a quick stab and then you can you can jump in. I would say a couple of things. First off, and Ed even in his teaching today, I thought had some helpful categories of. Emotions are a place to speak, a place to share our emotions, and there's a selfish way that you can kind of steal all the attention in the room and grab the spotlight, and it's all about me and what I feel. But there is a right way to be someone who leads with vulnerability, who says, you know, here are the emotions. This is what's on my mind. This is where my encouragement is today, and here's where I'm anxious. And here's where I'm struggling. Here's what is really frustrating to me right now. And there's a way, again, you can share about happy things or sad things in a way that actually deflects attention and covers up what you're really feeling or you can just be this vulnerability that says, you know what, in Christ I'm literally safe and so I can share my own heart with anyone. And then I can listen. And there's a way in which when I hear what's going on in your heart, and when I'm moved by that, a profound connection has happened. So I think of Romans 12:15, right? Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. It doesn't say rejoice with those who rejoice and smack those mourners around and get them back to a happy place where they're trusting God the right way. There's this beautiful way in which the Lord has entered our world and He's entrusted with redemptive purposes but He has done that with a deep patience and walking with us and entered into, to must have been moved by our plate. So when we hear others emotions and when we respond by being moved and by sharing our own hearts, being hospitable, even in that sense, that is the core stuff of relationship. That's what God has asked us to do with him. And therefore what he calls us to do with each other.

EW: I was thinking about the specific illustration of marriage where, what do we aspire to in a good marriage, to know and to be known, that's the nature of life in God's family. And how are we known? It's the question. What is most important to my spouse? What is most important, which is essentially, what do they feel most deeply? What are their, where are their joys? What are their pains? What are their fears? We all know intuitively that good relationships, they grow out of that kind of mutual knowing, and so it's how do we know the heart of another person? How do we know what's on the heart? How do we know a person's emotions? They're really, they're very similar things, they're all just different ways of saying the same thing.


TE: And so, in that marriage relationship, but you could expand that into any friend relationship as well, that leaning in, when they mentioned something that they're feeling, is that where you're sort of talking about, moving in towards that just to know them more.

EW: Each person is an endless number of stories and pieces of information. And so we have to be selective in how do we really know the person? And I think what Alasdair's doing in his book, he's saying, this is the way in, what what moves the person? What are the things that they value the most? What are their loves? And where have they're their love has been thwarted? That's what we're listening for. So very practically one of the things you can do is next time you're in church and you have a conversation, listen for the emotions in another person and stick with them. Follow them. Tell me more about that. Well, it seems like that was exciting for you, seems like that was really hard. Tell me a little bit more. And notice how the conversation changes, and notice how the conversation begins to move people together a little bit more.


TE: Excellent, and I have three kids, and so one of the challenges.

EW: How old are they?

TE: My eldest is six.

EW: Approximately.

TE: And my youngest is three, so three to six.

EW: I'm sorry, you have three kids?

TE: Three kids, three, five and six.

EW: Three, five and six, I missed the five.

TE: And so one of the challenges with kids is how do you help them to engage with emotions? And Ed, you and David Powlison have written a few books to that end. The Good News for Little Hearts series. Can you provide some help, as a parent, can you provide some help to me, how I can help my children deal with their emotions?

AG: No pressure, but I'm listening too.

EW: A couple things. One is, it's hard to write children's books. That's one thing. It's a whole lot easier to speak with adults, you have to know things a lot better to be able to speak to children. But yeah, essentially one of the things we're trying to do with those books is what are the experiences, the emotional experiences common to humanity? Fear, anger, loss, grief, fear and anxiety. We're trying to hit some of those, as a way to do what all of us have stumbled on at some point in their lives. How does that, combination of what do I feel and what does God say? That's what we're after, to give voice to something in a child's heart. And we're saying that's important. That failure that you experienced, that's important, and it's important to the Lord. How does God speak to them? What we're looking for is a venue for parents to begin those conversations with their kids.

AG: Can I make one more comment just about these particular books. One thing that I found interesting, I was curious to see what would happen with the CCEF little book for little kids. And one of the things I appreciate is that there's sort of different options of ways to engage the book, and so the book is a story but then in the back there's thoughts for parents in helping engage with your kids. So it's a resource, kind of with a dual purpose there but even just just reading this, okay, what story will you put in anxiety or anger, and thinking about, just being forced to think about Jesus as a storyteller who made things accessible to children through parables, through stories. And I'm struck by the the profoundly accessible way that the gospel is brought to us. And it's easy as someone who spent a lot of time thinking and reading books about such things to forget just the wonderful simplicity with which any story can be used to point little people to Jesus and when it's very tangible and very like, Oh, yeah, the rabbit with a big ears, you know it, it sticks in a way that's really cool, so.


TE: And Alasdair, one of the things Ed mentioned there was that in the books for kids, he's trying to help them engage with what God says about what they're feeling. And you do the same thing, Alasdair in your book, you talk about how emotions not only should be engaged with ourselves and with others, but also with God. Is that simply us saying, well, God says don't feel that way or is it more complex than that?

AG: Yeah, that's pretty much it. Yeah, that would be nice actually, for some of us, I think if it was just that simple. No, my quick version and Ed you give yours, maybe there's, I'll just put a little note in the back of the book with whatever you say to add but, I think when I say engage emotions, one thing I'm thinking of is, first off, I'm trying to avoid that the dual dangers of just squash your emotions, don't feel them. Repent and get out of there. Don't think about it, don't listen to it. Or embrace, it's just, it is who you are and so you just have to embrace your emotions or whatever you feel, that's the most important thing about you and you need to do whatever you need to do to feel like you wanna feel. And so there's this middle way of listen to them, see what they have to say, see what it's telling you about what you value, see what you're doing with it or what you're doing to escape it, let yourself actually sit and examine what is happening in my heart here? What is this telling me about what I value? How am I handling this and then, but then recognising you can't examine your emotions without bringing them to the Lord, which is another thing, you can of course and it backfires, the circuit gets broken when you do that because our emotions were made to help us share God's heart. To hate what He hates, to love what He loves, to grieve what grieves Him. To be passionate about what excites Him. To delight in the things that delight Him. And so if our emotions are fundamentally an opportunity for us to share His heart, then every emotion, whether it's guilt or whether it's joy or sadness or anxiety, it's this tailor made opportunity, to come and hear His promises speaking into that situation. Come and hear His heart of compassion or of shared excitement or whatever the case may be. So all emotions were meant to lead us into relationship with the Lord, just as we are intended to connect with each other through sharing of emotion. And so in that sense, it should be a non sequitur, it should actually be impossible for us to experience joy even at a beautiful sunset without saying, oh, Lord, isn't this wonderful what you've made. Even that, kind of course become formulaic, right? Okay, I need to thank God for His sunset before I can leave. It's just, there's something right about what wells up in us, lifting our eyes to the Lord, for help, for thanks, for whatever the case might be.

EW: It's great encouragement to an adult's faith and child's faith to recognise the things that are important to them, which that's what our emotions are identifying, that God speaks to them a lot. And books like these, I think what they do is they just introduce the child, here's some of the things that God says, where adults recognises, and there's so much more, there's a lifetime more of things available. But I think the, sometimes I'm satisfied with just the first little step, that we speak these things to the God who hears, that that particular skill. Here's something I'm struggling with, something that I feel deeply and I'm stuck in it, I don't know what to do with it. Simply to speak these things to the Lord, for a child to learn how to be a psalmist early on and speak these things from their heart to the Lord. They can add other stanzas to the Psalms as their life goes on, but for that first step, to become established in a child's heart, that's, what a great gift that would be.


TE: Well, it's been a real joy talking with you and look forward to many people reading your new materials and being able to engage more with God and with each other.

EW: And thank you so much for your work, your careful work here in Australia. We appreciate that.

AG: Amen.