John McDougall: Hi, I’m John McDougall and I’m here with Shaelyn Pham, psychologist and speaker and best‑selling author of “The Joy of Me”.
Shaelyn, can you share your Christian conversion story and a little bit about your background?
Shaelyn Pham: Thank you John for having me to speak with you about this. I came to know Jesus Christ when I was about nine years old. It was back in Vietnam when my mom, she heard it on the radio through some sort of podcast.
The next thing you know she dragged my sister and I to a local church and from there we went through the whole bible study and I got baptized soon after that.
John: Wow. Did you say she heard a podcast?
Shaelyn: She did! She heard some sort of podcast, something on the radio, on a Christian radio. It’s wonderful when you can do things through the radio medium.
John: So, that inspired her and, sorry, how old were you when that happened?
Shaelyn: I was about nine, eight or nine.
John: Is that when you got into it deeply, or was it later in life, or what’s the progression of it?
Shaelyn: At the time, because mother said “you go to church with me”, then “yes ma’am”. I went with her and we did study. Then, for the longest time, I went — you know I did enjoy it, but when I hit teenage years, like most teenagers, I don’t know if anybody else can relate, but I didn’t want to go to church.
At the time, I tried to wiggle my way out, find whatever reason. The one reason that I found that was very helpful at times was, “I have a lot of homework to do”. That’s the one thing I could get away with. Anything else, I couldn’t get away with. You had to go to church, otherwise, I hate to say this phrase but, “you’re going to go to hell”.
John: So you’d say, “but I have to do my homework” to try and get out of it? That is clever.
John: That was smart.
Shaelyn: I think education was so important to my parents and so that’s the one thing that I could get away with. If I say, “I’m sick”, well my mom would check on me because she is in the medical field so she knows.
I could say, “I just have a lot of homework” and I can get away with that because when we came, my parents they didn’t know that much English, it’s very limited. So, I can just, you know, I think, pull out a book and say I have to do this whole reading of two chapters or something else I have to do it, I get away with that — don’t tell my parents I just said that.
Shaelyn: Going through the whole teenage years, I feel like I was obligated to go a lot of time because of my parents said that, “You have to go.” So when I was able to make my own decisions, that’s when I moved out of the house.
After college I moved down to California for grad school, I just stopped going to church. But also in my late teenage years there was some trauma that happened to me, some sexual trauma that happened to me and that was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.
That was my last straw. I said, “If God really exists, why did this happen to me? What did I ever do to deserve such a thing?” I was really angry and at the time, I didn’t even realize this, but even in my anger I never really turned away from him, I was actually talking to him but very angry. I was saying, “You don’t exist, if you did you wouldn’t let this happen to me.” I was really angry.
John: That makes sense.
Shaelyn: When I really found a way, was when I moved down here but then every now and then I feel, like, really guilty, so then I would go back every now and then just to give me that sense of peace. I’d say, “Hey I can do a good Christian deed somehow” and…
John: But you had moved to L.A from somewhere else or…
Shaelyn: Yeah. I moved to L.A from Tacoma Washington actually, in Washington.
John: That’s a big change, now you are in a city of temptation et cetera.
Shaelyn: It was, I didn’t have my parents behind my back and nagging me and telling me that I should be going to church otherwise go to hell.
I pretty much did whatever I want. That was also the time of exploration and you’re talking about temptation, I did a lot of things and tried a lot of things and at one point when I was…I was almost finished with my doctorate degree and I remember I was like, “OK, I have set out to accomplish this. I have a list of all the goals I was to do.”
I was pretty much checking things off despite the fact that I was a, I want to call “wild child”, at the time.
But I felt really empty and I didn’t know what else I could do because it doesn’t matter what I accomplished, it just doesn’t seem to fill that void or that emptiness and I remember I went to a Christian college actually. It’s called Seattle Pacific University.
I reached out to an old friend of mine, at the time, and he recommended a book for me to read. I read the book and it helped a little bit. It was The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.
John: Yeah, that’s a great book.
Shaelyn: I read the book. I couldn’t finish it though. When I got to the chapter that said you need to get involved in the community, find a church to go to, that was when I closed the book and never picked it up again. Because I just didn’t have a good experience of going to church, that a church can really solve it all. I think it is really the work of the spirit.
One afternoon I was going to this outdoor mall. It’s called the Spectrum. It’s down in Irvine, CA. I wanted to pick up a book, and particularly I like C.S. Lewis. He was actually an atheist before he came to know Christ. I wanted to pick up a book, so, I walk into the Barnes and Noble, but then I was like, you know what, forget it.
I walked passed Barnes and Noble and I felt this tug in my heart, that I have to go in there. I turned around, walked into Barnes and Noble, and I was asking the clerk where can I find C.S. Lewis. They told me, “upstairs”. So, I walked upstairs and there was — you know how in Barnes and Noble they set up all the chairs for people to sit and read?
John: Yeah, it’s good.
Shaelyn: I walked up to this section, and there was this older gentleman. I think he was in his 50’s or 60’s at the time. He was in one chair. There was a small coffee table and another chair that was empty. I was just browsing through, picked up a book. It’s called A Problem with Pain. It was C.S. Lewis.
When I was browsing through, this guy just looked up at me and he has the biggest smile on his face. He was like, so you enjoy reading C.S. Lewis too? I was like, “yeah”, so I asked him, “can I sit down, is the chair taken”? He was like, “no”.
So we’re just sitting there, we talked from my school to life. We talked about philosophy, about spirituality, Christian and all this and that. I think it was like a three hour conversation.
John: Wow, in Barnes and Noble. That’s impressive, standing by the C.S. Lewis books.
Shaelyn: It was a three hour conversation, I was like OK. At the time, I was like, OK, it’s about dinner time, I’m going to need to get out of here, because I want to go shopping too. I love shopping. I was like, OK, I’ve got to go, buy some clothes and go grab some food. So, I walk out and we exchange business cards before I go out.
When I was out shopping, I receive a call from him, and he’s like, you know what you’ve got to eat, I’ve got to eat, we have such a good restaurant here, would you like to just have dinner with me? I’m like, sure, why not, since we’re already here, it’s out in public, I’m not really concerned about my safety.
We end up having dinner and then he invited me to church. Also, it just happened that it was Saddleback Church. It’s the church that’s founded by Rick Warren.
John: Oh, that’s interesting.
Shaelyn: It was. Whether its coincidence or whether its miracle, whatever you want to call it. That was one of the major churches that I had heard of, because as I had spoke, I am aware of it since I live in southern California. Because it’s so huge, I never really had the courage to go there, because it’s so big. I don’t want to get lost in it.
I was like, you know what, I’ll meet in the parking lot, and we can just walk in. I met him on that Sunday. We walk in and it was Doug Fields was his name, he was a pastor there. He has his sermon and he was talking about forgiveness and our path.
I remember he did this little trick, it’s that magic paper — I don’t know what it’s called but, when you lit the paper, you light on fire, and then he just threw it on the air and it just vanished. That is so powerful. He used it as an analogy that when — you know, it doesn’t matter what your sins are, what you have done, this is how forgiveness looks like. When you come to Christ and ask for forgiveness, your sins just disappear like that piece of paper.
I get the concept. I understand. Growing up and learning about the Bible, I’m aware of that, but that image, it was something that just resonated, stayed. That instant when that piece of paper disappeared, I felt like my whole world was just turned upside‑down.
Everything just lifted and my shoulders, off of my shoulders. I felt so much lighter. From there, I rededicate my life and baptize and trying to be a Christ follower. I guess the rest is history.
John: That’s amazing. It’s a very specific story. From the tugging on your heart, going into Barnes and Noble, meeting a specific person, the whole little bit about CS Lewis books is very specific, and then that leading to dinner and then church. That’s incredible. That’s a beautiful story.
Shaelyn: Thank you. It just seems like everything’s just following from one step to the next to the next, and I couldn’t picture or orchestrate any better than that.
John: How do you keep inspired now? You’re still living in LA. There’s still temptations, and we’re all not perfect. Sometimes life just gets depressing or tiring, and there’s so much work. How do you keep uplifted in modern life?
Shaelyn: One thing that I have, after I came back, learned more about the words and also learned more in terms of…because the profession I’m in, in psychology, then I have come to a new appreciation for the Bible.
I think for me and probably most people, growing up in church, a lot of times, you’re taught to live by the Bible. A lot of things that we do is out of fear or guilt that you should be doing this, otherwise you are going to pay consequences or some repercussions.
What I have found is that we forget the true meaning. It’s not about fear, but it’s about love. That’s what keeps me motivated. The things that I do now is not because I’m fearful or I feel guilty that I should be doing it, but I’m doing it because one, I want to do it, and two is that knowing sort of like a father who’s so loving to you.
The guidelines that he’s put forth is not to make you feel guilty or to control you, but it’s in the way that it’s helping you, guiding you, in the course of life that is best for you. Because he loves you, he puts that out for you. I, in turn, loved him enough not to try to hurt him by hurting myself.
John: Very well put, yeah.
Shaelyn: That’s what it really boiled down to at the end for me, is I’m doing it because one, I want to, and because it’s motivated by love. It’s not by guilt.
John: That’s beautiful. That’s an inspiring story, and I appreciate it. What about your book? Is there any tie‑in to that, or what inspired you to write your book?
Shaelyn: There’s a lot of tie‑in into the book. As I’m talking about the guilt, I remember seeing patients who were also believers that have this guilt that they should be doing this or they should be doing that.
They grow up trying to get their parents’ approval. Then they’re also trying to earn God’s approval or earn God’s love and grace. We know that grace is freely given, and there’s absolutely nothing that you can really do to earn God’s love because he already loves you.
That’s part of the inspiration for the book, is learning to recognize that love and also how to love yourself. A lot of times people, you may have heard, that people say you can’t love other people until you love yourself first.
When asked, people get that theory, but when you say OK, you need to start taking the time out, the tangible things, to do something for you, it’s like no, you can’t do that. That’s too selfish. You have to make sacrifices, so it’s really mixed messages.
That’s part of the reason why it led me to write the book, is really to boil down to, in order for you to really love yourself, you have to take care of yourself.
When you’re truly taking care of yourself, then your needs will be met so that when you do things for other people or taking care of them and love them, you’ll be able to do it unconditionally and not just doing it with the hope that it will get reciprocated or unconsciously hoping or expecting that the favor that you’ve done will be returned.
John: That sounds like a really strong tie‑in. How can people find your book? Do you have a website, and where is it for sale?
Shaelyn: You can find the book worldwide now, actually. It’s available anywhere, but right now, nowadays, we live in the age of technology. It’s available in e‑format on Amazon, and you can also visit my website at doctorshaelynpham.com or thejoyofme.com.
John: Well, really nice talking to you today, Shaelyn, and look forward to talking to you again soon. Thank you, everyone, for listening to conversionstories.org podcast.
Shaelyn: Thank you so much.
John: See you later.
Shaelyn: I’ll talk to you later.