My Personal Story
by Walter L. Bradley, Ph.D.
I was raised in a Christian home and went to church regularly from the time I was born. While I never rebelled against my religious upbringing, it was not something to which I looked to meet my deepest needs for significance and security. I was persuaded that success was the key to happiness and fulfillment in life. Furthermore, my religious exposure was steeped in rules and regulations that seemed to constrain rather than to free me to do the things I wanted to do.
Like most high school students, my heart’s desire was to be popular with my peer-group as a means to the end of being happy, and I was sure that success was the key to that end. As a sophomore, I set ambitious goals in the various areas of my life with the confidence that if these goals were achieved, I would be recognized as a leader in my school and would be secure and happy in the popularity that would bring.
I pursued diligently my goals and had the good fortune of succeeding at a level that exceeded my most optimistic expectations. I graduated 3rd in a class of 600+, received 3 varsity letters in sports, was elected twice to school wide offices, and was well liked by my classmates. Yet, the success that I achieved in high school gave me only temporary satisfaction, leaving me feeling unfulfilled. Somehow there had to be more to life than I was experiencing.
A Big Fish In A Big Pond
I went to college in September 1961 as a poor 17-year-old from an inner-city high school, thinking that I had been a big fish in a small pond (in high school) and what I needed to be was a big fish in a big pond, which for me was the University of Texas. I was confident that if I could achieve the same level of success in college that I had achieved in high school, I would find the significance and security (or acceptance) which I so desired.
In a practical sense, success was my “god” during that period of my life–in that it was to success that I looked to have my deepest needs for fulfillment and happiness met. My university experience repeated the blessings and frustrations of my high school years; all of my dreams (or goals) came true but they did not ultimately satisfy me. I began to question whether success was the key to what I was searching for in life after all.
My questioning of the efficacy of success as my “god” was heightened by the examples of two of my fraternity brothers. These fellows seemed to have found an inner source of happiness that was not dependent on their circumstances. They were plain-vanilla average in every area of their lives (e.g., they were generic guys who made average grades, were average athletes, who drove average cars and dated generic girls). Yet they seemed to have an inner source of happiness which I could not understand.
When success is your “god,” circumstances becomes your dictator. When things were going my way, I was up and when things were going the other way I was down. Needless to say, I lived on a roller coaster, like most other students I knew in college.
I Was Surprised
As I began to discuss with them what made their lives different, not only from me but from most other students who I knew in college, I was surprised to learn that a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ was their source of significance, security and happiness. I was surprised because I had gone to church regularly growing up, but it had never had that kind of an impact in my life.
However, as I began to discuss with them their experience and contrast it to mine, I realized that I had never gone to church with the serious intention of cultivating a relationship with God. In fact, the possibility had never occurred to me. My stereotype of religion at that time was that to become more religious, I should stop doing the ten things I most enjoyed doing and start doing the ten things I least enjoyed doing. This was hardly a seductive picture to which me or anyone else would be drawn.
The picture my two fraternity brothers painted was quite different and was well illustrated by a human relationship that began to develop at about the same time. As a college freshman who was paying his whole way through college by working (before the days of generous financial aid which we have today), I determined to not get involved in any serious dating relationship, realizing that I could barely afford myself much less a steady girlfriend.
I would tease my friends when they would get infatuated with a new girlfriend, call her daily, send her flowers and candy, and invest heavily in time and money in the relationship, thinking I will never “flip out” like these guys are doing. As a poor engineering student, sending flowers seemed particularly irrational in view of the high cost and the short duration of such a gift.
Irrational Impulses To Send Flowers
However, at the beginning of my senior year in college, I began to date a young lady who was destined to change the way I thought about this whole matter. As I began to date Anne (who is now my wife of 33+ years), I began to fall in love. And my love for her began to change how I thought about many things. I began to have these irrational impulses to send her flowers and take her out on dinner dates (dinner plus a movie), which was a huge financial sacrifice for me at the time. Yet, I made these sacrifices with a great deal of pleasure because of my love for her.
At the time we got married, I had no regrets about the other young ladies I would no longer be able to take out, or my meager salary, which would now need to support two persons rather than one. My love for Anne made the real sacrifices seem almost effortless.
My friends shared with me that this was exactly how it is in a relationship with God. The changes which were sure to come would not be the result of disciplined self-effort from the outside in – but rather, would be the result of my new love for God transforming other areas of my life as well from the inside out. What a new and exciting picture this was. In this new relationship with God, God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, made possible through Jesus Christ could meet my deepest needs for significance and security.
This would free me from the fruitless pursuit of meaning and purpose in success alone and from the dependence on what other people thought of me. I could actually be free to be me, who I really am rather than who I think other people will like and accept, free from the prison of my circumstances in which I had been living. This sounded very exciting to me, but I had one major concern. Was it intellectually credible, and therefore, honest to believe in God and in Jesus Christ as God having stepped into history?
Rational Or Blind Romanticism?
I had heard many professors at my university ridicule such beliefs as being naïve and without basis. I wanted to know for sure whether such beliefs were rational or just blind romanticism. As I began to study the scientific evidence for the existence of God and the historical evidence that Jesus Christ was God stepping into history, I was pleasantly surprised to find a compelling amount of evidence (though not proof in the mathematical sense of proof).
The evidence persuaded me that it made more sense to believe than to not believe. In fact I have continued to study the scientific evidence for an intelligent Creator and have co-authored one book and contributed book chapters to several books on this subject, as listed in my Web pages. Excellent historical evidence that Jesus was in fact God stepping into history is best provided in the evidence for the resurrection. There are many excellent articles on both of these subjects and many others at this Leadership University Web site where you are currently located.
I was further impressed with the many examples of well known historical figures who set out to prove that Christianity was no more than a myth who, once familiar with the evidence became believers and followers of Jesus Christ. For example, Lew Wallace originally set out to write a book that would for all time destroy the myth of Christianity, but ended up writing instead Ben Hur, which purposefully presents Jesus as God stepping into history.
At this point in my journey, I decided it was time to try an experiment in the laboratory of life. My journey of exploration was much like my courtship of Anne. While it took seven months to decide to get married and five months of engagement to get ready for the wedding, it took less than five minutes to actually get married, and my life was forever changed in that five minutes. In much the same way, I came to the place of wanting to begin a personal relationship with God over the course of a year. In a simple prayer, I accepted God’s offer to forgive my sins and to give me remarkable opportunity to begin a new relationship with Him and allow Him to transform my life, to make me what he wants me to be. This began a 34-year relationship, which has satisfied my deepest needs for significance and security, giving me true fulfillment.
What Difference Has It Made?
As I look back over the past 34 years, what difference has it made?
First, I began to be free to be me. No longer preoccupied by what others might think about me (as a captive to my desire to be successful and popular), I began to relax and be who I really was.
Second, I began to be genuinely interested in other people instead of being preoccupied with what they thought about me.
Third, I was much freer to take professional and personal risks, since failure was no longer destructive in the way that it had been previously. Who I was no longer depended on my success. This has allowed me to enjoy a much more exciting life.
Fourth, my relationship with my wife and children became my highest priority next to my relationship with God, a priority they would probably not have had if I had continued to pursue “success” as my God. As a result, I have had a wonderful relationship with Anne, my children Sharon and Steven, my children-in-law, David and Christy, and most recently my grandchildren Rachel, Daniel, and Hudson.
Finally, I have enjoyed a much more personal relationship with my students over the years than I would have if I had pursued a narrow maximization of my professional success through concentrating on my research to the exclusion of everything, doing a “just-getting-by” job in my teaching. I would have published and perished anyway.
A Rich And Full Life
While success has continued to be important to me, it has assumed a more appropriate place in the grander scheme of things. I got my Ph.D. at 24, was a tenured Associate Professor at age 27, and a tenured Full Professor at age 34. My life has been full and rich in every way, but could have turned out quite differently if I had continued my narrowly focused pursuit of professional success to the exclusion of my relationship with God, family, friends, and my students over the years.
Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).
Pascal, the great French physicist said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every created man that cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator made known through Jesus Christ.”
I am a poster child for these truths. When I finally allowed God to fill that vacuum in my life that only He could fill, I was set free from my fruitless pursuit of success to fill this need. I urge you to consider God’s invitation to a personal relationship as the ultimate and only way to find true meaning, purpose, and happiness in this life, and in the life to come.