Professor, Dept. of Agricultural and Applied Economics
College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
Dr. Bergstrom’s faith story – My childhood years, up to the beginning of my teenage years were wonderful, almost ideal it seemed. My father was a doctor (a pediatrician) and my mother was a nurse and full-time stay of home mom for myself and three brothers. We lived in a great neighborhood in the suburbs and had a lake cottage in the mountains where we spent many close family times together. My mom and dad were devoted and loving parents, and our world revolved around our family life together. Life was good and our house was full of laughter.
My wonderful childhood world started to crumble one morning when I was 13 years old. I woke up to a commotion in the house and got out of bed just in time to see my mom being wheeled out of the house on an ambulance stretcher. She died that morning from a rare congenital heart defect. Losing my mom was of course a huge blow, but I still had my dad who I immediately drew closer to and looked to for love and security even more.
About a year after my mom died, my dad got remarried. Then two years later, what seemed to be the unbelievable happened. I lost my father too. One night while I was at a high school dance, he was killed in a freak automobile accident in our own driveway and garage. This blew away my world as I knew it. When a family friend told my stepmother and brothers that my dad was not coming back from the hospital on the night of the accident, I remember one of my brothers throwing his hands in the air and crying out, “God hates us!” Another one of my brothers still tells me about the time after my mom died that he went to the window, looked up to the sky, and prayed to God, “please don’t take my dad too.” But God did and my brothers and I were true orphans.
Fairly soon after my dad’s death, my stepmother adopted me and my brothers; however, after she remarried a couple of years later, we had a huge falling out with her and her new husband. After that, my younger brothers went to live with an aunt and uncle for the rest of their high school years and my older brother and I, both in college at the time, started living pretty much on our own.
So, in the span of about 5 years, my life went from the ideal “wonder years” to going through as a teenager some of the most difficult and devastating experiences that people sometimes have to face in life including the death of not just one, but both parents; trying to adjust to not just one, but two blended families; dealing with difficult and broken relationships, while at the same time needing to focus on high school and college and all the other things that preoccupy a teenager’s mind and life..
What was I thinking about God in those days after the wonder years came to an abrupt end? I don’t think I believed, at least deep down, that God hated us. I did worry that maybe for some reason he put a curse on our family. I know other people have probably thought and said the same thing behind our backs, and I can’t say I blame them. Could my family be cursed because of something somebody did including way back in the past.
But, actually, even though I still struggle with the thought sometimes, I really don’t believe that God hated or cursed my family, or anybody else’s for that matter. However, after all the tragedy and difficult times my family suffered through, I did think in my teenage years that God didn’t care too much about our daily lives and affairs. I figured that God was a rather impersonal being who set the Earth and Universe into motion and then basically just let things happen as they happen. I thought also that it was up to each person to “tough it out” when bad things happen. I remember too that this was the main advice I got from well-meaning adults after the deaths of both my mom and my dad.
After my dad died, I started looking mostly to myself for things that all of us long for deep down – things like security, acceptance and peace. Throughout high school, I spent a lot of time hanging out and partying with my close friends who I am still close friends with today. These friends stood with me and helped me through some difficult times and years, and I cherish the relationships I have with them. But, even though my friendships with these guys and other important things, such as girlfriends and sports, made me feel good about myself and life, I was not a happy camper. To outside observers I may have looked and acted like a normal teenager (what is “normal” for a teenager?), but, under the surface I was still struggling through a great sense of loss, emptiness and lack of peace.
In the weeks and months after my dad’s death, I felt most at peace when I was hiking or camping in the “great outdoors” with my close friends as we did quite often throughout high school and into college. It was in the woods and mountains and beside rivers and lakes that God started to touch me in a personal way. When looking out over a beautiful natural view, I couldn’t help but think and say to myself, “This had to have been created by a Supreme Being!” I also thought that a Being who created something so awesome to behold had to be a personal Being. God was reaching out and touching me through his natural creation, as he still does today. Many years later I was thrilled (and still am) to read verses telling of how God reveals himself to us through natural creation. For example, Psalms 19:1-4 says: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world”. And Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse”.
God first used the general revelation of his incredible natural creation to soften my heart and draw me towards him. Later, when I was a freshman in college at Michigan State University, I met some students in my dorm who were followers of Jesus. They told me about how Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, and that I could make peace with God and have eternal life through a personal relationship with Christ. Peace with God and eternal life was something I wanted – for one thing it gave me hope of seeing my parents again.
But I was reluctant to give my life to Christ because I worried that becoming a Christian would mean a dull and boring life. I think what I really did not want to do was give up control of my life and doing whatever I wanted. At that time, I remember reading a Scripture passage that struck a deep cord within me. This verse was John 3:19-20 which says, “This is the verdict, Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed”. That was me, not wanting to come into the Light for fear of what it would expose and the control over my life that I might need to give up.
Around the same time, I also remember reading what is written immediately before these verses, John 3:16-18 which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only son.” These verses do not speak of an impersonal God, but speak of a very personal and caring God who loved people so much that he was willing to sacrifice his own son to provide a way to have peace with God and receive the gift of eternal life.
After reading and thinking about these verses, I went to the bank of a river outside of my dorm, knelt down, and asked Christ to come into my heart and life. Right then I didn’t worry about what would happen in my life and in the future. I just knew it was time to stop stalling and do what I needed and wanted to do which was to calm the turmoil I felt deep inside and fill my life with something more meaningful. I also wanted to get to heaven – to my rational way of thinking, living forever sounded like a good idea and long-term plan to me!
After becoming a Christian as a college freshman, my outward life really didn’t look much different. I didn’t start going to church or Bible study, and I kept on focusing on friends, partying, with studying thrown into the mix. Believe it or not, I was a pretty dedicated and hard-working student with good enough grades to graduate with honors from the University of Maryland and then on to a Master’s degree program at Clemson University.
When I was growing up I didn’t get much from the few church services we attended as a family and my later experiences with visiting churches were no different. The problem was I felt nothing from the services. The people stood up and sang hymns and sat down with no change in expression in their faces. They politely sat through the sermon – but more like people being forced to sit through a vacation-package sales pitch. When the service was over, people didn’t run to the door, but everyone including us pretty much made a beeline to whatever was next on the agenda – which was, lunch! After one such service, I turned to my wife and said, “I’m through with organized religion and don’t plan on ever visiting another church”.
Soon after making the declaration about not going back to church, I graduated with my Master’s degree with a goal of getting a job with a federal or state natural resource or environmental agency. At that time the country was going through a recession and no such jobs were to be had – at least by me. I went through several months of unsuccessful job searching and was getting quite discouraged. I had finally decided to take a part-time teaching job at a small, local college when one of my Clemson professors called me, saying that he had been at a conference talking with colleague from Texas A&M University who was looking for a full-time Research Associate. I took the job and we moved to Bryan-College Station where I decided that in addition to working full-time I would pursue a PhD in Natural Resource and Environmental Economics.
While living in our first apartment near campus, my wife (Jodi) and I used to take walks around the neighborhood. On one of these walks we passed by a church building – the likes of which I’d never seen before. Most of the church buildings I saw growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, in Clemson and other places were formal and these types of building always made me feel a bit uncomfortable. The church building on our walking route in Texas didn’t even look like a church building to me. I really wouldn’t have even known it was a church building if it wasn’t for the sign out front that said, “Westminster Presbyterian Church Meets Here”. This sign struck me as very strange since to me a church was a building – so here was this church with a building that didn’t look like a church to me with a sign that didn’t make sense – and all this intrigued and interested me. Much to Jodi’s surprise (and mine) I announced that I would like to visit this odd church.
There were many other things about Westminster Presbyterian Church that kept us coming to the church and getting more involved. The first regular Sunday morning service we attended was quite a different experience for me since for one thing, I didn’t have to wear a suit and tie! It also seemed that people were really enjoying singing the songs and hymns rather than just dutifully going through the motions as I had always seen in church services. Even more surprising and different to me was the sight of people around me actually opening Bibles, not just pew Bibles, but worn, used Bibles they obviously had brought with them – people bringing their Bibles to church, what a concept! The fact that people where actually paying close attention to the sermon and even taking notes appealed to the student in me very much – it also suggested to me that something real and meaningful must be going on at this church.
Our spiritual experience in Texas caused me to do a lot of thinking and soul-searching and questioning about whether or not I had really become a Christian back in college. Had I really understood the message and had I really believed? I concluded that I had, although my outward life perhaps didn’t show much of a change for many years. But there was an inward change going on which I could feel and recognize.
You may wonder how a person who has claimed to be a Christian for over 30 years could have these doubts. Being hit over the head with cancer has something to do with it – but actually I think losing touch with the message of Christ (often called the Gospel) over the past 20 years has more to with it. How did I lose touch with the Gospel? Primarily by relying and focusing more on my own strength and good works rather than Jesus.
The Gospel is typically presented as a message for unbelieving people who need Jesus for salvation. My earlier spiritual experiences were mostly on the intellectual side. It got me thinking about the Gospel much more and how it applies to Christians as well as those who don’t profess faith in Christ. This intellectual learning helped prepare me for the experiential learning that took place, and has been taking place, since we moved back to Georgia where I serve as a Professor at the University of Georgia. Soon after we moved back, I went in for my annual physical check-up with our family doctor. Without going into too many details of all the tests I was given, one of them showed a “spot” on my lung. This “spot” triggered more scans and doctor’s appointments and a recommendation that it be removed by surgery and tested for cancer. The surgery confirmed the “spot” was a cancerous tumor which was removed along with a third of the left lung. After surgery, I spent about 6 months in recovery and follow-up chemotherapy treatment.
The months recovering from surgery and then chemo were a difficult challenge and trial for me (and my family). The Bible teaches that we are made up of three interrelated parts – “body, mind, and spirit”. In my case, my physical sickness led to emotional and spiritual sickness.
During my post-surgery recovery and chemo time I felt like I was under constant physical, emotional and spiritual attack and stress. Lying in a hospital bed day-after-day gives a person a lot of time to think and reflect – maybe too much. During this time I was confronted with myself and my “record” and I concluded that I have failed to live up to God’s perfect standards and expectations in every area of life – including my family, my job, my church, everything! I especially grieved for my wife and our kids as I thought about all the things I should have done to better prepare them for life on their own and provide for their needs without me.
Basically, I felt like I had failed as a Christian and was a lousy witness for Jesus, and as a result I became more discouraged and depressed. At times I doubted again if I really was a Christian. I also doubted God’s love for me and if he really was doing things in the best interest of me and my family – I did not trust him with what was happening in my life. As I look back now, it was as if I was sliding into a deep, dark pit from which I could not climb out.
And then I saw that this was true – when it comes to my relationship with God and my ability to perform for him and please him, I am in a deep, dark pit. I am unable to climb out of this pit on my own, and I do not have the power to heal myself physically, emotionally or spiritually. During my “dark times of the soul” I remember clinging to the hope that Jesus had the power to lift me out of the pit. The thought also occurred to me over and over again that if Jesus did not have the power and desire to lift me out of the pit – then as the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “we who call ourselves Christians should be pitied most among all people” because we are following false beliefs and are completely lost and foolish. In other words, I could see clearly that if my physical, emotional and spiritual healing depended on me or other people, then I was in deep trouble and without hope.
During my dark times, one of the things that encouraged me was a song by Indelible Grace titled, “Jesus, I Come”. The first verse of this song reads, “Out of my bondage, sorrow and nigh, Jesus I come, Jesus I come. Into thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus I come to Thee. Out of my sickness into thy health, Out of my wanting and into Thy wealth, Out of my sin and into Thy Self, Jesus I come to Thee”. This song encouraged me to stop looking at myself so much and look towards Jesus instead – for me, what this looked like was being completely broken-down and laying down at the feet of Jesus and saying, “help me, please”! And he did, and he continues to help me, even when I don’t realize it.
In the past 10 ten years, I had a recurrence of lung cancer, more surgery, more chemotherapy, more anxiety and depression, and more struggles with truly believing God loves me and is for me. What has helped me the most with these spiritual struggles is trying to follow the late Reverend Jack Miller’s advice and preach the Gospel to myself everyday which he put this way, “Cheer up, you are worse than you think!” But, “Cheer up, because of Jesus and the righteousness you have through him, you are more accepted and loved than you think too!”