Unfolding Stories, our Christian podcast about real-life testimonies, is now LIVE with episode five and is available on all major podcast platforms. See below for links to this episode.
This week we have the pleasure of hearing the remarkable story of Jesse Bradley, a former professional soccer player who became a pastor after realizing how God had provided for him throughout a ten-year battle with a debilitating disease that completely turned his life around.
Jesse came to discover the blessing in his adversity and that God was always fighting for him and could be relied upon to provide, even through life’s major storms.
To listen now, download the episode from the links here:
You can read the full transcript from this episode below.
Jesse is the senior pastor at Grace Community Church in Auburn, Washington. He is also the host of his own radio show, Activate, and has a podcast and website called Exploring Faith. We encourage you to check them out!
Has Jesse’s story of survival by leaning on God caused you to pause and think? Are you in need of some encouragement in tough times? We have some wonderful resources to recommend that may help you:
The Blessing of Adversity: Finding Your God-Given Purpose in Life’s Troubles, by Barry C. Black
Most people see trouble as something negative and seek to avoid it whenever possible. But what if trouble actually leads to greater blessing and purpose? Barry Black offers a blueprint for removing the sting of life’s trials, showing us that when we let God use our pain for his glory by blessing others, it can actually help heal our own pain.
The NLT Bible Promise Book for Tough Times
This helpful book contains hundreds of promises from Scripture that focus on topics such as suffering, doubt, spiritual warfare, trusting God, worry, and many more. It may surprise you to hear that the Bible promises trouble. As long as we live in a sinful world, tough times will be part of our human experience. But along with the promise that troubles will come, the Bible also promises there is help for the present and hope for the future as we live with pain and adversity.
Have you ever wondered why our loving God allows suffering in the world? Head to this blog post to find out why, as well as what we can do about it and the ultimate hope we as Christians have through it all.
Here is Jesse Bradley’s Unfolding Story:
For me, the journey started out with no faith; I didn’t believe in God, I never went to church growing up, I never read the Bible, I didn’t know much about Jesus.
My parents got divorced when I was seven years old. That was brutal because they were the pillars of my life and I still remember my dad leaving, moving out of state, and life totally changing. I had a huge void in my life and a lot of pain at that point, I went to some counsellors, but there wasn’t much healing.
And so, I poured my life into grades, friends and sports and those were an outlet for me. I enjoyed sports, I worked hard at school, always had a lot of friends, and so… through high school, that was kind of my life summed up.
When I went to college, it was Dartmouth College on the East Coast, I got a scholarship, I played soccer there as a goal keeper, and in my freshman year I took a class called Introduction to World Religions. I wasn’t seeking God at all and it was just to take a class, it was a distributive, but it was an interesting class, and it started to raise questions in my mind.
One of the most important pieces of that experience was that the professor assigned the Bible. Now we read a lot of different religious texts, but the Bible stood out to me as being different to the other ones. The professor wasn’t a Christian, he was undermining the Scripture at different points. But I was reading the gospel of John, it was a simple assignment for me. Reading God’s Word was so powerful, the Bible is truly living and active, and it started to change my life. I started to get a picture of who God is and I was drawn to God. I was drawn to Jesus.
At the same time, I met a man named Mike who was on the track team, he was in my dormitory and we started to talk about God. He answered so many of my questions, we began to look at the Bible together. I think it was scary for him to share his faith, but he was obviously asking God for help and he turned out to be the person that God brought into my life to introduce me to Jesus.
So, it was really the combination of the classroom, and studying the Bible for the first time, and then also my friend Mike. I still was not going to put my trust in Jesus for a year, but in my sophomore year, when I did put my trust in the Lord, what stood out to me and made Christianity unique, is this ‘grace’. So many other religious are about striving and performing, trying to climb or be morally good enough to be accepted by God, but Christianity was the opposite. It’s that God comes to us, he loves us before we love him, he pursues us and is interested in us before we ever seek him, and grace means it’s an undeserved gift. Jesus died for our sins and when we decide to follow him, we have eternal life.
There was a song that broke out inside of me! I would just be so happy, internally, walking around campus. One thing I realized is that achievement, even though it’s important, it can never meet your deepest needs. Because we’re all relational and we were made to know God.
I didn’t know then how I could have eternal life, but Jesus is the only religious leader who is not in the grave, he overcame death. When I put my trust in him, I’m not musical, but I just had a new song in my life, that affected every part of my life. I started to enjoy people even more, it changed the way I was speaking—instead of cutting people down—and it changed soccer for me, a lot of things were changing for me at that time. I was still brand new in the faith, but I was taking those first steps forward.
We started a fellowship of Christian athletes, and I got involved in a lot of ministry, but I never thought that I would be a pastor! So, after graduation, I continued to play soccer. I ended up playing in Scotland, I played in Africa. We went to Zimbabwe and when we were there, I was with my friend Tommy, who was my college roommate–he now leads grassroots soccer–we were tutoring students in our spare time and one of the reasons we went to Africa, because we had opportunities to go to England and other countries… but we went to Africa and played there because we wanted to make a difference. We saw all the needs there, from AIDS, to help that was needed in schools. When we got to Zimbabwe, the people were so loving and warm, I was learning so much from them—you know, how to be grateful in a setting where there was drought and famine and poverty. They lifted us up!
In our time in Africa, I was playing soccer with the Highlanders in Bulawayo, but after a season I developed many health complications caused by a drug I took to prevent malaria. It was a prescribed medication, and it built up toxic levels in my system. I started to have massive intense headaches, sweats, chills, double vision, and my energy level dropped from professional athlete. to it being a struggle to get out of bed. And then emotionally it was like a massive drug overdose.
The most serious complication was to my heart, the drug inhibits the inhibiters in my heart, which is another way of saying that my heart wouldn’t slow down. It would start to beat 160 beats a minute—tachycardia, atrial flutter was another abnormality, it had a murmur and it would skip beats… it would just hurt during the day.
So, I had to leave Africa, I had to fly back to the US. I went to Stanford and the physician there said; ‘it could be 10 different things, but one of them could be this drug you took to prevent malaria’. We had the levels tested by the Center of Disease Control and they confirmed toxic levels in my system.
That was brutal, I was close to death for nearly a year. My parents would set up a baby monitor and try to listen to me at night, trying to make sure I was alive, that I was ok. I moved back into my parent’s basement and I was charting just how much I could walk. Five minutes, ten minutes, and that was for a couple of years. It was intense recovery, about ten years to really recover. I would start writing down a list of things I was really thankful for—you know, make a list of ten things every day.
Also, during that time, I really started to pray to God and pour out my heart out him. My prayers before had been intellectual or theological, they had never really been deep. My approach to handling challenges in my life were ‘you stuff it and then you get tough’. Like when my parents got divorced, I just tried to stuff that and work harder in school, grades and sports. With this health situation, this tragedy in my life, I couldn’t just stuff that—it was too big. I couldn’t just tough my way through it or control anything, so I had to learn how to rely on God and how to ask for help from the Holy Spirit, how to pour out my heart to him. It was whole new way of walking through difficulties. God really taught me that if anything good was going to come out of my life it would be a gift from him. If I would be in my right mind; if I would help people. And he started to redirect me from soccer into ministry, and I started volunteering, helping with junior high students and mentoring them.
At the same time, I think it brought humility into my life and I realized what a privilege it is to have life, to have breath. To live for Jesus is not something we have to do—it’s something we get to do. God’s grace was abundant, first his grace to forgive all my sins and then that helped me in learning to forgive everyone fully myself. And then also his provision in that recovery; to recover from such a serious illness. It was really step by step, it took so many years, but as I look back on that journey, it strikes me as strange, because I would not want anyone to have to go through something like that, but at the same time, some of the richest things to come out of my life have come out of that same tragedy. God has a way to bring out wonderful things, out of the worst things that we go through. Not every valley is a wrong turn.
I continue to learn every day from the Lord, but that’s how God has guided me, from rejecting him initially, to starting to learn about him but still having hundreds of questions, to, really… it’s his kindness and love and Jesus’ power; who Jesus is. He’s not only the greatest teacher ever, many people would say he is a prophet, he’s a teacher. One thing I would say that stood out to me is when C.S. Lewis said ‘He’s either Lord, liar or lunatic’, because anyone that claims to be God’s son, the Messiah—there’s only three options, you can’t just call him a good teacher, you can’t just call him a prophet; they’re either lying, they’re a lunatic—or they’re actually the Lord.
Jesus was patient with me, I put my trust in him, I never saw ministry coming, but it’s also true that some of our greatest blessings in life are the unexpected ones. Many of my family don’t follow Jesus, they had bad experiences in church unfortunately, but for me, it was like his love was too good not to say yes to. And then I have seen many of my family put their trust in Jesus over the last 25 years.
To be in ministry now, I feel it’s such a good fit. It’s how God has made me and wired me, but not something that I originally saw coming. So, I would just encourage anyone today to continue to trust God, he knows you, he made you, he will lead you and even in the hard times, look for his grace—in how he is providing for you, sustaining you and encouraging you. Because that’s my story, and that is what he has done for me.
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Feeling compelled to share your story with us? Send us your testimony! In no more than 1,000 words, tell us what happened to you and how God has changed your life. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org . We look forward to hearing your story, and who knows—perhaps it will be featured on an upcoming episode of Unfolding Stories.