I grew up in a small South Texas town. As a child of immigrants, I was raised to value education as a ticket to a good life and social acceptance. We were a secular family, but my spiritual awareness grew in encounters with my own inadequacies.
I must have been five when, after I misbehaved, my dad gave me a spanking and I lashed out by biting him on the back. But right away, I felt deep remorse. My parents immediately banished me from the house, and I spent that evening huddled in the family car, crying. I prayed to God for forgiveness. After some time, I went inside and told my dad I was sorry.
I suppose I had the instinct to pray because my parents, though not religious, had enrolled me in a parochial elementary school, which they chose for the quality of the education. This was where I developed an awe for holy spaces, like the cathedral, and for holy figures like Jesus, who hung on a cross there. I often sat in the pew and imagined what he might say to me. But otherwise, I mostly ignored God.
My imagination was redirected as I grew older. I did well in school, especially in mathematics. Math ignited in me a sense of awe and wonder. There was an enchanting order to the universe it could unlock. I grew to appreciate how mathematical truths are real, though they aren’t physical, and how they influence the world, though they exist outside it. These felt like spiritual insights.
My joy in learning, however, became ensnared by the temptation of success. Striving relentlessly to excel, I began to frame my identity around being smart rather than learning for its own intrinsic rewards. The quest for achievement drove my every pursuit, from getting good grades to winning math competitions. I was desperate to prove myself worthy of something, to somebody.
I entered college in 1985 amid rising Cold War tensions and fears of nuclear warfare. I would work on math and physics problem sets with my classmate William, who had an encyclopedic scientific knowledge. On his dorm room wall was a frightful map of the United States that he had colored based on his own research. Most large cities were covered by black disks, surrounded by concentric rings of red, orange, and yellow. Only a few uninhabited portions of the West were left unscathed.
“What do the colors represent?” I asked William in awe. “The level of destruction in the event of a nuclear war,” he answered. The gentle manner of his reply threw into sharp relief the violence of his map. The dread I felt over such a calamity only amplified the sense of personal doom I was already wrestling with.
Both my parents had recently been diagnosed with serious illnesses—my dad with colon cancer and my mom with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Though my dad’s prognosis was uncertain, my mom’s was sealed—ALS has no known cure. Soon she would be paralyzed, her clear mind trapped in an unresponsive body.
For the first time in my life, I was forced to confront the futility of life crushed against the ugly reality of death. William’s forecast compelled me to grapple with that absurdity on a massive scale. Looking for reassurance, I asked him, “Is there any hope?”
“Not unless you believe in God,” he said, almost under his breath. William was a meek fellow who probably didn’t intend to start this conversation, but he was answering my earnest question as best he could. I was surprised to learn he was a Christian, and I wondered how an intellectual like him could rationalize his religious beliefs. He was the first of several Christians I met in college who were smart but seemed to live according to different metrics of success.
“The soul does not surrender to despair until it has exhausted all illusions,” Victor Hugo, one of my favorite authors, wrote in Les Misérables. That’s how despair overtook me. I began to see the empty promise of achievement. The world could be blown up by thousands of nuclear warheads, or my family could implode from affliction and heartbreak. Making good grades meant nothing in these scenarios. Work and relationships seemed meaningless. Achievement, success, happiness—what was it all for?
My despair grew to a breaking point near the end of my freshman year. One night when I was especially depressed, I wandered around campus for hours, a suffocating heaviness in my spirit. Returning to the dorm, I stepped into the elevator with two other guys who started a conversation with me about Jesus. Normally I might have recoiled, but on this night I was receptive.
We had lunch two days later, and I poured out all the questions I had about God. They presented the Christian faith not as a set of religious beliefs designed to compel morality, but as a relationship with Jesus. That was new to me. They showed me that Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He suffered, which meant he could understand my family’s suffering.
For the first time, I understood the necessity of grace. We try so hard to make ourselves righteous, to earn our dignity through morality and accomplishment, and yet none of this striving can heal us, because there is no one righteous, not one (Rom. 3:10). That message may have surprised me as a college student who wanted to have it all together morally and intellectually, but it would have resonated with five-year-old me, huddling in a car in shame and grasping the depths of my sin.
The Christian framework suddenly made sense. Jesus offered relief from my aching loneliness and an assurance of more to life than I could see from my limited vantage point. Of course, I knew that if I proceeded down this path, I wasn’t throwing away my mind—I’d need to actually read the Bible and investigate its claims. But I took a leap and decided to commit my life to Jesus.
Later that evening, I told William. Delighted, he revealed that he’d been praying for me all year.
Following Jesus radically shifted where I found meaning and hope, even though my life problems didn’t suddenly go away. Suffering continued to plague my family. And I needed more time to confront my idolatry of performance as a measure of self-worth, especially as I pursued a math doctorate at Harvard. But embracing this spiritual journey set me on the road to understanding why some things in life are so rotten and others so glorious.
I see now why studying beauty matters, even when it has no immediate application. The beauty of reasoning and the order we behold in patterns reflect something divine and so are worth studying for their own sakes, rather than for personal glory.
I see now why suffering has meaning. “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning” (Ecc. 7:4), because affliction sharpens our senses to see life more richly.
And I see now why relationships have meaning. When I lament the way I hurt my dad, when I savor profound friendships, or when I weep with those who are suffering, I dignify the image of God in another. Realizing this has inspired me to deepen my relationships and made me more attentive to serving the marginalized, whom Jesus identified with and prioritized.
In God, I have found rest from my meaningless striving for significance. The Jesus who hung on the cross in the cathedral now speaks to me in my inmost being, reminding me that God’s love, as the source of my dignity, is enough.
Francis Su is the author of Mathematics for Human Flourishing and a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College. He and his family live in Pasadena, California.
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