At the age of 33 I was a Jewish physician living in Little Rock, Arkansas. I had finished my medical oncology training at M.D. Anderson Tumor Institute, Houston, Texas, and was already board certified. I had been in private practice in medical oncology for more than three years, and my practice was successful beyond my wildest dreams.
I was happily married to an incredible woman (who was also Jewish) and we had two terrific children, a girl and a boy. We lived in a large, beautiful new home with a swimming pool. My wife and I both drove new cars, and we had been accepted in our new social environment. Financially we were solid, and we had everything” one could want.
We were as happy as any couple we ever knew, and our lives were almost storybook perfect. Why, then, did we keep asking each other, “Is this all there is? Isn’t there something more that we’re missing? What in the world could it be?”
We tried to get more involved in the social life of the medical community and the Little Rock community, but that didn’t bring fulfillment. We tried disco dancing and advanced disco dancing along with its associated night life, but that was empty. We tried getting back to our Jewish roots and being active in the temple and Jewish organizations, but that, too, seemed empty. The Jewish traditions did little for me. In fact I felt hypocritical, since I was an agnostic/atheist and didn’t know who, what or if God was!
In my three years of practicing medical oncology I had seen much pain, suffering and death. I couldn’t explain why bad things happened to so many seemingly good people. It began to affect me and take its toll on my emotions. To compensate, I became as unemotional as I could, both professionally and personally.
About that time I developed optic neuritis in my right eye, and overnight I lost most of the vision in that eye. I feared that it would spread to my left eye and my career would be over; my life as I knew it would dramatically change. I became angry and cursed God, if there was a God.
“Who are you? What are you like?” I asked. “Why are you doing this to me when so many people to whom you gave cancer depend on me? You must not exist!”
That night I abandoned God. I told Him that I could never believe in Him until I could understand His ways and the reason for all these terrible occurrences. Little did I think that I would find answers. Little did I think that God was listening and would later answer my questions (prayer).
My life and health stabilized. During that time I met many patients who seemed to have answers for their difficult circumstances. They didn’t seem to have the anger toward God—as I had—that I would have expected. They trusted Jesus, now and for their eternity. They tried to tell me about Him, but I rarely listened. If He existed, He had allowed terrible illness to happen to them, yet they still worshiped, loved and followed Him. How ridiculous! Yet I envied my patients for their faith. Anyhow, what did it matter? Jesus was not for Jews, only Gentiles.
I was searching for truth, but I didn’t know or even realize it. I desperately needed answers. My wife was going through a similar process, but I was unaware of her struggle. Who ever talked about such things? Who even knew the words to ask the appropriate questions?
God, in His sovereignty, waited two years until we were both ready to hear His answers—willing to hear the truth and act upon it. One Saturday evening we heard from our 11-year-old daughter that a Jewish friend of ours (also a physician) and his family were attending a church. I was outraged at his turning his back on his Judaism, although by that time my family and I had quit the temple and all Jewish organizations. (Oh, the hypocrisy of spiritual blindness!)
I immediately called this friend to confront him. He kindly told me that he had found his Judaism and the God of Judaism at that church. He was now, for the first time, truly proud and excited to be Jewish. I was shocked but curiously intrigued. I asked if we could attend church with him the next day. Of course we could, and we did.
I so vividly remember that Sunday morning, October 19, 1980. I remember the anxiety I felt as I walked into the worship service. It was a new church and was meeting in the gymnasium of a local private school, so it didn’t seem so “churchy.” I expected that we would stand out somehow and be identified as Jews and outsiders, but people only noticed that we were newcomers and seemed genuinely thrilled that we were visiting. What a pleasant surprise!
The service began with a baby dedication, and we heard, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” What was the shema, the holiest prayer of Judaism, doing in a Christian church? Soon the preaching began, and the sermon was totally from the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). Psalm 73 was being explained. It was about a pious Jew, Asaph, asking God why good people suffer and evil people prosper. Why did evil seem to win out over good? What purpose was there in keeping God’s laws and ways?
I couldn’t believe the topic. How did they know that I had the same questions and no answers? I sat there and listened as God explained the seeming paradox. The answer was that God sees all from an eternal perspective, and we see everything from an immediate, present viewpoint. Those who believe and belong to God will have prosperity for eternity (but not necessarily during the present or the immediate future), while those who do not belong to God will spend forever with nothing. What they have now is all they will have for all eternity.
I can never adequately explain what happened to me that day because it was supernatural. I walked into that church an agnostic/atheist/skeptic, and I left knowing that God was real, good and worthy to be loved and worshiped. Now all I had to do was discover who He was.
Could it really be this Jesus? I hoped it wasn’t. I wanted so desperately to discover that the God I now sought could be found in normative, modern Judaism. I knew that I wanted to know this God and to follow Him, and I would, no matter what or where I found Him. It would just be so much easier if I didn’t have to become a Christian.
We left church and spent the next three hours with our Jewish Christian physician friend and his wife. They explained to us how ancient Judaism and Christianity fit together—how Jesus Christ (Yeshua HaMashiach, Jesus the Messiah) had fulfilled all the ancient prophecies from the Old Testament concerning the future Messiah of Israel—how Christianity today considers itself to be worshiping the Messiah of Judaism. My friend tried to explain the Trinity, that it was not three separate gods (which, of course, as a Jew I could never believe) but one God manifesting Himself in three different ways or forms.
These friends also made me aware of another problem I knew nothing about—sin. Modern Judaism had long ago stopped teaching about sin, sinfulness and separation from God due to sin. My friends clearly showed us that throughout the Old Testament, God was very much concerned with personal sin and the sins of the Jewish people. He had given very explicit rules and means for us to be cleansed of sin. The trouble was that we had long ago stopped following His prescription, and now we were sick. The cure was in following His Son Jesus, because He could cleanse us of our sin. He was our medicine, our antidote, our permanent cure.
We were astounded at how logical and factual his presentation was. It all made so much sense—so much that I visited with several rabbis, hoping that they could show me the fallacies of the Christian argument.
They tried valiantly and desperately to explain away Christian theology as it would apply to a Jew, but I found their reasoning and explanations flawed and shallow. For the most part, rather than addressing the issues and my questions, they tried to make me feel guilty about considering Christ.
The more my wife and I studied, the more we read and the more we spoke to Christians and went to church, the more we wanted to have this oneness with God. But they said we could only have it if we first had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. To have that, we had to confess that we were sinners and repent (turn away from our sins). Nothing we could do (such as good works and deeds) could rid us of our sins before God. Only believing in Jesus and His death for us was capable of cleansing us of our sins. We had to believe that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel and God Himself (who had taken the form of a man). We had to ask Jesus, through the Holy Spirit of God, to come and live within us, to change us into the people He wanted us to be, and to be Lord of our lives forever.
Finally in December of 1980, my wife and I both made our separate personal decisions to follow Jesus as our Lord, Savior and Messiah. It was the best decision we ever made. Now we had truly found our Judaism and felt complete. Now we not only knew the God of our forefathers, but we also knew His Son and His Spirit.
That changed our lives, our marriage, our relationship with our children (who now also know the Lord) and my practice of medicine. Our perspective on everything is different now. Our lives have meaning, fulfillment and contentment. Jesus has filled the enormous void that we previously had—a void that money, possessions, position, status or power never could and never would fill.
Jesus was the answer to our questions. He is and always will be the answer to all of humanity’s needs, wants and desires. He is your answer, too. If you don’t know Him, I pray that as an intelligent, rational individual, you will not reject the answer before you even ask the questions!
Editor’s Note: Dr. Sternberg, a diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine and board certified in medical oncology, continues to practice in Little Rock, Arkansas.