Yet the affluence and the unceasing physical activities that I was immersed in were unable to answer a number of basic questions hidden in my heart: Why are we here, and where are we going next? How should I then live my life? I wanted to please God, although I could not say who or where he was. As I grew older, heightening conflicts with the authority figure in my life, my wonderful dad, began to surface; and then, eventually, with my very sweet mom. By the time I turned fourteen, my relationship with both my parents had deteriorated significantly. Their unique firstborn son, from whom so much had been anticipated, had veered off in an unexpected direction. They developed a real preoccupation about me instead, and I became the subject of several long private discussions between the two of them.
Nonetheless, a confident acceptance inside me made me think that I must be a pretty good person, and in mypride, I viewed myself as considerably better than most of the people around me. After all, I said to myself, I often give preference to other people, buy surprise flower bouquets for my mom, respect and care for my relatives and the elderly in general, and not only promote the well-being of underdogs but also readily help anyone in need. Without exception, I go out of my way at school to speak and pay attention to the less popular girls and guys. I perform random acts of kindness, as during official sporting events, by frequently passing the ball to my teammates so they can score points when it is an easy shot for me to take.
On the basis of my exemplary deeds and how I felt about myself, I thought, If ever there was someone who was really good and merited God’s favor, I, for sure, had to be the very one.
Nevertheless, a relentless series of unanswered questions pursued me. Why couldn’t my parents appreciate my honest intentions and selfless acts to try and please them by being so thoughtful to everybody else?
While wrestling with these unresolved dilemmas and searching for what might be the ultimate truth to apply in my life, one day in my family’s home library, I happened to come across a series of pamphlets on reincarnation, ESP, and the ability of certain people to make predictions about the future. These so-called prophetic individuals attempted to explain the reason for distress and suffering in the world and what would happen to us once we leave it. They indicated that every person would be returning to the earth later on to make up for the mistakes made during his or her present life. Finally, in the last reincarnation, everyone would reach some form of enlightenment or perfection.
These ideas appeared to be just what I was looking for and fit comfortably into much of my current way of thinking by seeming to provide an acceptable explanation to the present as well as to the future.
It looked as though it was possible to improve oneself, and make it, and become everything I wanted to be but, obviously, had not become apparent in me yet. And so I decided, I can, and surely will, become perfect! In addition, my recently found amazing philosophy did not exclude any of the different faiths around the world. The tenets of Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Animalist, Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and all other beliefs were brought together in one comprehensive religious worldview. The diverse religious convictions were all depositories of a portion of the truth which they could contribute to this newfound mother of all religions. No one was going to be left out! Not one woman or man would miss the opportunity for salvation; certain ones might just take a little longer to reach perfection. Even Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Torquemada, Ivan the Terrible of Russia, Maximilien Robespierre of the French Revolution, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot eventually would all reach perfection! Every person would have the opportunity to improve themselves and become very good, not merely a limited or exclusive number of Mother Teresas.
My quick reaction to all this was, What a brilliant and congenial belief system to follow. This is it, and I am going for it!
But then, would we really have another chance to live and better ourselves? How about those wicked men? Should they get away with the multitudes they have killed and so many others they have persecuted and tortured in their perverse zeal and unremitting wickedness? Are any improvements in their future lives going to remove their responsibility for what they are already guilty of?
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, my present existence had not been getting better but had instead worsened. As I waited for my life to improve, an inexplicable recurring doubt plagued me. If I now have such a wonderful philosophical viewpoint, how long will I need to wait for its positive effects and benefits to appear in me?
Incredulous it was, but after some time, my outstanding newfound beliefs did not ameliorate my life even just a little. Instead, the situation at home degenerated as my stubbornness against my parents heightened. In a few instances, I answered my Dad disrespectfully. As unhappiness was increasing inside me, no enlightenment was taking place anywhere near me. Meditation, prayer, and study did not help, and no sign of a change of feeling or self-improvement of any kind was coming into view on the horizon before me. Rather than receive more light, the world was growing darker. At night, while I was having trouble falling asleep, different apprehensions concerning the future raced through my mind. In spite of the fact that I was still doing considerate things for my family and friends, I continued to feel rudderless, restless, and irresolute.
As life went on, the arrow on my spiritual gauge kept moving toward empty, and there were no service stations or rest stops anywhere in sight. Achievement in sports gave me only a fleeting distraction from my grief. No matter what, I lacked confidence, motivation, and peace.
My school report cards were also the cause of repeated disappointments. Regardless of the attempts I made to improve my academic performance, I regularly ended up having mediocre grades. In fact, on two separate occasions, my parents set up a meeting for me to speak to the school authorities: once by getting with the head of the French Department at the Notre Dame International School of Rome, the Catholic school I attended during middle school, and another time by having me talk with a very kind and sympathetic man, Mr. Daniel Pinto, the headmaster of the Overseas High School of Rome, the high school where I later graduated from. The advice my parents received was, Roland wants to improve. Let’s be positive and try to encourage and motivate him. Give him a little time, and he will eventually do better in academics
Then, out of the blue, things went from bad to worse; and I found myself trotting on my way to meet something new: real trouble!
I ended up in a few not-so-nice predicaments. One of the first was when the Italian traffic police stopped me while I was riding my Benelli motorcycle with my Canadian girlfriend, Margaret. I still remember that gray overcast day, at the start of our trip on that late Saturday morning, as we left for Ostia, a town on the Tyrrhenian Sea straight west of Rome. I did not have a driving license; furthermore, in Italy, you could not ride a motorcycle if you were carrying a passenger and you were not at least eighteen.
I attempted to speak in English to the two motorcycle cops and hoped and prayed that they would be more lenient if they believed I was a foreigner, who was typically not expected to understand many of the driving laws in Italy. My light complexion and blond hair often made my fellow Italians assume that I was American. In those days, most Italians could not understand or speak English, not even the most educated university professors. Unlucky as my day went, one of these two policemen who stopped me on that calamitous winter day answered me in flawless American English, letting me know how, a few years back, he had been living in the United States and had worked for the New York City Police traffic department! His ability to speak in English left me dumbfounded and I was trapped.
It was virtually impossible not to reply to any direct questions, and so the policemen quickly saw through the ruse and nailed me.
Margaret, of course, did not entirely realize the complications of what was happening and later told me it had been the most exciting day ever for her. Not for me. And yes, Dad had warned me not to ride the motorcycle and not to carry a passenger, and I had disobeyed him on both counts. So he found himself having to hire an expensive defense attorney. I still remember his exorbitant fee. But not even this top Roman attorney could keep me from being condemned in the criminal court of Rome. Now I was facing jail time and being marked with a criminal record. Slipping out of a frying pan, I found myself in the fire!
I wasn’t thinking about God, but he must have been thinking about me because later, the newly elected Italian president, Giuseppe Saragat, declared a general amnesty for certain types of Italian criminals to commemorate his recent appointment as head of the Italian state. Overnight, I was pardoned and set free, along with thousands of other Italian villains!
Even though my first motorcycle incident had come to a safe conclusion, back home, there was no forgetting or forgiveness. Without hesitation, Dad grounded me and forbade me from riding my motorcycle. More distressing, however, was my painful awareness of his dissatisfaction with me. I felt his crushing condemnation continually bearing down on me, its weight too burdensome to carry around.
Not everything! The best of the rest was still on its way; it hadn’t arrived yet but was soon to come into view literally around the corner.
Several months later, I obtained my motorcycle driver’s license and got back my Benelli, and Dad allowed me to go wherever I wanted. Finally free, like a bird let out of its cage, I flew.
On an afternoon, only a few days after being given permission to ride my Benelli again, I rode through a part of Rome called Vigna Clara, past some tennis courts, where my science teacher, Mr. A. Ceen, was playing. He was a good tennis player and a highly respected educator, and he later became the headmaster of my school. An alert, discerning, and practical man, Mr. Ceen saw me go by and signaled for me to come over to him.
As he pondered on the potential speed of the motorcycle I was riding, he looked down at me from the courts hanging over the road and, in a concerned tone, asked me, “Aren’t motorcycles like the one you are riding dangerous?”
I quickly replied, “Mine is safer than all the others.”
He paused, assessed the situation judiciously, and very slowly, but deliberately, said , “Be careful.”
My immediate response was, “I will.”
His warning left a moment of doubt and fear inside me; but while I was speeding off, those thoughts were immediately swept away from my head by the exhilaration of the increasing speed and the wind rushing past me.
During this time, I had made friends with an affable Italian who was my age, Pasquale Santoli. From the moment we first met, we got along well. We swam with two different swimming clubs in Rome but competed in the same event: the two-hundred-meter individual medley. In one swimming meet, he finished the race before I did; and in the next, I finished ahead of him. We never felt any rivalry; instead, we encouraged each other regularly before and after each race. It was a great friendship based on mutual respect.
Pasquale got around in his 90cc Vespa, and I rode my 125cc Benelli. A couple of times, I cautioned him to watch out while riding the Vespa because his scooter had smaller wheels and was known to slip from under you if you pulled the front wheel brakes suddenly on roads with the slightest amount of gravel. But Pasquale asked me not to remind him or worry any further because he was very confident in his own ability to ride.
One day, as the two of us were passing through a series of blind curves, a very short distance from the same place where Mr. Ceen had just warned me to be cautious only a week or so earlier, the two of us came upon a rather large tree branch lying in the middle of the road, and we both swerved to avoid it. Realizing that the debris was a hazard to others driving by, a Good Samaritan desire got hold of me, and I felt the urge to remove it so no one would get hurt. Consequently, I shouted to Pasquale, “Let’s go back and remove the tree branch that we just passed so other motorists don’t hit it.”
Pasquale did not think it was at all necessary to go back; nonetheless, at my strong urging, he acquiesced and quickly made a U-turn. As he completed his inversion, he heard a car speeding around the blind curves toward us and warned me to watch out. I was unable to hear the oncoming car and therefore hesitated for a moment. That second of indecision left me in position to receive the direct impact of a rapidly approaching five-speed Alfa Romeo Giulia, which is famous for being an exceptionally quiet Italian car.
Immediately following the accident, an ambulance came to rush me to the Santo Spirito, a Roman hospital close to the Vatican and adjacent to the Tiber River. I ended up with just a cracked left metatarsal, but my swimming training and basketball practices ceased instantly. The pain from the mishap was in no way comparable to the distress I felt at losing my mobility and having to give up sports.
When Dad heard about my accident, he immediately flew back the next day from the Canary Islands, an autonomous group of Spanish islands off the northern coast of Africa, where he was involved in a tricky land purchase. A shrewd, flattering Hungarian, whom my Dad later called that gypsy, had swindled him; so when he returned, he was already quite frustrated. Upon landing at the Fiumicino Airport, he came directly to the hospital. As he walked over to my bed, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to express some sympathy for my misfortune and praise me for my altruistic attempt to clear the road for other travelers. I was greatly mistaken. On the contrary, Dad excoriated me and let me know that I should feel sorry for him for forcing him to rush back from Spain while he was in the middle of a precarious business deal.
Another heavy blow landed square on my already-quite-sensitive morale. Having barely just recovered from the complications of my criminal offenses and having just begun to enjoy a respite from trouble, I now found myself more helpless than before. It was as though I had fallen into a deep well with a narrow shaft, unable to move, with no way to get out and with hardly any light to see by; I had nowhere to turn and zilch to do except wait around helplessly to find out what misfortune would hit me next.
Trapped and clueless, with no way of escaping where the events of my life appeared to be taking me, there was nothing to avert my mounting dejection. Why was Dad so irate when I was obviously in the hospital for attempting to do something noble?
One night, during our family dinner, I rose disheartened and left the table weeping when a member of my family made reference to Captain Ahab while commenting about my limping around with a plaster cast on my left leg. As my hurt continued to rise as high as it could go, my self-esteem dropped to the lowest ever.
At that point, it was quite clear: the more I strived to please my family, help my neighbor, and be at peace, the farther away I was from attaining such relatively simple and straightforward objectives. Staring directly at me instead were even more complications. My difficulties might not have appeared as dire as what some other men and women go through during their lives, but still, the continual condemnation at home and my inability to get relief anywhere else left me miserable and in utter despair.
I could not escape my real-life nightmares, and no act of mine could alter the events happening to me. Fortune was not smiling at me; rather, it was laughing at me as nonstop mishaps hit me mercilessly.
During that month of immobility, my left foot eventually healed; however, the bitter disillusionment lodged in my heart did not.
Feeling sorrier and sorrier for myself, all I could think about was my misfortune! As I stood there, watching my whole existence being drawn into a black hole, I could not smile or laugh or enjoy any of the privileged conditions surrounding me.
After these painful experiences in the middle of the winter of 1965, my brother and I and a few other students were invited to the home of a friend who lived across the street from our school in Rome. Here, for the first time, I heard a markedly different interpretation of life. Vincent Rosheger, a friendly guy who seemed to have genuine love, real peace, and purpose in his life, unlike anyone I knew, led a Bible study. He cited different verses in the Bible, describing man’s problem arising from his heart and his spiritual condition. Vincent made it clear how the Bible describes our failure to achieve the perfect standard God requires from each one of us. Our flawed lives and selfish actions keep us separated from him, and therefore, we cannot completely experience the life that God desires.
The Bible says, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the entire human race; He looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one!” (Psalm 14:2–3 NLT).
We read Romans 3:23: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”
Next, we looked at Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
My first response to these new ideas was to say to myself, How can you say this about me when you don’t even know a single thing about me? I’m a pretty nice guy, and unlike most others, I have done many praiseworthy things!
But Vincent kept showing that it is God himself who says in the Bible that none of our good actions can make us acceptable to him: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
The Bible also says, “God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8–9). “When God our Savior revealed His kindness and love, He saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy” (Titus 3:4–5).
I started discovering how the Bible quite simply states that to attain God’s standard, I would need to be continually perfect or sinless my entire life. Instead, every one of us has missed this requirement repeatedly and continues to fall short during the course of our whole earthly existence. Since God is faultless, anyone wanting to please him or be near him now or in the future must be like him, and therefore blameless. No one who has committed any kind of sin would ever get close to God.
King David said, “O God, you take no pleasure in wickedness; you cannot tolerate the slightest sin” (Psalm 5:4).
The Bible states that the penalty for disobeying God is eternal separation away from him in a real physical location, which is described in several different ways as abiding in complete darkness, eternal chains, torment, horror, a bed of worms, and a place of fire called hell.
The prophet Isaiah said this: “And as they go out, they will see the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against me. For the worms that devour them will never die, and the fire that burns them will never go out. All who pass by will view them with utter horror” (Isaiah 66:24).
There would be no socializing of any kind in hell; only “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42 and 50)
Contrary to everything I so assuredly believed up to then, the Bible says l would not be given any second chances. “Each person is destined to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Clearly, these ideas contrasted with everything I had been so confidently relying on.
I then wondered, Why did a loving God need to punish anyone after creating them?
Vincent pointed out where the Bible explains that God’s just standard must be met. Justice means giving back something or retribution wherever God’s law has been broken. For example according to Exodus chapter 22, if a person stole something, they were obligated to return the stolen goods, and then they had to pay the victim an additional amount for the trouble they caused. One day, we would all need to answer to God for every one of our misdeeds; and since we do not have any way of compensating God for when we had disobeyed his perfect law, we would be sent by him to a place far away from his light and glory.
Vincent explained that God loved me in spite of all that I was continually doing to displease him and had devised a way to maintain his righteous standard and yet, at the same time, free me from the just consequences of my sins. A sinless substitute needed to pay for all my offenses.
God’s flawless justice required that none of my wrongs go unnoticed, unaccounted for, or unpunished. The price for my countless transgressions, therefore, must be paid by either myself or someone else. Jesus was God’s sinless substitute so God’s justice could be maintained. In his love for us, Jesus, the only perfect man, had died for an imperfect man—me.
Vincent read the passage where it says that God sent his Son, Jesus, to us: “God loved us so much that He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have Eternal Life” (John 3:16). The word gave in this verse means Jesusdied for me. The Apostle Paul wrote: “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ“ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
I listened as I had never listened before. Everything Vincent read in the Bible was true justice and yet the greatest love story ever told—Jesus dying for me! A righteous man giving up his life to pay the debt of an unrighteous man!
It all started making sense: truly, this was God’s way of viewing the events taking place in the world and how he was going to deal with every man and woman, regardless of their ethnicity, economic status, social or even religious background.
In the past, my focus was on the ideas, opinions, and philosophies of man together with interpreting life from my own perspective, which was determined entirely by my own reasoning. I missed out on the most important opinion, and the only one that counts: God’s. It began to dawn on me that what God is saying in the Bible is not just alluding to everyone else in the world but, rather, referring directly to me in my present spiritual condition.
For so many years, I interpreted the events taking place in my life through my own eyes; however, as my general science teacher had reminded our class while teaching us about optics, “The human eye is stupid and so easily fooled.” And in my search for truth, I was indeed fooled by my own arrogant logic.
From a very young age, I had always greatly admired Jesus and assumed that the sole requirement for going to heaven was to do the best I could, keep his Golden Rule, and then hope I would make it! Indeed, I tried so hard to love those closest to me but had not even succeeded in doing that. I knew I had failed during my growing-up years and could not count the number of instances I had wronged Mom and Dad, not to mention the number of instances my thoughts and motives had not been right.
Vincent concluded by saying, “It isn’t sufficient for you to just know and store in your head what you have just heard. You need to act on it! Tell God you have been wrong, that you have sinned. Don’t hesitate to tell him you want to fully put your trust in him and in what his Son has done for you by dying on the cross to pay for all your sins—past, present, and future.”
It was clear. I must accept God’s extended saving hand offering me unmerited favor based on Jesus’s death on the cross to cover for my sins, and I must not continue to try to rely on my own hypocritical and prideful self-righteousness. I understood that no good act of mine would ever compensate God for any of my wrongs. I needed to acknowledge my sins and personally receive God’s Son into my life and ask him to come into me. God then promised to give me a never-ending special relationship with himself. As the Bible says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved. As the Scriptures tells us, ‘Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced’” (Romans 10:9–11).
Although I lived with an abundance of material things and maybe was endowed with some admirable character traits, I was still spiritually empty and devoid of God. I had to recognize the need to have my spiritual state transformed, so that my eternal destination could be redirected from what otherwise was waiting for me ahead: an unending, bottomless dark pit.
As these considerations went through my mind during the following three weeks, I recognized the degree of my rebelliousness against God and realized that there was nothing to lose except the mountain of unhappiness I was carrying around with me everywhere, and everything to gain both for my present life on earth as well as for eternity.
Following all this, one night, while alone in my room, I finally confessed my sins to God and invited his Son to come into me and forgive me for all the offenses I was responsible for! I told God that I believed and accepted what is written about Jesus in the book of John: “But to all who believed Him and received Him, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
After acknowledging my sinfulness and asking Jesus to come into me, I finally began experiencing a very real and lasting change. My conversion was more than just a matter of feeling different.
Instead of not knowing what I should aim for, I now possessed a sense of direction, purpose and increasing resoluteness. As I continued to read what the Bible teaches, everything started to fit perfectly into my real-life situations. The Bible explains how to do that which is pleasing to God and love others unselfishly from my heart. Jesus showed me how to truly live for him and his kingdom. How I thought and spoke and the way I treated others changed; and so did my motives and priorities.
I rectified my offenses against my parents. It took a little time; nonetheless, I made right where I had been wrong to them, and they took note of how I had changed. I was capable of humbling myself and correcting my mistakes only after believing and trusting in Jesus, not before. Later on, when certain situations involving my father and me would reoccur, rather than be offended, I would respond kindly and patiently. And if I thought Dad had made a statement that I felt was inappropriate, I could now immediately forgive him completely, without any trace of resentment toward him. I was able to respect and honor him as I knew was right and according to what God had commanded me to do. This transformation has given me great inner strength in order to face the opposition that would come later.
My sense of security grew. I was fine regardless of what others thought or what they whispered about me behind my back. This character quality has given me great comfort when facing difficult situations or unreasonable people.
After finding peace with God, I was finally able to be thankful during the different events coming my way, whether they were good, bad, or ugly. Joy displaced the gloom I had been carrying around for so long. These character changes took place, however, solely because God was now directing me from inside.
Although not yet over, I can already say that it has been a wonderful life, full of satisfying and fulfilling accomplishments, but not without my having to pay a cost. Becoming a follower of Christ hasn’t been a piece of cake. Dad would often say, “Progress and success will come to you only if you work hard and sacrifice by giving up some things.” And as with so many good and right principles he taught me, he sure was dead-on!
Jesus said, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth, you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Yes, I have experienced tribulations, but Jesus has always been with me. Yes, I have lost friends because of Jesus; however, Jesus has never left me. I have also discovered friends who have been given to me by Jesus and who have stuck closer to me more than a brother, as the Bible has promised. I would never trade the best in my old life for the worst since receiving Jesus.
Although I can’t say that my father ever came to acknowledge the Lord Jesus as I came to discover Him, I did see and understand how significantly God had used my father to help develop and prepare me for life.
My mother, though, who died while my family and I were taking care of her, gave me her Christian blessing. She was wholeheartedly united with my wife and me and was in agreement with everything we were doing together with those who became my close Christian friends and associates. Mom gave me her approval without any reservations, knowing full well everything I was involved in and the opposition I was already starting to encounter from others.
Today, I have so much more than I ever thought a person could have because I have the very Creator of the universe, the Author and Giver of life, eternal life—Jesus.
When my sojourn here on earth ends I know where I’m going, not based on something originating from myself, but based on what God has promised to me in his Word—the Bible.
“And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life” (1 John 5:11–12).