Jesse Bradley: I didn’t even realize it, but I had an identity that was performance-based. My identity was linked to how well I did in school, how many friends I had. It was linked to my performance as a goalkeeper. It was linked to my career and how well it was going. And all of that is a trap. Because if you have a performance-based identity, you ride a cruel rollercoaster between pride and shame, and you can be inflated and deflated based on your performance, and ultimately, it will lead to insecurity.
There’s No Box Big Enough to Contain God: Jesse Bradley and Tovares & Sofa Grey – Episode #330
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast.
Sometimes our plans in life can be misdirected and net us emptiness. When we decide to live selfishly and aren’t open to where God is leading us, we effectively put God “in a box” by limiting ourselves from the vast potential for light and goodness He wants to bring to our lives. Each of our guests this week had life experiences that required them to let go of their ideas of what their lives were supposed to look like so that they could grow into the plans that God had for them.
Jesse Bradley admits he never thought he’d ever be a pastor. His goals were professional sports, and he achieved that success. But when his body had an allergic reaction to some medication he was taking, he had to make a shift and found God transforming him for new pursuits and new passions.
Tovares and Safa Grey have—in a very short time—helped many young people navigate the world of dating and relationships. They understand that many young people feel the pressure of being in a relationship. They feel the key to staying open to what will unfold in our lives is letting go so that we don’t put God in a box. This place of compromise is a scary place—a mental battleground—but it holds tremendous potential for God’s goodness to manifest itself in our lives.
Let’s hear Jesse’s story first.
Jesse: My name is Jesse Bradley. I’m a pastor, speaker, author, and former professional soccer player. I live in Seattle. Grace Community Church is where I serve right now. My wife Lori and I have four children, three boys and a girl, and it’s an active household—picture a trampoline to the side of the house, soccer in the back, basketball in the front, roller blades. It gets a little noisy. Sometimes we have to apologize to the neighbors, but we’re having a great time together.
Pursuing Success But Finding Emptiness
When I look back at the beginning of my life, it began on the University of Minnesota campus in a place called Dinkytown. And the first apartment I lived in was in the parking lot of the football stadium. So a lot of passion for the Golden Gophers and the Big Ten in sports. I told my parents at age two, “I want to play professional sports when I get older.” I was very clear, and sometimes you know when you have a dream early on in life.
My parents were divorced at age seven, and that was crushing. I focused on academics, sports, and having a lot of friends, and I thought, Those are things I can control, because I couldn’t control what changed in my family. And as I was playing sports, there was a lot of success on the outside. We won state championships in high school. I played three sports, and then academically I was doing well. I went to an Ivy League school, Dartmouth College, and I had a lot of friends.
A lot of times in life, there are two stories: what people see on the outside, and then another story which I call “the inside story.” On the outside, people see you through social media, or they get glimpses of who you are. But the inside story is the real story, the full story. Sometimes you’re the only one who knows it, and God knows the inside story as well.
For me, the outside looked like success, but on the inside, there was emptiness. And I couldn’t figure out why that was the case, because all the boxes—I thought if I checked them, I would have happiness and fulfillment. Everything was going well that I imagined. But on the inside, something was missing.
“For me, the outside looked like success, but on the inside, there was emptiness.” – Jesse Bradley
There was a man named Mike who was on the track team in my dorm on the same floor, and he was very patient. He was the first Christian I ever had conversations with. And on that dorm floor, different discussions started to happen. It was a place of exploring. It felt safe. I think everyone needs a safe place that they can explore and ask deep questions about God. It wasn’t rules or religion or rituals. It was this relationship with God that I started to discover that I was known and loved. And I made the decision my sophomore year to put my trust in Jesus.
I like to say there was a new song in my heart. I’d walk around campus joyfully singing this song. I’d go to the same parties where I used to get drunk and I wouldn’t drink anything, and I’d have so much more joy than I did before. I started to forgive people. I forgave my dad, and I had held on to resentment, bitterness, and grudges for so long. God started to change me from the inside out, and it was grace. That’s what made Christianity stand out to me.
From Sports to Spiritual Conditioning
Throughout the Bible, there are many metaphors around athletes. You know, “run the race, fight the good fight, there’s a prize and a reward in heaven for us.” Like a farmer, the athlete is patient and disciplined. There are rules, and an athlete has training.
I paid attention to all those verses as I read the Bible from an athlete’s perspective, and what I’ve seen with the background in sports—and I was a goalkeeper in soccer. First of all, I was always working on my craft, whether it was lifting weights, sprinting, working on my kicking, my throwing, diving, getting to the upper corner, the right technique in catching the ball. I paid close attention, and I was very devoted.
And in the Christian life, beginning a walk with God is through grace. It’s not through effort. It’s not through taking that next step and taking action. It’s receiving the gift. That’s beginning the Christian life, but then growing in the Christian life, that absolutely ties in to how we live and it ties in to being disciplined. I’m so grateful that some of that carried over for me that when it comes to reading Scripture. That’s just something I do every morning, and I read through the Bible in a year. I think it came out of that practice as a goalkeeper and some of the discipline there.
I also think athletes are passionate about teams. In America, too often, it’s me instead of we. And even in churches, it’s so individualistic, and I think a healthy church is involved with teams. There’s teams in so many different settings, and on the soccer field I needed to know who are my teammates, what motivates them, what are their strengths, how can I maybe compensate for some weaknesses? And so the team element, I had a great foundation and great teams, great coaches in soccer. I think that gave me a taste for what teams can be in ministry as well. And working together as a team is vital in terms of serving God.
Pain as a Transformative Experience
Pain has been a big part of my transformation. C.S. Lewis said, “Pain is a megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” and I believe that pain can lead to a new passion, a new depth. God changed me and transformed me in deep ways.
“Pain has been a big part of my transformation.” – Jesse Bradley
As I was taking a medication to prevent malaria—it was prescribed in Africa during my professional soccer career—it built up toxic levels in my system, and my health rapidly deteriorated. I had no more control over my heartbeat: 160 beats a minute sitting still, atrial flutter, lots of abnormal rhythms. I couldn’t control my body temperature, I had double vision. And then emotionally, the drug had side effects like waves of depression and panic attacks. It was taking over my body.
As an athlete, I was very aware of my physical health, my mental health. And frankly, it was scary. I felt hopeless. It was brutal. I flew back to America and I found out that the cause was the medication. I had my blood taken and sent to the Center for Disease Control, and they confirmed toxic levels of the drug. The physicians all told me to continue to take the medication for another month because malaria can be latent. If I get malaria on top of my illness, they thought I would die. So they were well-intentioned, but they were wrong. So I made a bold decision by faith that I wouldn’t take the medication, and that saved my life. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t stop taking the medication for a month because I was fighting for my life for a year, and it took ten years to fully recover.
Identifying the Transformations
In the recovery, some of the transformations that happened for me—first of all, I never thought I’d be a pastor, an evangelist, someone who’s spreading the good news of Jesus. God changed my heart and the direction in my life. Professional soccer was over, and sometimes in life there’s a season that ends, and you can’t live in the past. There’s an expiration date. And stepping into ministry was a new venture for me.
Also, one thing was pouring out my heart to God in prayer. My prayers before that were more intellectual and theological, but I didn’t know how to pour out my heart to God. I did not know how to give God my burdens. And my approach and coping mechanism in life were that when life gets really difficult, you kind of white-knuckle persevere, do better and try harder. And that works to some degree in some settings. But it was not going to work in this situation.
Psalm 63:8 says, “My soul clings to you. Your right hand upholds me.”
Psalm 62:8 says, “Put your heart to God, trust in Him at all times, oh people.”
This was new for me. It was new to let God in. I had a view of God that was false, that He was only interested in my success and the things that I do well. But what I found out is that God is actually very close to me in my weakness, in my despair, when I feel all alone, when my life is ugly, when it’s messy, when I don’t have a direction for the future. God is still there and wants to be there and loves me just as much in those situations.
“I had a view of God that was false, that He was only interested in my success and the things that I do well. But what I found out is that God is actually very close to me in my weakness.” – Jesse Bradley
He started to redirect me into new paths, and I learned gritty gratitude, how to give thanks to God when you don’t feel like it. Because at the low point in my life I was writing down ten things every day that I want to thank God for, and that’s a habit that continues today. It’s one of those hope habits, along with thanking God intentionally when you don’t feel grateful because it helps you focus on what you still have and not overfocus on what you’ve lost.
I know in Jesus Calling, there’s such an emphasis on closeness with God, and I appreciate that because nothing’s more important than being close to Jesus, listening to Jesus, and trusting Jesus. And we need that daily, not just one hour, one building, one place, one day of the week, but that’s a 24/7 relationship. And that’s where our faith really comes alive.
Because when you’re at a low point, the battle is so often between your ears. It’s the battle of the mind. And I like to call it “the power of the second thought,” which is a hopeful habit. The first thought that comes in can be negative, selfish, and destructive. It’s not true. But you don’t have to harbor, believe, or entertain that first thought. Instead of embracing it, replace it with an intentional second thought. And I started to memorize scripture like Isaiah 41:10, which says, “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, help you, uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Jesus Listens, February 10th:
Your Word assures me that in Your Presence there is fullness of Joy. As I rest in Your Presence—pondering who You are in all Your Power and Glory—I rejoice in Your eternal commitment to me. Neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate me from Your Love! My relationship with You has been secure ever since I trusted You as my all-sufficient Savior. Help me remember that I am Your beloved child—this is my permanent identity.
You’ve shown me that I can find Joy even in this deeply broken world because You are with me always. I need to spend time refreshing myself in Your Presence—where I can relax and learn to delight myself in You above all else.
In Your cherished Name,
Stay tuned to Tovares and Safa Grey’s story after a brief message.
When We’re Looking for Hope, Jesus Listens
Sometimes life can be really stressful, whether it’s personal difficulties or world issues that make us feel overwhelmed. When we’re looking for hope and connection amid struggle, God is still there, ready for us to turn to him in prayer.
That’s why Sarah Young wrote Jesus Listens: to deliver a message of peace, love and hope to her readers every day. Jesus Listens is a 365-day prayer devotional with short, heartfelt prayers based on scripture, written to deepen your relationship with God.
Narrator: Our next guest is husband and wife duo Tovares and Safa Grey, who launched the Godly Dating 101 ministry in 2012 as a way to try and help others navigate the dating world as Christians—all based on their own experience and findings in the Bible. Their ministry has now expanded to include a podcast and book, and they connect daily with millions of people seeking to honor God in their relationships.
Safa Grey: My name is Safa. I’m here in Tampa, Florida, raised in Miami, Jamaican descent—I was born in Jamaica. I pretty much grew up in church my whole life.
Tovares Grey: And I’m Tovares Grey, also born and raised in Miami, so it’s weird how we lived very close to one another. We never knew one another. We just managed to meet later on in our lives.
Safa: We have been married almost six years now this year. And we have two beautiful little kids, a four-year-old boy and a one-year-old baby girl.
A Friendship Turns into a Romance
Tovares: We both grew up in church, so Safa was born in church. My family got saved when I was about four years old. So we’re both what you would call “pew babies.”
Safa: As Tovares mentioned, we pretty much grew up by each other and didn’t even know each other. Our parents literally lived ten minutes apart from each other.
We grew up in the same church circles. So his church would visit my church, and we’d visit other churches together and things like that. I’m sure I had probably been seeing Tovares my whole life, not knowing who he was, not really paying any attention to it because he has so many young people from his church. But I want to say in 2010, we both visited a mutual church, and the church had a concert after the service, and they had spoken word. Well, I did a spoken word at the concert, and he noticed me and said he wanted to get to know me. So he slid into my DMs—or, at the time, in my Facebook messenger. So from then, we became really good friends.
We were pretty good friends up until 2015. I was about to graduate college with my bachelor’s degree, and Tovares was in the military at the time. But he came at me basically in a more serious tone and let me know he wanted to get to know me with marriage in mind. And I said yes. And ever since then, we’ve been on this journey of love and happiness and just having a great time together and growing in God.
Dating in Today’s World
Tovares: I feel as though there is so much pressure coming from social media, there’s so much pressure coming from our friends. And I think it’s so easy for us to not go by what the preacher says or what our leadership says, what our accountability groups say, and to go by the predominant voices, and that’s typically the TikTok trends. Everybody’s following some YouTuber that tells you that you’re a high value or not a high value. And everyone is trying to figure out who they should be or who they should pursue, based on everyone’s approval other than God’s. So that’s the reason why we’re trying to shift that narrative now.
You want a godly marriage, you want a healthy marriage. But there are some people who desire marriage because everyone else on their timeline is married. They desire it because everyone else is getting pregnant, and everyone else is engaged. And we’re so focused on what everyone else is doing that we’re not worried about, like, God, what do you want me to do right now? So I think a lot of times it becomes difficult because we’re trying to put God on our timeline rather than to trust His timing or rather than to discover ourselves. We’re just focused on creating marriage and making it become an idol where we’re so focused, unfortunately, on replacing God with the idea of love.
“You want a godly marriage, you want a healthy marriage. But there are some people who desire a marriage because everyone else on their timeline is married.” – Tovares Grey
Safa: My advice would also be don’t put God in a box. I think a lot of times, we have this idea of who we want to be with based on the standards that we put up—not necessarily just biblical standards, but based on our own personal standards. It’s great to have personal standards, but don’t put God in a box.
I feel as though if I had put God in a box, Tovares and I wouldn’t have been married because we were friends for a while. And to be honest, I didn’t consider him as someone I could marry over time for some simple reasons. I said I’d never want to marry someone in the military. I never wanted to be with someone who was even remotely younger than me, even if it was for two days. And Tovares is a year younger than me. So I had all these ideas, this box that I’d built around, This is the person I have to marry, he has to be this age. He has to look like this. He has to have this type of job. And I had to put that aside and say, “God, who do You have for me? At the end of the day, the person that I’m supposed to marry should be someone I can grow with and someone that I can worship and glorify You with.” And I had to stop putting God in a box.
So that would be my advice to other young people who are dating today: don’t limit God to your idea of who you think you should be with.
“My advice to other young people who are dating today: don’t limit God to your idea of who you think you should be with.” – Safa Grey
Determining What’s Important in a Potential Partner
Tovares: One thing I tell people to do is don’t rush the relationship.
Safa: There’s beauty in singleness and that needs to be addressed more, just letting the world know, letting young people know—especially in church—there is beauty in being single and that it’s okay to be single. You don’t have to rush the process.
Tovares: I think anyone can put on their profile, “A man of God, woman of God,” anyone can have in their Tinder bio whatever it is. Anyone can show the front. Or they may even be attending church and you may assume, Okay, godly person, obviously they can serve God with me, not realizing that can still be a distraction. Proverbs 5 mentioned that there was a guy tempted by the alluring words of this beautiful woman, not realizing he was walking straight towards his death. And it’s not even to sound morbid or anything, but it’s the fact that a lot of times distractions look very beautiful, distractions look like our preferences. Distractions can look like things that we would assume, Oh, this must be God, when in reality, maybe God had nothing to do with it.
So I say you have to find ways to examine their character. Are they engaged when you’re talking about the things of God? You need to ask them questions, and not just, “Do you know Jesus?” or “Do you follow Jesus?” but, “How does your devotion look? Where are you active?” And it’s not a matter of “he needs to be the preacher, she needs to lead the praise team,” but are there any avenues where they serve? What are things that they’re doing to help develop their walk with God? And I’m not one of those people who feel as though, Okay, well, she’s leading a Bible study on campus. She’s the world’s most anointed woman, there it is, I do, we live happily ever after. I don’t think that’s the case. But I would love to know you’re making steps towards growth, because that way it shows me, like, What if there’s a day when I’m spiritually weak? Are you going to be able to encourage me?
I’ve broken up with somebody before when I felt like things that were foundational to my faith they disagreed with. You can take a posture of, “I have nothing against you. We can still remain friends. But in order to have a relationship, I want to make sure that we’re aligned on important things that I may end up having to tell my children.”
Communicating With God to Guide Us in Dating
Safa: I think that communicating with God through prayer regarding any aspect of your life is important, especially in dating. And so that is just very, very important to pursue God in every aspect. He’s concerned about every single aspect of our lives. He wants us to talk to Him. He wants us to have a relationship. And praying with Him in pursuit of a relationship is important because this relationship is supposed to glorify Him in the first place. It’s all about Him at the end of the day, it’s there to glorify Him. And He should have some say into who we’re dating, these people we’re talking to. He should definitely be able to guide us in that. So we need to have that relationship with Him.
“[God’s] concerned about every single aspect of our lives. He wants us to talk to Him. He wants us to have a relationship.” – Safa Grey
I believe that doing a daily devotional is extremely important in your walk as a single person, as a person in a relationship, as a married person, whatever the case may be. It just kind of drops a little nugget for you to meditate on throughout the day. Tovares and I have always had little devotionals. So having a devotional there and just starting your day off with God and having something to meditate on is just very important.
Jesus Listens, July 12th:
Help me to be joyful always and pray continually. I’ve learned that the only way I can keep rejoicing is to find moment-by-moment pleasure in my relationship with You—the One who is always with me. This relationship is so full of comfort and encouragement that it’s possible for me to be joyful in hope even when I’m struggling with adversity.
When I’m feeling sad or discouraged, it is still a good time to thank You. This brightens my perspective and demonstrates my trust in You. Thanking You in every situation strengthens my relationship with You and increases my Joy.
Tovares: I honestly think daily communication with God through prayer is so important because when you’re trying to choose the one, I think so many different voices are speaking to you. So your hormones are already telling you what you should be pursuing after, society’s telling you what’s the idea of beauty and who’s the type of person that you should pursue, even if it’s artificial, even if it’s all filtered and it’s fake, you know? Everyone is telling you what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. But I think that when you take the time to go to God in prayer, then you actually get God’s peace, you get God’s direction.
I think the moment you start asking, “God, you give me discernment about the situation because I see someone I’m interested in. I’m not sure if that’s someone you approve of. I’m not sure if this is someone that’s a distraction.” I think that God will be able to show you.
An Example in Dating for Future Generations
Safa: I will say to my children, “Date with the intention to glorify God,” because that’s what relationships are. At the end of the day, everything points back to God, and so we have to date with that intention in mind. I think we just live in a culture where, as Tovares said, either the one-night stands or hit-it-and-quit-it type of generation, and that’s not good. I don’t want my children to be swayed by social media or the TV media, whatever kind of media. I want them to know that the point of marriage at the end of the day is to glorify God. And you should date with someone who will help you not only grow spiritually, but mentally, someone who can push you, who can challenge you. That is what we want marriage to be.
“At the end of the day, everything points back to God, and so we have to date with that intention in mind.” – Safa Grey
And also, I’ll say one thing my mom has always said to me, and I feel as though that’s helped me even choose someone to marry or choose Tovares. She always said to me, “Marry a man that will love God more than He loves you. Because at the end of the day, He will always, always, always strive to please God. A man should love his wife as Christ loves the church”. And I can genuinely say that Tovares strives to do that every day. I believe that because I genuinely believe He loves God more than he loves me. And that’s a plus.
Tovares: And I want my kids to realize that they have worth outside of that relationship, so that way they know when they are going into a relationship, they’re building the person up and that person should only be building them up. But if they’re feeling as though they’re losing their identity in order to maintain a relationship, I want them to realize that it was never God-ordained, you know?
And now being married, trying to learn and grow myself, I’m realizing ultimately marriage is one of the most serious things any human being can do. Like God tells the husband, “Love your wife as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25). That is a high calling that You’ve given us. But I want my kids to realize this should be an example of God’s love for the church, you know? So I want them to understand who they are.
You do have a purpose, you do have worth. And God does see something special in you, and God wants to bring that out of you even before you get to the altar, you know? So we need to focus on making sure that people are operating in their calling because there are no varsity Christians and junior varsity Christians.
No, we haven’t arrived once we’re married, because there are married people, unfortunately, not living in the calling God has for them. So we need to make sure we’re doing everything to bring out the gifts in people and not making anyone feel as though that’s the super Christian of the church and you’re the mediocre one. But we need to make sure people are operating in their calling.
Narrator: To learn more about the Greys, please visit www.godlydating101.com, and be sure to check out their new book by the same title, available wherever books are sold.
If you’d like to hear more stories about thinking outside the box, check out our interview with Nate Pyle.
Next Week: Tamera Mowry-Housley
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we’ll hear from actress Tamera Mowry-Housley, who shares her journey into the Hollywood spotlight and how she’s learned over the years to pursue the things that truly fulfill her—including a relationship with God.
Tamera Mowry-Housley: I’m actually at the point right now where I don’t want what’s not for me: friendships, relationships, marriage, roles, opportunities. I want what’s for me. I’m not trying to be what’s not me. Because you lose yourself. Once you lose your identity, you’re frazzled. You’re confused all the time. And life is short. We only have a certain amount of years, and I want to live them peacefully and joyfully