Set in rural Michigan, this book details the early life of Josh McDowell. Josh lives with his family on a dairy farm — land gifted to Mr. and Mrs. McDowell by a family friend during the Great Depression. Josh, born at the start of WWII, is the youngest of four children with 10 years separating him from the next youngest, and 18 years from the eldest.
His father, Wilmot, is an often-violent alcoholic and the primary destructive force in the family. The stabilizing person in Josh's life is his mother, Edith. Josh describes her as cultured, yet domineering and sharp-tongued. She is also the disciplinarian. Unlike his dad, Josh knows that his mother loves him, and he feels a strong bond with her. Because of a thyroid problem, she weighs over 300 pounds and has difficulty getting around. By the time he is 6 or 7, Josh begins defending his mom when Wilmot physically abuses her and, at times, nearly kills her.
When Josh is 6, Wayne Bailey comes to work for them and lives in the house with Josh's family. He essentially fulfills the role of the farm wife because Edith's size does not allow her to function well in that capacity. Within weeks of his arrival, Wayne begins to molest Josh at every opportunity and does so for the next seven years.
Wilmot is unable to keep his various jobs over the years because of his drinking problem. With each financial problem, he sells off a piece of his land to keep the family afloat. Junior, Josh's eldest sibling, manages the farm, and Edith keeps the books; the farm maintains profitability through their efforts.
When Josh is 12, he learns that Junior has worked the family dairy farm for nearly eight years without pay. His dad once promised Junior the workers' house and several acres of farmland, yet he failed to make good on his promise. Junior takes Wilmot to court and wins. Then he prepares to have the house moved to a new location. When Josh arrives at the emotional scene of equipment moving the house, he is surprised that his neighbors and some of the town folk cheer Junior and jeer his parents with vile language. Combined with the lack of compassion from people who were once good friends and fearful that he might not see his older brother again, Josh experiences a crisis and concludes that there is no love, no hope, no purpose in life and, most of all, no God. He allows bitterness to rule his heart. Junior's departure does indeed break ties with the family.
At 13, Josh finally stands up to Wayne. He threatens to kill the man and squeezes his neck until he turns blue. Wayne never touches him again and leaves the farm a few years later.
Josh becomes something of an athletic star in high school football and basketball. His grades are "good enough," and he earns extra cash by repairing cars. After high school, Josh joins the Air Force. One day while walking through a hangar, a heavy pipe drops on his head, landing him in the hospital with cerebral swelling and partial amnesia. While he is still hospitalized, a chaplain arrives to inform him of his mother's death. Eventually he is granted a medical discharge. Free from the military after six months, Josh, at 19, decides to try college with the goal of becoming a lawyer. While attending a community college back in Michigan, Josh encounters a small group of outspoken Christians. They challenge him to disprove Jesus' resurrection. Josh takes the dare seriously. He decides the best research would be accomplished in Europe, and he starts a house painting company initially as a quick way to earn money for his overseas trip. Throughout his college career, he keeps this company as a means to earn money during summer breaks.
When summer arrives, Josh flies to Europe, and after several weeks of research and conversations with well-informed experts, he is convinced that Jesus' resurrection is not a myth. After school resumes in the fall, Josh eventually responds to an altar call to affirm his belief in Jesus Christ. His new life in Christ prompts him to meet with his dad as an act of forgiveness and to tell him he loves him. What he doesn't know until later is that this visit becomes a turning point in their relationship and in Wilmot's life. After a time of struggle, Josh even visits Wayne Bailey to express his forgiveness, though he ends the visit with a threat that if he hears of Wayne touching any young man inappropriately, he'll make him regret it.
Josh's pastor mentors him as far as he can, then suggests that Josh transfer to Wheaton College. Josh transfers into Wheaton as a junior, still intent on law school. Toward the end of his junior year, a drunk driver smashes into the rear of his car. The accident means at least a month of bed rest at home, in Michigan, on the farm — with his dad.
An ambulance transports Josh from Chicago back to the farm. His first feelings of dread at being back on the farm are replaced with the surprise of seeing his dad sober, broken and ready to confess Jesus as his Savior. During Josh's recovery period, he and Wilmot spend their evenings reading and discussing the Bible. Wilmot's testimony not only influences some of the town's people, but he also begins witnessing to prisoners and is highly instrumental in prisoners being saved. He later meets and marries Bertha. At first, Josh resents Bertha because she gets to be married to the "new" Wilmot, unlike his mother. However, with time he comes to appreciate her for the sweet person she is.
Before he returns for his senior year, Josh decides to make amends with Junior. First he writes him a note of forgiveness but ends it with "I never want to see you again." But his conscience weighs on him, and he decides to visit Junior, now called Mac, in person. First he apologizes for the written note, and then tries to make peace for the resentment he feels about when Mac left the family. While Mac hears him out, he doesn't appear to be in need of reconciliation, does not respond when he hears his dad is a Christian now, and is glad that Josh found something that works for him. Mac plans to join the Peace Corps to help people. He states, "There are many rivers, but they all flow into one sea, don't they?"
In his last year at Wheaton, Josh senses a call to ordained ministry, though initially he runs away from the idea of obedience to God. The call is amplified after he meets Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. Just before graduation, Josh proposes marriage to his girlfriend, and still wearing a neck brace from the auto accident, he graduates from Wheaton. He makes plans to drive to California with a friend, but before he breaks his engagement with his fiancée.
Once in California, still planning for law school, Josh sees a magazine ad for Talbot Theological Seminary. He spontaneously decides to visit the school and makes a deal with God that if he gets accepted that day, he'll go into ministry rather than law school. Through some bizarre twists of timing, he meets with the school's dean and gets immediate, miraculous acceptance. Not far into the first semester, Josh gets word that his dad died. When he returns from Wilmot's funeral, he struggles, as he always has, with his mother's death and the uncertainty of her salvation. Longing for peace, he uses his Christmas break to drive to the beach. Walking out onto the pier, he meets a woman who turns out to be his mother's cousin. She had grown up with Edith, and she tells Josh about when she and Edith accepted Christ as teens, giving him the peace he sought since his mother's death.