Final day of fourth grade with a teacher I will forever look up to.

I was 9 years old on my way home from school. It was one of those fun, but tiring days in 4th grade. The sun was shining. I had done well on my math test, and recess was super fun that day. The fitness test would be happening soon in PE, and I was so excited.

However, not everything had gone well in fourth grade that day. It was Bible class. It was usually my favorite, but lately, while I was finding myself completely engaged in the Bible lesson and learning how to think deeply, something in my heart was stirring that didn’t feel good. 

I had the sweetest fourth grade teacher. She could calm a noisy classroom of students with a whisper. She was gentle, and she smiled often. She was patient, and it didn’t matter how long it took you to answer a question after raising your hand. She waited. The best part? She loved loved LOVED Jesus. Like this lady would smile the most often when she would speak of him. She made Bible class come alive. I just loved it. 

Earlier in the week we had learned about faith. For one of our lessons, we did the “trust test”. Anyone else know what I’m talking about? There was a chair up front, a brave volunteer, and the teacher has you stand on the chair. Then she stands behind the chair, tells you to close your eyes, and asks you to fall back, keeping your eyes closed. WHAT?! But don’t worry, the teacher will catch you. I remember being absolutely terrified after I saw a friend volunteer for this. NO WAY. Would she actually catch my friend?

Sitting in the back row, I’m sure I was sweating, feeling my heart race, and feeling my mouth become dry. Once my friend realized what she had volunteered for, she politely said, “I don’t think I want to do this.” My soft spoken, but firm teacher smiled at her and said, “Too late. You can do it!” That was another thing I loved about this teacher. She was sweet, but boy did she challenge you to do hard things. She always believed in us. I saw the terrified look in my friend’s eyes, and then saw that look change to only slight hesitation when my teacher said, “Just trust me. Let’s see how much faith you have!” 

Oh boy. She was going to tie this to our Bible lesson. To my surprise, my friend did it. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and fell back from the chair and my teacher caught her. The class cheered! My teacher smiled and said, “Thank you for trusting me! You had nothing to worry about once you just let go.” Then, there were several other students who volunteered. Every time though, they got a little nervous before taking their “leap” (even though it was a backward fall) of faith. It was scary at first.

One of the things I loved about my teacher, as well as most of the ones I had in elementary school, was that there was always a purpose for why we were learning something. So, why did we do this crazy faith test? I will never forget her words. 

“Was it hard for you to trust me?  You can see me, and you know me. Trusting Jesus is a big deal. Unlike a human, you can’t physically see him. So if you can’t trust a human to catch you with your eyes closed, it’s probably really difficult to trust Jesus, isn’t it?”

Boom. She had this way of making you think. To be honest, I wouldn’t have done the faith test at the time. I would have un-volunteered myself, if that was a thing. She went on to say that real faith and a relationship with God was not an easy thing at all, and that trust and faith took a lifetime to grow.

So that was one day in Bible class. Lots to think about. But here my world felt a little shaken because I had called myself a Christian and a follower of Jesus. While in my heart I did feel like I was loving him the best I knew, something was missing.

Later in the week, we had a follow up lesson about what it meant to be a follower of Christ. To start the lesson, she made a bold statement. “Raise your hand if you would call yourself a Christian.” I think everyone in the class raised his or her hand. She followed it up with a question. “How do you know you are a Christian?” Here were some answers I vividly remember hearing. “I go to church.” “I read the Bible.” “My parents are Christians.” “I’ve just always been a Christian since I was little.” “I do a lot of good things.” “I go to church camp.” “My dad is a pastor.” “I go to a Christian school.” “I follow the 10 commandments.” I loved Bible discussions at school. My teacher made you think about why you believe what you believe. You never felt guilty or bad for your answer. She valued what you had to say, and her stories and words were simply captivating. I remember wondering if she was an angel at times. 

“I loved all your answers! I wonder how many of you would pass the faith test too—wasn’t that fun?” (Oh I loved how she added that one in—it was perfect!) I remember her telling us, “But—young adults (she used to call us this and it made us feel so wise), please listen and look at me.” She would wait until every eye was on her. “Doing these things—going to church, a Christian school, having Christian parents, doing good things, etc. Those are good things, however they do not give you your salvation. They do not give you your identity, and they do not make you a Christian. Did you know that?” I will never forget the look in her eyes. It was intense. She meant every word she said, and she said them all without hesitancy. It was also like you could see into her heart. Full of love, and she did not want us to miss this. So we listened. Everyone listened. We opened our Bibles and read many verses. She was right.

My heart was pounding. A whirlwind of thoughts were flooding my mind. I go to a Christian school. I’ve gone to church for as long as I can remember. I see my dad read his Bible so often and we have discussions about Jesus at home, at the dinner table, and basically everywhere every day. Dad’s even on the worship teams at church! My mom loves Jesus and reads us stories and sings to us. I have my Bible with my pretty journal, I get an A+ on every memory verse, and I know all the words to our Sunday School songs. To me, at age 9, that was how I thought I was a Christian. I had great spiritual input, but it hadn’t yet come alive.

Those words—“They do not give you your salvation. They do not give you your identity, and they do not make you a Christian.”

“Young adults, it is not about what you do. It doesn’t matter if your dad is a pastor, if you do a lot of good things, or if you go to church 7 days a week. Those are all wonderful things, but if you haven’t made a heart commitment to Jesus and you do not have a real relationship with him, your faith is meaningless. Your parents don’t make that decision for you. Your Sunday School teachers don’t make that decision for you. You do. It’s a journey your entire life. It’s more real than any human relationship you’ll have here on earth.

Boom. Silent class. Thinking minds. Captivated audience. And I will never forget that stirring deep inside my heart. My world was shaken once again. My teacher closed her Bible, as we closed all of ours. She prayed for our class, and I felt so incredibly loved by her, and also by Jesus. 

God used my fourth grade teacher immensely that year. It was this year but I surrendered my life to Jesus, and the year I began to understand the gospel, salvation, and eternal life a bit deeper. It was much more than just knowing. It was having what I “knew” come alive in my heart and in my life. I remember going to my bedroom and closing the door after school. I got on my knees, and I simply talked to Jesus. It was the first time I had made the decision to turn my life over to Jesus, and that it was no longer about what I did or about being a good person who went to church. I wanted a real relationship with Him now. I will never forget the freedom and peace, as much as a nine year old can, that late afternoon after school. I felt a joy that I still cannot describe today. Maybe this was the kind of transformation my teacher spoke with such passion and joy about. Maybe this was the real thing. 

You always remember those people who impacted you during your life, but what’s even more special is keeping in touch with those people. To this day, after 25 years, I still keep in touch with my 4th grade teacher. I got an email from her today , and her words were still so inspiring. As one of the best teachers I had, more of her teaching came by example and her own life—just like Jesus. She has impacted the way I teach students in the classroom and my own children at home. To see students and even my little boys begin to understand glimpses of Jesus, experience His love and power (from just life and less of teaching) is transformational.

As humans, we naturally have the tendency to focus on the outward parts of being a follower of Christ. We get caught up in the rules, who’s right and wrong, and we put a block up in our relationship and communication with Jesus (and others). We turn legalistic instead of loving, and at times forget that the heart is what the Lord sees. There’s a striking difference in a person who has faith, has “prayed the prayer” or “done the good things” and in a person who has a living, real relationship that they don’t have to prove to others. I’m thankful that my teacher lovingly challenged me at a young age and helped me see that difference. That Jesus used her, in addition to my parents, pastors, and spiritual mentors over the years to show me more of Jesus each day.

She also inspired me to do the faith test with every class of students I’ve had, and I cannot wait to do this with our boys someday. “Falling hard, catch me NOW, Mrs. Goodsell!” Or the “That kind of faith is INSANE!” Are my two of my favorite phrases during this activity.