WHEN I WAS a freshman in high school, my English teacher was a crotchety killjoy named Mrs. Bright. She always wore bulky double-knit dresses and a scowl on her face, but the glower was understandable. In those days and in our neck of the woods, most classes were segregated by gender, and having a room full of hungry teenage boys during the hour just before lunch would have made even Mother Teresa mean.
While school cafeterias never have been known for stellar cuisine, ours was staffed by East Texas women who knew how to fatten up kids. Mashed potatoes and gravy, juicy slices of meatloaf, homemade apple pie—you can’t imagine my caloric intake during the first year of high school. The lunchroom happened to be just down the hall from my English class, which meant I could always smell homemade butter rolls rising to perfection, even as Mrs. Bright hassled me about properly conjugating verbs.
Granted, Mrs. Bright had no choice but to be militaristic. She knew that she couldn’t afford to smile, relax, or tolerate misbehavior of any kind, because if given even an inch of leeway, my friends and I always took a mile. As a result, on more than a few occasions, I found myself in Mr. Lowry’s grip, awaiting a well-deserved paddling.
Mr. Lowry was our school’s assistant principal, and he had a special paddle that he would use on disruptive freshman boys. It had a series of holes drilled in it to give the blows a little more force, and about once a week, I’d see one of my buddies get dragged out into the hallway and then hear three steady swipes—pow! pow! pow! You’d think I would have learned from the pain of my pals, but you’d be giving me far too much credit. On more than a few occasions, Mrs. Bright would spear me with her gaze and point that thick index finger toward the hallway. I knew perfectly well what that meant.
Eventually, thankfully, I was rescued from my plight. Dad’s boss, as well as a little divine intervention, saved the day.
A few weeks before I began my sophomore year of high school, my father received a job transfer, which meant my family got to pack our belongings and head to Simsboro, Louisiana. I enrolled in a brand-new school, and my English teacher was a man named Mr. Burt. Perhaps the most creative, energetic, passionate teacher I’d ever had, Mr. Burt singlehandedly inspired me to welcome grammar as a friend and, later, to work toward a minor in English literature.
Mr. Burt was classically handsome and athletic—the kind of guy every teenage girl swooned over and every teenage boy idolized. He was the spitting image of Tom Selleck, back when Tom Selleck was the coolest of cool. He was also Robin Williams in “Dead Poets’ Society,” long before the movie came out, and he made studying Shakespeare the most entertaining part of my day.
Looking back, switching from one teacher to another seems so inconsequential—but sometimes a simple shift is all it takes to reinvent a life.
Many years after those beloved high school days, I came across a verse of Scripture that spread Turf Builder on my budding spiritual life. Galatians 3:23-26 says, “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. The law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (NIV).
So that’s what the Law was for, I remember thinking. The Law—God’s Law—was a necessary “locking-up” in anticipation of freedom later on. It was a way to show us that without some sort of rescue, we’d stay locked up forever in our futile attempts to follow the rules, measure up, and make the grade with God.
Before we know God through Christ, we are “in custody” under the Law in the same way that a child who is orphaned today will be appointed a custodian who will help that child grow into a responsible adult. That custodian has all the rights of a parent. He or she has rights over any assets the child possesses, over the child’s training, and over the child’s protection, which is exactly the role of the Law in the lives of those who don’t yet know Jesus Christ.
If you’re not a believer in Christ, then the Law is holding you and keeping you until you surrender your life to him. Day by day, that Law will be an irritating reminder to you that you simply cannot measure up to God’s standard by relying on your own wit, wisdom, and strength. Mirroring the method used by Mrs. Bright, the Law intends to bear down on you, put restrictions on you, and remind you that you will never measure up. So, yes, it can frustrate you and indict you, but it can also serve to point you to Christ.
This is the reason Jesus came to planet Earth—to fulfill the requirements of the Law for derelicts like you and me. Now that his work is complete, you and I and every other human being alive have a choice to make. We can either insist on trying to keep the Law—spending our days racking up more good deeds for God—or else we can trust in the sacrifice Christ made, and in doing so, get transferred to his love-fueled, life-giving class. Whereas the Law said, “You’ll never measure up,” Jesus says, “You will fall and you will fail, but my sacrifice will cover your sins. Accept my love and live redeemed. I am your teacher now.”
Ahhh. Sweet relief. Farewell, Mrs. Bright.
Here’s the interesting thing: When I was in Mr. Burt’s class, I proved myself far more diligent than I ever did for Mrs. Bright. Rules and regulations only served to oppress me, while freedom compelled me to serve. Satisfying a worthy master is infinitely more exciting than slaving away to placate a master who in the end can never be pleased.
We’re freed from spiritual slavery to become bond slaves to the living Christ. In other words, once we embrace our identity as God’s daughters and sons, it’s our joy to adhere to his ways. Sometimes a simple shift is all it takes to reinvent a life.