Whoever said that high school is the best time of one’s life is either blissfully suffering from selective memories or succumbing to our culture’s youth idolatry. The majority of folks, when asked if they would like to relive their tween and teen years, give an emphatic “no,” citing the heartache, struggles, and growing pains as stark signposts on the bumpy road of growing up: something you slog through once and are eternally thankful you never have to walk again.
The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School edited by Cameron Cole and Charlotte Getz seeks to infuse that difficult and necessary journey with a dose of hope in a realistic way. The book, a compendium of some thirty writers, offers bite-sized chapters that address the authors’ personal experiences in high school, what each author wishes he or she would have known back then, and what the author desires to convey to the reader.
I’ll admit that I was skeptical when I first picked up this book. I once attempted to veto an addition to a church library because it was labeled as a Bible specifically for women, my argument being that the gospel is not gender-specific, and we risk losing the message if we insist upon compartmentalizing the saints and rebranding Scripture to fit our own agenda. Overall, The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School avoids this pitfall by including authors from all walks of life, those fresh out of twelfth grade and those who have been blessedly absent from those halls for many years. The authors weave together their stories in such a way that I found myself relating to most of the experiences without difficulty. The book also mostly avoids the irritating cliché of ending every chapter with some iteration of, “But then I grew up and everything was instantly better,” a common error that I have found in many books of this sort which devolve into preaching down to a purportedly “less-than” or so-called inferior generation.
My small quibbles with this book involve some unclear wording in a few sections regarding the role of human will in salvation (do we make a choice to follow Jesus?) and a few instances of the “what-if” game. Namely, I’m not convinced that it is helpful to assume that if one had only known differently in one’s formative years, the outcome of life would have been much different. There is a difference between recognizing one’s mistakes and learning from them and extrapolating that if one had not made such-and-such error, one’s life would have been automatically better. As with all works written by mere mortals, critical thinking is required, as is the reminder that “iron sharpening iron” (Prov. 27:17) means that one must engage one’s brain when reading and fearlessly compare all matters of doctrine with the Word of God.
With that disclaimer, this book is worth reading and re-reading for a number of reasons: first, it portrays the youth experience compassionately and seriously; second, it contains insight that would be valuable for a reader of almost any age; and third, it contains some incredibly powerful comfort and sound proclamations of the gospel.
Many books try to discuss the so-called teen experience but fail to actually grasp the burdens that the youth of today (and yesteryear) experience. The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School recounts all manner of stories, from the embarrassment of not being crowned homecoming queen to the bleakness of being diagnosed with a chronic illness to struggling with a hidden sin, and it does so in a compassionate and kind way. There is no martyr shaming here, no admonition to buck up because your life isn’t really so hard, no dismissal of peer rejection or friend drama or any other adolescent woe as unworthy of being called true pain. The book deals with the unique challenges our culture dishes out while still acknowledging that some hardships are timeless. In one particularly insightful passage, writer Kevin Yi connects today’s social media fueled cry for attention and acceptance and its fear of “cancellation” (or societal shunning and silencing due to a perceived cultural misstep) as an iteration of the Shame/Honor culture that is prevalent in many Asian communities. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in a Korean home, Yi thoughtfully points the reader to Christ as the only answer to our shame and the sole source of our undeserved, unearned honor before the Father.
While the insights in each chapter are uniquely personal to the individual writers, the overarching theme is one of the sufficiency of Christ. Each chapter concludes with a devotional thought, and each devotion begins with a Scripture reference to read. Some chapters offer startlingly profound insight, as in the chapter by Kevin Yi when the author gifts us with an exposition concerning Aaron in the Old Testament. Aaron, Yi points out, is often remembered as the bumbling people-pleaser who let Israel run wild and create a golden calf (see Exodus 32). But his story doesn’t end with the intense dishonor he brought upon Israel. Instead, a few short chapters later, we read in Exodus 39 that Aaron is clothed in priestly garments and a crown which reads “Holy to the LORD” (Ex. 28:36). Yi connects this robing of Aaron, which occurs even after his catastrophic failure, with the way in which we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ through no personal holiness on our part. For all the times I have read Exodus, I have never been so struck by that account as I was when Yi concisely and clearly stated,
This means that the highlight of the priestly garment was a crown that showed off to all of Israel: the wearer of this crown is unique, special, precious, to be set apart for the Lord. You see, Jesus is the greater Moses, who prays on our behalf so that we would be presented before God as ‘Holy to the LORD’ (105).
It was Chapter 3, though, that struck me most deeply. It took author Mac Harris less than six pages to move me to tears and show me a deep source of comfort. The author recounts how his father died when Harris was in eighth grade, the darkness that followed, and the immense guilt he felt wondering if he should have done something differently when his father was alive. Fresh off a death in my own family, I couldn’t get through any of the times I re-read this chapter—and I re-read it multiple times—without crying. Here, I felt, was someone who understood grief in a way that is so desperately lacking in our culture. While the author recounted his attempts to bury his emotions and move on, I found myself deeply comforted by Harris’s refusal to offer “one-size-fits-all formula[s] for grieving” or “platitudes or cherry-picked [Scripture] verses” (17). Instead, Harris points to Christ as the one who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, the sleepless nights, the numbing weight of grief.
Harris presents Jesus as the one who “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3a). In one of the most beautiful passages in the book, Harris writes, “[God] invites you to walk through the muck and the mire of mourning and sit right in the emotions you wish you could escape. This isn’t some trick or test of faith, but God’s good purpose for healing and making all things new. In the midst of your grief and loss, I invite you to read the Psalms and cry out to God with the psalmist” (19). This constant redirection to Scripture is what sets this chapter—and this book—apart from many of the other similar works in circulation. It doesn’t sugarcoat or claim that everything will feel OK in this life. Rather, it points to Christ as the only answer to the biggest problem we will ever face: sin and death.
Though our scars—whether from abuse, embarrassment, death, sickness, or failure—may follow us from high school to the grave, they cannot follow us past the doorway of death. Because Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree, we know that we are right with God (1 Peter 2:24). God the Father declares us justified, or not guilty of every sin, because of Jesus’ perfect life and death. The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School proclaims the Jesus of yesterday, today, and forever: the historical, literal God-Man who came down to earth to save you and me. May we realize that, as Kenneth E. Ortiz writes in Chapter 27, “Jesus had chosen to forget my past, he wiped the record clean. I began to realize that I was declared righteous before God, not by my good behavior, but by Christ Himself” (161). May we share that joyful good news with every generation as we await our own eternal and perfect homecoming, thankful that our journey ends at the throne of our Savior.