I walked into my English class on the first day of my junior year of high school and was greeted by Mrs. Cox’s smiling face. She was a new teacher that year, but many of us knew her already because she had a son in our grade. It was clear that she would be a cool teacher – she was down to earth and funny…and plus, she had Happy Bunny posters decorating the classroom.
Her appeal increased when she handed out neon pink paper hearts and assigned us to fill in the heart with things we love. I don’t remember everything I wrote, but I know my answers ranged from tacos to the Bible. Once our hearts were filled in, we were each given a spiral notebook and were to glue our heart to the inside cover. On a regular basis throughout the school year, we spent class time filling up the pages of our notebooks with just one simple instruction: Write about what’s in your heart.
I wonder if Mrs. Cox ever felt like it was a risk to give 17-year-olds empty notebooks and no rules. Whether or not she felt that risk, she was smart enough to realize that by removing restrictions and alleviating the pressure of grades, some of our best writing would be produced. The style may have been less formal than that of a book report or a research paper, but we were free to write out of the overflow of our own uniqueness. Mrs. Cox validated our passions by allowing us to express them during her time. She let us know we had a voice, and she forced us to practice using it.
I’ll never forget how valuable it made me feel when she asked, “What’s in your heart?” and spent the rest of the school year listening. I could end here and it would be an inspirational story about high school English, but Mrs. Cox’s influence extends beyond eleventh grade. As I reflect on my experience in her class, I understand the gospel more deeply.
Because Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God – doing for me what I could never do for myself – I am liberated to obey Him out of love rather than obligation. The pressure is off. There are no more grades. Because of the good news of Jesus’ finished work, my standing before God isn’t resting on my shoulders. This doesn’t mean I don’t obey Him; it means I get to obey Him because, by His grace, it’s what’s now in my heart. We don’t obey rigidly or begrudgingly; we obey because we love God (1 John 5:3). Obedience flows more naturally and is more sustainable when it comes from a place of freedom rather than in response to a checklist.
Thanks, Mrs. Cox, for allowing me to say what was in my heart. And thank you for helping me understand that Christian obedience isn’t a book report; it’s an empty journal.