I’m a PK—a pastor’s kid. But when I was about 14 and living in Frankfurt, Germany, I began to question my childhood faith. At school I was being introduced to thoughts that questioned everything I had previously thought or believed. I reacted by reading widely, and I had endless discussions with other youth at my church. I asked a lot of questions, and finally I owned my faith for myself.
There were 13 girls in my class at school, but the idea of God was a joke to them. Whenever someone would catch me bowing my head over my lunch, giggles would be heard. It was surprising, though, that whenever any of my classmates suffered a heartbreak, I was the one they came to—with red, swollen eyes—for comfort.
At 18, as part of a required course, I did an internship with the family of our English teacher. Years before, this teacher had abandoned his belief in the Bible, and now he seemed to see this as the ideal opportunity to cure this pastor’s daughter of her old-fashioned belief in God.
His “therapy” began around the lunch table. I had been toying with the idea of offering a silent, inconspicuous blessing before eating so that no one would notice, but I felt that I would somehow be betraying God. At first, the children around the table wondered why I paused and bowed my head. The 6-year-old son’s reaction was the most blatant: he deliberately mocked me with facial expressions. This was embarrassing for the mother, who wanted to teach her children tolerance. The father, my teacher, only grinned condescendingly and used my brief prayer time to think up the next set of difficult questions with which to needle me.
“Sylvia, what did the lion eat in Paradise?” or “Where did Cain get a wife?” or “If God is almighty, can He create a stone so large that He Himself cannot carry it?”
More than once that first bite of my meal seemed to stick in my throat. I often woke up in the mornings already nervous at the thought of the shared noon meal. In the evening, as I knelt in my small attic room, I would pray, “God, please help me; give me answers that will make them really think.”
I’ll never forget my teacher’s sarcastic grin one afternoon as he said, “Sylvia, what would you say if you discovered that there really is no resurrection? Then you would have wasted your whole life on this religious rubbish!” My mouth suddenly went dry, but I replied: “If there really isn’t a resurrection, then I wouldn’t be aware of it, as I would be dead. But if there is a resurrection, then what would you do? What would you say as you stood before your Maker?” The smug grin vanished from his face as the words sank in. He excused himself from the table and left the room. That was the last time he openly confronted me about my faith during my internship.
A Test of Faith
In my last year my final exam fell on Sabbath. I had been preparing for this exam on my own, because the special preparation for it was given by the English teacher on Sabbath mornings. The school director stated that I would be permitted to reschedule the exam only if the English teacher thought it necessary. This was a nationwide exam, and my future admission to any study program was dependent on it. With shaky knees I went to speak to my former English teacher. With a laugh he said, “And you want to pass this exam even though you haven’t been in my English classes for over a year?” I replied, “God will help me to be as good as my classmates who have had the extra benefit of the class.” “Really!” he exclaimed. “Now that is something I’d like to see. I guarantee that you will fail this exam. You will see for yourself that this God is just a figment of your imagination.”
A Time of Preparation
I knew my former teacher would do everything in his power to make the exam as difficult as possible. I had no way of knowing what he had covered in class because no class notes were available and there was no textbook. So I prayed, “Lord, You know that I wasn’t able to attend this English class because I wanted to go to church. Your day is holy. You are more important to me than my future study possibilities. But I know that You are mighty and can help me to pass this exam.”
I tried to prepare as best as I could by practicing conversational English with my American friends, and I also tracked down every English book I could find and wrestled with the text.
Two weeks before the final exam I found a German translation of C. S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters. I enjoyed the vivid description of the trials and dilemmas faced by a young Christian. One chapter in particular fascinated me, and I read it through several times. Then I reluctantly put the book aside as the exam loomed before me, and there was so much material yet to review.
First came the oral examination. My teacher appeared smug as he handed me the literary extract that had been selected for the exam. At first glance, I was shaken by the long complicated structure of the English sentences, and then I suddenly realized that the text was familiar to me. It was taken from the very chapter that had so fascinated me in The Screwtape Letters. I practically knew it by heart. I was given 20 minutes to familiarize myself with the text before the oral discussion would begin—in English, of course. Suddenly, all my carefully prepared English notes seemed irrelevant. I wanted the chance to show that God really does exist, and that He is there for those who trust Him.
As I entered the exam room a sense of peace flooded over me. I felt that this “battle” would not be mine. My teacher was to be the chief oral examiner. His questions followed as rapidly as machine-gun fire; with equal speed the correct answers came to me. The other examiners on the panel stared blankly from one to the other as if a table-tennis match were in progress. There was no pause; for every “ping,” a “pong” followed.
The teacher finally concluded with a sour expression: “In spite of your horrible Californian accent, I am obliged to give you an A.”
Immediately after the exam the teacher approached me and mumbled, “I still can’t understand it. How were you able to learn English so well?”
“I came across the book that the literary extract was taken from, and I read right up to the place from where that quote was taken,” I explained. He unbelievingly shook his head. “What a strange coincidence,” he said. I responded, “Yes, it is a strange kind of coincidence. God really does exist. When we put God first in our lives, He really does take care of all the coincidences.”
Without another word my teacher quietly turned and walked away. I never heard from him again. I learned that he died of cancer a few months later. Had my exam been a door that God was opening to his heart? Did he find his way back to God within those last few weeks? I really hope so!
Sylvia Renz works for the German Voice of Prophecy Bible School and is a published author of more than 20 books. She is married to Werner, a retired radio producer and pastor.
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