A Teenager’s Hidden Heart: Following Jesus While Growing Up Jewish

We asked our Hearts Alive writers if they knew Jesus as a child and how it affected their lives.  Michelle Van Loon shares the lengths she had to go to in order to follow Jesus.

I grew up in a Jewish home.  Jesus was the Gentile’s savior, not ours.  I was taught to basically ignore everything I heard in the culture about Jesus.  Since we lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, I didn’t even know when Christmas was until I was in 8th grade. My parents took me to classes at the local temple and I learned a lot about modern Jewish history and heroes but not a lot about God. I wasn’t that interested in those things but I really wanted to know about God. I had a restlessness and a hunger to know about something that was bigger and more transcendent.

We eventually moved to a mostly Gentile neighborhood when I was 15.  Even though we were only a few miles from the old neighborhood, it was a real culture shock to be deposited into a Gentile school and environment.  One day my freshman year, a friend that I hung around with, announced in the cafeteria that she had become a Christian.  But I replied, “No, you’re all Christians.  Everybody here that’s not Jewish is a Christian.”  That was a time when it was us or them.

She explained that she knew stuff about God but now had a relationship with Him.  That was really rattling and confusing to me.  She proceeded to tell me that she had made her knowledge of God personal and had committed  her life to following Jesus.  Even though her words did not make sense to me at the time, her joy communicated very loudly to me.  She had something that I did not have.  I didn’t understand but I was very intrigued.

I had gotten to a point of despair in my life.  Things were not so great in my home and I had left God behind as a fairy tale. Nobody ever really talked about Him or tried to figure out what purpose He had in our lives or what our purpose was for being here.  The conversation with my friend that day, lead me on a journey.  First I began to read Genesis.  The stories were familiar but didn’t connect in my mind with what she was telling me.  We continued to talk. She wasn’t the most well discipled kid but we continued to party and talk about God.  Not a good discipleship plan but God used it!  I launched into many months of inquiry and Bible reading. My questions became more and more insistent.

My parents were watching with a great deal of suspicion.  They didn’t say much but continued to observe. When I had depleted my friend’s base of knowledge she suggested I talk to another young man who was older and more mature in the faith.  I fired all of my questions at him. Most of them having to with the trinity because I had grown up praying to one God and this idea of a triune God was mind-blowing.  He listened to all of my questions and patiently explained. He eventually said, “I think you are this close to the kingdom of heaven,” holding up an inch between his thumb and finger. He suggested I read the Gospel of John which up until then, I had not read the New Testament.

I read John 14:6 where Jesus says “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Even though I didn’t understand the trinity any better, something clicked for me.   In my soul, I was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. He was the one I was looking for, the one that my people had been waiting for. That night, right before my 16th birthday, I committed my life to following Him as well.

I was afraid to tell my parents. I waited a few months before I dropped this bomb on them. They noticed that I had changed.  I was becoming more compliant, I wasn’t sneaking out, partying or getting into trouble.  I made lots of positive lifestyle changes.  I began meeting other Christian kids and listening to Christian radio stations where I heard sermons that helped me in my new faith.  Despite all this, my parents told me, “as long as you live under our roof you will never be allowed to go to church.”  I agreed but kept my head down and switched into stealth mode. I had some pretty good sneaking skills already, so this worked in my favor.

While most kids were sneaking out with their boyfriends, I was sneaking to Bible studies and church services when I could get away with it.  I read my Bible, listened to radio programs, and smuggled Christian books into the house.  For the next three years, that was my discipleship program.  I look back now, and realize that was a pretty unusual teenage life that I lived.  God met me and He sustained me. I was really grateful when I reached college age to be free and to attend church service and not have to hide.  But it also immersed my life and roots deeply into the Word and that comes out in my writing as well.  Forty years later, Jesus and I are still going strong.

To find out more about Michelle and her writing go to her blog.