When life hits unexpectedly and everything is in chaos, we have an opportunity to be transformed. Through loss, tragedy, and the unknown, Bianca Juarez Olthoff discovered new ways to see God in the midst of the impossible. A loved one’s cancer diagnosis, a heartbreak, a season of confusion and chaos felt like her life was up in flames, but she discovered the same fire that destroys is the same fire that transforms; what matters is what we are made of. In her debut book, Play with Fire, Bianca invites readers into her story to inspire others to see God in their own story. Change is inevitable, but transformation is a choice. It’s never too late to become the person you were always meant to be. It’s a grace to welcome Bianca to the farm’s front porch today…
Sunday school was my safe haven, replete with small desks, plastic chairs, and Precious Moments Bibles.
It was my place to be with a God who was for me.
Every Sunday I ran my hand along the walls of the church corridors as I made my way into the fifth-grade classroom to help Mr. Charles wipe down the chalkboards and set up the chairs before class.
Mr. Charles was my favorite Sunday school teacher.
With his weathered hands, dark chocolate skin, and deep voice, he painted a picture of God that was mesmerizing.
As a guide leading us on a journey, his melodic baritone and slight Southern drawl—as sweet as a hint of honey—took us on an adventure every week. He wasn’t overly animated or showy like most Sunday school teachers, but he was like Moses, who led his people to freedom.
Mr. Charles taught from the Old Testament Scriptures about a chosen people group—the Israelites, God’s chosen people—who were called out of oppression and promised a land of abundance. Mr. Charles, an African American man with a Southern heritage, spoke with the fervency of his own reality.
He spoke of God’s freedom, and he smiled as if freedom were a cold glass of sweet tea on a scorching, humid day.
“Mmm hmm, it’s true,” he said. “As God’s chosen children, you too can cry out to God to rescue you, and He will save you. There is nothing our great God can’t do.” The word nothing was weighted with such emphasis I couldn’t help but believe him.
For the first time in my young life, I understood what being chosen meant.
It meant God wanted you and wanted to use you. But had I ever felt chosen? I was always picked last for kickball, never in first place, and didn’t fit in. I knew love from my parents, but nothing of being chosen.
Longing to be chosen and confident in God’s love, I began choosing to appropriate the promises of God as my own. If God was for me, I must have been chosen.
If His Word was for me, so were all the promises it held in its pages.
Despite the taunts, jeers, and shaming words of church kids and neighborhood kids alike, I developed a new sense of faith.
My life and circumstances didn’t change. My family rented a small house with no air conditioning next door to a schizophrenic neighbor who grew and sold marijuana in his backyard.
We shopped at thrift stores and bargain bins. Crack addicts looking for a cheap hit broke into our house and robbed us. But in the midst of this, as my faith grew, I began to believe I was chosen.
And I knew I was promised a life that looked different from the one I was living.
In a wide-ruled spiral-bound notebook, I wrote down Bible verses as if they were written especially for me.
Jesus told me, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16).
Maybe it was desperation. Maybe it was childlike foolishness. Maybe it was real faith.
Whatever the motivation, my eleven-year-old self began to believe God was for me and chose me.
God wanted me to be on His kickball team at recess and by His side and to hold on to His promises. I believed it.
A GREAT GOD
Although my mother took our home education seriously, formal methods of schooling weren’t her priority.
A hippie at heart, my mom was in a homeschool co-op (yes, I said co-op; didn’t I mention she was a hippie?). She subscribed to the tenets of Dr. Raymond Moore’s Better Late than Early, and wasn’t worried about state-mandated testing as she taught us with backyard art projects and hands-on science experiments.
The first time we took state standardized tests, my sister and I earned embarrassingly low scores, yet I’m not sure my mom was worried that her eleven-year-old twins couldn’t read.
I wanted to be chosen and changed and celebrated, but I was illiterate, obese, and poor. But I believed Mr. Charles and when he spoke about the Promise Land, it was deep in my chest and ached in my bones.
Maybe the rich promises of hope, redemption, and reparation in the Bible were for me. I was God’s chosen. In a world where I felt marginalized, over-looked, and ignored, He chose me.
I prayed a big prayer—the biggest prayer my eleven-year-old self could pray.
I promised God that if He would give me words, I would give Him my voice.
I had no idea what that really meant, but it sounded good. It was what I was moved to pray. I confessed that I didn’t want to be the stupid kid anymore, and I simply and honestly believed God could help me.
Over the following months, my mother was shocked to see a sudden shift in my comprehension and reading retention. Don’t get me wrong; I was no genius or anything, but my reading skills grew rapidly.
Once I knew I could read, I felt empowered.
A new world opened up, and I discovered that what I could read, I could learn. Knowledge became power, and I obsessively inhaled books like they were fresh loaves of bread. I was going to change my life. I wasn’t going to be the stupid dumb kid anymore.
When the time came for California state aptitude testing a few months later, I sat nervously at a small desk in a cavernous room with forty other homeschooled children. On my desk were a booklet, a Scantron test form, and three well-sharpened pencils. I stared at the other kids in the room and tried not to think about how they looked smarter than me.
I anxiously tapped my pencil on the desk and prayed a quick prayer.
Mr. Charles had assured me God would be faithful.
My mother had shown me He would be faithful.
God Himself promised that He always would be faithful.
I desperately trusted Him with my learning, and with this test. With my eyes squeezed shut as the teacher said, “Begin, class,” I asked God to help me, and I plunged into the test.
The test results arrived in the mail weeks later, and we waited until my father came home from work to open the envelopes containing our scores.
I anxiously tore mine open and read the results out loud to my parents. Confused, my mother asked in near disbelief to see what was written on the paper I held.
Not only had I achieved significant increases on the comprehension and retention components of the test, but I had demonstrated the reading level of an eleventh-grade student.
With pride and joy, my mother handed the test results back to me.
I felt like I was holding a letter from God Himself. In my hand was a tangible sign that God had heard my prayer.
On the cool linoleum floor, I twirled barefoot in the kitchen and threw my arms around the waist of my beaming mother.
“I prayed God would help me read, and He did!” I cried.
I heard the words of Mr. Charles ringing in my head:
“Mmm hmm, it’s true. There is nothing our great God can’t do.”
Bianca Juarez Olthoff is a homeschool survivor, freedom fighter, stepmom, and pastor’s wife. She works full-time for A21, an anti-human trafficking organization, and teaches the bible around the globe from churches to conferences. She loves beach runs, acai bowls, and reading next to her husband who she treats as a human pillow. To stay updated with Bianca, learn more about Play with Fire, or receive weekly video devotionals.
With Bianca’s distinct style, strong storytelling gifts, and powerful bible teaching, Play with Fire reminds us that God has huge dreams for us. In Bianca’s words, “He’s whispering in the wind and speaking through the fire and shouting in silence the extraordinary dream He is birthing in you. His dream for you is far greater than the dream you have for yourself. It’s not your identity or income or influence that will make this happen. Like Zechariah 4:6 says, “’It’s not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord.” Yes and amen: it’s time to play with fire.