Maybe it’s his own considerable struggle in his youth that makes science teacher Josh Ernst such a magnet for students in crisis.
While teaching at several universities, after all, he supervised student workers, tutored, taught classes and led research groups – and all the while, confused and frightened young people were somehow drawn to asking Ernst for life advice.
The thing is, he couldn’t really give it – at least in any meaningful way – until he saw the light and consciously chose to teach at Harbor Light Christian School in Harbor Springs, Michigan.
The reason? In those other secular teaching positions, he couldn’t even mention God as a possible solution to students’ problems.
“There were very clear lines that you couldn’t cross,” Ernst tells The Lion. “I had to do training every year talking about how you can’t talk about religion. There was video training that we had to watch. There was this barrier.
“I was doing what I thought my dream was to do. I thought my whole life I wanted to be a scientist. Then I got there, and it felt so empty. I kept being put in these positions where people were coming to me for help, and I was being told by those in authority over me that I absolutely could not talk to them about God.
“And so, I’m in a situation where people are coming and asking for help, and the only thing that could truly help them with their problems, I’m not allowed to tell them about it. It just wore me down, you know? It was so hard to try to, like, hint around at things.”
Now, at Harbor Light Christian, Ernst not only can mention God, but as a science teacher can point out God’s handiwork in every nook and cranny and quark of creation.
It’s every bit the science being taught in public schools – just with a more expansive and realistic view of science’s limits and God’s limitlessness.
“I approach science with my students as we’re trying to figure out how God created the universe,” says Ernst – one of 12 Christian Teachers of the Year for 2022 to be honored this Saturday at The Herzog Foundation Excellence in Christian Education Awards Gala in Washington, D.C.
“Just like if you look at a painting that an artist made and you look at the details, you can draw information and learn about that artist based on the painting. And that’s how Christian scientists should approach it, and that’s how we should be approaching science with our students.”
That perspective is all the more important at a time in which many have drawn a misguided, impenetrable line between God and science – leaving secular students separated from God and Christian students vulnerable to writing off a science career as godless.
“We’re at risk, we’re at a tipping point, where we’re losing Christian morality in science because there’s not enough Christians who are becoming scientists anymore,” he warns.
As for Ernst’s own struggles, they were considerable – and not without a lesson for his students today.
Though raised in a Christian home in which his father was an associate pastor, Ernst became a father at age 16. And while he says “it makes my heart hurt even now” when he thinks about how that put his father in such a bad position, both families embraced the challenge – each even offering to adopt the baby. But with that much love surrounding them, that wasn’t necessary: Ernst and his beloved married his senior year, and they have five beautiful children now, from 22 to 2.
“So many teenage parents find themselves with no support,” he says. “And when my wife and I told our parents that we were pregnant, the response from both of them was, ‘We’re here to support you.’ Even from the beginning we had support, and that support came from grace, from parents. They chose to show grace, when so many parents don’t.”
It’s not something Ernst could hide from his first students at Harbor Light Christian, either – considering that his oldest was 16 and attending the school and, well, the other kids could do the math after learning Ernst’s own age. He uses it all as an example of what difficulties can arise when straying from a godly path – but what grace can emerge even so.
“You know, I was president of student council, I was a three-sport captain, and I was 4.0 GPA,” he says. “I was active in my youth group. And from the outside I was the model student. But there was a room in my life that I had locked God out of. And in that room, I felt like I knew what was best and I was in charge, and I didn’t care what God had to say about it because that was my spot. It was my room, and God wasn’t allowed there.
“I knew God was knocking on the door. I knew he was standing outside asking to let him in.
“We weren’t acting as young Christians should act, and as a result of it our lives were a lot more difficult than they probably had to be. But in the same process, God had a plan, and we’ve walked out every step of that plan, and God has been with us. And the mistake we made when we were 16 turned into one of the greatest things that ever happened to us, because we have this amazing daughter and four more.”
Thus can he use his story as a cautionary tale for students coming to him for advice. But he also can exhibit how the hand of God shows not just in creation and in science, but in everyone’s life.
You can never be too young or too old to learn about the role of God in our lives, Ernst says. His grandfather, who passed away recently, seemed to have lived a life apart from the Creator – until he watched the movie God’s Not Dead, in which a college student is challenged to prove the existence of God.
“My uncle, in the eulogy, actually talked about how he took him to that movie. And when they walked out of the theater, my grandpa said to him, ‘I don’t know how anyone could watch that movie and hear it presented like that and not believe that Jesus Christ is real.
“I think God had already been pulling on him, but it was having it logically laid out, like it was in that movie, that finally got him the last steps, that finally got over his intellectual block so that he could give his life over.”
Science, it appears, leads to many discoveries – just not all of them. Take it from a scientist who’s also a devoted Christian. The Creator cannot be uncoupled from His creation.
“God is the creator of everything,” Ernst says. “He’s the architect. So, to try to separate one from the other …
“We all know deep down that (life) is more than just some random elements that combined to make the first enzyme that combined with other enzymes to make the first protein. I think deep down in in our hearts and our souls, every human knows that that’s not true.”