“Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15).
Most of the times I have heard this quote from Jesus used, it has been a reminder to have simple faith. Christians tend get caught up in theological squabbles, and when it gets intense usually someone will chime in at some point with a reminder that the bottom line is to have childlike faith.
And while obviously divisiveness is to be avoided among brethren, sometimes I think we forget what children are actually like when we use the phrase “childlike” to describe desired attitudes or attributes. As someone who been around children my whole life, I’ve recently had some thoughts on relating this verse to the truth about how (most) children behave.
1. Children require relationship.
If a child is told to do something with no context or established relationship, it is very likely said child will simply be scared, angry, or will even fight. Each one of us is on the journey to build a relationship with God through Christ, but we are each at a different step in the journey. To expect someone without a relationship with God to “have childlike faith” with what they’re struggling in would be a silly as expecting to convince a stranger’s child to do something they did not want to do. Children know less than adults, naturally, but children will very rarely follow you instructions unless they know your face.
2. Children never stop asking questions.
Unfortunately, being told to have faith like a child is often a response given to a hard question. Kind of a wet blanket, huh? But it’s so misguided, because children naturally ask a million questions a minute! Now obviously as they grow older they learn tact (and often learn from endless shushings to ask fewer questions), but innately, children are open to learning and want to learn. They want to know the stories behind traditions, the logic behind chores, and they want to rip the mystery off why we do things the way we’ve always done them. If we are to “be like a little child,” we must never lose our drive to ask questions.
3. You must earn the trust of children.
When I was a very young child, a man in my church body used to make a habit of teasing and tickling the children in the congregation. Most children liked him and didn’t mind his antics, but I was an incredibly sensitive toddler – one who rarely felt at home away from my mother’s arms. I needed my personal space, and very much resented the intrusions of this (admittedly, very well-intentioned) parishioner. At one point when he accosted me, I am told by my family that I calmly ordered him to “never touch me again.” He had not earned my trust with his particular brand of playfulness, and therefore I was not OK with him being inside my bubble. (*disclaimer: don’t worry, I grew out of this sensitivity. This poor man did not remain my arch-nemesis!)
This phenomenon can be seen every Sunday morning when children are dropped off in the nursery and crying fits ensue. Is it because they are bad kids? Of course not! It’s because they have itty bitty reasoning capabilities, and all they know instinctively is that they’ve been dumped into the arms of someone who has not earned their trust.
And yet so often we, as adult Christians, are asked to put our trust in the hands of pastors, teachers, or specific caricatures of God before they have actually earned our trust. If we raise a concern with how a pastor leads a congregation, or with how someone in position of leadership interprets the Bible, we are far too often shushed and told to just trust, follow, and believe.
But if we are to be like little children in God’s Kingdom, surely we ought to place our trust where trust is earned! We should be telling each other to look for fruits of the spirit, look for love and truth, and follow those roads. If someone feels discomfort, pain, or abuse from a source of authority, telling them, “you must have childlike faith,” is quite a faulty comparison.