“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:3
These words about children are perhaps some of the most important that Jesus spoke during his short time on earth. Each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record this story almost identically. It is a lesson – and warning – that God wants His followers to remember.
Yet, the practicality of it seems nearly impossible. What remains is the confusing paradox of maturing to child-likeness. After all, time cannot reverse itself. We cannot help but grow and learn and acquire more and more knowledge. Surely Jesus did not mean that in all ways we must become like children. In fact, elsewhere, the Bible tells Christians to mature and develop. The writer of Hebrews hopes that his readers will be able to move on from the “elementary truths of God’s word” to more advanced principles (Hebrews 5:12).
This paradox between maturity and child-likeness is a profound one that reaches to the depths of our souls. In some ways, the dichotomy is inherent – part of human nature. All people recognize the need to obtain and retain certain qualities. Even secular society tells us to both strive for maturity and hold on to child-likeness. One need not look far to find clothing advertisements that boldly sexualize teenage girls, and violent movies that are vigorously marketed to elementary school boys. On the other hand, a great deal of research shows that childish characteristics continue to persist at older and older ages. Senator Ben Sasse recently published a book with the provocative title, The Vanishing American Adult that deals with this very issue.
The problems that this presents are both real and consequential. Only in future years will we see what fruit it bears. The solution, however, must begin at the root. It must begin in the hearts of you and I. We must restore godly visions of maturity and child-likeness in ourselves and others. Here are three concepts that may help:
1.) In your quest for knowledge, do not neglect the value of simplicity
It is good for us to receive a strong education and continue to grow in our knowledge of God and His creation. The world, after all, reveals God’s glory and should invoke worship in us. However, just as with many other devices, those who commit themselves to the acquisition of knowledge risk getting lost in its complexity. One of the outstanding aspects of intellectualism is its diversity. While one would expect increased intelligence to conform people to a certain set of beliefs and ideas, this does not prove true, especially in the realm of worldviews and principled values. When knowledge becomes an idol – something that we seek after above all else – we become fools. Children remind us that some of the most profound things in life are simple. Hope…love…faith – we do not need to know their intricacies. Sometimes – often times – we just need to feel them.
2.) As you gain experience, do not lose the beauty of innocence
Our experiences in this world mature us, and we cannot prevent it. The older we get, the more we understand the brokenness that we live in. Our eyes are exposed to many things that we do not wish to see, and we learn many things that we do not wish to know. For some, this can lead to wisdom and integrity. However, too often we begin to run towards this brokenness with calloused hearts, as if we are missing out on something. We believe the lie that says corruption cannot be undone – that impurity is permanent – and so we press on without regard for it. Deep down, however, we must know that there is something amazingly beautiful about innocence. Certainly, children are not free from sin, but they are the best example that we have. Child-like innocence is seeing the world with awe and wonder, and always expecting the best from it. Far be it from us to desire anything else.
3.) As you seek independence, do not forget the comfort in being held
Our families raise us so that we can be independent. We learn, even from a young age, how to do things on our own. It is what gives us a sense of freedom and personhood. It prevents laziness and does not allow us to take things for granted. For these reasons, independence is quite a good thing. However, the fruits of obsessive independence can lead to aloofness and self-righteousness. We start to think that reliance on others is a weakness. The truth, though, is that life will hurt us. When we rely so heavily on ourselves – what happens when we fail? It will be too much to bear. Some of the most intimate and comforting moments in our lives were when our parents held us as children in their arms. It is a feeling that only those who experience it can explain. And although we grow older, that feeling – that need – still remains.
Jesus sits with his arms wide open. He wants us to embrace the Father through him – to be in awe of His creation – and hold firm to those simple truths that are most profound. When we do these things, even while we mature in other ways, we will find that the one characteristic that most defines childhood will also slowly come to define us: Joy.