What does it mean to have faith “like a little child”? The idea of coming to the kingdom of God through childlike attributes is a recurring theme in Jesus’s message. In Mark 10, Jesus rebukes his disciples for trying to turn children away from him.
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. – Mark 10:13-16
In Matthew 18, the disciples argue amongst themselves about who would be ‘greatest’ in heaven. Jesus inverts the concept of greatness and invokes the concept of childhood.
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. – Matthew 18:2-5
Jesus is making two points, as far as I can see. Be good to children and be like children. It would have been especially shocking for his immediate audience to hear, because childhood wasn’t as firmly solidified in the ancient world. A comparison to children would come off more insulting than we’d hear it today.
One who takes on the child’s lowliness (vulnerability, weakness, lacking the cynical constructions of the adult mind) becomes the greatest in God’s eyes. He goes so far as to say it’s impossible to “enter the kingdom of heaven” without this paradigm shift!
Let’s unpack this further. What it means to become “like a little child” is not obvious, even though it may appear so at first glance.
Before I became a Christian, I thought these verses were basically saying that to be religious is to forego all critical thinking. Children are stereotypically naive, innocent and easily persuaded. The message I got was: only a fool could be Christian, because you have to let go of your ability to challenge what’s put before you… like a child.
Of course, I see now how wrong that was. Have you ever met a child? They’re a lot of things, but most aren’t blind followers. Children are naturally inquisitive, imaginative, and boundary-pushing. Jesus doesn’t want us to be automatons. He constantly challenges his audience to think in new ways, question their actions and ask different questions.
When Jesus speaks of taking children as our model, he’s pointing toward something they have that we adults lack.
Children are innocent in that they’re uncorrupted, lacking the guilt that comes with deep knowledge of good and evil (wisdom.) They are quicker to adapt to new ways of being than adults. They can sense disingenuousness from a mile away. Children have a moral intuition that points toward what is right, even if they often arrive at the wrong conclusion from a lack of understanding.
With proper guidance, most children will become secure, curious, and predisposed toward good. That’s my takeaway from this message – become like children in disposition, with the loving God as our parent.
By doing that, hopefully with the addition of adult-sized wisdom, we can more readily follow Jesus.