Walt Disney said, “That’s the trouble with the world, too many people grow up.” When we are kids, we can’t wait to get older. When we have kids of our own, we desperately want to cherish the moments we have before they grow up. There’s something incredible about seeing the joy, the innocence, the creativity of a child as they play and imagine. But there are also traits that we hope don’t stick around forever - things like the potty training, the tantrums, needing to have their food mashed up and spoon-fed.
When the Bible describes faith, it uses children as both the example of what to be like and also what not to be like. In Matthew 18:3 it says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And 1 Corinthians 13:11 writes, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” There is truth in this tension. Be childlike. Don’t be childish.
Frederick Buechner describes how he envisions the scene when Jesus says "become like little children."
Jesus puts him in front of him perhaps, his hands on his shoulders so he won’t make a run for it. The child stands there wide-eyed, more than a little scared, much more than a little embarrassed, toeing the dust. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, as in Lincoln’s joke, he’d as soon have been left unnoticed. He wishes he’d had time to get the hair out of his eyes and button up his shirt, at least to spit out his bubblegum. He dreads being asked some question that he can’t answer or even one that he can. He hopes he won’t be told to do something beyond him. He’d give a lot as he waits there to be as tall as his big brother or as smart as his Uncle Joe. He wishes he were anything worth being or knew anything worth knowing. All he knows for sure is that when the man called him, he had to go. - Whistling in the Dark
Children are helpless - powerless, in need of love, protection, and provision. They are cute and bring about great joy to their families, but they don’t contribute to society. They require a lot and have little to give. Jesus calls up a little child as a great object lesson and says, “This is what faith should look like.”
Faith is not about your abilities to provide for yourself, it is not about the hard work you do or your dedication to following me. Children are quite aware that they can’t do life on their own (at least until they hit middle school); adults on the other-hand are able to take care of themselves and think they know exactly what they need. In the movie Willy Wonka, this same point gets made by Willy Wonka when he tells Charlie his reasoning for choosing him over and adult. He says, “A grownup would want to do everything his own way.” Isn’t this exactly what happens in our faith? We want to do things our way, on our schedule, and based on our preferences.
Be like a child. Helpless, powerless, and completely reliant on God.
Childlike is not childish...
Childlike is the positive qualities of childhood. The qualities that we should embrace and encourage in our faith, especially as we no longer are children. But not all qualities of childhood are childlike. Children are afraid of the dark, unreasonable, and quarrelsome. The require frequent changing of diapers, they can’t feed themselves, and they freak out if they don’t get what they want. Childlike is not the same thing as childish.
So while the scriptures certainly call us to a “childlike faith,” they also call us to leave behind our “childish ways.” This is what maturing is - both physically and spiritually - we leave behind certain childish ways. As our children grow up, we hope that some of these things change with maturity. If our teenagers still require us to mash up food and cut it into tiny pieces, that’s going to be weird. That’s not maturity. Instead, eventually our kids should learn to start to feed themselves, to go to the bathroom on their own, and take responsibility for their actions.
Childlike means we are helpless to do the things that only God can do. We are helpless in our own salvation, our own forgiveness, and the faith that we have. But we are not helpless to use the gifts that God has given us. Childish means we are helpless to use gifts like God’s Word and don’t take responsibility for our own faith. Childlike means we are helpless in that we have to completely rely on God to provide. But being childish means that we claim to be helpless in using what God has provided to us.
Grow up. But don’t ever grow up.