Be Like a Child
Matthew 18:3 – “Truly I say to you, unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
There’s always been a pinch point for me when it comes to Jesus’ exhortation for us to be like children. So much of our understanding of good parenting involves a movement towards independence for the child, yet Jesus’ call to us seems to be towards radical dependance on God.
What is radical dependance on God? Surely it cannot mean what we think it means. Surely it cannot look like the parallel of a child never growing to think for themselves but always needing to be told what to do, never learning to have any autonomy. We would cringe at the thought; and yet we talk of becoming dependent on God as a child is dependent on their parent. The very crudeness of the analogy makes us chop and change and explain what Jesus must have meant in so many more words than He cared for.
Is all that Jesus intended a loose analogy for us to check ourselves and gauge whether we are notionally trusting God or not? Are we really meant to abandon common sense in light of God’s Word (i.e. Jesus) to us? Abandoning our own independence or understanding of how things work seems like the opposite of wisdom as we know it; it comes to feel like blindly following God.
There is a lot at stake here, the Kingdom of Heaven in fact, so we should be driving for precision not ambiguity. Jesus says, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. No ambiguity. Change is necessary, and something like a ‘little child’ is the aim.
How is a child meant to be dependent on their parent? The reality is that much of what we call independence is not independence at all. As a parent teaches a child, they expect obedience, but they do not expect blind following. The whole idea of teaching necessitates a keen and curious mind, one that is at the ready, assessing the fundamental nature of reality as it is engaged. The mind of a little child is alway open to taking in the richness of what it does not yet know. Obedience is a call not to blind doing, but to guided learning, to being taught in a controlled environment. Obedience is the call of a parent to expand the horizon of their current world, which is limited by their limited knowledge and capacity; a call for the child to participate in a reality that they currently do not see, so that they might enter in and see it.
For example, the last thing a parent wants when teaching their child to cross the road is for a them to learn to look right and left and proceed regardless of what is there. The call to look right and left is a call to expand their horizon, to take in a reality that they are oblivious to (i.e. the reality of potential oncoming traffic). A parent will hold the child’s hand and call for them to imitate a process which comes naturally to the parent without thinking. The goal is not for the parent to continually have to do for the child what they can learn to appreciate and understand for themselves.
We would say that a successful parent teaches a child to such an extent that when they are not present, the child knows how to act. I believe we wrongly call ‘independence’ what is actually radical dependance; a dependance that is incorporated into the very being of a person, not one which remains external to them. What we call ‘independence’ really means deep dependence. Perhaps at this juncture you might say, “Well, no, by independence I mean being able to think for oneself”. But all we really mean when we say this is that we think everyone should be able to think rightly. We are always thinking for ourselves, we were born to do that. What we are not born able to do is think rightly for ourselves; that is what good parenting is all about fostering. There are many bad examples of parenting and trauma that can be experienced by a child which handicap their ability to think rightly and understand reality. They still think for themselves (no one is controlling their thinking from within, and thinking cannot be controlled from without), they just think wrongly, without true understanding. One might even say that thinking wrongly is true independence, not being able to trust or take as true anything given to them.
So we can see that for a child to truly learn is for a reality to have been incorporated into their very being. In the example of the child crossing the road, before they have learnt how to rightly do this they are free act in many different ways, they are in a sense independent. Their thoughts are unguided and reality is not clear to them. Through obedience to their parent, they learn how to cross the road and the reality associated with traffic. This learning is incorporated into them so that they become radically dependant on a reality which was not even a consideration to them before. When they have matured in their learning, they are able to act rightly even when the parent is not there. They still have the ability to run headlong into traffic, but that action is nonsensical to them, they can think rightly. In a sense it can be said that they are now truly dependant on their parent, since they have embodied their actions, or even more, embodied their very person.
A few observations that stem from this reality of dependance:
- A child who refuses to obey, to incorporate a reality into themselves, is one who never truly becomes dependant on their parent since they forever remain at odds with them. They will always be against their parent in this particular regard until they choose to obey.
- At some stage a parent must withdraw for a reality to become fully embedded within the child rather than merely remaining external to them in the form of the parent. At some point the child must learn to navigate the doubt and fear of crossing the road alone, and come to realise beyond the shadow of a doubt that their parent was good and right. This adds clear significance to the function of the Holy Spirit; Jesus says, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I am leaving; for if I do not leave, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7)
- When we feel like God has withdrawn from us, it is actually His very call for us to exercise trust in who He is and what He has said. Obeying will lead us into a true knowledge of His presence within us by His Spirit. We will find that God’s very self is being incorporated into us as we obey.
- Our issue is that we are all too satisfied to have Christ outside of us to allow Him within us. It is part of our sinful nature to want Him always outside and never in. We say we will follow Him if He would just tell us more explicitly or reveal Himself to us in a tangible way when really we are being disobedient. We maintain a difference between Jesus and us in that we will not obey Him in His call to us when He withdraws. His very withdrawal is a call to obedience, to radical dependance where we think for ourselves and and choose Him. This is exercising trust, this is faith. We care more for the assurance Christ can give from without than for the salvation He can work from within. We would seek to continually hold His hand while crossing the road while He would incorporate His very Self into us if we would but let Him. He longs to meet with us inwardly, intimately, but we would rather keep Him out. Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:20)
- We would rather not have to think for ourselves and have the path of life dictated to us than having the very mind of Christ and possessing Life itself in our being. May this hope spur us on to obedience: “We all, with unveiled faces, looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
- The Spirit is confirmation and reward ahead of time that following Jesus is life, that dependance on the Father is the only way to truly live, that one day we will have the Life of Christ, His very Person, fully incorporated into us, becoming truly ourselves as we were created to be. For now as we obey, He meets with us inwardly in greater measure as His life is incorporated into ours. “Not that I have already grasped it all or have already become perfect, but I press on if I may also take hold of that for which I was even taken hold of by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12)
Jesus says, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. Sometimes we follow Jesus right up until the point where He withdraws. This is the moment of decision, the most important part of our walk with Him, and yet it is the moment when most of us stop short. The very fulness of His presence is at the door knocking, calling for an obedience that is enacted by our own will, an obedience that will open the door to the very presence of His Spirit. Let’s not shrink back, let’s listen to Jesus’ own words and change to become like little children. “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.” (Hebrews 10:39)
By Dan Moura