As I think back on my childhood I remember a time that seemed more magical, simple, and eternal. A restful Saturday would be a journey through imagination and play that would drag on and on until sleep inevitably won the day. A week felt like it would never end, and summer break was an eternity. I, like many I have talked to, remember childhood as a simpler, more innocent time surrounded with warmth and fondness.
Yet, despite these good memories from our younger days, it is an insult to be told that you act like a child. Just as my childhood connotes warm, long, peaceful afternoons of play, it also marks a time of immaturity. In some of my own reflections recently I wanted to explore how childhood is treasured but being childish is regrettable.
Scripture is not silent on this topic:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 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 18:1-5)
When asked who is judged greatest in God’s kingdom, Christ answers that it is those like a child. Christ does not just stop there, but goes on to say that you will never enter God’s Kingdom unless you become like little children. We are called to become like children on the path following Christ, but the meaning of this passage can lend itself to some confusion. Paul himself writes that when we become adults it is prudent to put our childish ways behind us (1 Corinthians 13:11). So where is the balance? How do we approach and follow these two verses of scripture?
In conversations with others and in my own reflection I find it useful to break down concepts and make them more manageable. The concept of childhood comes with a lot of different understandings and interpretations. A useful distinction, inspired by Joseph Pearce, is the differentiation of “Childish” from “Childlike.” Childish is a term to reference the immaturity, recklessness, and foolishness of young children. Childlike addresses the innocence, simplicity, and wonder that children maintain.
In thinking about what it means to be Childlike I am reminded of a story my brother told me recently. He recalled that when we were kids, he would look forward to eating a Reese’s to such an extent that it would motivate him to do a lot of work to get the peanut butter cup. One of the exciting things about become an adult was that one could go to a store and purchase a whole pack of Reese’s! Yet when becoming an adult, the appeal of such a small pleasure lost its luster. Bigger and pricier things attract our attention, the small things being barely noticeable. To be child-like as an adult is to re-engage our appreciation of every aspect of God’s creation, live every moment to its fullest, and bring an innocent optimism to how we carry ourselves.
On the other side of the equation is the childish. These are the attributes from childhood that best remain in the past. For all of the good and innocence of young children, they tend to be incredibly self centered in their actions. Young children are not born with self discipline; it must be instilled. As such, young children are not dependable for important tasks. One would never want a child to manage a country, even if they had been given the details on how to do so. More importantly, young children are unable to love maturely. Because of our fallen nature we all struggle with following God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Children have yet to be raised to do so. The childish ways should go as we mature, but the childlike should remain.
There is good and bad that comes with being a child. Sin impacts children just as sin impacts adults. Some seek to move past their childhood completely, to reject it. Often this comes in an over-emphasis on being mature and taking life very seriously. Others cling onto childhood and take painfully long to accept and embrace life as an adult. Yet as with all things, the best path is somewhere in the middle. This path lies in both maturing out of childhood into an adult, but also retaining in childhood that which is truly good.
Furthermore, there is a concept that innocence, once held in childhood, is lost as one becomes an adult. While there are elements of truth in this, I have found that some people look back on childhood as the good and pure days, and see the nature of being an adult as engaging in the dirty, sinful world. The belief in monsters under the bed may be lost as one grows old, yet seeking to live a good, pure, and innocent life is something every Christian is called to do.
When Christ died for our sins, He gave us the chance to be born again, innocent of the smear of sin in our lives. Without the resurrection, our innocence is shattered and can never be regained. But we live in a world after redemption. We live with the opportunity to truly have faults, smears, and failures forgiven completely. Forgiveness for the divine means that sin is completely wiped out (Acts 3:19). Innocence can be restored in this miracle of God’s love. Perhaps re-engaging the innocence and simplicity of childhood, made possible by divine forgiveness, is what Christ meant when He said “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”