I suppose a good many parents would, if asked, say that having a child in their house by birth or adoption or any other means has been nice and perfect and filled with daisies and smiles and joy. Sure, there’s some of that for anybody who has children in the home. But having a child in my house, for me, has been a much darker adventure. Mostly, I’ve come to see that I’ve lost. I’ve lost being my wife’s sole attention-getter. I’ve lost a perfectly administered home free of dust balls or invisible Legos hiding on the floor or the random pee stain on the carpet. And I’ve lost—more than anything—my personal bubble. In short, I’ve lost control.
Childlikeness, I’ve been reminding myself for the last three-and-a-half-years, is a God-ordained virtue in Jesus’ Kingdom. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus uttered, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). One can almost hear the protesting voice of the parental mob retorting that only someone such as Jesus who never had children would ever utter such a sentence. But I want to argue that Jesus was actually up to something, even if he was a single peasant who didn’t ever have to change a diaper at three in the morning.
No matter how we dice it, welcoming a child is very close to God’s Kingdom.
What is childlikeness all about? Undoubtedly there are various components to what Jesus was saying. Perhaps Jesus was railing against the boundless self-absorption common to the adult way of living? Or, Jesus invited his adult disciples to abandon the economy of worry like children do, leaving behind the burdening weight of self-indulgence to trust God. Or, perhaps Jesus was exalting a set of ministry principles; a theme many in church history have picked up on. Not only is childlikeness a mark of Christian maturity, it has been considered by many in church history to be one of the most important attributes of true ministry. For instance, many of the Reformers saw simplicity and childlikeness as a key to speaking to the hearts of the people. Luther—in rejecting the pious, intellectual, high-minded church homiletics of his day—went so far as to say that childlikeness was the way to gospel preaching.1 Luther often asked, “Will my own children be able to comprehend what I am saying here?”
But I think it goes deeper. Jesus, in Matthew, calls a “little child” (paideia) into his adult disciples midst in order to teach them a gigantic lesson about what it means to enter headlong into the Kingdom of God. For when a child was in their presence, something of God’s reign was being manifest in a unique and undeniable way. Stanley Hauerwas has been quick to point that when set in the context of Jesus’ exaltation of childlikeness, Mary’s story becomes an illustration of Jesus’ point. Mary, Hauerwas points out, must have first been willing to welcome as a host a fetus in her womb, a baby in her youthful arms, and a child in her home. Before Mary could fully experience Jesus the crucified, Jesus the resurrected, and Jesus the ascended, she must first experience Him as a child. “She first and foremost,” writes Hauerwas, “proved . . . hospitable to a child whose existence she could not have anticipated.”2
Of course Mary is the only person in history who could worship her child and not be an idolater. But, her story is to be our story—we are to welcome the child. By welcoming in the child, we are welcoming a dimension of God’s Kingdom that is lost when only adults are around.
Hospitality toward the child precedes, in Matthew’s gospel, Kingdom experience.
In contrast to our world, childlikeness is celebrated in God’s. One can’t turn on the radio or the television and not hear the fever-pitch debate over our political realities. For instance, in the rhetoric swelling over debt ceilings and government shutdowns, I’ve heard various commentators say, “Those in Washington are acting like children.” But such comparisons must be entirely dismissed. Not just because I think the comparison is flat-out wrong, but because I think Jesus was flat-out right. Children are never something to be used by adults as a point of comparison.
Perhaps adults compare themselves with children because it’s an easy way out of reality—that those in Washington and everywhere else are acting precisely the way adults act. Remember, there remains a massive chasm between child-likeness and child-ishness. To be childish is to refuse to act your age. Adults are not called to revert to some infantile existence where were refuse to be responsible. Rather, we are gifts to our children to help provide that they might live the gift of childhood that God has given to them.
The mark of childishness is when adults use childlikeness as the litmus test for immaturity against which we compare our own selfish, adult ways.
Children don’t care about debt ceilings. And I think saying that those in Washington are acting like a bunch of children is as silly as saying that our children are acting a lot like politicians in Washington. It just isn’t true.
Childlikeness, and welcoming it in, is a virtue. Not, mind you, a comfortable virtue. While I have lost control, I have, in a new sense, gained God’s Kingdom in a fresh way. I say that sensitively. Having experienced years of infertility myself, I by no means intend that to mean that those who have been unable to have children be it because of infertility, or singleness, or even loss. But, I simply cannot deny it. When my kid is in the house, I lose control and am given over to a new way of living that is built upon the virtues of trust and powerlessness.
God’s Kingdom is very close when those things are near.
Want to experience afresh the Kingdom of God? Hang out with a child. They will leave their Lego’s on the floor, they will mess up their room, they may wet themselves on the carpet. But when our control is lost and they are in the room, we lose our sense of control and power. And whenever adults do that, something good is happening.
1. Martin Luther, Works. 54:383-84
2. Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007, 161.