Child-like Maturity and Childish Adulthood
What does it mean to have a child-like faith? And how in the midst of their stormy youth are we adults to guide little ones away from childishness and toward the child-like maturity which Jesus commends as the only way to receive his kingdom? We could begin by shoring up our understanding of “child-like” vs. “childish.” Often without realizing it, and always to kids’ detriment, we adults tend to get those categories confused.
In order to keep us from sweating the details of biblical doctrine, Christians will often call one another to a child-like faith. The problem with this use of the concept is that children do not want to remain ignorant. They do not naturally see deep learning and trust as opposites. Neither does Jesus. Children love to ask “Why?” and they love to say “Wow.” Children rightly refuse to accept from adults shallow answers to deep questions. A child-like faith is one which longs to learn all we can from our Lord, who has called his church to teach all that he’s commanded (Matthew 28:18-20), not just what we might consider spiritual "child's play."
When it comes to leading kids out of childishness, we adults often need to take the beam out of our own eyes so we can see clearly to take the speck from our kids’ crying eyes. Sometimes we adults forget that kids’ pain, though it might in some ways be smaller than ours, is proportional to ours. From their point of view their world really is ending when they have to move from one school to the next, or even when they lose a toy, and especially when mom and dad split up or a loved one dies. Even we calloused adults tend to acknowledge those pains as legitimate and worthy of tears. But what about the lesser pains they express, the ones with which adults get so frustrated, so “Are you serious?! You’re upset about that?!” If we at all want to image God our heavenly Father in the way he cares for us, we need to take these seemingly trivial pains seriously as well.
Sometimes kids can’t, or won’t, see beyond the circumstance to the bigger and more tectonically true aspects of life at play beneath the surface of their trauma. The birthday party they were so looking forward to doesn’t happen because something comes up and the family has to travel out of town to tend to what the adults have deemed a crisis worthy of the term. The beleaguered birthday boy sits in the back of the car, tears streaming, and mom and dad are seething because he just doesn’t get that this is hard for them, too, and that if he would just take a look beyond his desire for presents and see how much he has in life even beyond the special gifts, way beyond what he really actually needs every day. He’s spoiled! And now he’s acting like a spoiled brat. Yup. This boy is a whole lot like us adults.
This is not to excuse true selfishness, malcontent and the whining that expresses it – that’s all childish. It is to say that we adults do a whole lot more of that than we admit but we feel eminently justified for doing so, because we’ve got “real problems” whereas our kids just refuse to see how good they’ve got it. But when we calm down, look away from our self-congratulatory view of life and their lives in particular, and look at them instead with sympathetic compassion – empathetic if we can manage an honest rear-view mirror look at our own childhood – we start to realize that kids are doing what we do as they face hardship: they’re just processing life through the categories available to them.
Sometimes kids won’t be consoled and all they can do is cry. Same with us. When we suffer, we process it through the categories available to us. Only, we’re more culpable than kids for the way we go about this, and for what categories we employ in general. Sometimes we feel we have no categories. We won’t be consoled and all we can do is cry. There’s a time for that. We need to grieve. But we adults have more truth available to us, more life-experience with that truth, than kids have. We’ve had longer time in this life to listen to our heavenly Father as he leads us compassionately through life’s pains. When our kids are seething at us, telling us that there’s no good reason whatsoever for our denying them the party, or taking them to the doctor, or leading them through any other good but painful experience they must endure on their way to maturity, we can pause on our way to anger and frustration and remember that we lash out at our heavenly Father in the same way.
The difference between our pain and theirs is an issue of proportion and capacity to bear up under it. Recognizing that in significant ways, we view God’s dealings with us in the same way that kids view our dealings with them, we can lead these tender, intelligent young hearts in coming before God with our cries, the God who loved us enough to give the life of his Son so that we could be his sons and daughters; the God who has met for us the severest need any human has, to be reconciled to him and brought home to his family; the God whose son is risen from the dead and who promises never to put upon us a burden that we cannot bear by his empowering grace; the God who says he is producing through those trials a deeper blessedness for us and our loved ones than would have been ours without those terrible ordeals that leave us in tears. We can teach them what God says about what they’re going through, and we can humbly remind ourselves and remind one another about what God says regarding what we go through. We can look together, and be together, in our respective sufferings, looking in faith to the one whose unique suffering provided for us forgiveness before God, and whose resurrection brings us with him before the Father as his beloved, maturing siblings.
Some would write such beliefs off as childish, unintelligent and for the emotionally immature. But these are simply the teachings of Jesus, who calls us to receive his teaching as little children. Not because children are unintelligent, but because, as one pastor put it, they need to be led and taught. With a natural humility that allegedly enlightened adults tend to neglect the more autonomous they fancy themselves, children recognize that there are answers out there and that they depend upon those with a greater grasp of the truth than they have to teach them. Jesus is the great teacher, the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, as Paul puts it in Colossians 2. Notice his wording – it’s not just – “In Jesus, we learn a lot of facts.” No. In him are hidden the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. For those with a childlike faith, Jesus is the one to whom we look as we intelligently ask “Why?” and to whose word we can excitedly respond “Wow!” And he is the sympathetic high priest to whom we can take our tears, and who will one day, when faith becomes sight, wipe every one of them from our eyes.
God our heavenly Father is so patient with us. He forgives us in Christ when we rage against him, and he bears us up gently as we just run out of categories by which to process life's pains. May we who have positions of influence in the lives of children demonstrate spiritual maturity by loving them in this way, leading them in this way by example to trust with a childlike faith in the true and living God.