Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). What does that mean and how do you do that?
“Ah Paul, that’s an easy one. He’s talking about having the faith of a child.”
I know that’s what you’ve heard and it’s not a bad answer, but it misses the mark in an important way.
Jesus is not talking about children but little children meaning infants or toddlers. What did he mean when he said we must become like an infant to enter the kingdom? According to some commentators, little children are special because:
- they are without worldly ambition
- they don’t count (they were considered losers in early society)
- they are honest and without guile
- they are capable of receiving love
- they are humble
These are fine interpretations but they fall short of Christ’s meaning.
What’s special about little children?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I have a little child in my house. She’s one year old and I don’t consider her a loser or humble or without ambition. As for being without guile, that’s definitely not the case. She played a trick on her big brother the other day that left us in stitches. Sure, she’s capable of receiving love but so are big children and adults. These are not the defining characteristics of little children. So what is?
Let’s look at the passage in context:
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)
What makes little children special is they are helpless. The kids in this story didn’t come to Jesus; they were brought to Jesus. Most of them couldn’t walk, so they had to be carried. Some couldn’t stand, so Jesus had to hold them, and he was delighted to do so.
People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them… (Luke 18:15)
In Luke’s account of the story the little children were babies. Yet Jesus says the same thing. “Unless you change and become as helpless as a babe, you’ll never enter the kingdom” (my paraphrase of Luke 18:17).
Do you see?
This isn’t about your baby-like faith or your infant-like humility. It’s not about you at all but Jesus whose desire is to help the helpless. And you are totally helpless when it comes to living the life that God wants for you.
What’s the problem?
The problem is that many of us are not helpless. We’ve swallowed a self-help gospel that says “Do A, B, and C and you’ll be blessed.” We’re like the rich man in the parable, who backed himself, when we should be like Lazarus whom God helped.
“God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not true! God helps the helpless. He surely wants to help everyone but only the helpless receive his help.
I look at my toddler and marvel at her helplessness. If Camilla and I went to Hawaii for a long weekend and left her at home, she’d be in serious trouble. She wouldn’t be able to do a thing. She can’t open jars of baby food. She can’t get water from the tap. There’s only one thing she can do very well and that’s cry for help.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
Okay, so you’ve been helpless and cried out to God and he’s taken you in and now you’re in the kingdom. You’ve changed from the helpless to the helped. Now what? Stay in that place of total dependence. Don’t ever change. Do nothing for yourself.
Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 18:4)
The problem is we’re too strong, too talented, too capable, too grown-up. We pray, “God help me,” but our actions say, “Don’t worry Lord, I’ve got this.” Only we haven’t. We try and fail and resolve to try harder next time. It’s a total flesh-trip that produces nothing but Frankenfruit.
The apostle Paul said, “I take pleasure in infirmities… for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). I have never heard anyone say, “I take pleasure in infirmities,” yet Paul did. He wasn’t saying sickness is a good thing or a secret blessing, because it’s not. But when we’re down, the Lord can take us up.
In this world success comes as a result of hard work, perseverance and staying healthy. But that sort of success can only take you so far. Real success, the kind that endures into eternity, follows a different route.
What’s the path to greatness in the kingdom? It’s the one taken by the little child, the weak, and the lowly.
You want to go up, then you’d better get down. You want to do more, then you’d better do less. Quit trying, quit striving, and quit trusting in your own abilities. Give up and admit defeat – real defeat, not the super-spiritual pretending kind – and see yourself as dependent as an infant. Then watch and marvel at what God can do with the weak and lowly!
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