No, this isn’t a column about a little kid with an amazing faith story.
We all love stories of a child’s innocence and wonder and truth, so hopeful, so blessedly untainted by life’s doubts, age’s cynicism, and energy’s erosion. We warm to the notion of purity – whether of observation, reflection or narrative – that surprises and charms us. When demonstrated in youthful straightforwardness, it’s a tonic of guilelessness and virtue. Kids are great.
But no, this is about us. Adults. And the Bible. And Jesus Christ. And mainly Jesus’s repeated instruction to his disciples and others, in so many words, to possess or exhibit “the faith of a child” as a requirement to come into the Kingdom of God.
This teaching on children and “little ones” appears throughout the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 18, Mark 9, Luke 9, Luke 17, etc.) and New Testament.
Taken on its surface – in a 20th century social context of human maturity, a light understanding of Christian theology and within typical church doctrinal rigors of guilt, sin, fear, disobedience and general human fallenness that get worse as we age, and then juxtaposed with the humility, simplicity, and naiveté of the “childlike” mind, the grace of Jesus and the truth of the Gospel – the “faith of a child” teaching is charming but confusing, and even contradictory.
For example, it’s bad to be a milk-drinking spiritual infant, “not acquainted with righteousness” (Hebrews 5:13), but desirable to crave pure spiritual milk to “grow up in our salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). We need the “milk of … God’s word,” not “solid food” (Hebrews 5:12). Are we supposed to grow up, or not? Are we supposed to really educate our adult selves about Christian faith, or not? Which is it: milk or meat?
In our modern Western culture, the “faith of a child” teaching seems naïve. But to pious first century Jews and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, it would have seemed outrageous. And here’s why: they would have known what Jesus was really saying.
At age 13, Jewish boys went through a ceremony to become a “Bar Mitzvah,” one who is, literally, “subject to the law.” What Jesus was saying, in quasi-parable fashion in places like Luke 9:46-48, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven,” a “child” in its contemporary social context would have meant “one not subject to the law.”
In Christ, the law is fulfilled. “Childlike faith,” then, is pure faith focused on Jesus the Messiah Christ, meaning freedom from Jewish law.
It’s an amazing faith story, yes; but all about Jesus.
Walters (firstname.lastname@example.org) thanks Dr. George Bebawi for his Wednesday Bible studies at East 91st Street Christian Church. He is a deep well of faith and teaching.