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.”—Matthew 18:1-4
I had a pretty great childhood.
I grew up in Greenville, California, a little logging town about an hour from here. When I was young, the population of the town was about 2000, but it has shrunk in the years since the mills closed. I took my family on a drive this weekend to see the places I spent my childhood. We saw the houses I grew up in, my school, the fields and farmlands, the little creeks where my brother and I caught crawdads. Some things had changed, and some hadn’t. Everything was smaller. As we drove around, I was aware that I have often taken for granted what my first years were like. At the risk of making you jealous, let me explain:
We lived in a beautiful place. Children don’t always appreciate natural beauty, but now as an adult I’m grateful that I grew up in a place where everything was green, where soaring mountain peaks covered in pine trees surrounded picturesque farmland. I thought that was normal, that everyone grew up like that. It was like the setting of many of the books I read as a kid, but today I realize that most kids my age were reading those books while living in cities and other places that looked nothing like what they were reading about. I was living a dream and didn’t even know it.
We lived in a safe place. From a young age, Randy and I would ride our bikes to the store or the post office to run errands for mom. As we got a little older, it was common on summer days for us to ride off in the morning after breakfast and not come home until lunchtime, and then do the same thing from lunch to dinner. We would go to the school to play on the playground equipment, or to the creek to throw rocks at water skippers. It never entered our minds that there was anything dangerous about this. It’s a different world today, and I can’t imagine turning my kids loose into the world like that now. For us, though, it was a pretty great way to grow up.
But maybe the biggest thing that defined our childhood was this: we knew we were loved. Mom stayed home and took care of us, and Dad worked in the sawmill to provide for us. We were blessed to have two parents who stayed together, and who made sacrifices to make sure we had all we needed. As a result, there were so many things that we never had to worry about, that we never questioned or even thought about, because the adults in our lives were handling those things, and we were free to be kids.
I now know that this was a childhood of tremendous privilege. We had very little money, but we were rich. We were happy and free and unafraid. We knew that God was good and life was good and family was good. We believed that the world was a good and safe place to be. I know that many people had a very different kind of childhood, where they did not always feel safe, where the future was frightening and uncertain, and where adults could not always be trusted to have their best interests in mind. If that is your story, I am sorry, not only because of the pain it caused you, but because what I was privileged to experience, you have to take on faith: that there is something really good and right about childhood. Maybe not your childhood in particular, but childhood as it was meant to be. Jesus said that childhood as it was meant to be is a picture of what citizens of God’s kingdom look like. What did He mean?
Maybe you’ve heard people say that Jesus held children up as a model because children are innocent. I do not think so. Children are not innocent—at least, not mine! Sometimes I wonder if people who say this know any children. From a young age, children know how to sin, and they do not need any help figuring it out. And this is good news for us! We do not need to somehow make ourselves innocent to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is the Innocent One, and his death on the cross purified us from our sin and worldliness.
No, when Jesus said we had to become like little children to enter the Kingdom, I think he meant that we have to become dependent. As a child, there was much that I didn’t worry about, because the responsible adults in my life were taking care of it. This is how it should be, in everyday life and in spiritual matters. When I become a like a child spiritually, it means I know that what I need I cannot get for myself, but I’m not worried about it, because I live with the unquestioning assurance that God will take care of all that stuff. I can’t make myself righteous, but Jesus can. I can’t ensure that I will be safe and provided for, but Jesus can. I am free to do the things that God made me to do, and when I get home, dinner will be on the table, because I am loved. I am happy and unafraid. Life is good. I trust God, because I have never had a reason not to.
I wish everyone had a childhood like mine. But if you didn’t, here is the good news: you can have a future as God’s child in His kingdom. What he wants from you is not to try to take care of the things that are His responsibility, but to trust Him. Trust Him to take care of you. Trust Him to make you righteous as you look to His Son’s death on the cross for you. Trust that because Jesus rose from the dead, your future is secure. According to Him, you don’t have to prove how great you are in order to be loved. You only have to trust in His greatness. When we are humble and dependent, God is happy to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”—Matthew 19:14