There was a time in church history when the highest service one could offer the Lord was to be a Soldier of Christ.
But who are the Crusaders and Holy Warriors of today, if not those who have planted their flag in the ground of childhood, knowing that, like infants, they are “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17). This ‘infantry’ has healed their midlife crisis by learning to walk in the childlike beatitudes of poverty, meekness, hunger and thirst, purity of heart.
Hear the passion of the Apostle John as he writes, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 Jn 3:1) What a shout of acclamation! Boggling enough for God to have one child, His Only Son; but for the divine progeny to be astronomically multiplied to all who, merely through faith, grab the coattails of the One …
Yet hear also the warning in John’s words, as much as to say, Dear ones, we are not the adults of God but His children. This note carries into the next verse, surely one of the most intriguing in all of scripture: “Now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.” The very fact that we are now children implies that one day we shall grow up—not in this life, where our focus must be on growing down into greater childlikeness, but in the next life when God Himself will grow us up into someone the glory of whom we cannot now imagine.
Such glory is not to be grasped prematurely. Our glory for now is in being children. As Goethe put it, “Life is the childhood of our immortality.” Or T.S. Eliot: “The way up is the way down.” Even the famous passage where Paul writes, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (I Cor 13:11)—even here, while it may sound as though Paul is exhorting us to grow up, really he is saying the opposite: Now I must rest in being a child, knowing only in part; but later, in heaven, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Thus even the most mature of believers is still but a child. John’s first epistle addresses his readers ten times as ‘dear children,’ a phrase Jesus and Paul also use. Yet in our times childhood is disappearing, not only in society but in the Church. Following the lead of our fast-paced, overworked culture we take on too much responsibility too soon. We walk before we can crawl and run when we ought to be nursing at the breast. Believers like the idea of being ‘born again’ but who is prepared to be a child again?
The editor of this volume, Dr. James Houston, was ninety-five years young when he invited me to contribute this essay. He was still teaching courses, traveling the world, leading a full social life. When I asked him if he had experienced any diminishment of his energy, he replied, “Yes and no.” As long as he slept for ten hours a night, with a further two-hour nap in the afternoon, he was fine! It struck me that he had reverted to the sleep patterns of a child. Here is someone who had accepted that, in order to maintain his energy, he must spend half his time sleeping—to say nothing of more hours in prayer. Many of us have never gotten enough sleep in our entire lives: not as teenagers, nor as middle agers, nor in our elderly years. We don’t want to be told to lie down. If we wonder what it might look like to live a childlike faith, we could start by spending more time sleeping, resting, or simply sitting prayerfully on our Daddy’s knee.
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The above essay, the third of seven parts, is excerpted from An Introduction to Child Theology, edited by James M. Houston, pp 220-29.
I’ve also written on the theme of childhood and childlikeness in my book The Mystery of Children: What Our Kids Teach Us About Childlike Faith, available as a free ebook on this site, or in paper from Amazon.