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Spiritual Maturity: Lessons in Childlike Faith after 50 Years

Spiritual Maturity: Lessons in Childlike Faith after 50 Years

I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it. – Mark 10:15 (NLT)

Now that I’m over 50 years old, I think it’s safe to admit: I hate looking at pictures of other people’s kids.

Yes, I know your little ones are spectacularly smart and funny and pretty and charming but, well, they’re not MY grandchildren now, are they? Likewise, I’ve seen your impatient half-smiles and distracted gazes when I push my pictures under your nose. Children, it seems, are best appreciated when they’re ones you know personally.

That’s why today, when I read Mark 10:13-16, I had to stop and take a second look.

You see, too often I view this familiar passage as if I’m looking at blurry cell-phone pics of kids I’ve never met. Oh sure, I can preach passionately about childlike faith and sing cheerfully of how “Jesus loves the little children,” but the truth is: You and I don’t really know much about the actual, precious little people Jesus wrapped in his arms on that day.

So I wonder...what might change if this old man saw “childlike faith” through the eyes and experiences of a boy in ancient Israel? What lessons about spiritual maturity might I learn if my 21st-century Christianity was lived as if walking in the shoes of a first-century kid?

Maybe it’s time we found out.

Lesson #1. Be A Child Cherished by My Father

The account of Mark 10:13-15 begins with this: “One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them…” This was apparently so annoying that “the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him” (10:13 NLT).

I know I probably shouldn’t, but Mark’s dry commentary on that moment makes me laugh. I picture it a bit like when I was coach of my son’s basketball team and, no matter how I tried to balance playing time, there were always parents badgering me for their kids to play more.

Sure it was annoying, but it’s easy to see why they did it. They treasured their children—enough to demand special treatment for them.

We see this same “cherished child” principle at work in that crowd of ancient parents shoving kids toward Jesus. It was an extension of their unwavering belief in Psalm 127:3-5 (NLT):

Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from him. Children born to a young man are like arrows in a warrior’s hands. How joyful is the man whose quiver is full of them!

The truth of the matter is that most of those first-century kids waiting expectantly before Jesus never would’ve questioned their value in their fathers’ eyes. (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, General Editors; Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998, p. 143).

It wouldn’t even have been a matter of belief, but a settled fact proven anew each day by the father’s words and actions—and by the inconvenient insistence that his child must get a blessing from the hands of Jesus.

So, if I’m to have faith like a child whom Jesus blessed, the first thing I must come to terms with is this: I am cherished by my heavenly Father.

I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t often feel “cherished.” Usually I feel like a failure, or that God loves you but He just tolerates me, or that His attention and affections are reserved mostly for His other kids, not for spiritually-hobbled folk like me. But that’s my cynical adult faith talking.

If an ancient Hebrew child could have unquestioning faith in an earthly father’s love, then my unsteady modern faith can believe the same about my heavenly Father’s love today.

Lesson #2. Be A Child with No Rights

Of course, a child’s cherished place within a family didn’t mean that child was similarly valued outside the home—or even treasured equally in all homes. In fact, it was no accident that Jesus pointed downward when he said, “Whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4 NIV). Bible historian, Craig Keener, explains it this way:

The most powerless members of ancient society were little children...In Jewish culture children were loved, not despised, but the point is that they had no status apart from that love, and no power or privileges apart what they received as total dependents on their parents. (Craig S. Keener. The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993, p. 93)

Additionally, in those ancient days, legal and physical authority over children was almost completely in the hands of the father. If that dominant dad were not loving and faithful, it could result in disaster.

A father could sell his children as slaves, if he so desired. He could choose whom and when a child would marry—and deny marriage as well. The father could legally have a child put to death for being rebellious, stubborn, or gluttonous. He could starve or beat a child as punishment. He could choose the child’s future career and trade. It really was true that the ancient child depended entirely on his or her father for almost everything, even survival. (Merrill C. Tenney, General Editor; The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 2; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975, 1976; pg. 505)

That’s a hard pill to swallow for someone today who wants to have faith like a child that Jesus blessed! See, the children of Jesus’ time had no choice about their status in society—but I do. So the lofty ideal of childlike faith for Mikey means I must choose two humiliating perspectives those kids lived out naturally:

  1. I must be someone who holds power loosely—a person willing to freely give up my hard-won rights in favor of someone else’s best interests (physical, social, emotional, and spiritual).
  2. I must remember each day to make myself totally dependenton my heavenly Father’s love as the provision for my life’s necessities, and for my worth, status, power, and place.

The “self-made American” in me resists that kind of circumstantial surrender. And sometimes I don’t know how to surrender even though I want to! But my pride and ignorance are neither excuse to avoid, nor substitute for, the truth of this essential aspect of “childlike faith.”

So in this sense, faith becomes a matter of control. We should be willing to ask ourselves: Can I trust my heavenly Father enough to make myself powerless unless His love interferes in my life?

Lesson #3. Be A Child Always Learning About God

The child that Jesus blessed was not ignorant of God. In fact, from the time of Moses on, ancient Hebrew children were taught about God and Scripture as a common part of everyday life. Parents were guided constantly by the exhortations of Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and Proverbs 22:6 (NLT):

And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.

Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.

Children as young as age five were expected to learn to read and memorize God’s Word. They were taught both by parents and by scribes or rabbis in the synagogue. Kids learned meanings of national religious festivals and the history of God among the people of Israel. They became conversant in the teachings of the Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament). Gifted students (boys) might even move on to advanced studies of rabbinical commentaries and theology. (John Drane, The World of the Bible, Oxford, England: Lion Hudson, 2009; pgs. 159-160).

What this tells me today is that a person pursuing “faith like a child” is also choosing to learn like a child of Jesus’ time. What a gift! Each day we can discover more of God, of the Bible, of Christ, with the same wide-eyed wonder as when it was first new in our minds.

We can seek understanding as a common part of everyday life. We can find God’s truths in private moments at home and in communal times at church. We can literally be people who encounter God “when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.”

This wonderful legacy of learning is a hallmark of childlike faith—and a gift from ancient kids to us.

Lesson #4. Be A Child Enthusiastic in Praise

When Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, children played a starring role! Crowds cheered, Jesus cleared thieves out of the temple, and He healed the blind and lame. Listen to what happened next:

The leading priests and the teachers of religious law saw these wonderful miracles and heard even the children in the Temple shouting, “Praise God for the Son of David.”

But the leaders were indignant. They asked Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?”

“Yes,” Jesus replied. “Haven’t you ever read the Scriptures? For they say, ‘You have taught children and infants to give you praise.’” (Matthew 21:15-17 NLT)

I love this picture of spontaneous worship in the hearts and mouths of children! I can practically see the throngs of giddy boys and girls dancing and shouting at the sight of Jesus in their midst. It actually brings tears of comfort to my eyes.

If you’re like me, friend, your life has not been easy. Bitter experiences and sorrowful trials have filled some, if not most, of your days. And yet, in both the worst and best of times—when hands are empty but hearts are full—the faith of a child still can take breath within to help us pause, look heavenward, and shout with unrestrained glee:

Praise God for the Son of David! Praise God for our generous Christ!


headshot of Mike Nappa, authorMike Nappa is a features writer for Crosswalk.com and a theology writer for Christianity.com. He’s also a bestselling and award-winning Christian author with more than a million copies of his books sold worldwide. Learn more about Mikey at Nappaland.com and MikeNappa.com.

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