At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-4, NASB).
But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by His side, and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great” (Luke 9:47-48, NASB).
My mother has often told me that I was born an old man. When I finally asked her for clarification, she answered, “You were a serious kid, and very aware of your surroundings.”
Then—because my mother never stops with a simple response (I mean, where do you think I get it from?)—she elaborated further:
“You were always looking around at everything with your eyes big and wide. You never did anything until you knew how to do it. Rather than crawl before you walked, you watched people walking and one day it was like you decided, ‘I think I should walk,’ and then you walked. Why bother with crawling? It was the same thing with speaking. You didn’t really talk until you were three, and then one day you were speaking full sentences.”
“You watched everyone and paid attention. Then, you would do it when you felt ready.”
I’d have to agree with mom. I was born an old man 😛
A BAD CHILD. NO KIDDING 😉
Noted by others to be an unusually self-conscious and focused youth, I strived for excellence in everything. I was that “good kid” that adults would regularly praise, often commenting on my “maturity.”
Throughout my adolescence, I excelled in school and was a competitive, coachable athlete. While in high school, for pocket money, I worked at the local Walgreens. I believed that working hard was often recognized and rewarded—you know, that whole “reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7-9) mindset.
Subsequently, I never had any interest in escapism through drugs and alcohol. Why willingly be involved and invested in self-destructive behavior?
Raised a devout Roman Catholic, I attended Mass every Sunday—even making most holy days of obligation. I sang in the choir, and later served as an altar boy. As a child, the structure and reverence for God that I experienced at Mass brought me peace.
And I was a dutiful son and responsible older brother. I mowed the lawn, raked leaves from the yard, and shoveled snow from the driveway; depending on the season. When I was old enough, I helped drive my younger brother and sister around, and performed other random errands for my parents.
While occasionally threatened with such punishment, I cannot recall ever being spanked…
I must confess, however, that I didn’t do the “good kid” thing very well. For all the recognition that I received for being a “good kid,” I was more like an underage adult. Reflecting on my youth, I have come to believe—and have for some time—that my early entrance into adulthood wasn’t necessarily a “good” thing that warranted affirmation.
FOUR WAYS THAT WE CAN LEARN FROM CHILDREN
Recently, David Thomas and Sissy Goff from Daystar Counseling Ministries spoke at my church. A major focus of their ministry is youth counseling. In their message to the church, the two long-time counselors shared four areas where they believed adults could learn from children:
(1) Responsiveness: Children are generally more responsive to the emotional needs of loved ones than adults. As an example, Sissy shared a story about her much younger sister.
Sissy was in her early twenties and out of the house when her parents divorced. Her sister—we’ll call her Lilly—was only six. The day before he left, their father shared the news with Lilly. The next morning, Lilly became upset when she awoke to find that her father had left. Lilly asked their mother if she could have a friend stay over. With her daughter visibly upset and hurt, their mother answered as any mother would under such circumstances: “Anything you want dear.”
When her friend came over, Lilly grabbed her by the hand and they ran up the stairs and into her bedroom, closing the door behind them. Sissy was at the house in a room adjoining her sister’s; getting ready to attend a wedding later that day. There was a lot of noise—the sound of wailing—coming from her sister’s room, so she investigated.
When she opened the door to Lilly’s room, Sissy expected all the crying and wailing to be from her sister. The emotional anguish that she had been hearing through the wall was that of Lilly’s friend. The friend was upset and outraged that Lilly’s father would do that to her. Lilly’s friend was completely with her in that moment.
The counselors mentioned that this was common behavior for younger children. Around twelve, we apparently develop a stronger self-consciousness. While we may still care just as deeply in such situations, we’re more likely to refrain from responding as openly with our emotions than when we’re younger. We’re more likely to justify not responding outwardly towards the pain of our friends as we age, claiming that we don’t want to “make it worse” for them. But how is this carrying the burdens of others?
Maybe we’re too quick to avoid our own discomfort in moments when we see our friends suffering. Sometimes, couldn’t it help just to know someone is there with us, feeling our pain too? How valuable could it be for someone to know that they have friends that are willing to stand beside them when so many others distance themselves from the suffering?
Sometimes I question if our unwillingness to respond in such situations is a sin of omission. In times when we’re self-conscious and afraid to act lovingly towards another person, we should ask ourselves: Are we holding back for our own sake, or theirs?
In most (if not all) instances, I would argue that to be responsive to the emotions of others is loving action. Though, action alone is not enough.
(2) Honesty: In the first letter of John, we are called to love by deed (i.e. action) and truth (i.e. according to moral righteousness):
Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3:18).
To grow in Truth requires honesty. The two, however, are different, and it’s important to distinguish these differences before continuing. From a secular perspective, truth is immutable, absolute, factual, and perfect in its correctness. Honesty is to act and speak without the intent to deceive; communicating what you believe to be true.
As an illustration of child-like honesty, David shared a story about his son’s fifteen year-old friend. One evening, the friend was invited over for dinner with their family. David asked his son’s friend if he would like to “say grace.” His son’s friend said, “Yeah, I can do that.”
Everyone bowed their heads. There was a dramatic pause. The dramatic pause continued. David said to his son’s friend, “Whenever you’re ready.”
His son’s friend replied, “Yep.”
The silence continued. After what likely felt like an eternity to everyone else (i.e. I’m guessing it was less than a minute), his son’s friend opened his mouth and said, “I got nothing.”
That, my friends, is honesty.
If defining honesty, I’d probably say it represents the transparency of thought and belief about what is true and right. Frequently, children’s words transparently expose their thoughts and beliefs regarding whatever topic they’re discussing. This should not be all that surprising, because—as mentioned earlier—they don’t typically develop a strong self-consciousness until they’re halfway through middle school. Basically, many kids don’t have filters—and those that do, haven’t had much practice properly applying them.
Some may contend that developing a filter is an essential element of maturing into an adult. I’m not so sure that I agree. What is the purpose of a filter? Isn’t it to refrain from saying what we truly feel, think, or believe? To me, it sounds like a short-term solution to a long-term and enduring heart issue. I think many Christians take the below scripture as encouragement to possess a filter, and maybe it does:
Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders (Matthew 15:17-19, NASB).
The above scripture, however, seems to rebuke traditions as a way for “rightness” with God. Moreover, the scripture asserts a greater emphasis on addressing our hearts (Proverbs 4:23; Luke 6:45) than it does managing our speech; focusing on the cause, not the outcome. Am I suggesting that we should embrace vulgar language? No, not at all. Rather, our words (and our actions) should become more loving and wise as our hearts and minds conform more to Christ (Proverbs 23:19; Romans 12:2):
Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11, NASB).
And, if we’re called to implement filters, then I’d suggest that it’s under specific contexts, such as in the presence of nonbelievers (Matthew 10:16). I don’t believe that we’re to use filters among other believers; though, many do.
As Christians, our understanding of Truth is synonymous with our understanding of Jesus. And unlike our Lord, we can’t see into the hearts and minds of others. Subsequently, transparency among our Christian brothers and sisters is essential for accountability. Honesty among believers is conducive for effective discipleship, and allows us to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24-25, NASB).
Honesty also promotes an environment of trust.
(3) Trust: A cognitive neuroscientist and professed Christian, Dr. Caroline Leaf suggests that 75 to 95 percent of common illnesses are directly attributable to our thought life. She claims that fear alone can trigger more than 1,400 known physical and chemical responses and activate more than 30 different hormones!
The average person has over 30,000 thoughts a day. And we’re wired in a way where it’s easier for us to remember negative events more than positive ones. Moreover, negative events can impact us twice as much as positive events, with some scholars suggesting that it takes five good events to overcome the psychological effects of a single, bad event.
By the time we become adults, it shouldn’t be surprising that we struggle to trust. Rather, it’s surprising that any of us trust at all!
There are many opportunities in life to be fearful. Maybe that is why the Holy Bible, the written Word of God, frequently commands us not to fear anything of this world (Joshua 1:9; Deuteronomy 3:22; Isaiah 35:4; Psalm 27:1; 118:6-7; 43:1; John 14:27)—but to trust God. We’re told that it isn’t necessary to be afraid—that it only serves as a stumbling block—because we have a sovereign Lord, who loves and cares for those who trust in Him:
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe (Proverbs 29:25, ESV).
Fear can manifest itself in our lives as a need for independence or control. And ironically, I’d suggest that we learn to embrace fear as we’re given more responsibility and possess more control in our own decisions. We begin to fear dependency on anyone or anything, with independence and control becoming idols.
When we’re children, we’re aware of our dependence on others—and accept it. Whether we enjoy our dependency on others is another matter. But, regardless of our youthful inclinations of rebellion, we typically trust those on whom we depend.
While I have no research to substantiate the claim, I believe that children generally have a deeper capacity to trust than adults. What is my rationale? Well, I believe that—based on the research noted earlier—the negative events that we experience throughout life are easier to remember than the good experiences, and many of us develop a skepticism about others’ intentions. And while some may assume that I’m about to discourage such skepticism, I believe that it can represent discernment. This skepticism—or wise discernment—should be applied to examine what is good in our world. We should not, however, be skeptical about God. For God is the source of all that is good, and we’re to pursue Him and that which He blesses.
Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, NASB)
As I see it, to encourage children to doubt the presence of the Lord in their life—to encourage them to develop a fierce independence and to control their environments—is a dangerous practice, and one that I cannot find substantiated in scripture. Jesus strongly cautions us against it:
…whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:3-6, NASB).
Rather, we should encourage children to trust in God as many of them trust in their parents (Matthew 7:9-11). And Christian parents are expected to constantly impart upon their children the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4); for trusting in Christ will lead us along the straight path—the narrow way (John 14:6) to eternal relationship with our Heavenly Father:
My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6, NASB).
However, living in a fallen world, we will eventually be betrayed by others. And in those instances, it would behoove us to do another thing that most children do better than adults—forgive.
(4) Forgiveness: I believe that there is a strong correlation between being able to trust others and being able to forgive others. When anyone operates from a mindset of suspicion, it’s difficult to trust and nearly impossible to forgive. As we age, we’re more prone to project the wrongs done upon us that we’ve never forgiven—which can be numerous—and inject that unresolved resentment and distrust into our other relationships whenever conflicts arise. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, holding onto negative thoughts and feelings can cause us to literally fall ill. Thus, forgiveness is good for both the person forgiving and the person being forgiven.
From my experience—and apparently, that of the two counselors—children are much better at allowing forgiveness than adults. Maybe it’s because they’re more willing to respond to the emotional needs of others, or maybe they’re not nearly as cynical as their elders.
Children are generally quick to forgive remorseful wrongdoers. Suspicion and distrust are trained behaviors, and they have been less exposed to the world’s cruelty and brokenness. Subsequently, they’re more likely to assume good intentions instead of cruel ones; possessing a willingness to accept a wrong done upon them as a mistake, rather than a person’s modus operandi (i.e. means of operation).
As adults, we’re more likely to allow our hearts to harden; refusing to show grace and mercy to those who wrong us. And sometimes, we’re the person that we cannot forgive, which also significantly affects our ability to forgive others. Without forgiveness, however, there is never peace.
For Christians, it’s essential to remember that we’re commanded to forgive others, just as our Lord has forgiven us (Matthew 6:14; 2 Corinthians 2:7, 10; Colossians 3:13). We’ve been shown an undeserved grace and mercy (Titus 3:4-5; Ephesians 2:8-9), and we’re expected to exhibit a loving heart; showing that same grace and mercy towards others—even our enemies:
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:35-36, NASB).
A MISGUIDED CHILDHOOD
While my childhood behaviors suggested that I was a “good kid” to others, they would’ve known otherwise if they could’ve seen the state of my heart. The emotional and attitudinal motivations behind my actions rarely were love and humility respectively. And, in my opinion, it’s often a compassionate heart, full of love and humility that promulgates the honest, responsive, trusting, and forgiving behaviors seen in children. Remember, Jesus refers specifically to being humble like a child when answering the question of “who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”:
And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:2-4, NASB).
Humility, such as that child’s, allows us to rest at the feet of Jesus.
I doubt that those who knew me as a child would argue that I possessed a more developed self-consciousness than many of my peers. This heightened self-consciousness made me aware of many things most children blissfully ignore. I could see the world’s complexity when it would’ve been better not to. Why was I quieter as a child? From what I can remember, I was struggling to understand my environment; regularly falling into deep, reflective thought. I was looking for answers. Without getting into details, there were aspects of my childhood environment that would confuse any child. I operated under the premise that my environment was “normal.” It was all that I knew at that time. But again, what’s normal?
In short, I saw a world of immense hypocrisy (and I still possess a strong disdain for hypocrisy in myself and others), and I saw no solution for safely navigating it. My views were strongly reinforced by others around me. My childhood seriousness was, for the most part, a byproduct of my fear. That which wasn’t motivated by fear, was motivated by an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I had an acute case of “older brother” syndrome.
Motivated by my fears and insecurities, I attempted to control as much of the world as I could; becoming fiercely independent. I kept close friendships to a minimum for most of my childhood, because I struggled to trust others. In my efforts to control others, I expected my friends (bless their hearts) to adhere to my worldview. As a teen, if anyone “betrayed me” (i.e. didn’t abide by my rules), I’d struggle to forgive; often holding a grudge. If certain “codes” were violated, I’d cut them out of my life completely. Again, it was about maintaining control from a place of fear and insecurity.
My fear of failure drove me the most. Subsequently, much of my worth was placed into external recognition—achievement. I wanted to be the best athlete; the best student; and the best Christian. And, for much of my childhood, probably in that order. For hating hypocrisy, I was gifted at it. That, and compartmentalization.
By the time I was in middle-school, I knew that I wanted to attend a college far away from home. Seeing hypocrisy in everything, I wanted to escape. I thought a fresh start was necessary; thinking anything would be better than what I’d already experienced. (Yes, I was a dramatic youth, sometimes playing “victim”). And since I didn’t plan on staying in Gloucester, it was easy not to speak to most people. I was intentionally keeping my relationships to a minimum.
Growing up in a mostly secular environment, most adults viewed my independence positively. I was credited as “being focused,” for maintaining a self-controlled social environment and lofty ambitions. I was considered “disciplined” because I rarely deviated from my plans (it didn’t matter that my reason was fearfulness). Being much less vocal in public settings than I am now—rarely “rocking the boat,” and willing to strategically lie; often telling people what they wanted to hear—I was generally seen as “respectful.”
Yeah, I was a “good kid,” sure [*sarcasm*]. The only way that I could’ve been classified as a “good kid” was if it meant that you were:
- quietly arrogant
- poor at relationship
- selfish (self-centered)
Fortunately, attending college far away from home allowed me to see the realities of my circumstances—the Truth. Placing myself in a new environment, it became apparent that I was often the common denominator surrounding my frustrations. Much like the Pharisees that Jesus rebuked for being “white-washed tombs (Matthew 23:27),” my outward appearance hid the poor state of my heart…
I did eventually experience a proper childhood, and have been working on my heart ever since. My childhood can be referred to as my twenties.
My best friend throughout my childhood was so afraid of losing our friendship (looking back, I have no idea why), he hid a whole part of his life away from me while we were growing up. It wasn’t until we were in our twenties that he came clean. We’d spent so much time around each other, I’d have never thought that he could’ve hidden anything from me. Our mutual friends had been sworn to secrecy.
When I asked him why he hadn’t told me anything before, he told me that I would’ve completely severed ties. He felt that it wasn’t until then—during our early twenties—that opening up to me wouldn’t harm our friendship. And while it shames me to admit it, I believe that he arrived at an accurate conclusion.
Why did he put up with me? He cared about my success, and felt that he needed to be there for me.
Now that’s a “good kid.”
MY TAKEAWAY: BE CHILD-LIKE WITHOUT BEING CHILDISH
There is nary a day where I don’t reflect on how blessed I am in friendship. While I have many friendly acquaintances, I still tend to allow a select few into what I would refer to as “biblical friendship” (Proverbs 17:17). These friendships are actively pursued. And somehow, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have many of these individuals accept my invitation for friendship; though, in many—if not all these friendships—I benefit more.
I’m usually the weak link in most arrangements 🙂
An intuitive person, I often saw something in these individuals immediately. Unfortunately, I’ve always struggled to describe the attributes that have drawn me to them—until now. David and Sissy’s message helped me identify what draws me into friendship with others: A child-like love and humility.
That is the main commonality among my closest friends. There is an observable, child-like love and humility in their behavior. They’re responsive to the emotional needs of others. They’re honest. They’re trusting and forgiving. Regularly, they put the needs of others ahead of their own.
In other words, they love God and they love others as “good kids.”
These friends help me stay centered on Christ, because I cannot help but see my Lord’s character through them. They’re good Christian ambassadors who encourage me to actively live out my faith. When I am with my friends, Christ’s presence is palpable (Matthew 18:20).
But these friends are more than just “good kids.” They’re also “mature adults” and amazing Christians.
Children can struggle with exhibiting discernment and discipline (i.e. wisdom). Even the most loving and humble children can act upon sudden feelings of impatience, fear, frustration, and desire. They’re easily susceptible, being children, to engage in childish behavior: pouting and general petulance. Sadly, so can adults.
Children, however, (generally) lack the wisdom that is garnered over time by their elders. Over time, as adults, we’re capable of growing in discernment and discipline (i.e. wisdom) through healthy relationships and intentional discipleship.
And we all need discipleship.
That is why we’re commanded—at all times, and in every circumstance—to teach our children God’s Word (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). Christian fathers are explicitly commanded to teach their children discipline (Proverbs 3:12) and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4); encouraging righteousness (Colossians 3:21).
While my friends are loving and humble, they’ve also been (and still are) the benefactors of good discipleship. How do I know? Let me provide the simple answer. Their actions regularly produce fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
I wish to end this post with a simple prayer. I pray that we can retain a child-like love and humility as we grow in wisdom and spiritual maturity.
May we be “good kids,” as we become “mature adults,” while becoming better Christians as we proceed through sanctification into glorification.