Following my post on why parents should strive to be more childlike in their faith and in their families, let’s take it a step further: just how are we supposed to do it? In what ways should we really be more like our children?
“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14
(I’m still digging into Unless You Become Like This Child by Hans Urs von Balthasar with this post. Please pick up a copy to explore if you want to go deeper.)
Emulating the Mind of a Child
Of course, I know on an intellectual level that there are many qualities to be admired in children. Their innocence, for one; their delight; their unquestioning devotion. And yet, it seems to me that so many of these qualities are either unattainable (I am a sinner beyond the age of reason; innocence is not my strong suit) or paired with not-so-desirable features (it’s easy to be delighted when the world revolves around you, but how can I savor the small things when there is so much else to worry about?).
Without doubt, there is something inexplicably beautiful about childhood. Children are a wonder to behold and their intellectual landscape is both fascinating and inspiring. But, having grown into adulthood and “[given] up childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11), how could I have any hope of reclaiming that youthful wonder for my own sake?
Reading von Balthasar’s little book opened my eyes to the many ways in which our souls are made for that childlike nature. As it turns out, becoming like a child when it comes to faith is an even holier pursuit than I imagined.
Among much fruitful insight into what “Christian childlikeness” means, von Balthasar points out a few lovely examples of the youthful qualities all followers of Christ should pursue and embrace:
1. Practice easy, virtuous giving and receiving.
On page 22 of the book, von Balthasar says:
For the child it is natural to receive good gifts, and so docility, obedience, trust, and sweet surrender are not for him virtues to be expressly achieved, but the most unreflectedly natural things in the world. This is so to such an extent that the child adopts the mother’s giving attitude unquestioningly as the right one, and he gives spontaneously when he has something to give. He shows his little treasures without hiding any of them; he wants to share because he has experienced sharing as a form of goodness.
All parents can spot this sweetness in their children. When your toddler finds something delightful or fascinating—a stone, a stick, a bug—isn’t her first instinct to share it with you? To show it to you? To give it to you (even if she expects you’ll immediately give it back)?
This is a beautiful statement on why Christians are called to be like children: we are surrounded by such profound Love that we should be in such a place, intellectually, that we can’t help but emulate it. We should always remember that “sharing is a form of goodness,” and that we can bring that goodness to the world so easily.
Of course, this also means being thankful for what we receive. Gratitude—in prayer, for others, to oneself—can be improved with maturity. We should give without pause like small children do, and give thanks without ceasing like the saints do.
2. Have unfailing trust in our Parent.
Throughout this work, von Balthasar uses examples from the Holy Family to talk about what it means to “become like this child.” In many cases, he highlights the familial relationship between Jesus and the Father as one we can, in some very important ways, recognize and emulate in our own families—and in ways we should emulate in our relationship with God.
For instance, from page 31: “In the Son, the Spirit keeps alive the unshakable trust that the Father’s every ordinance … will always be an ordinance of love, which the Son, now that he is a man, must reciprocate with human obedience.”
This is a message we hear from Christ throughout the New Testament. One of my favorite examples is Matthew 6:25-26, where Jesus says: “‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’”
For children raised in a happy home, as God designed it to be, there is simply no reason for them to doubt they will be kept safe, comfortable, and healthy under their parents’ care. They don’t fret over tomorrow or the next meal or the weather. They simply go about their day and, even in difficult or hungry or scary moments, they never hesitate to cling to their parents and wait for them to make things better—and they never, at this childlike stage, lose faith that things will be better.
How beautiful life would be if we could retain for ourselves that unshakable trust in our heavenly Father—that simple confidence that, no matter what, He will care for us and everything will be okay. If only we were as eager to please and as easy to comfort as the children we once were.
3. Adopt a playful, unworried sense of time.
One further example. In the fifth chapter of the book, von Balthasar says:
The child has time to take time as it comes, one day at a time, calmly, without advance planning or greedy hoarding of time. He knows nothing of appointment books in which every moment has already been sold in advance. … Play is possible only within time so conceived. … And only with time of this quality can the Christian find God in all things, just as Christ found the Father in all things. Pressured man on the run is always postponing his encounter with God to a ‘free moment’ or a ‘time of prayer’ that must constantly be rescheduled. … God defines himself as ‘I am who I am,’ which also means: ‘My being is such that I shall always be present in every moment of being.’
I’m not sure what’s harder to achieve in my life today: that absolute trust in God’s will, or this utterly unstructured treatment of time.
Certainly it’s impossible to completely de-compartmentalize our time as adults. Anyone who works full time, goes to school, has household responsibilities, pursues personal hobbies, or otherwise goes about an independent life understands that. To some extent, we can’t regain that childlike abandon. Our schedules are a necessity of modern, grown-up living.
But how do you spend your moments? Do you find yourself becoming pulled constantly in different directions by distractions, or waiting for the next appointment on your schedule such that you don’t accomplish what you meant to right now, or dreading the end of your “free” time, or putzing around with your phone when you should be focused on the memories unfolding in front of you?
I know I do.
And do you always open yourself up to prayer throughout the day, no matter what persona you have to put on in a given moment, so that your conversations with God can be free-flowing and constant rather than confined to a Sunday morning and a bedtime routine?
Too often, I don’t.
A child is only ever himself in any given moment of any given day. He moves from experience to experience—sometimes easily, sometimes not—always with his full self invested in it. I want that authenticity and the rewards that come with it, too.
Go Home and Love Your Family
It’s not easy to follow Christ’s commands, and the call to become more childlike in a world that strips even our children of their youth far too soon is no exception.
But I think the important thing to remember is that it’s not about recapturing lost innocence or ignorance. It’s not about closing our eyes to the larger world and spending all our time at play. It’s about devotion, openness to growth, learning, and leaning. I think it’s pretty easy to see that, with the possible exception of their worst days, my children are much better than me at all of those things.
I want to grow with them just as they demand to grow with me.