The disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Jesus called a little child, and had the child stand in front of them. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name, welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1–5)
Now, this is ought to cause some consternation for those of us who are, or have been, parents of young children. We spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to get our children to grow up and become mature adults. Then Jesus turns around and tells us that we are the ones who have to change—and become like little children!
Young children tend to squabble . . . a lot. Parents who have more than one child have most likely spent many long days playing referee as jealousy over matchbox cars, stuffed animals, and trading cards erupted into name-calling, shoving, hitting, and kicking. After a day like that, the last thing a parent wants to hear is Jesus telling us that we have to change and become like little children!
Of course, when we think about all the squabbling we adults do, we can easily picture God as an exasperated parent pleading with us, “Now children, be nice! Stop your squabbling and behave yourselves!”
We like to think that the things we adults fight about are so much more important than the toys and treasured objects that children fight about.
But are they really?
A thousand years from now, when we have long since left this earth for our eternal home, how much will it matter whether we won or lost that argument—or that war? How much will it matter whether we got those few extra dollars—or a few billion more dollars? How much will it matter whether some jerk crumpled our fender—or blew up a building?
If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that in many ways, we have never stopped acting like little children.
We still get upset about things that, from God’s perspective, are nothing more than children’s playthings.
We still forget that other people’s feelings are much more important than the fancy “toys” that they have—and that we wish we had.
We still forget that what’s important is not what people think of us and how they treat us, but rather what we think of them, and how we treat them.
We still forget that in the end, the only thing that really matters is how well we have followed Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us (John 15:12).
Children in the eyes of God
As far as God is concerned, we are all little children.
In the short span of years that we have here on earth, we barely have time even to begin growing up spiritually. We barely have time to quit squabbling and learn to be nice.
In fact, to all eternity, we small, limited human beings will never be more than children in the eyes of a God who is infinite love and infinite wisdom. Even the highest angels have barely taken their very first baby steps toward God, our divine Parent.
The beauty of those highest, heavenly angels is that they realize they are mere infants in the eyes of God.
We sometimes have a chuckle at how our children, from teenagers right down to toddlers, will act so grown-up—as if they’re already way ahead of us. They’ve got it all figured out! At least, they think they do.
But we know better.
We know some of the hard realities that lie ahead—realities that haven’t even enter into their consciousness yet.
Don’t you think God feels the same way about us?
We walk around thinking of ourselves as mature adults. Or at least, trying to pretend we’re mature adults. We figure we’ve got some experience under our belts. And whether or not we actually feel confident inside, we try to project an air of confidence so that others will think we’ve got it all figured out.
Becoming like children
We don’t have it all figured out.
What we know compared to what we don’t know is like a drop of water compared to the ocean. And the sooner we realize that, admit it, and live as if it were true, the better off we’ll be. Because as long as we think we’ve got it all figured out, we’re exactly like those little kids who think they’re all ready to run the show.
As soon as we realize that God is the one who has it all figured out, and that we are like children in the eyes of God, we can begin the process of growing up. We can become God’s children, willing to be led by God every day and every moment, just as our children are willing to be led by us—in their better moments.
And though we don’t always do a perfect job of leading our children, if we look to God as our divine Parent, and do what God leads us to do, we can have complete faith that God will show us the right path to the kingdom of heaven.
(This article is an edited version of a talk originally delivered on May 21, 2000, when I was still an active father of young children!)
For further reading:
- How Can I Raise My Children from a Spiritual Perspective?
- Noah’s Ark: A Sea Change in the Human Mind
- What is a Parent’s Role in the Spiritual Life of Adult Children?
- If We Don’t Have Children while Alive, Will We Be Able to Have Children in the Afterlife?
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?
Good insights and analysis here.
We mere mortals can also be careful not to think we can know God’s way of thinking. God’s ways are truly very far above man’s. Best to live a loving life filled with loving actions in addition to our faith.
Agreed! While we can sometimes see a little way into the workings of God, for the most part our job is to make sure to live the way Jesus taught us to live.
In answer to the question of why God doesn’t allow us to see what God is doing until after the fact, Swedenborg said that if we did see what God was doing in our life while God was doing it, we would continually fight against God’s work in us because what God wants for us is diametrically opposed to what we naturally want for ourselves.
We want to be rich, famous, powerful, sexy, and all sorts of other physical and self-centered things. God wants us to be loving, kind, self-denying at critical times, and a servant to others rather than someone whom others serve. We want to put ourselves and our own interests, pleasure, and power first. God wants us to put God and other people first.
So God doesn’t let us see what God is doing in our life because if we did see it we would get very angry at God for opposing everything we want for ourselves, and we would fight tooth and nail against what God is doing in our life.
However, we can often look back on our lives and see what God was doing in the midst of things that we considered a disaster at the time. The ruin of our own plans for our life is often precisely what sets us on a higher and better course than we would have taken if we had gotten our own way and had been successful in our own plans.
Thanks Lee for your reply. As we’ll, it is often hard to see God’s hand in things while these are occurring. The cynic in me thinks that the price of God’s glory is often paid in the currency of human suffering. The process of life and of growth is a difficult one.
I agree a lot with the points in this article. Although some of our earthly goals are undoubtedly worth fighting to achieve while we’re in the material world (defeating the Nazis in World War II, battling discrimination, combatting poverty, etc.), I think how sad God must be seeing some of the things we’re willing to tear each other apart over.
Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, the things we do here on earth do have meaning. They are what build the character, good or bad, that we carry with us into eternity. Still, many of the things we focus on here on earth really aren’t all that important in the larger scheme of things.
Did Swedenborg ever say when life begins? Is it a gradual process?
I think it begins sometime in the womb, but I don’t know when.
This is a much-debated question. The two “classical” Swedenborgian positions on this are either that life begins at conception or that life begins with the first breath. That is, if by “life” you mean when a person first has a soul that will continue to live eternally in the spiritual world.
I have come to favor a different view, which is that the soul, while present from birth, becomes eternally “viable” about the same time the fetus becomes viable such that it can live and breathe outside the womb. For fuller discussions of this, please see my comments here and here in response to questions on this subject from other readers. (The links are directly to my comments. If you wish, you can scroll up to read the question or thread leading up to these responses.)
Thanks for the reply.
I think another possibility is that life begins when consciousness arises.
And if you know when consciousness arises, I’m sure there is an Ivy League university that would be happy to have you as the dean of its philosophy department.
Very well said, Lee! I personally believe that Heaven will be the best parts of both childhood and adulthood. A life that is at once innocent and full of happiness, growth, discovery and fun, but also autonomy, productivity and wisdom. I would like to think that God is proud of me for, or at least smiles on the fact that, no matter how productive an adult I become, I still hold on to and treasure the innocence, curiosity, and love of life that I had as a child. Maintaining that childlike outlook, even as an adult, is a good antidote to pessimism and nihilism, in my opinion.
Beautiful thoughts. Thanks!