There's something beautiful and innocent about the answers children give. Why? Children simply speak the truth—as best as they understand it. I love these answers that some kids gave to questions about the Bible. See if they don't prompt a grin:
- "Noah's wife was named Joan of Ark."
- "The fifth commandment is, 'Humor thy father and thy mother.'"
- "Lot's wife was a pillar of salt by day and a ball of fire by night."
- "A Christian can have only one wife. This is called monotony."
Aren't those answers great? Is there anyone more playful, naive, innocent, or unassuming than a child? Kids are unimpressed with someone's title, salary, or education. They don't envy the clothes you wear or the car you drive. Only adults are mesmerized by those things.
The world's view of children is that they should be seen and not heard. God's view, however, is just the opposite. He sees their value and their worth.
It's no wonder, then, that the Lord chose a child as an illustration when answering a question about greatness. Matthew frames the question this way:
"The disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?'" (Matthew 18:1)
Do you know why the Twelve asked Jesus that question? Because they had been arguing among themselves which of them was the greatest (Mark 9:34). Now, picture this. To answer their question, Jesus called a little child "and put the child among them. Then he said, 'I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven'" (Matthew 18:2–3).
Can you picture twelve jaws dropping as Jesus gave His answer? This response was not what the disciples expected. They saw children as incidentals, as noisy interruptions, and as unimportant (Mark 10:13–15). Certainly not as anything great! Jesus turned that notion on its head. "Unless you turn," Jesus told them. You see, the Twelve were moving in the wrong direction. Their misguided idea of greatness led them to the wrong conclusions about God's kingdom. It's as if Jesus said, "Unless you allow me to turn you around, you're going to miss the truth you're asking about the Kingdom of Heaven."
What did Jesus mean by telling them that they needed to "become like little children"? There are numerous characteristics of children Jesus could have pointed to. Here are four I have observed:
- Children have an innocence about them. By that I'm referring to an absence of a calloused conscience. I don't mean they're sinless. I mean they are trusting and often naive. We have to teach them to not trust everyone.
- Children have an ability to wonder. Before adulthood steals away curiosity and creativity, a child is full of questions.
- Children truly forgive. Even though treated harshly, often ignored, and occasionally even abused, kids have an amazing ability to let love overshadow the insults.
- Children are who they are. There is no pretense, no show, no phony-baloney.
Are you ready for this? Jesus chooses none of those characteristics as the childlike quality essential for true greatness. Jesus continues: "So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 18:4)
Jesus selected humility as the fundamental quality of greatness.
Let me ask you: do you see a humble child as the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? I'll be honest. That perspective is one I must continually remind myself of—daily. Why? Like you, I live in a world that values power, pride, money, and a quick wit.
You want to be great? You want to make a lasting impact? You want to make a significant contribution? I don't think that's a bad ambition—if we're talking true greatness. Here are two suggestions, beginning right where Jesus said to begin:
First, stay in touch with children. Don't let children get squeezed out of your life. As I have become a grandfather and a great-grandfather, I have come to realize more than ever the impact I can have in the lives of children—as well as the impact they can have on me. If you have an occasion to spend an evening with someone great or with someone small, choose the latter. You will learn more from that child, and you will invest more in him or her too.
Second, ask God to cultivate in you a genuine, childlike humility. Ask Him to deflate your ego, to release your grip on fierce competitiveness, and to soften your harsh words. Begin to say (and mean) what children say—words like: please, may I? thank you, I'm sorry, I forgive you, and of course, I love you. Childlike qualities are qualities of humility. They are qualities of Christ.
It's not without reason we are called God's children. All of us who have come to God did so by a humble confession:
Lord Jesus Christ, I come as a child. I bring nothing to commend myself. I have no worthy achievements to offer you. I come by faith alone to the cross where you died for me. I give You my heart, my will, my life.
That, my friend, is humility.
In our sophisticated, fast-moving, pressurized world, we need to come back again to what truly matters—to the qualities of childlike humility. We need to lose greatness in the eyes of the world and become truly great in the kingdom of heaven.