“Dad, when am I going to be a big boy?” my son Moses asked on a recent father-son outing. “Oh, in a few years,” I said. “Humph! That’s going to take forever!” he retorted from his car seat in a way that communicated his utter disgust. Having childlike faith doesn’t mean celebrating childish thinking.
This isn’t the first time we’ve had this discussion. My son is very aware of his smallness and cannot wait to be a “big boy.” (However, he did tell me he wasn’t going to have a beard when he’s a big kid since he doesn’t want a hairy face.) He longs to grow up, be big, and start doing things like his daddy.
Faith Like a Child?
“Childlike” isn’t a new term to anyone familiar with Christian thinking and practice. We’re often directed to passages like Mark 10:14: “Let the children come to me,” Jesus says. “Do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” The point: we should be childlike in our faith, trusting our heavenly Father the way a kid trusts his earthly parents.
The notion of childlike faith, though, is often morphed into something more troubling. I’ve often heard Christians rebut tough questions to the faith flippantly: “I don’t know; I mean, aren’t we supposed to have faith like a child? No one can know everything; we just need to leap like a child into our Father’s arms.” Or something like that.
Sadly, in this context, “childlike faith” becomes like tar slapped on the pruned tree branch to prevent further growth. If there’s a problem in our understanding, or if we venture into uncharted theological waters, we can always retreat to the Neverland of childlike faith.
Childlike Faith vs. Childish Faith
But childlike faith is not childish faith. The first resonates with and embraces the neediness, dependency, and smallness of those who understand their place in the kingdom of God. The second simply refuses to grow up.
Over and over again in the New Testament we see the apostles exhort Christians to mature as Christians—to grow up in the gospel. Paul exhorts the church in Corinth toward Christian maturity, insisting that the apostolic wisdom he imparts will be grasped by the “mature [teleiois]” (1 Cor. 2:6). Later he writes: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature [teleioi]” (1 Cor. 14:20).
Paul isn’t contradicting Jesus’s teaching about becoming like a child in order to inherit God’s kingdom. He’s simply recognizing that having childlike faith doesn’t mean celebrating childish thinking. In fact, he informs the Colossians that the focus and aim of his ministry is maturity:
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature [teleion] in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Col. 1:28–29)
Embracing childlike faith means we accept that Christ’s call to kingdom greatness looks like service and not harsh ruling, meekness and not selfish ambition, and continual dependence on God’s grace. Anyone who has pursued service, meekness, and dependence will tell you these characteristics don’t come easily to sinners. In fact, true childlike faith sees the necessity of growth in these areas and turns to the one source of life and strength for help.
It takes theologically driven, Spirit-empowered wisdom and maturity to excel in these things. May we grow out of childish faith into childlike faith—faith that makes our Father in heaven look great.