“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-4).
From the perspective of one who sees progress and personal growth as very linear concepts, this idea of becoming as a child might seem very backwards. Especially if you intend, like Paul, to “put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11). These ideas should give us pause, especially since the Savior himself says that unless we “become as little children, [we] shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” That’s heavy stuff. He’s not messing around.
There is, of course, a lot of speculation on these verses already. Most of the conversation regarding these verses usually revolves around the key word humility. While it is certainly worthwhile to discuss what humility means in this context and how it relates to both children and heavenly characteristics, I want to discuss another attribute that I think is implied in the way God advises us to look to children for examples of who to emulate.
But before we get to that, I think looking at the word conversion is necessary. The verse reads, “be converted, and become as little children…” What is it about conversion that demands childlike attributes? And what attributes of a child should we adopt?
Obviously, as I said before, humility is the logical go-to. The very next verse says, “humble [yourself] as this little child.” And yes, it is natural that as part of our conversion process we realize our dependence upon God for salvation (who is a father figure himself), much as a child relies on her parents for survival. This can be a very humbling epiphany. Obtaining the knowledge that God is the Father of our spirits can also be a humbling experience in itself. But I think something else is meant to happen to the devout disciple upon conversion that is almost universally, but not always exclusively, a childlike attribute. And I think the word we should be looking at is authenticity. Let’s consider children from this perspective.
Children are very authentic about their personalities. Who they are comes out naturally. Grownups often have a difficult time with this because we’ve internalized a fear of rejection, a fear that for whatever reason we won’t be found good enough.
But it’s easy to see that children are their true selves. They haven’t yet learned what it means to be rejected for who they are. I would argue that this is a divine quality because to practice this as an adult can take great amounts of courage. In an adult, this kind of authenticity is at once very bold and very humble.
I also think that the humility it takes to be that authentic about yourself is closely tied to charity, or the pure love of Christ. People who are very true to themselves, who know and understand who they are, usually have the love and generosity to expect nothing from others except their best authentic selves.
This calls to mind the way the word Namaste is used in yoga communities: “the light in me acknowledges the light in you,” or another way I’ve heard it described, “the best version of me acknowledges the best version of you.”
Why might God want us to be our most authentic selves?
First of all, to come to the understanding of our relationship with God as the Father of our spirits requires that we acknowledge the divine within us—that we are children of God, beings of unlimited potential. When we are our most authentic selves, I believe we are being true to that eternal identity. From this perspective, when Jesus invites us to be as little children he’s essentially asking us to forget what anyone else has told us about who we are, to forget the labels and the limitations that society places upon us at birth, to forget all the voices in our heads telling us that we aren’t good enough or pretty enough or smart enough, and listen to this truth—that we are God’s children. We are divine. Now doesn’t that truth make you want to be a force for good in the universe? That’s one of the reasons why I think an authentic life is important to God.
Another reason why I think authenticity is important to God is that it facilitates the inquisitive spirit. People who are authentic and guileless aren’t afraid to ask questions and earnestly seek out truth, which I think is also an attribute of children that adults could do a better job of emulating. It can be humbling to admit failure, ignorance, or wrongdoing.
I also think that in many ways God wants us to be our most authentic selves for the sake of our emotional health. Children do not bottle up their emotions. When they feel something, they express it immediately. Now I’m not proposing that adults should throw tantrums in the supermarket along with their children. But what if we found healthy outlets for emotional stress? What if we permitted ourselves to laugh more often? Or cry more often? I think the way of the disciple should include authentically expressing emotion because, after all, we see plenty of scriptural examples of the Savior experiencing the whole range of human emotions. He did not hold back from crying in front of people:
“…and he said unto them: Blessed are ye because of your faith. And now behold, my joy is full. And when he had said these words, he wept, and the multitude bare record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them. And when he had done this he wept again; And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones” (3 Nephi 17:20-23).
We also have an interesting account of Jesus expressing anger. This scripture is also worth pointing out, since we’re on the subject of finding healthy ways to express our emotions:
“…and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small chords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise” (John 2:13-15).
What I want to point out here is that even though Jesus was angry, he did not act impulsively out of anger. He went and made a whip first out of leather chords, which might have taken some time, then he chased out all of the merchants’ livestock with it. I think the lesson to be learned here is not to act immediately on our anger, but instead think of the best way to deal with what makes us angry and act accordingly. I say this specifically to counter anyone’s justifications for violent or abusive behavior. There is never an excuse for that.
Why would Jesus say that being childlike is necessary for salvation?
I hope it’s not too facetious of me, but I’m not going to directly answer that question. Instead, I want to offer some food for thought that will hopefully encourage you to find that answer for yourself.
Don Miguel Ruiz, a Toltec spiritualist wrote in his Book The Four Agreements about the process by which people are indoctrinated into the shared beliefs of the world. It is also the process by which people limit themselves from being authentic and put on a façade, of sorts, to try to protect themselves from getting hurt. He calls it “the domestication of humans.” He says:
“we start acting. We pretend to be what we are not because we are afraid of being rejected. The fear of being rejected becomes the fear of not being good enough. Eventually we become someone we are not. We become a copy of Mamma’s beliefs, Daddy’s beliefs, society’s beliefs, and religion’s beliefs… The domestication is so strong that at a certain point in our lives we no longer need anyone to domesticate us. We don’t need Mom or Dad, the school, or church to domesticate us. We are so well trained that we are our own domesticator… We can now domesticate ourselves according to the same belief system we were given, and using the same system of punishment and reward. We punish ourselves”
I have heard it said many times in Mormon sermons that the people who go the highest order of heaven are the people who will be most comfortable there, effectually stating that only those already willing to live a heavenly lifestyle on earth will truly appreciate what it means to live in God’s presence. If this is true, then it’s possible that we have a lot of work to do as far as unlearning a lot of the things that we’ve taken for granted throughout our lives. Since we were children we’ve been indoctrinated in a million different ways. How much of it is true? How much of it is detrimental to our truest selves as spiritual beings of divine potential? If you were to be confronted by the person you were when you were a child would you feel saddened by the person you’ve become? If the child that Jesus called over and sat down in front of you was your younger self, and you heard Jesus say, “you need humble yourself as this little child,” what would you change?