One of my clearest memories of my early childhood was sitting at the bottom of the slide on the swing set in my back yard, on an Indian Summer’s day in early September. I noticed the big yellow school bus stop outside of my neighbor’s house to drop him off from Kindergarten, and the thought crossed my head, “when I’m in school next year, I’ll be so old!”
Throughout my life, whether in elementary, middle or high school, college or my first job, buying a house and getting married; I’ve always thought the next step would qualify me as positively grown up.
A couple years ago I remember telling my wife that I was concerned I’d never grow up, to which she responded that she thought I never would.
In a familiar scene from chapter 9 in the Gospel of Luke, we find the disciples arguing over who is the greatest among them. Christ responds with what seems, on its face, to be a rather perplexing solution: He takes a child by His side and says “whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you is the one who is great” (Luke 9:46-48).
This near-obsession with this notion of childhood, the presentation of a child as being supremely acceptable before God, is a strain that runs through the New Testament. The concept is particularly exemplified in the words of Christ. In the Gospels we’re presented with the veneration, in a way, of an ideal that can never again be matched even by those who strive with their whole hearts toward spiritual maturity.
Jesus said “let the children come to me” Matthew 19:14), and then insisted that unless we become like them, we’ll never really know Him. The Kingdom of God, He said, belongs to such as them. When Christ told Nicodemus in the Gospel of John that he must be born again, Nicodemus simply couldn’t wrap his head around it (John 3:4). For one, it was impossible. That was the given. But the underlying question may have been why this rabbi would revere, indeed treasure, a state in which human beings seem so helpless, so impractically optimistic, so immature and unaware of the world.
This idealization of a childlike state seems at first to contradict Paul’s admonition to put childish things behind us, a notion that C.S. Lewis clarifies in his defense of children’s literature. “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term,” he said, “cannot be adult themselves … When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.”
The fact of the matter is simple: The idea of adulthood is a dangerous one for young adults venturing out into “the real world,” whatever that may be. When we graduate from college, get a job and enjoy the legal benefits afforded to the post-21 crowd, we’re bombarded on a nearly moment-to-moment basis with opportunities. Often, we justify many of these opportunities implicitly or explicitly with the singular notion that “this is what adults do”—as though “this is what adults do” were on its own merit an appropriate justification for a thing.
Adulthood is potentially dangerous because it can create the false expectation that at some magic point we’ve got things pretty well figured out when, in reality, we’re adrift in a sea of people who are literally making it up as they go. As Christians living in a culture that tends to present opportunities counter to our identities in Christ—children of God, as we’re referred to time and again—the danger is that we may be influenced into believing the lie that the decisions we make are without the burden of consequence we could expect when we were younger. Using “adult” as C.S. Lewis described it, a term of approval, can beget the idea that adulthood carries a sense of gravitas lacked by childhood. Scripture makes it clear that this simply is not the case.
What does it mean to embrace the alternative as children of God? First, it means that we have a Father who holds us responsible for the decisions we make, but also one that will guide the confusing decision-making process the state of adulthood lends us. It means we have the protection of One who bears the very consequences of obedience to Him. Contrary to the dynamic of parent-child relationships, this is actually an incredibly freeing prospect.
When we embrace the child, as we are commanded to do, we can train ourselves to instinctively distrust the excuse that “this is what grown-ups do.” This allows us to react against the notion that we must grow up; that is, we’re actually afforded the right to reject the very concept of “growing up” without any further thought. Being childish isn’t the same as being childlike. One is a simple state of development and nothing more; the other is expressly required of us as Christians.
Finally, it bears mentioning that while all adults (our parents included) truly do make it up as they go along, for better or worse, traversing our world as young adults can present to us positive opportunities—opportunities that allow us to shepherd and encourage others in our churches and communities, even the wee ones or our own children who desperately want to grow up.
Chesterton once said that God “has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” And indeed, the veneration of the child makes perfect sense in this context: having been born again, we are sanctified as we approach the sinless nature of our Father, the Ancient of Days.
Brandon W. Peach