Bishop's Message

Doing away with childish things

Oct 2006    

DOES God intervene in the minutest details of our lives? Can we say that God knows all things, is interested in both the big as well as the small matters in life, but that He does not necessarily intervene in every situation, according to our wishes or expectations, because He is guided by His higher purposes?

It is possible for Christians to think of God in childish ways that prevent them from maturing in their faith. Now, there are some, like the German academic Uta Ranke-Heinemann who was expelled from teaching in a Roman Catholic university, who claim that Christian doctrine itself is childish. In her book, Putting Away Childish Things, Ranke-Heinemann hits out at major historical Christian doctrines as examples of childish myths that prevent people from understanding the true message of Jesus. I do not agree with her. The problem is not with historical Christian doctrine, but with the way Christians think and function in their daily lives – often in ways that are unbiblical and childish.

Take, for instance, a Christian who is interested only in his own comfort and security. He expects God to serve Him towards these ends. God becomes a “divine butler” at his beck and call, fulfilling his every whim and fancy, attending to his tiniest concerns and problems. When he loses his expensive pen, he expects God to immediately bring it up from some hidden corner. When he forgets his dinner ticket, he thinks that it is his right that God should intervene so that he can be allowed into the dining hall.

This is not to say that God is not watching every aspect of our lives or is not interested in every bit of it. But if our relationship with God is limited only to using Him for our own self-absorbed ends, and our concerns do not embrace His larger and eternal purposes, then, we may be trapped in immature forms of spirituality.

But why did Jesus say, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”? (Lk. 18:17)? The phrase “like a little child” does not mean that we have to be childish in order to become Christians or to remain as Christ’s disciples.

Martin Luther certainly understood this truth. In 1538, perhaps with a father’s exasperation, he looked at his six children, aged four to 12, and exclaimed, “Christ said we must become as little children to enter the kingdom. Dear God, this is too much. Must we become such idiots?” We can understand what Jesus meant by looking at other texts in Scripture. The Lord also said, “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18:4). What He meant was that there are some childlike qualities that resonate with the character of a Christian. We become like little children in certain ways; the Christian character should be built on the childlike quality of humility. But this is far from becoming childish. There is a difference between being childlike and being childish.

WAY TO MATURITY

‘Divine love and suffering find their focus in Christ, the One who suffered on the cross. The crucified Lord shows us the way to maturity and helps us to move out from our spiritual nurseries to the adult harvest fields in and around us. God wants us to grow up, to relate to him as adult children, not as childish infants, and to love Him, not use Him.’

CHRISTIAN theology has never idealised childishness. Even newborns are tainted with sin as Augustine accurately describes, “The feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant’s mind.” Augustine took his biblical bearings from Job 14:4-5 where we read: “for none is pure from sin before you, not even an infant of one day upon the earth” (Septuagint).

John Calvin also articulated similar thoughts on the classical Christian understanding of the condition of infants and children. He wrote: “Before we behold the light of the sun we are in God’s sight defiled and polluted” because of original sin, a position with which John Wesley agreed.

Such unflattering views of the condition of infancy and childhood should make us think more carefully about what our Lord said about being like children. What He taught is not a call to childishness but to childlike simplicity and humility. This is made clearer for us when we read what the apostle Paul wrote on a couple of occasions. After he had a life-changing encounter with the risen Christ, he spent some time in Arabia reviewing his religion and his understanding of the Old Testament.

He must have realised how childish and embarrassing his old Pharisaic zeal and legalistic expressions of faith were.

Paul considered childishness as having much to do with the way people think. In addressing controversies in the church regarding spiritual gifts, he pleaded, “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” (1 Cor. 14:20). Earlier he wrote, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (1 Cor. 13:11). Notice again how childishness has to do with the way we think and reason things out.

We can be childish in the way we think of God and relate with Him. The antidote to such Christian childishness is to consider two important biblical teachings – love and suffering. In the above passage in 1 Cor. 13, love is the sign of Christian maturity. We are being perfected in God’s love, not the sentimental modern notions of love, but the love that was demonstrated by Jesus. Maturity also has to do with suffering. Childish Christians do not think much of suffering except to escape them.

The disciples of Jesus who wanted to call fire down from heaven to judge the ungodly Samaritans who rejected their message (Lk. 9:51-56), later learned a more mature way to handle such situations (Acts 4:1-4). Through persecution and martyrdom, they discovered the way to grow deeper, wiser and holier in Christ.

Divine love and suffering find their focus in Christ, the One who suffered on the cross. The crucified Lord shows us the way to maturity and helps us to move out from our spiritual nurseries to the adult harvest fields in and around us. God wants us to grow up, to relate to him as adult children, not as childish infants, and to love Him, not use Him, and to use spiritual gifts and prayer not with childish fantasy but with Christian maturity, rooted in love and shaped by suffering.

REACH OUT

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