Jesus called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 18:3)
This is surely one of the most challenging and puzzling statements made by Jesus.
So it was an inspiring challenge to talk on this at a Christian Medical Fellowship breakfast at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health annual scientific meeting in Liverpool. Here’s a little synopsis of some of the key points we discussed together.
If becoming like a little child is an absolute prerequisite to entering the kingdom of heaven, what does it mean to change and become like little children?
Although there were a lot of qualities identified (fun, innocence, trust, wonder, creativity, exploration, dependency…) I chose to focus on three essential qualities of little children:
Children are vulnerable: dependent on their parents/carers; not independent.
They are themselves, they haven’t put up masks.
They need nurture, protection, care
That, perhaps is our starting point if we are to ‘enter the kingdom of heaven’: we may end up in a state of vulnerability/humility because of our circumstances: bereavement, illness, burn-out… Or we may choose to embrace such vulnerability/humility. Perhaps that is what Jesus meant by saying ‘take up your cross’. We can choose to open ourselves up to the pains of our hurting world.
Whichever route we take, it will be painful. We have to acknowledge that we are dependent, that we can’t solve everything – either for ourselves or for others
For me, two important parts of my journey have been my time in Cambodia in the early 1990s: coming face to face with suffering, poverty, exploitation and injustice in a way that was truly heart-breaking and with which I was forced to acknowledge that I was powerless to change; and then the very personal vulnerability I experienced in 2011-12 when I experienced a mini-stroke and then, six months’ later, the sudden and unexpected death of my first wife, Helen.
However, both those periods, and particularly the latter were also times when I experienced an overwhelming awareness of my own belovedness: recognising that I am a beloved child of God, and that, even through all the pain and turmoil, I could know the security of being loved.
And that is the second key child-like quality that I think is an essential prerequisite of being a part of God’s kingdom: unless something is seriously wrong with their parents, all children are beloved. Every new parent believes their baby is beautiful. I see that time and time again when I spend time with families, even with families who are going through really challenging circumstances: almost without exception it is abundantly clear that they love their children, and in those rare cases where that isn’t present, it is very clear that something is seriously wrong.
The third essential quality of a child is that they are always changing: growing and developing; they do not stay still. Children develop: physically, mentally, socially, spiritually. And that can happen safely when they are loved, and out of a starting point of vulnerability. So we, too, if we are to be a part of God’s kingdom can’t stagnate and think that we’ve made it. We need to change, to be transformed.
And we, who with unveiled faces, all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)
So where does the bottom shuffling come in? This excerpt from Growing up to be a child sums it up:
As a paediatrician, I am often referred young children who are delayed in their development, including those who are slow in learning to walk. Sometimes there is a genuine underlying medical disorder preventing them from acquiring those skills. These children typically fall into one of two broad groups: those with low muscle tone (hypotonia) and those with high muscle tone (hypertonia).
Children with hypotonia have weak, floppy muscles which are unable to support their weight effectively. We find this, for example, in children with Down syndrome. Those with hypertonia, such as children with some forms of cerebral palsy, have stiff, inflexible muscles. They find it equally difficult to walk, but for different reasons: their muscles, though stiff, are still weak, and they cannot easily achieve the coordination and balance to stand upright.
When I am assessing a young child’s ability to stand and walk, I need to provide him with support and a stable base so he feels secure. In order to do this, I typically sit or kneel on the floor, with the child sitting between my legs, his back to me. When the child is sitting like that, he feels secure and safe. Those with high muscle tone often relax, enabling me to move their legs and assess the muscle strength.
Once I have the child properly relaxed, I will gently lift him to a more upright position, his trunk still supported against me, my arms around him, keeping him from falling. In that position, the child can feel secure and is able to take some weight on his legs, perhaps even taking some preliminary, supported steps.
I often think of God being like that with me. In my spiritual development, I may feel weak and hypotonic, unable to stand up in the face of difficult challenges. Or I may try too hard, my hypertonic spiritual muscles getting in the way of my attempts to go forward. I may feel insecure and afraid of falling or getting things wrong, or I may have already been hurt by life’s events and be feeling a bit bruised and battered. In all those situations, I picture God as a heavenly paediatrician, holding me securely in his embrace, giving me the strength and courage to take those first, tentative steps.
That is the picture conveyed by Hosea’s passionate words of God’s love for the people of Israel: ‘It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms’. God is someone we can trust, who will not let us fall. Secure in God’s loving embrace, we can step out, even into the hardest of situations.
But we need to take those steps. Often, with children I assess for developmental delay, there is no underlying medical problem. It is simply that they are taking longer than other children to get there.
One of the commonest reasons for this delay is children who, instead of learning to walk, are quite happy shuffling about on their bottoms. These ‘bottom-shufflers’ can sometimes get about at incredible speeds. They are quite content being able to explore their world from the secure base of their bottoms. Why bother to stand up and risk getting hurt if you can get about satisfactorily on your bottom?
We, in our spiritual lives, may be similar. We are content to stay on our bottoms, accepting a gentle and non-threatening spirituality. But God doesn’t want us to stay there. He wants us to stand, to walk, to run. We need to take the risk. We need to step out and accept the falls and bumps that brings, secure in the knowledge of God’s overarching love for us.
And, like a young toddler learning to walk, when we do fall over, we don’t need to stay there. God gives us both the ability and the motivation to get up and walk again.
 Hosea 11:3.