I’m not very good at Lent. My wife is much more self-disciplined, and is steadily working her way through the “40 Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer” we intended to use during Lent this year. I have not kept up, but we did have an interesting talk about today’s entry.
Bonhoeffer writes: “Who is pure in heart? Only those who have completely given their hearts to Jesus, so that he alone rules in them. Only those who do not stain their hearts with their own evil, but also not with their own good. A pure heart is the simple heart of a child, who does not know about good and evil, the heart of Adam before the fall, the heart in which the will of Jesus rules instead of one’s own conscience…”
This idea of “child-like faith” is something I regularly come back to with questions. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways.” Irrespective of what Paul is actually discussing here (spiritual gifts), he is using a clear analogy of something well accepted: that children need to grow up, and that this is good. Children cannot communicate as readily, cannot think as logically, cannot weigh up decisions as carefully.
So then what of Jesus, in Luke 18? “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Does this mean that we are not to put our minds to work when we encounter the mysteries of the universe, not to mention the complexities of the Bible? Is John Polkinghorne wasting his time? Is it better to just unquestioningly accept something in “faith”? This is certainly how some people see it.
Yet, anyone who has actually met a child knows how curious they really are. Curiosity and questions are far more a child-like trait than an adult one, and those who seem to stay happy and “young at heart” are usually those who have managed to incorporate curiosity, adventure and play into their grown-up lives.
So what does it mean to have child-like faith, rather than a childish one? (It was Katherine who struck the nail on the head here).
Jesus specifically mentions receiving the kingdom of God, like a child being given a gift. This is certainly an area in which children excel but adults fail dismally. For a child, pretty much everything they have – clothing, protection, every meal, toys – is a gift, and all they need to do is accept it with open hands. We adults are appalling at receiving gifts. It is almost always tainted with panicked thoughts of reciprocation; “is this birthday present better than the one I got for them? Did I even remember their birthday?!”. Our minds immediately jump to the ways in which we can pay someone back, ruining the joy of simply accepting something with gratefulness. Somehow we’ve been conditioned to believe this is all “good manners”.
And yet this is anathema to the gospel, which insists that there is nothing you can do to deserve, earn or work off your salvation; it is a gift you must learn to accept with open arms.
So, let’s not use “child-like faith” as an excuse for dumbing down, for not using our brains, for not wrestling with difficult theology. But let’s remember that ultimately, you cannot “return the favour” of forgiveness.