Jesus told His followers that they were supposed to become like little children, yet Paul told his readers to stop acting like children.
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2–3)
But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
How can these seemingly contradictory passages be resolved?
As I bathed my baby recently, it occurred to me how heedless she was of her state of undress and total dependence. She had complete trust in me and in my care for her that transcended any concern she could have about her vulnerable state. This reminded me of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and how they were naked and not ashamed (Genesis 2:25) before God, until they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3). I believe this is the heart of what the Lord meant when He said that unless we become like little children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
How much more would God be glorified in our lives if we were as trusting and dependent on Him as my baby daughter is to me? We should go to Him for all our needs, knowing He doesn’t look on the outward man (1 Samuel 16:7), but on the heart—and He can even give us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26).
But then, what about verses that make statements like, “
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11)?
There is being like a child, acting like a child, and understanding as a child.
A few ideas need to be distinguished. There is being like a child, acting like a child, and understanding as a child. As we’ve seen, being like a child is a good thing in proper context. But what does it mean to act like a child? I’ve thought about this many times, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that children wear their emotions for everyone to see—good or bad (usually bad).
As adults, we learn instead to hide how we feel, or at least the full extent of our feelings. Do we still want to have attention paid to us, to have the best, and to be first? We would be lying to say otherwise, but we learn to control ourselves and allow others to benefit over us on occasion.1 To demonstrate: you are at a buffet and the person in front of you takes a large portion of the item you were going to get, leaving little or none for you. You probably would get annoyed. That person was selfish, inconsiderate, and, well, childish—and your inward response probably was childish, too. That is one reason why many buffets have a rule that parents must accompany children.
So children are sinners, but babies and toddlers often have a sort of honesty about them—they’ve not yet become skilled in deceiving others about how they really feel or what they really want. Childish actions reveal the sinful nature we inherit through Adam. Acting like a child, then, is not desirable, yet being like a child (in the sense of trusting) is.
It’s pretty clear that understanding like a child would be a bad thing for an adult. There are many complexities to life that take time and age to comprehend—not just physics and mathematics, but also the wisdom to deal with this fallen world. 1 Corinthians 14:20 hits the nail on the head. “
Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.”
So in our “outward” relationships to God our Father and to others, we are to be childlike (trusting and honest; not malicious), but not in our understanding (naive). Regarding what we take “in” from the world, we need to be wise, not carried off or tricked by others. Note that this wariness is necessitated by the fallen state of men, who desire to deceive. Ephesians 4:14 says “
that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.” This wariness is something that is generally lacking in children, as well as in unwise adults (a fact that is sadly taken advantage of by many).
So are we to be childlike? Well, yes and no. Just as Jesus said in Matthew 10:16, “
Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Is there a conflict there? Absolutely not! Be loving and dependent on your heavenly Father, whom you can trust, but be wary of the things of this world, where trust can be a dangerous thing.
How, then, do we gain understanding? Scripture tells us that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Psalm 111:10) and that we should hide God’s Word in our heart so we might not sin against Him (Psalm 119:11). Our knowledge of God through His Word will aid us in growing spiritually and resisting the deceit and dangers of this world—from others and even from our own deceitful hearts (Jeremiah 17:9). Regardless, these verses are not in contradiction.