FAITH LIKE A CHILD
Written by Doug Ponder on September 4, 2016
Faith Like a Child?
“Oh to have faith like a child!”
That exclamation—part-confession and part-request—was a constant refrain in the churches where I grew up. At best, the call for “child-like faith” is a summons to trust Jesus more. At worst, however, it’s an endorsement of belief without proof—a kind of blind faith or wishful thinking or even unreasonable belief.
And that’s a problem. God never asks us to believe anything without proof. It can’t be said enough that faith in the Bible is a summons to trust Jesus—that is, to have confidence that he is who he says and that he has done/will do what he promised. There is not a single example of “blind faith” in the Bible.
What Jesus Really Says
Theeven bigger problem with encouraging people to have “child-like faith” is that we are asking others to do what Jesus never asks them to do: Jesus nowhere tells us to have faith like a child. It’s true! The closest Jesus comes to saying, “Have faith like a child,” is when he tells his followers that they must “become like children” (Matt 18:3). But in order to see what this means, we have to pay attention to the context of Jesus’ conversation.
Matthew records it for us:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Jesus called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. Then said: “Truly I tell you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-4)
So then, the call for us to “become like children” isn’t talking about faith. (Though faith is obviously important, as other Scriptures show.) Nor is Jesus calling us to be “fully present” or filled with wonder in every moment the way a child so often is. (Again, that’s good, but it’s not what Jesus meant when he told us to become like children.) When Jesus says we must “become like children,” he is talking about humility.
What Children Are Like
To be humble is what it means to become like a child. So why has the misnomer of “child-like faith” become popular in so many churches? Perhaps the biggest reason is that we don’t understand what it meant to be a child in that time and place.
When Jesus first spoke these words, to “become like children” did not have anything to do with innocent ignorance or wide-eyed wonder—the two things modern Western cultures most often associate with childhood. Instead, Jesus and his disciples lived in a culture where children had virtually no rights. That is the key to understanding what why Jesus uses a child as an example of humility (as the context makes clear).
Children didn’t have rights or privileges. Children couldn’t own property; they were property. Children were not well thought of or respected or even protected by the law in most places. (Greek and Roman parents could typically kill their children without penalty, for example.) Simply put, children occupied the lowest possible place in society. Even slaves had more rights than children.
How to Become Like Children
Now we see that to “become like children” means total dependence in complete humility. It means seeing ourselves as people who have no rights to demand and no privileges to boast in. It means that we place no value in ourselves—in what we have or what we do—instead, we possess value derivatively (through who Jesus is and what he has done for us). It means we see that every cent in the bank and every second on the clock don’t actually belong to us. And it means we know that our life is not our own, but belongs to the God who made us and redeemed us for himself (1 Cor 6:19-20).
All that is what it means to “become like children,” as Jesus says we must do, if we want to enter his kingdom.
But what about faith?! It’s true that we are saved by grace through faith, but faith always has an object—you always have faith in something. And the kind of faith that saves is faith in Jesus as he actually is. To have that kind of faith means you have become like a child: for you see that God is your Creator, your Father, your Provider, your Protector, your Savior, your Lord.
In other words, to have faith in Jesus means that you finally see that you really are God’s child, loved into existence through creation and then loved back into his arms through crucifixion and resurrection. That’s the only kind of “faith like a child” that carries God’s seal of approval, both now and forevermore.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.