Many Christians know that Jesus said that we should have the faith of a child. But what does Jesus mean by this comparison?
Some have taken Jesus to be advocating simplicity in faith. According to them, we shouldn’t think too much about Christianity. Deep theology is a liability to true faith.
But that is certainly the wrong idea. To be sure, the Bible does use this metaphor this way, but not as a compliment: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child” (Hebrews 5:12–13).
The childlike faith Jesus requires, then, is not simplicity. It is humility.
This is evident in the context of Jesus’s words. In Matthew 18, the disciples ask him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Unstated in their question, but certainly assumed, is that one of them is the greatest.
Their expectation was that, when they get to Jerusalem, Jesus was going to establish his earthly Kingdom. So their question is essential, “Who’s going to be the prime minister? Secretary of state? Who’s going to have the highest rank in the Kingdom?”
The question betrays their hearts. They are ambitious and arrogant.
In response, Jesus calls a small child in front of them and says, “Truly, I say to 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.”
First, notice how stinging this rebuke is. They are debating how prominent they will be in the Kingdom. Jesus warns them that apart from humility, they won’t even enter the Kingdom.
And second, the story makes clear the point of the comparison with a child: it is humility. The point is not that children are always models of being humble. The point is that children are objectively humble. They have nothing about which to boast.
We need to be careful here. Our culture is very different from that Jesus’s day. We tend to exalt children as paragons of innocence and wisdom. Such a notion is foreign to Scripture.
In a culture that saw children as offering nothing of value, Jesus’s words are shocking. His point is that we must see ourselves as those with nothing to boast about before God. We have no leverage in negotiating with God. God isn’t lucky to have us.
Instead, entry to the Kingdom is limited to those with the humility of a child, a child dependent for everything on his parents.
This makes us (as Matthew 18 goes on to explain) Jesus’s “little ones.” It helps us see how gently and kindly we are to treat our siblings in the faith. Truly, then, there is no Christianity where such humility is absent.