Children of God: Childlike or Childish?

Overheard, two pastors talking:

Well, if this amendment passes, I can tell you one thing.  My church isn’t going to pay its apportionments this year!

What?  You mean if you disagree with the decision you’d withhold apportionments?  That’s kind of childish, isn’t it?

Hey, I’m not childish.  I’m childlike.

amd_kidUm, no, you’re childish.  The “if I can’t have my way I will hold my breath till I turn blue” school of thought simply isn’t an option for the 5-and-older crowd.  It’s like confusing innocence and ignorance, or simple with simplistic.  Bad behavior doesn’t become good behavior just because we mislabel it.  There is a lot of childish behavior in the church.  Jesus injunction, “Unless you become like one of these little children you cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” is an invitation to an openness, purity, and trust that we are born with, not permission to act like spoiled brats.

For the past few months I have been reading the delightful OZ books by L. Frank Baum.  Having grown up watching the Judy Garland 1939 MGM wizard_title_pageversion of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I always wanted to read the whole series of 14 OZ tales, but it took me fifty years to do it.  They are an impressive collection of fantasy stories, but most impressive is the way Baum chooses to focus on the best of human nature as embodied by children (and anthropomorphised inanimate objects…).  Among the very best childlike qualities Baum highlights are trust, innocence, loyalty, sense of adventure, imagination, commitment to play, and an insatiable passion to learn.  The dark side of childishness is also evident: selfishness, pouting, tantrums, cruelty, bullying, and crankiness when over-tired.  It has been impossible for me to read these books without seeing the church — and the ways we behave as the church — on almost every page.

Trust, Innocence, and Loyalty

Baum’s children are always trusting, but rarely naive; innocent, but not ignorant; and loyal without being gullible.  They are ideal friends, companions, and partners.  Too often we disdain these simple and sweet qualities because we understand that there are unscrupulous characters everywhere seeking to take advantage of such goodness.  Yet, they are the cornerstone of a childlike and pure faith.  To believe in the fundamental goodness of others, to seek to forge lasting bonds of friendship, to be willing to sacrifice and share with and for others — these are qualities we cherish when we see them in children… and they are the characteristics of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.  Certainly, trust can be violated, innocence sullied, and loyalties betrayed, but what is done to us by others in no way diminishes what we are willing to extend to others.  But children are not doormats.  Healthy children set boundaries, and won’t tolerate the childishness (or evil) of others to define them.  They are open, committed, and faithful to those who reciprocate.  Therein lies the pathway to true community.

Adventure, Imagination, Play, & Learning

The joy of waking up to each new day is a hallmark of childhood (at least during the summer or on Saturdays…).  Life is a continuous unfolding of new experiences, challenges and opportunities.  The childlike nature is that of the explorer, the pioneer, the scientist, and the inventor.  When faced with the ordinary and the mundane, children will create a whole universe 01kidsof interesting delights.  To see the world as possibility and promise rather than burden and obligation is an essential component of childlike wonder.  Children don’t have to be taught to play or use their imagination — interestingly, a significant part of “teaching them to grow up” is an attempt on the part of adults to stifle the sense of play and the unbridled use of imagination.  It is one of the beautiful ironies of Jesus’ gospel message that the key to abundant and eternal life rests in returning to a state that we work our entire lives to outgrow!

Too see life as the gift it is intended to be is an art that we must practice each and every day.  However, it isn’t something we have to learn, but merely remember.  To be childlike is to return to the simplicity of life.  It may not be the life we experienced — many children are forced to grow up much to quickly by dysfunctional families and tragic events — but it is a life we intuitively understand.  And for many people, it is a life they deeply desire.  Much nostalgia finds root in nothing more than a desire to experience a simpler, freer, kinder, gentler world.  The greatest challenge to the recovery of a childlike state are the incredible number of people who confuse “childlike” with “childish.”  They miss the point, miss the joy, and make life a little more miserable for everyone.

Selfishness, Pouting & Tantrums

brat“No!” and “Mine!” are two of the strongest commands in the toddler language.  Getting what one wants, having what one wants, and keeping what one wants — at any cost — are prevalent qualities of most selfish children (and many Americans…).  Beyond material possessions, children learn very early how to extend selfishness into the sphere of relationships — developing skills at manipulation, bribery, and emotional blackmail.  When children overuse these “skills” and retain them into adolescence, we view them as signs of immaturity.  When they extend into adulthood, we see them as evidence of deep dysfunction — and they can literally tear apart any kind of community.  I have a friend named Chris who I have known since seminary.  He is a champion for gay rights and the equal and inclusive treatment of all people.  But Chris chooses to wrap himself in the mantle of victimhood rather than servanthood.  Everything becomes about him — if anyone disagrees with him, he feels disrespected.  If people won’t listen to him, he is being discriminated against.  If people oppose his views, they are bigots and homophobes.  If he doesn’t get his way, he claims that people are doing violence to him and he stomps away, indignant.  He protects himself by pretending that people don’t like him “because he’s gay,” ignoring the fact that what people dislike about him is his immaturity.  When Chris gets what he wants, he’s fine.  When he doesn’t, he draws all kinds of negative attention to himself — reinforcing his own view that the world is against him, taking no responsibility for his own actions, and coming out discouraged and disheartened that he is the victim of an unkind and uncaring church and world.  Such childishness undermines true community, and places the needs/wants of an individual above those of the whole group.  Just as occasions where a child “acts up” and draws all attention to him or herself, such actions on the part of childish adults are grabs for attention and an attempt to use emotional blackmail to get ones own way.  There is no place in the church for such behavior, but how many times do we see it occur?

Bullying, Cruelty, and Crankiness When Tired

If selfish and self-serving behavior is destructive, the more extreme forms of bullying and cruelty are absolutely devastating.  Much of human history has been defined by the more powerful oppressing and doing violence to the less powerful.  Generally, this power is exercised in cruel, hateful, hurtful ways.  What is interesting is that it becomes a model for the weak to emulate — children who are abused by adults are often abusers of those smaller, weaker, and less able to defend themselves.  These smaller, weaker individuals seek even more defenseless victims, who feel they have no recourse but to fight back using any means possible.  We often misuse Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” to describe such behavior, but no self-respecting animal would act in such a fashion.  It basically belongs to us humans — employed by the least mature among us.  It doesn’t limit itself to physical violence, either.  Gossip, power plays, telling lies, spreading malicious rumors, tattling (to the District Superintendent?), making others look bad (or taking credit for what others do), threatening… the list goes on and on.  Bad behavior, generally justified by the perpetrator as necessary to “teach someone a lesson,” or to “set right a wrong.”  In the first church I served, a middle-aged woman befriended every new member, got them to share confidential information, which she then used to discredit, shame, or manipulate them.  She used to get “volunteers” to help her with projects by threatening to share what she knew about their private lives if they didn’t help.  When we confronted her with her bad behavior, she literally could not understand that she was doing anything wrong.  Her classic line was, “I’ll use any means necessary to do the work of the Lord!”  (Heaven help us all!!)  Bullying and cruelty cannot be defended under any circumstances in Christian community.  Only through a gross misreading of scripture can we justify violence, cruelty, or unjust behavior.

Lastly, nothing is less charming than an over-tired child.  The surly, cranky, selfish, off-putting behavior of exhausted children can try the patience of even the most saintly adult.  I save this for last because in over twenty years of mediation and conflict work I believe that exhaustion and burn out are the leading causes of unpleasant, childish behavior in congregations.  People bicker, and snipe, and snark, and argue, and insult each other because they don’t have anything more interesting or exciting to do.  Any change will require effort, and many in the church are “too tired” to face any significant challenge.  In those cases, what is needed is a time out.  But rather than make everyone go sit in a corner or lay their heads down on a desk, people in church leadership most often need retreat, silence, time to pray, to talk about their faith (not the demands of the institutional church), to discuss scripture, to vision, to listen, and to go outside and play for awhile.  I regularly recommend a moratorium on meetings — suggesting that congregations that feel stuck take a few months off, replacing business meetings with Bible study, problem-solving with prayer, and planning with play.  Shifting the focus from the task to rebuilding relationships helps people to remember why they come to church in the first place.  Putting God and each other back in the center offers an opportunity to recover some childlike grace — building trust, loyalty, imagination, a sense of adventure and play — and to escape some of the drudgery that leads to childish acting out — bullying, fighting, protecting turf, and just plain old crankiness.

The future belongs to the healthy children among us.  What are you doing to bring your inner child to the surface?  (The good one, not the spoiled brat…)

3 replies

  1. We have such difficulty in growing out of childish tendencies while retaining childlike ones. The issue of being childlike is foreign to us as adults. I pray that we will learn to be like children again.

  2. its interesting how often we feel justified to bring out the righteous indignation when in retrospect its probably our inner (bratty) child acting out…

    thanks again for speaking truth to the root of the issues we all face as children of God…

  3. OMG! You have described someone in our Annual Conference in your description of Chris. This person allows no room for any kind of dialogue because if you don’t accept her just as she is you are evil and unfair. She intentionally raises the sexuality issue in whatever setting she finds herself, knowing that people will disagree with her, and when they do, she’s offended! She has alienated dozens of people who are on her side and sympathetic with her pain, but who just don’t want to have to deal with her hystrionics. She manages to ruin everyone else’s good feelings because she feels so bad herself. Thank you for describing this behavior and naming it for what it truly is!

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