Living life with my four-year-old is, to put it mildly, an adventure. He has been the source of my laughter and my tears. My love and my worry. My admiration and my frustration. My excitement and my exhaustion. My pride and my embarrassment. I love that little boy more than I could ever put into words and I would do absolutely anything for him. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt the urge to check myself into an institution after some days with him.
There’s a passage in Matthew that I’ve found myself returning to over and over in my studies this past month. And after reading it, I’ve realized that there’s a lot I can learn from my little man.
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 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. 4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.” (Matthew 18:1-5)
I imagine the surprise and confusion on the disciples’ faces when Jesus responded to their question by pulling a little child to Him. A little kid – the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? People must become as little children to enter heaven? When I think about all the mistakes I made growing up – many out of sheer ignorance and lack of life experience – I shudder to think of returning to my youth. But that’s what Jesus wants us to do?
So what does it mean to become “humble as a little child”? I think about Jesus’ words all the time when interacting with my children, and two things have stood out to me lately in regards to those ‘child-like’ qualities that Jesus must have been referring to. And to my surprise, some of the very things that drive me absolutely insane are, I believe, some of the things God may be looking for.
Last night, my son followed my every step for at least fifteen minutes, asking me to tighten the Velcro strap on his tennis shoes. This is a job that he can do alone, mind you, but he insisted that I do it “better” than he does. I thought he would eventually get tired of asking me as I completed other task after other task and give in to do it himself, but he was relentless. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and I bent down and tightened the strap for him, sighing loudly as I did it. He just grinned and said, “Thank you, Mommy. You did a great job,” before he went on about his way. And I immediately felt ashamed of feeling so irritated by his little request.
Any mother of young children can tell you that her job is literally never done. When you’re not with your kids, you’re still worrying about them. When you are with them, they require your constant attention. Even when they’re napping and you get a tiny break, you’re still on call – you can’t fully relax or get too far away. And when they’re awake, forget breaks. They need your full focus. Anything they want or need, it’s up to you to get it for them. Any questions they have, it’s up to you to answer them. Any stories they want to tell, it’s up to you to listen to them. Going to the bathroom alone? Forget it. Taking a shower in peace? No more. They are like your constant shadow, except your real shadow is quiet and doesn’t require any work, time, or attention.
Of course, I say all this jokingly. Sort of. The truth is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But is it exhausting? Absolutely.
God will give us His constant attention willingly. If we want or need something, or have questions, or even just want to share things with Him, He is always there and wants us to bring those things to Him. And the best part is, He never grows tired of or irritated by us. He invites us to become like little children and depend on Him for our every need, want, or worry, no matter how big or small. He actually wants us to be like His shadow – relying on Him alone in every aspect of life. He will tighten the strap on your tennis shoes (metaphorically, of course) without even sighing in utter annoyance. In fact, He’ll be pleased that you acknowledged that He can do it better than you can…something I forget from time to time.
Last month, my husband, our two boys and I went down to Panama City Beach for a family vacation with my husband’s parents. My sports-obsessed four-year-old spent most of his days in the sand hitting baseballs from anyone who would pitch to him. He’s a pretty good little hitter and soon caught the attention some of our neighbors from the condo where we stayed. One day, while I was the designated pitcher, an older man stopped to watch him hit.
My son didn’t notice him at first – not until the man called out, “You keep that up, buddy! You’re going to make a great baseball player someday!”
As the man went on to tell him about his own glory days playing baseball as a kid, my eyes were on my son. It was one of those scary mom moments – a moment when I was looking into his eyes, but I could see past them and into his brain and I could just see those little wheels turning. He was no longer hearing a word the old man was saying – a question was formulating in his mind and it was about to come out.
I know other moms can relate to the feeling of dread that came over me. I offered up a quick, pleading prayer – Oh, God, please don’t let him say something embarrassing – and before I could say anymore, he blurted out, “Mommy, why does he not have a belly button?”
I could only hope my sunburn hid the heat I could feel in my cheeks. I gave him my best mom look – that frown with narrowed eyes that warns him to be quiet – but my son still studied the man’s stomach (which, by the way, I’m sure was equipped with a perfectly normal belly button…but his swimming trunks were pulled up pretty high so that the elastic hid it).
The man either didn’t hear the question or pretended he didn’t hear the question – either way, he didn’t respond. He simply encouraged my son again: “You keep practicing hard and you could go pro, you hear me?” My son just nodded, still eyeing the missing belly button warily.
When the man was gone, I squatted down beside my son. “Hey, buddy, you can’t say things like that,” I said.
“What did I say bad?” he asked, his blue eyes searching mine in alarm.
“About that guy’s belly button. You could have embarrassed him.”
He frowned. “I didn’t try to embarrass him, Mom. I just wanted to see why he didn’t have a belly button.”
I knew I could have used that moment to explain how it’s not nice to point out differences, but I didn’t. Instead, I just smiled and picked up the ball again. When my son saw the ball in my hand, his eyes lit up and he grabbed the bat, his mind already on batting and far from the man with the mystery belly button. He didn’t even understand that he’d done anything wrong. At that moment, instead of attempting to teach my son a lesson, I decided to let him keep his innocence a bit longer.
As we grow up, we develop a filter that tells us what is and is not appropriate to say. And with good reason: we don’t need to walk around pointing out people who lack belly buttons.
When first meeting a person, our filters are on thick, resulting in small talk, politeness, etc. After developing deeper relationships with people, our filters tend to thin out a little. (Like when your best friend asks for your honest opinion about a pair of jeans and you oh-so-politely inform her that they look horrendous.)
But when it comes to God, we have to lose that filter completely…both with Him and with others.
Our job is to be transparent with God, which is something I often struggle with. When I confess my sins to Him, I tend to gloss over them a little. And I don’t know why…He knows my heart even better than I do; what am I accomplishing by trying to filter my deepest thoughts before confessing them to Him? With Him, it’s okay to admit your shortcomings, no matter how horrible they may sound when spoken out loud. In fact, it’s what He wants us to do. It’s the only way He can help us fix them. It’s the only way to have a real relationship with Him.
Losing my filter with others is especially difficult regarding my faith. I talk about my kids, my day-to-day activities and events, my experiences. If God is the most important part of my life, why is it so difficult to talk about Him? It’s that filter I’ve developed – the little thing in the back of my mind that worries about offending others or being laughed at. But God calls us to share His word. If we ask Him to help us eliminate that filter, He will give us the words to say to glorify and bring others to Him.
I still mess up in this daily walk and I still have such a long way to go. And when I think about the patience God has with me, I’m ashamed of the impatience I sometimes feel with my own child. After all, despite his age, I clearly have a lot to learn from him about what it means to be a child of God.