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Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18:3

Jesus summons us to a mystery when he beckons us to change and become like little children. With few other references, Jesus does not bother to elaborate on this astonishing invitation. Comprehension of this mystery is not accomplished through analysis, but by being present in every moment of becoming a child with Christ in the timelessness of relationship, for in Christ we encounter one who comes as a child, and who invites us into the mystery of being eternally his Abba’s child.

Jesus’ invitation comes in the context of answering his disciple’s question, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus’ answer is greater than the question; he answers the question the disciples did not ask by saying “unless you become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” [anyways]. In one sentence he contradicts the presumption of access to the kingdom, and he speaks to the inverse relationship of greatness – a topic he will speak to in other settings. Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus again takes the opportunity to emphasize this in reaction to his disciples scolding parents who brought children to him for prayer: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

With few other references, he does not appear to elaborate on what this means. Instead this has become either a topic subject to ignorance or speculation, or as Colin Heywood writes, “it is striking how often ambivalence and ambiguity appear” in relation to understanding the child. James Houston finds it curious that “the significance of childhood has been little regarded and understood in human history.” In contrast Jesus is unequivocal when he exhorts his followers to change and become little children. What does it mean to become a child?

Becoming a child according to Henri Nouwen, is accepting what it means to be beloved: “becoming the beloved means letting the truth of our belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do. It entails a long and painful process of… incarnation.” Margaret Magdelan insists Jesus knew “that part of ‘becoming’ would lead to the recovery of the art of losing oneself in wonder, love, and praise. In this the child is closer to the kingdom than adults…” Thus Vigen Guroian states that children “are emblematic of what kind of person a Christian needs to become to inherit the kingdom of heaven.”

It may be that losing oneself in wonder, love and praise is gaining our value as persons who know we are beloved without provisos or conditions. Dawn DeVries writes, “the value of these children, according to Jesus, is not for the sake of something else but simply for what they are in themselves as children: that is, Jesus holds childhood as intrinsically valuable.” Judith Gundry-Volf elaborates on Jesus’ identification with children by defining at least four distinct emphases:

First, Jesus identifies children as primary objects of care and service by his disciples. As vulnerable and dependent ones, children should be served with humility by anyone who is seeking to be great in the reign of God.

Second, children are identified as co-recipients and model entrants into the reign of God. They are receivers of God’s reign primarily because, along with the poor and the oppressed, they are lacking in social status: they bring nothing and simply depend on the goodness of God to uphold them. Children also exemplify the right way of receiving God’s reign in their attitude of trusting dependence.

Third, children are those who have true insight into spiritual things, for God reveals to infants what is hidden from the learned. The spiritual insight of children does not rest on their education but on their openness to being vehicles for divine revelation.

Fourth, children actually represent Jesus, so that those who receive children gladly also receive Jesus and God. In each of these emphases of Jesus’ teaching on children, it is clear that the child’s value is not instrumental but intrinsic.

My own grasp of this intrinsic value has been late coming and hard won. I was less than a year and a half old when my father died in a car crash; when my father died I believe something deep inside my mother died at the same time. Though I knew I was fatherless, I didn’t realize until her funeral a few years ago, that I had somehow become somewhat motherless – living in a maternal vacuum (I recognize this is a gross simplification that does not do justice to the widow who raised six children, however elaboration on this would go beyond the scope of this paper).

I had accepted the artifacts of my upbringing as my “normal”. However over time and at this late stage of my life I began to reflect on having been emotionally orphaned, and how I maladapted to the void: I did not know the mystery of my worth to the One who made me for himself.

In regaining this sense of belovedness to God, I feel like Augustine who confessed, “late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!” There is a timelessness to God that he appears to bestow to children, for they live in the present tense. G. K Chesterton even wondered if “it may be that [God] has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” In his eternal infancy God is continually present; that is to say, his presence is in the present tense – neither sequestered to the past nor to some ambiguous future. In Christ we find one who lives in the presence of God, and who knows he is the object of “infinite amazement, wonderment, and gratitude.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar writes beautifully on the child’s dynamic with time and presence:

The child has time to take time as it comes, one day at a time, calmly, without advance planning or greedy hoarding of time. Time to play, time to sleep. He knows nothing of appointment books in which every moment has already been sold in advance…

The child is not afraid at the fleetingness of the present moment: stopping to consider it would hinder us from accepting the moment in its fulness… and only with time of this quality can the Christian find God in all things, just as Christ found the Father in all things….

A child that knows God can find him at every moment because every moment opens up for him and shows him the very ground of time: as if it reposed on eternity itself. And this eternity, without undergoing change, walks hand in hand for the child with transitory time. God defines himself as “I am who I am”, which also means: My being is such that I shall always be present in every moment of becoming.

Jesus summons us to a mystery when he beckons us to change and become like little children. And any comprehension of this mystery is not accomplished with words, but by being present in every moment of becoming a child with Christ in the timelessness of relationship, for in Christ we encounter one who invites us into the mystery of entering his Father’s presence. However hard we may try to comprehend (and we are encouraged to try), we nevertheless end up in worship more than in analysis, borrowing the words of the Apostle Paul: “thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.”


Augustine of Hippo. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Garden City: Image Books, 1960.

Brennan, Patrick McKinley, ed. The Vocation of the Child. Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.

DeVries, Dawn. “Toward a Theology of Childhood.” Interpretation 55, no. 2 (2001): 161-73..

Heywood, Colin. “Some Themes in the Cultural History of Childhood.” In A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times, Cambridge: Polity, 2013.

Houston, James. The Heat’s Desire: A Guide to Personal Fulfilment. Oxford: Lion Publishing plc., 1992.

Magdalen, Margaret. Jesus – Man of Prayer: Expanding your horizons in prayer. Surrey: Eagle Publishing, 1987.

New International Version. Biblica, 2011.  BibleGateway.com,

Nouwen, Henri J. M. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. New York:Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Unless You Become Like This Child. Translated by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.

Modified from original paper written for the course “Child Theology” at Regent College, Summer, 2018.