Only Children Shall Inherit the Kingdom
What It Means to be Childlike vs Childish
“Amen I say to you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall not enter into it.” (Mk 10:15 DRA)
Children have always been underestimated. In ancient times, people often saw them as merely inferior adults, as investments which have not yet paid off and as property that can be abused or discarded if they do not fit one’s expectations. Children grew up fast then, seeing suffering and death more immediately than they often do today, when such things are either kept behind the closed doors of hospitals, on distant battlefields or in forgotten city streets. They worked hard as soon as their bodies could take it, preparing them for the life of hardship waiting in adulthood. Even after the rise of the Catholic Church, with its recognition of the dignity of every human person and the sanctification of children by the Son of God who himself became a little child at the Annunciation, for the most part society continued to treat children as they always had.
Are things better today? We are often led to think so. Children in “developed” nations today are given free rein to live as they please, indulging whatever fancies or urges come to them and with few responsibilities or obligations even through the teenage years. If they live in more materially prosperous families, they are showered with gifts at holidays and receive allowances which children of earlier generations would likely have seen as fortunes. They are protected from many of the causes of death which afflicted children in earlier centuries, including birth complications, diseases for which there are now vaccinations or the consequences of hard labor. From this perspective, children today grow up in relative ease.
Nevertheless, as Catholics, we know that there is more to the story. In truth, children are treated worse today than they have ever been. Despite the hardships and mistreatment of ancient times, children were once instilled with virtue, self-discipline, dignity and the truths handed on by tradition. They understood the meaning of life, which seems so elusive to modern man, from their earliest days, and knew the finality to which their lives and choices tended. All their sufferings had a purpose: to hone them into persons worthy of union with God and participation in human society as adults. Accordingly, the afflictions of many adults and teenagers today, such as gang violence, drug abuse, depression, anxiety, suicide and pornography addiction, were for the most part nonexistent, even for those who lived in extreme poverty.
On the other hand, children today are told from childhood that they are no different from other animals and no more than what they feel, that to resist any base urge or desire is to be dishonest with oneself and others, that any difficulty or sacrifice is antithetical to happiness, that virtue and self-discipline lead only to psychological repression and misery and that to be a good person means only to “live and let live.” All of reality, from God to human laws to one’s own body, can be changed to satisfy subjective preferences. So long as one is given enough material goods, entertainments and pleasures, enough validation and affirmation from others for whatever is asserted as one’s “identity,” happiness is inevitable and societal peace is the inexorable result of Progress.
Surprisingly – or not – with all these “benefits,” children today commonly feel no authentic love from their family or friends, no sense of personal or social dignity, nothing to live for and no ultimate end to pursue.
When all things are permissible, nothing is worth permitting.
While adults bemoan the treatment of children long ago, they afflict them with the gravest abuse possible: the destruction of their very lives in the womb. Deprived of life itself, children become less than property and are now called parasites, foreign invaders in the mother’s body, hindrances to her (and the father's) convenience, prosperity and happiness and ultimately burdens to society. Now, as the world plunges into ever deeper absurdity, children continue to be the primary targets of abuse, not only through their horrific murder in the womb but by newer trends such as surgical mutilation advertised as “gender affirmation care,” shows given at schools or family events by “drag queens,” the possibility that underage children can “consent” to a sexual relationship with an adult and even the concept that a child can have more than one mother and one father in a “polyamorous family.”
Instead of offering spiritual or material aid to the nations of the world which desperately need them, the “progressive” West identifies the source of their problems as only one thing: an overabundance of children. If only they would kill their children, the West says, they could have everything they desire. Only then can they achieve the societal despair and self-destruction which are now the prevalent conditions in the Western world. Even if they escape the womb, after being raised in dysfunctional families, hypersexualized and objectified, spoiled with self-indulgence and given no reason to live, children become adults who live for no reason, are good only if it suits them, show virtue only to virtue signal and continue to search for happiness in things which are limited, finite, superficial – things which can never satisfy the intrinsic human longing for God.
Jesus Christ offered an alternative to these views of children, both those of older generations and the world today. Indeed, His is the only true alternative, the unique insight into the true gift, beauty and value of childhood given in history. Christ teaches us that eternal life in the Kingdom of God, whether in the Church Militant subsisting in the Catholic Church on Earth in sacramental form or in the Church Triumphant reigning victorious in Heaven as it awaits the End Times and the restoration of all things, requires only one thing: to become a little child.
How can this be? If we are adults, how can we become children? Does this mean to be childish, to unlearn any virtue taught to us in our upbringings and to live with the carefree irresponsibility of youth in society? St. Paul himself seems to contradict Christ’s teaching when he writes: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.” (1 Cor 13:11) Yet St. Paul knew very well the true meaning of Christ’s doctrines and of what was required to enter the Kingdom. In this fallen world, not even all children behave as children; instead, they may become childish rather than childlike. Without proper training from adults, the innocence, the indomitable love of the good and the clear vision of the truth which are the essence of childhood can become corrupted, the passions allowed to enslave reason, or else the vicissitudes of adulthood can blot out the light of childhood before it even comes to full fruition.
To be a child is to love without fear, to hope without despair, to believe with certainty and to act without thought of practical gain. For children, all good things are miraculous: “A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.”1 Children wish only to be what God designed them to be: His children, to know and love Him as human persons made in His image and to express this love according to our human nature as ensouled bodies, through the sacramental signification of art and story, the contemplation of truth and the loving relationships of friends and family.
Children receive what is given to them as though it were fresh and new, whether in Creation or tradition. They never tire of the good, nor do they confuse good and evil, truth and falsehood. They only want to know: who is the hero and how can I be like them. They love justice and shun abuse. For a child, the opinions, appearances and ambitions of adults are only foolish vanities, distractions from that which is truly important: a flower, a sunset, a funny hat, a parent’s kiss, laughter with friends, a new toy or a good book. For a child, all things are gifts from God, signs of the eternal loving heart beating within Creation, the celestial hymn which signals the inevitable defeat of sin and death.
So, what does it mean to be childish? In truth, adults are the ones who are childish. Enslaved to passions, anxious to conform to the expectations of others, unconcerned for right or wrong, sinning with ease and without remorse, giving no thought to eternity, to beauty, to God. The good becomes familiarized and commonplace, the truth becomes alterable and subject to preference, and the beautiful becomes ugliness, functionality and gluttonous hedonism.
The vulgarities of society, from the Fall till today, signal the childishness of the human race, once the flower of youth has been crushed by sin. Those who think themselves most adult, whose minds are only ever on their finances, their entertainments, their social groups, how best to fit in, to get ahead – these are the most childish of all, and for them, the Kingdom of Heaven is not shut, but simply irrelevant. True spiritual adulthood is childhood purified of childishness, childhood with its gifts perfected and its childlike qualities grasped with the clearer vision of maturity. As C.S. Lewis wrote,
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.2
To become a true Christian, to live in the Holy Spirit who enervates His Catholic Church, it is necessary to become a little child. Like being born again in Baptism, through whose seeming impossibility we are made a new Creation (2 Cor 5:17) and infused with the divine life of God, (1 Pt 3:21) to become a little child after having fallen into the prison of childishness can seem impossible. Nevertheless, “no word shall be impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37)
From little things, like finding joy in the cycles of Creation for whose repetitions God never tires,3 to learning and making things for their own sake rather than only some pragmatic “usefulness,” to promoting the tradition given to us by our ancestors and the Church with gratitude and reverence, to ridding ourselves of the attachments to sin and its glamor which make us into brute slaves rather than free servants of Christ, we can indeed become as little children, and if we truly wish to be with Christ in His Kingdom, to experience the place He has prepared for us with Him, there is no alternative.
G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” in Orthodoxy (Digireads, 2018), 33. Kindle.
C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Of Other Worlds (New York: HarperOne, 1975), 38.
Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” 39.