BreakPoint | by Paul Miller | Sep. 16, 2009
On more than one occasion, Jesus tells his disciples to become like little children.
The most famous is when the young mothers try to get near Jesus so he can bless their infants. When the disciples block them, Jesus rebukes his disciples sharply. “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14-15). Jesus’ rebuke would have surprised the disciples. It would have seemed odd. Children in the first century weren’t considered cute or innocent. Only since the nineteenth-century Romantic era have we idolized children.
Another incident occurs when the disciples are traveling and begin arguing with one another as to who is the greatest (see Mark 9:33-37). When they get to Peter’s house in Capernaum, Jesus asks them what they were talking about on the way. The disciples just look at the ground and shuffle their feet. At first Jesus says nothing. He sits down, takes a little boy, and has him stand in their midst. Then Jesus picks him up and, while holding him, says, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Little children, even in adult form, are important to Jesus.
A lesser known incident happens when the disciples return all excited from their first missionary journey, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (Luke 10:17, NIV). Jesus responds with a joyous prayer, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21). Jesus is thrilled his disciples are like little children.
Not surprisingly, the disciples often behave like little children. For instance, what does Peter do with whatever is on his mind? He blurts it out. That’s what children do. Once when I preached at an inner-city church, a woman with an operatic voice sang a solo. After the service she kindly came up to Kim and asked her what she thought of her singing. Kim, who because of her autism cringes at loud music, put her fist to her forehead, the sign for “dumb.” The woman turned to Jill and asked her what Kim had just signed. Jill gulped. Jill was in sign language interpreter training, which trains people to interpret exactly what the other person says. So Jill said, “It was dumb.”
The disciples, like Kim, just say what is on their minds, seemingly without thinking. After the Last Supper they tell Jesus, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech!” (John 16:29). When James and John want to become number one and two in the kingdom, they have their mother go to bat for them (Matthew 20:20-21). Except for Judas, the disciples are without pretense.
Jesus wants us to be without pretense when we come to him in prayer. Instead, we often try to be something we aren’t. We begin by concentrating on God, but almost immediately our minds wander off in a dozen different directions. The problems of the day push out our well-intentioned resolve to be spiritual. We give ourselves a spiritual kick in the pants and try again, but life crowds out prayer. We know that prayer isn’t supposed to be like this, so we give up in despair. We might as well get something done.
What’s the problem? We’re trying to be spiritual, to get it right. We know we don’t need to clean up our act in order to become a Christian, but when it comes to praying, we forget that. We, like adults, try to fix ourselves up. In contrast, Jesus wants us to come to him like little children, just as we are.
The difficulty of coming just as we are is that we are messy. And prayer makes it worse. When we slow down to pray, we are immediately confronted with how unspiritual we are, with how difficult it is to concentrate on God. We don’t know how bad we are until we try to be good. Nothing exposes our selfishness and spiritual powerlessness like prayer.
In contrast, little children never get frozen by their selfishness. Like the disciples, they come just as they are, totally self-absorbed. They seldom get it right. As parents or friends, we know all that. In fact, we are delighted (most of the time!) to find out what is on their little hearts. We don’t scold them for being self-absorbed or fearful. That is just who they are.
That’s certainly how Jill and I responded to Kim. We were uncertain whether she would ever be able to walk, so when she took her first step at three years old, we didn’t say, “Kim, that was all very well and good, but you are two years late. You have a lot of catching up to do, including long-range walking, not to mention running, skipping, and jumping.” We didn’t critique how messy or late Kim was. What did we do? We screamed; we yelled; we jumped up and down. The family came rushing in to find out what had happened. Cameras came out, and Kim repeated her triumph. It was awesome.
This isn’t just a random observation about how parents respond to little children. This is the gospel, the welcoming heart of God. God also cheers when we come to him with our wobbling, unsteady prayers. Jesus does not say, “Come to me, all you who have learned how to concentrate in prayer, whose minds no longer wander, and I will give you rest.” No, Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NASB). The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.
What does it feel like to be weary? You have trouble concentrating. The problems of the day are like claws in your brain. You feel pummeled by life.
What does heavy-laden feel like? Same thing. You have so many problems you don’t even know where to start. You can’t do life on your own anymore. Jesus wants you to come to him that way! Your weariness drives you to him.
Don’t try to get the prayer right; just tell God where you are and what’s on your mind. That’s what little children do. They come as they are, runny noses and all. Like the disciples, they just say what is on their minds.
We know that to become a Christian we shouldn’t try to fix ourselves up, but when it comes to praying we completely forget that. We’ll sing the old gospel hymn, “Just as I Am,” but when it comes to praying, we don’t come just as we are. We try, like adults, to fix ourselves up.
Private, personal prayer is one of the last great bastions of legalism. In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the non-personal, non-real praying that you’ve been taught.
The Real You
Why is it so important to come to God just as you are? If you don’t, then you are artificial and unreal, like the Pharisees. Rarely did they tell Jesus directly what they were thinking. Jesus accused them of being hypocrites, of being masked actors with two faces. They weren’t real. Nor did they like little children. The Pharisees were indignant when the little children poured into the temple (after Jesus had cleansed it) and began worshipping him. Jesus replied, quoting Psalm 8, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise” (Matthew 21:16).
The only way to come to God is by taking off any spiritual mask. The real you has to meet the real God. He is a person. So, instead of being frozen by your self-preoccupation, talk with God about your worries. Tell him where you are weary. If you don’t begin with where you are, then where you are will sneak in the back door. Your mind will wander to where you are weary.
We are often so busy and overwhelmed that when we slow down to pray, we don’t know where our hearts are. We don’t know what troubles us. So, oddly enough, we might have to worry before we pray. Then our prayers will make sense. They will be about our real lives.
Your heart could be, and often is, askew. That’s okay. You have to begin with what is real. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous. He came for sinners. All of us qualify. The very things we try to get rid of—our weariness, our distractedness, our messiness—are what get us in the front door! That’s how the gospel works. That’s how prayer works.
In bringing your real self to Jesus, you give him the opportunity to work on the real you, and you will slowly change. The kingdom will come. You’ll end up less selfish.
The kingdom comes when Jesus becomes king of your life. But it has to be your life. You can’t create a kingdom that doesn’t exist, where you try to be better than you really are. Jesus calls that hypocrisy— putting on a mask to cover the real you.
Ironically, many attempts to teach people to pray encourage the creation of a split personality. You’re taught to “do it right.” Instead of the real, messy you meeting God, you try to re-create yourself by becoming spiritual.
No wonder prayer is so unsatisfying.
So instead of being paralyzed by who you are, begin with who you are. That’s how the gospel works. God begins with you. It’s a little scary because you are messed up.
Become like the little children Jesus surrounded himself with. When Nathanael first hears about Jesus, he says the first thing that comes to his mind: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). It is the pure, uncensored Nathanael. When Jesus greets Nathanael, you can almost see Jesus smiling when he says, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (1:47). Jesus ignores the fact that Nathanael has judged Jesus’ entire family and friends in Nazareth. He simply enjoys that Nathanael is real, without guile, a man who doesn’t pretend. Jesus seems to miss the sin and see a person.
It is classic Jesus. He loves real people.
God would much rather deal with the real thing. Jesus said that he came for sinners, for messed-up people who keep messing up (see Luke 15:1-2). Come dirty. The point of the gospel is that we are incapable of beginning with God and his kingdom. Many Christians pray mechanically for God’s kingdom (for missionaries, the church, and so on), but all the while their lives are wrapped up in their own kingdoms. You can’t add God’s kingdom as an overlay to your own.
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