In the Bible, Jesus told his followers that they must be “childlike.” He called a child over and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4).
However, in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul said believers must stop being “childish.” He explained, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).
Hmm, Jesus said we must become like children, and St. Paul said we must stop being like children. So, who is correct, Jesus or Paul?
Well, when it comes to displaying the attributes of a child, they are both correct. You see, there is a huge difference between childlike and childish.
When Jesus tells us to be childlike, He recalls the aspects of youth that are innocent and pure: unquestioned trust in loving parents; amazement and joy over the wonders of the world; and excited anticipation about the next adventure just around the corner.
Compare this to the mindset of many world-weary adults. A lot of folks these days have an unwillingness or even an inability to trust anyone, mostly because they’ve been disappointed and hurt so often. They also go though life with a resigned boredom and ennui, convinced that life is a tedious chore to be endured rather than an exciting adventure to be cherished.
When Jesus calls us to be childlike, He is telling us to stop being such bitter and cynical and untrusting adults. He is telling us that the mercy and love and parental protections offered to us by our heavenly Father are so amazing, we should never be fearful and jaded about life. The goodness of God far outweighs any problems we encounter here on earth.
St. Paul, on the other hand, criticizes being childish. This is not the wide-eyed joyful wonder of being childlike, but rather the immature and self-centered behavior of a spoiled brat. Let’s be honest, how do most very young children act? They yell when they want something; they cry when they have the slightest discomfort; and they try to grab whatever they can get their hands on, automatically assuming it belongs to them. We expect this behavior from toddlers because they’re too young to understand. But when people who are adults act this way, it’s not nearly as cute. It is instead awful behavior.
This self-centered attitude comes naturally to all human beings, especially when we’re young. As children get older, if they are not trained by their parents to behave with more maturity, they will pout and throw tantrums whenever they do not get what they desire.
To summarize, childlike behavior is trusting and joyful and excited. But childish behavior is self-centered and rude. As with so many aspects of Christianity, the key here is the focus of our will. Are we focused on serving God and our fellow human beings? Then we are being childlike. Are we focused on serving ourselves? Then we are childish.
It’s usually quite easy to determine whether someone is being childlike or childish. If they are childlike, they are joyful and happy (and fun to be with). If they are childish, they are frustrated and unhappy (and other people flee from their presence at quickly as possible).
So let’s do what St. Paul said and “put aside childish things.” At the same time, let’s do what Jesus said and “become like children.”