In my Advent sermon related to Elf and Mark 10:13-16 (“Suffer the little children to come unto me…”), I discussed one important reason Jesus says we must become like children in order to enter God’s kingdom. Among other things, I said:
Recall that I spoke earlier about how salvation is a completely free gift. Now think about how we adults receive Christmas gifts. If a gift is too lavish, too ostentatious, too luxurious, too expensive, we will naturally be reluctant to receive it. First, we might worry that it comes with strings attached: Why are you giving me this? What do you want me to do in return? See, we don’t quite trust the gift-giver that the gift is really free. So we’re suspicious. But more often, even when we know that the gift-giver has no ulterior motive, when someone gives us a gift that we perceive is too lavish, too luxurious, too expensive, we’ll be reluctant to receive it because we’ll say, “This is too much! I don’t deserve this!”
But when it comes to God’s gift of salvation, that’s exactly right! That’s the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ! You don’t deserve it!
By contrast, think about how children receive gifts. They couldn’t care less about how much it costs the gift-giver! Money means nothing to them. They don’t give a thought about somehow being worthy of the gift, or earning the gift, or paying the gift-giver back. They just gladly, joyously receive it. “Mine, mine, mine! This is mine! This belongs to me! This has my name on it!” And that’s wonderful, in a way—to receive a gift so wholeheartedly.
If you can’t receive this gift as a child, you’ll never be saved!
In the little book Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), published by the brilliant thinkers at Mockingbird Ministries, they examine another reason for our need to become like children: Each one of us, at heart, is a child. This child is the only part of us that’s real. What we perceive to be our “grown-up” self is really only protective armor we’ve created to protect the inner child. If we are to be saved, the gospel must reach the real self.
Poet Ted Hughes, author of The Iron Giant, shares the following insight in a letter to his son:
Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child…
It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realize that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. When we meet people this is what we usually meet… [The child] is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced… At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality.
Think of this in biblical terms: It’s easy to see how Adam and Eve fell into sin because they denied their childlike dependence on the Father and grasped for a kind of “adulthood,” as they perceived it, which meant self-elevation and independence. And we’re no different, obviously.
The problem is, we’re ill-equipped to be “grown up” in this way. We’re vulnerable. We need protection. Thus we create the armor of our “secondary self.”
As the authors point out, the good news—which is not yet the Good News of Jesus Christ—is first the Bad News of the Law:
In observing the secondary self, Hughes was, perhaps unwittingly, describing the Old Adam. And the Law, when it functions properly, exists to destroy and dismantle the armor, leaving the child vulnerable, afraid within…
[A]ny honest religion must… address precisely that child, the true self behind the hardened armor of self-justification and adaptation and calculation and coping and control. We may have the illusion of moral mastery when Moses tells us not to murder, but what about when Jesus says we’ll be liable to hell-fire for insulting someone?
Of course, Jesus did not speak to those with shiny secondary selves, like the Pharisees—except to condemn their righteousness as a lifeless pretension. Instead, the sinners and tax collectors, whose outer armor had long been shorn by addiction and shame and depravity, were the ones to whom Jesus addressed himself. Since only the inner child is truly alive, only that child can hear anything resembling Good News. The secondary self, or the Old Adam, hears only tasks and ways to increase his ego and standing—he only hears in the imperative voice. But the sinner, or inner child, desperately listens for the indicative voice: for some news relevant to his plight. That desperation is the only place an honest approach to the Law can leave us. Yet we still have no Good News, but only a quiet and lonely desperation, now that the illusory capabilities and consolations of the Old Adam are seen to be nothing but “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
This, this, this: But the sinner, or inner child, desperately listens for the indicative voice: for some news relevant to his plight. That desperation is the only place an honest approach to the Law can leave us.
Oh my goodness, I know this desperation! Do you?
I’ve heard the accusing voice of the Law, over and over again: “I ordered you to do this. You failed. And now you deserve death and hell.” So now I listen desperately for the indicative voice of the gospel: Christ says, “Child, here’s what I’ve done for you. I’ve become your failures; I’ve suffered your condemnation; I’ve died your death. Now I’ll give you my life: it’s free; it’s perfect; you can’t ruin it. In fact, in me you’re perfect.”
What is that cliché about Paul’s letter to the Romans? Something like, “It has to make you sinner before it can save you”? Close enough… Anyway, it’s true. The role of the Law is to make us (or, rather, ensure that we know ourselves as) sinners. Otherwise the good news of Jesus Christ can’t penetrate that armor of self-justification that leads to both a lifetime of disappointment in ourselves and an eternity in hell.
1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 36-7.
2. Ibid., 37-8.