November 27, 2008

Child-like Faith

To me there are at least two contrasting claims to faith. None of us fall neatly into one camp or the other, but the contrast is illuminating. One of these I’ll call Old Testament Faith—the kind that the children of Israel had. Their convictions were marked by fear and trembling, because they saw our judge as vengeful and jealous, as a being who would have us preoccupied with hell and the devil. Because they were afraid of making offense, they fabricated complex consistencies—the kind that Emerson once referred to as the “hobgoblin of a tiny mind.” To them, anything that wasn’t explicitly right was wrong and so they locked their hearts to things they didn’t understand.

In contrast to this there is also Child-Like Faith. We might assume that, since children believe everything their parents say, child-like faith may infer an obligation to believe. However, I’d like to think there’s more to it than that.

For example, do you remember that as children we began life without fear? We thought we were immortal and that death was of no consequence. We’d slip on our PF Flyers, jump from stumps and fence posts, run like the wind and feel like masters of the universe. We didn’t pretend so much as be the kind-hearted heroes we watched on television. But over time, we learned about falls, scoldings, embarrassment, and other discomforting things. And that’s when we began to fear.

Similarly, children are not frightened by God. Not until our talk about hell and damnation begins to foment in their minds do they fear Christ’s judgment. Until that time they are motivated primarily out of love. Perhaps they know our Savior as He truly is: the judge of all mankind who asked forgiveness even for the men who nailed Him to a cross. While the Pharisee within us shudders to think of a final judgment, how much goodness could we create if we were more fully motivated by Christ’s love?

Another aspect of a child’s faith is complete honesty. When my youngest boy, Aaron, was small, his intellectual honesty extended even to his prayers. He’d tell God about his day—ramble on and on about his likes and dislikes, his weaknesses and strengths—until one of us would whisper, “You can stop, now.” When Aaron prayed, I was often tempted to open my eyes. God seemed so close, I was sure He was sitting on our sofa.

In much the same way, children do not rationalize sin away. Even when they stray, they don’t make excuses. Have you ever listened to a child try to convince a parent to buy sweets? They don’t say, “Ten out of twelve dentists claim this is good for your teeth.” It takes them a while before they justify, cajole and haggle like an adult. All they say is, “But I want it.” Their honesty reminds me of Huckleberry Finn who, after attempting to pray, said:

I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing ... but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
Although we know that honesty is important, sometimes an adult’s most impressive rationalizations are invented during prayer. These are conversations that begin with, “If you’ll only do this once for me,” or “I can’t help how I feel,” or “If I don’t do it, someone else will.” Sometimes we attempt to make deals with God over sacred things. We’re like the Israelites, who occasionally avoided spiritual obligations by obedience to man-made protocol. Christ said of them: “They draweth nigh...with their mouth and honoureth...with their lips; but their heart is far from me.” He would rather our communication be like a child’s: “yea, yea; nea, nea.” For there is nothing more difficult to cleanse than the heart of a dishonest human being.

Finally there’s that aspect of childhood faith of which I'm continually amazed: a child’s curiosity. Despite their natural tendency to believe our every utterance, children still ask, “But why?” This isn’t because they doubt us, but because they crave greater understanding. As dutiful parents, we try not to let the incessant questions bother us. We realize that children have an instinct—a necessary and even divine instinct—to grow and learn, but we can’t always answer their questions. Sometimes they don’t make sense.

Other times, the problem is more complex. We might know the answer to an inquiry, but we can’t explain it in a way a child can understand. If a five-year old asks why the sky is blue, we might relate a few facts about the wave-particle duality of light and how each wavelength corresponds to a different perception of color, but that would only confuse a child. So we reply with something like this: God created all kinds of things for our joy and pleasure. While this is a fine—even truthful—answer, we hope the child will have progressed beyond it by the time he or she is taking a physics final in high school.

Is there a corollary here regarding our relationship with God? I believe so. In short, child-like faith requires trust, openness, complete honesty and an insatiable—almost fearless—hunger for truth. It’s the kind of faith that admits there is much we don’t understand and draws us into a loving, nurturing relationship with God. Nevertheless, while searching for truth, we shouldn’t always expect immediate answers. Sometimes our questions don’t make sense. At other times, God will say in no uncertain terms, that we'll have to dig further and mature a bit before we’re ready for an explanation. Yet, if we persist, the answers come. As Christ said, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” And notice this: He never once told us to be content with the status quo.

Consistent with this notion children are passionate about growth. In part, this passion is due to the realization that there is much they don’t know, an admission more powerful than any one individual's collected wisdom. That simple acknowledgement is the beginning of true learning and prevents the honest from being deceived by broadly-held, but incorrect, assumptions about the world.

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