“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.”
These words of Christ are not a call to be childish, immature, or irresponsible throughout our lives. As we progress from childhood to adulthood, in every dimension of development, we are encouraged to maintain or re-develop a humble, receptive, trusting, childlike spirit.
What does it mean to become childlike?
I consider the qualities of children I most admire: to share an unbridled expression of wonder and awe; to love without judgement and to be loved without fear; to trust a caregiver to provide basic needs; to harness an infinite imagination; to play without need for gain, but for the sole purpose of play itself.
Through a child’s innate freedom to love and play, they show adults how to be childlike. In many ways, children are models for a holy life, icons to help us understand how to live as adopted sons and daughters—children—of God.
Progressing through adulthood is marked by innumerable milestones. Oftentimes, each milestone comes with a new set of responsibilities. For example, buying a car, getting a job, buying a house, or starting a family. With a quick glance at the culture of our society, it is easy to see where grown-ups of all ages lose their childlike spirit in the demands of “adulting.”
Yet over and over, time and again, Christ invites us to be childlike. And many great saints, such as Therese of Lisieux and Catherine of Siena, teach us the goodness of being little, of fully embracing our identity as a child of God.
As you move with your spouse in a daily pursuit toward the narrow gate of heaven, how do you embody a childlike spirit in your marriage?
We can draw connections between many childlike qualities and their virtuous fruits. For example, expressing wonder and awe yields fear of the Lord. Freely loving and being loved is charity, the pure love of God. Trusting our basic needs will be met is surrender and abandonment to God. Engaging the imagination fulfills the call to live in the image of God as creator.
But to play for the sake of play. It begins and ends with play. Grown adults may ask, “what’s the point?” Play may be perceived as childish rather than childlike—a waste of time. Yet, in truth, when idle time is filled only with tasks and responsibilities, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to reach beyond boredom to the depths of creative and joyful intimacy within ourselves, with others, and with God.
Through playing together, we discover the gifts of being present. Playing without purpose is rich with communication, collaboration, community and freedom; being stretched outside our comfort zones often leads to surprises of joyful laughter and deepening relationship. For the single, consecrated, or married person, the emotional and spiritual benefits of a childlike spirit are innumerable.
Though often initiated without a specific end in mind, those who engage in play eventually—and unknowingly—create meaning in their shared experience. Creating meaning in the monotony of daily life is to transcend from human nature to a divine essence of faith, hope, and love. Sharing a reaction of wonder or laughter contributes to an ever-deepening friendship and affectionate intimacy within the marital embrace.
Here’s the catch of play: there is no how-to guide, no right or wrong, no age limit. Play sounds like funny nicknames or nonsensical stories. Play looks like pick-up soccer games or spontaneous dance parties. Play feels like letting your guard down or being courageous.
When a marriage embodies a childlike spirit—even if only for a moment—two adults grow in humility, simplicity, and joy. Despite the ongoing throes of a career, family life, or personal struggle, a childlike spirit creates an opportunity to be nourished by God’s love, experience the fruits of grace, and enter into a quiet, peaceful presence with our Heavenly Father.
I challenge you to follow the example of a child, answer the call to be childlike, and bring a humble spirit of wonder and joy to your marriage through the power of play.