What would it have been like to be a child in this story? I’m sure the children wanted to see Jesus as much as their parents. But for a very different reason.
The parents wanted a blessing for their children. They wanted to be able to say, “My child was touched by Jesus!”
But children live in the moment, enjoying life one experience at a time. The children just wanted to be with Jesus. Because He told great stories. Because He cuddled them. Because He laughed when they did. Because His smile was as sincere and kind as His eyes. Children wanted to be with Jesus because He loved them—and they could feel it.
In one of His many stories, Jesus suggested that people have four responses to His teaching:
- Some, like a rocky footpath, barely take notice—nothing sinks in.
- others, like shallow soil, burst into action with new life but fizzle when things heat up.
- A third kind are surrounded by thorns, choked to death before they can mature.
- Finally, there is a fourth listener who, like good soil, is healthy and ready for the Word. Those who experience this last response become both blessed and a blessing as God’s harvest multiplies in them and through them. This is who we, as parents, can be—good soil growing the Word in our lives and in our children.
While He held little ones on His lap, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Why? What intuitive receptivity or ability does a child have that adults lack? Somehow, kids “get” the kingdom of God. The story gets through. So what attributes of childlikeness must we have to enter the kingdom of God?
In 2007 oxford University did a study called the “Cognition, Religion, & Theology Project.” Their goal was to understand why humans have faith. What is it about humanity that causes every culture to have some belief in a higher power?
Coming from our Christian perspective, these questions may seem strange. But they make perfect sense if you’re detachedly studying people as creatures. Where does the reality of God or gods come from and why do humans believe?
In 2010, oxford University held a convention to reveal their findings, presenting 41 papers on various aspects of human faith and religion. Much of the research focused on children and their faith. It seems that to understand human faith we must first understand a child’s faith.
Various findings suggested that in imaginative play all children include a "God" figure—higher power, omniscient being, superpowers—even children who come from non-faith backgrounds. Their invisible friends are more likely to be immortal than not. one paper memorably quipped that invented playmates tend to be more “godlike than doglike.” Children’s imaginations do not create pets to play with, but instead wander toward God.
Another interesting finding about the faith of children was that kids comprehend God's immortality before they understand human mortality. Eternal life makes more sense than human death. Scientists were amazed by this finding. To Christians, it is perfectly reasonable because we know God’s original plan for life did not include death. Childlike faith understands this intuitively.
Those who believe most authentically, it would seem, also make-believe most authentically. Jesus calls us toward an experience of faith in which the imagination is fully engaged—like that of a child. Notice what Jesus did not say: He did not say the kingdom of God belongs to children. He did say, “The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
A story becomes effective when the listener exercises the “suspension of disbelief.” This is the ability to enter the story-world—to let go of “reality” while enjoying the story. You have undoubtedly experienced this during a movie or while reading a book when your mind stops saying “this is just a story” and starts allowing the story to come to life in your imagination—allowing it to, in effect, be true.
Most children are able to suspend disbelief as quickly as you can say “once upon a time.” Adults take a bit longer. This ability to fully enter a story and forget the cares of the world, for a time, is part of what it is to be human. It exists in all cultures when stories are told.
One year I acted as King Herod in a walk-through Christmas pageant. It was my job to exude a selfish arrogance. once the audience had moved to the next scene, I would leave the stage. But, in one group, a little boy did not stand and leave. He stayed there on the grass, staring at me as I sat on my throne. His sister came back to get him and the boy jolted back to reality. In a startled voice, he told her, “He’s not the real—” then his head snapped back to me, “You’re not the real Herod!”
This is the suspension of disbelief as only a child knows it. He was so lost in the story that it took a shake and a shout from his sister to bring him back to reality. Those who believe most authentically, make-believe most authentically. And this is the childlike reality that we are called to imitate. We are to be engaged with the story like a child. Childlike faith—the faith required to get into the kingdom of God—is a faith that gets lost in the story.
If God truly wants us to get lost in the story of His presence, power, and provision then we should be able to go somewhere to engage in the story. And we can—the Bible is full of stories. Eighty percent of the Bible is story! Why so many? Because God knows we need stories on which to hang our faith. He designed us as creatures of story.
So, how can we engage with the Bible in a way that intentionally disciples our children and others around us? Perhaps the easiest way is to ask your children to tell the stories with you. They will need paper, pens, paths, paint, seeds, songs, waves, sunshine, noise, trees, rain, pictures, fruit, fields, and time—lots of time. Because kids really get God’s kingdom and the process of telling kingdom stories takes time. As adults we get too easily caught in the trap of explaining and proving. Children, on the other hand, get lost in exploring and playing.
Make-believe your way through the Bible with your children. In every family and at every stage of childhood, this retelling and reenacting of the story will look, feel, and truly be different. That is oK. In fact, that is important. The story of God’s kingdom is one that builds layer by layer with each telling.
Let your imagination come back to life—become good soil once again. Enjoy the Bible as God’s storybook of the ages. Let it speak to you and through you in a way that is beyond belief.
Tell the Story of Jesus. Tell it with your life and with your lips. Tell the Story well.
And it will make belief.
Reprinted, with permission, from Signs of the Times.