“I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 18:3-4 (NTE)]
I used the NTE version of today’s verse because it better captures the original meaning with the words “turn inside out.” Usually translated as change, turn, or convert, the original Greek was strephō which meant more than a slight change of direction. It meant being turned (even from one thing into another) which requires submission. Far more than a mental acknowledgment or intellectual assent to certain ideas, it’s a turning of one’s whole life and person toward God. The kind of conversion or turning meant in strephō is like having one’s life turned inside out.
When Jesus said to become like children, He wasn’t telling us to act childish but to come to Him as would a child. When thinking of some of today’s often spoiled and demanding children, it’s easy to question His words. Children in His day, however, were far less presumptuous, self-sufficient, disrespectful or defiant than today’s youngsters. They were more like a little girl I encountered in Tanzania. She walked across the schoolyard, stopped, looked up at me and, with a shy smile, presented me with her foot. Her shoe needed tying and, as I knelt down in the dust to tie it, she was a perfect example of Jesus words. Knowing she wasn’t self-sufficient, she openly and humbly depended upon someone older and wiser. Trusting and unpretentious, this beautiful child came to me with a faith and simplicity that we adults don’t seem to have.
A child knows when he or she needs help and will freely ask and accept it. Adults, on the other hand, rarely admit their needs or weakness for fear of appearing vulnerable. We want to be in control but, if we’re ever going to enter into God’s Kingdom and enjoy His peace, we have to turn ourselves inside out, cede control and admit our powerlessness.
Any 12-step recovery program begins with admitting our helplessness but we don’t need to have an addiction or compulsive behavior to have our lives spin out of control. Without Jesus, we are broken beings separated from God and powerless over sin. We may be incapable of saving ourselves, but Jesus is not. What He won’t do, however, is force Himself upon us or chase after every loosened shoelace to tie it. It’s up to us to admit our need and turn to Him, as that child did to me.
I will always remember that brief encounter with a little girl who showed me what it means to turn and be like a child: with humility, trust, openness and a lack of self-sufficiency. The kingdom of God is not earned by human effort but is received in childlike trust as a gift through the mercy and grace of God.
With time, that little girl will become more self-sufficient and won’t need someone to tie her shoes. I pray, however, that she always will be willing to acknowledge her weakness and needs to God.