Unless you are converted and become
as little children … (Mt 18: 3)
How can a person lead a life of virtue and righteousness? The Lord set for His disciples an important and strange precondition for entering the kingdom of heaven, saying, "Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 18: 3)
The seriousness of this commandment:
Some essential factors hinder the way to the kingdom, as we see from the words of the Lord, "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." (Jn 3: 5) "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you." (Jn 6: 53) "If you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins." (Jn 8: 24) "Unless you repent you will all likewise perish." (Lk 13: 3, 5) It means that all these matters: baptism, Communion, faith, and repentance are necessary for salvation.
Another precondition for entering the kingdom, which the Lord sets for His disciples, is becoming as little children.
"Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 18: 3) What a serious commandment!
What then is peculiar of children that we may acquire and become like them?
We set ourselves as teachers and examples for the children, while the Lord says the opposite, setting the children as an example for us, to the extent that He warns us if we do not become like them we will not enter the kingdom! Certainly, He does not mean to be like them in mentality, but in heart and spirit. We ought of course to be like a straight child, not a deviating child, whether the cause of deviation is inherited or otherwise.
Peculiarities of children:
• Innocence and simplicity
Our first parents Adam and Eve were innocent and simple before getting the knowledge of good and evil. A child when still young accepts and trusts everything in simplicity, without having any doubts. Only when changed by the community, doubts enter into his heart and nature, corrupting his purity. When doubts increase, whether for some reason or for none, they turn into a disease.
• Love of knowledge and learning
A child asks and likes to know, without feeling embarrassed for asking or for declaring his lack of knowledge. A child accepts learning, and through it, his knowledge grows day by day.
The old, on the other contrary, may refrain from learning either by pride, not readiness to reveal their lack of knowledge, embarrassment, or for being satisfied with what they already have. The older they grow, the more they feel ashamed of learning, fearing to fail. A child, unlike the old, easily learns and does not feel embarrassed when uttering something wrong, but accepts correction.
Try then to grow in useful knowledge. As a grown up you have to seek certain types of knowledge different from those which a child seeks, such as the necessity to know yourself, to know the truth, and to know God and the proper way that leads to Him. Be humble enough to ask and seek knowledge without feeling ashamed or think more highly than you ought to think supposing that you know much. Do not be wise in your own eyes!
• Continual growth
The Gospel says about John the Baptist in his childhood, "The child grew and became strong in spirit …" (Lk 1: 80) And about the Child Jesus, "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men." (Lk 2: 52) The old grow to a certain extent in stature, but they can grow in other aspects, such as growing in the spirit, in knowledge, in wisdom, in every virtue and goodness, and intellectually.
• I also admire the cheerfulness of the children.
A child is always cheerful, joyful, and laughing, not having the concerns the old have. They never think of the coming problems, and if they occur, the child leaves them to his parents. Peace prevails over the child's heart, even in the most dangerous times when everybody at home is troubled and expecting evil, except for the child. I wish you, brother, to have such peace and joy, which are fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5: 22).
• A child never bears malice.
In case there is something a child hates or feels annoyed or sad, it will be for a few moments, and it ends without keeping it in his heart or feelings. A child soon forgets the offense and plays with the child who was fighting him a few minutes ago! Only the old keep offenses in their minds and forget the good things. Anger turns in the old into malice, enmity, and perhaps a wish to revenge. To those the Lord says, "Unless you are converted and become as little children …" A child also is easily reconciled. Even when his father or mother hits him, he soon throws himself in their arms, and no sooner do they show him love and kindness than he forgets all that happened!
• Would that we become like children with the great love they bear for everybody!
Many are those whom a child loves and adds to continually, and is loved by them as well. A child knows no partiality; if his parents fight with one another, he does not take the side of any, for he loves them both and tries to get them reconciled.
• A child has faith and confidence.
Some denominations do not baptize children until they believe, while actually we ought to be like them in their deep faith. Children accept all the facts of faith with no doubts or questioning. A child is born with faith, so he obeys when we command him to pray or to lift his hands unto heaven when praying for instance. A child trusts that God is capable of giving him everything and protecting him from every danger. A Child's faith is wonderful, but the old corrupt his mind with harmful things!
• A child is distinguished for truthfulness. He never flatters at the expense of truth.
A child knows no hypocrisy. When he says he loves you, it means that he truly loves you from all his heart. If he is afraid of you or you have done him harm, he will not flatter you and pretend that he loves you. He will say his opinion frankly and expresses his emotions sincerely.
The love of children is more fervent than that of the old.
It is innocent and pure love. A child throws himself into the bosom of whoever shows him love, and may cry deeply for the absence of his mother or father and never calms down until he finds the person he loves! Would that we be like children in love!
• A child loves ideals.
A child has discernment by nature and loves goodness by nature. A child's conscience is not corrupted by the community, for he discerns between who loves him and who does not, between a good person and the opposite. A child can judge you from a mere look to your features or from the tone of your voice. He is very sensitive, and cannot accept to see his father angry, distressed, or speaking sharply, for all this is against his ideals.
• A child's virtues are natural and spontaneous.
They are not feigned. He needs no struggling to attain them, for he has them by instinct. He does not try to appear as virtuous while he is not. He does not struggle to attain simplicity, for he is simple by nature. The same applies to all other virtues.
• A child is not self-conceited.
When one praises a child, he feels that he has done right, but does not get conceited, for self-conceit is a vice fighting the old.
Christ and children:
The Lord Christ loves children, and He used to take them in His arms, lay His hands on them, and bless them (Mk 10: 16). He warned people against causing them offenses, saying, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea." (Mt 18: 6) In His love for the children He said, "Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones." (Mt 18: 10) He even set them as an example for the old.
History provides us with examples of saintly children, like young Abanoub to whose name churches are built in Egypt and abroad; young Keriakos the son of St. Youlita; young Samuel to whom God spoke and sent him to warn Eli the Great Priest; and St. Shenouda the Archimandrite in his childhood, and many other examples.
Would that we are converted and become like children with their virtues!
The virtuous nature of a child is a good example, preceding any other qualities implanted in him by the environment or education. It is his original nature preceding any learning acquired from those around, including things that would make the child like them, though their character may not be holy, good, or virtuous!
When the Lord commanded us to be converted and become like children, He meant that we remove away the qualities implanted within us through the environment or education, and become in the nature which God wanted for us, in the innocence that Adam and eve had before committing sin and before receiving from an outer source, that is, the serpent.