Why We Must Become Like Little Children Again

They’re fighting over grapes.

My daughter Caitlin, age 8, has decided she wants grapes for breakfast, and her older brother Quinn, age 10, has decided to run interference. He gets to the grapes before her and tells her he’ll break off a cluster of grapes for her and keep the rest for himself.

Caitlin never suffers injustice quietly.

She plants her feet, looks him in the eye, points a finger at his chest, and says, “Quinn, you are being controlling!” Quinn looks at her, pauses for a moment, and then surprises both of us. “No,” he says, “I’m not controlling; I’m greedy.”

Then, he apologizes and hands her the bowl of grapes.

“Truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The meaning of this proclamation has been debated for millennia. What does it mean to become like little children? How does this usher us into the kingdom of heaven? And, oh, by the way, what in the world is the kingdom of heaven?

Whether you think of Jesus as truly a God-man, simply a wise man, or ultimately a crazy man, this declaration of his tends to capture your attention. It rings true. And yet the tenor of that ring feels complicated and uncertain and mysterious. Right now, I’m not interested in changing your decision about what kind of man he was, nor am I interested in uncomplicating this particular teaching of his.

But I don’t mind telling you how it has changed my life.

My whole life, I worried that no matter how good I was, I would never be good enough. That I wouldn’t measure up. That others were more worthy of love and belonging. So, for many years, believing myself to be not good enough, I pretended—to both others and myself—that I was more than enough. I cloaked myself in perfectionism, oozed arrogance. All the while, I was hiding all my junk, all my mess, all my brokenness. In other words, I hoarded goodness like Quinn hoards grapes, and I was in denial about all of it.

Because it is difficult to confess the darkness within us—even to ourselves—until we have first come to trust the light within us.

Become like little children.

Children are born with an awareness of the light within them. However, as I write in Loveable, “We rarely remember the precious months or years when we experienced our worthiness as a fact. A given. Something as present, real, and natural as breathing and playing an animal crackers.”

We forget our worthiness because, somewhere along the way, we encounter shame—the message that we are not good enough, not worthy of love and belonging. That message comes to us in a million little ways—a million little lonely moments, disappointed sighs, harsh stares, cruel words—and so, gradually, we begin to lose sight of the light within us.

Become like little children.

Last fall, Quinn’s teacher asked the class to identify a word that describes them. He chose “competitive.” We read his essay and agreed with him but, we told him, we believed there were many other words, better words, to describe him as well. A week later, his mom was cleaning his room and she found a scrap of paper. On the paper were twenty words:

Unselfish, tenacious, sly, sincere, responsible, resourceful, remorseful, optimistic, obedient, humble, generous, diligent, dependable, curious, courteous, courageous, ambitious, clumsy, confident, considerate.

Become like little children. In other words, perhaps…

Trust your worthiness so that, on this strong and resilient foundation of identity, you can stand up and announce to the crowds your mess, declare your darkness, be honest about your brokenness, confess your corruption.

Quinn is ten years-old and, with some encouragement and intentionality, he is trying to make sure he does not forget—he is trying to make sure he remembers the light at the center of him, he is trying to remain connected to his truest, worthiest, most loveable self. And from that foundation, he is able confess his greed.

Become like little children.

So that you might enter into the kingdom of heaven.

And what is the kingdom of heaven, exactly? I’m not entirely sure. But lately, I’ve been trying to remember my worthiness, trying to embrace the little kid within me once again—my truest self, my light. And there are moments here and there when I actually do.

If those moments feel like the kingdom of heaven, then the kingdom of heaven is this:

Peace. Finally.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.