I turn another year older this week. It’s funny how my excitement and attitude toward birthdays have changed since I was young. They used to be the happy focal point for my entire year. It’s easy now to slip into a dark gloom as I count down to those milestone birthdays that mock my youthful days. What is there to look forward to as the number of candles on my cake moves well beyond a half century?
Other than increased body aches and my age corresponding with the decade that gave us lava lamps and bubble wrap, I haven’t minded getting older. I have experienced benefits, and I try to focus on those. The youthful angst is gone. I care less about what others think about me and feel freer to be and do life according to how God made me. I thoroughly enjoy solitary moments but believe more than ever that I have valuable things to offer others. And as I reflect on what has been the most important ingredient contributing to my growth from a shy, foolish, insecure boy to a man who is less shy, less foolish, and less insecure, I realize there’s been an anomaly at work.
A paradox is a statement or idea that seems contradictory at face value but when examined more closely is quite true. It’s easy to overlook such things since much of the time we don’t probe beyond the surface of an idea. The paradox that so many miss, and that I believe to be a key to greater wisdom and maturity while aging, is that I must become more like a child. Yes. I’m confident that valuing, embracing, and living out qualities that we typically attribute to children will change any life for the better.
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15, NLT).
What does a Child Have to Offer?
Why would Jesus make such a counter-intuitive statement? It sounds like He’s insisting that experienced, educated, sophisticated adults become like small children to get close to God. Yes. On the surface, it sounds a bit foolish or naïve. But to start with, at least it assures me that God likes kids and has invested something in them that He considers important.
It also warns that if I’m not alert, the accumulated experiences of life will naturally lead me further away from God. As children grow older, they learn to not trust, to hold grudges, to fear vulnerability, and to strive for personal autonomy. All of these qualities may help them navigate the ways of the world and feel a bit more in control of their lives for the short-term. But they are also the very things, the scriptures reveal, that contribute to the barrier between us and God. These “developed” qualities of adulthood do not prepare anyone for eternity to live in God’s holy presence.
Observing my young grandchildren, I see a mixed bag of characteristics. There is the whining and occasional tantrum when things don’t go their way as well as some stubborn willfulness. But the trust they exhibit is astounding. They are experts in believing the best in a person. When someone does something they don’t like, their offense lasts a few moments and then is released. They’re not afraid to let their needs and weaknesses be known nor reluctant to fully rejoice in the tiniest victory. And most awe-inspiring of all, they’re continuous learners, aware that they need input from outside themselves to become who they were meant to be.
The Lifestyle of a Learner
As I left childhood, I practiced undoing all these qualities—many times unwittingly but some times deliberately. The unspoken goal of my life was to grow up and protect myself from pain. Children, after all, get hurt. Adults are smart enough to prevent that from happening. I wanted to be a strong grownup. Yet I was blind to the real value of holding on to the attributes of a child and developing them further. I couldn’t see them as keys to intimacy with my Heavenly Father.
However, as I pursued my relationship with Jesus, there were certain things in my heart He kept putting His finger on.
Learning to trust Him and others.
Learning to forgive and release the many offenses I accumulate.
Learning to make myself vulnerable for the sake of relationships, letting my needs and weaknesses be known.
And above all, learning to be a learner and never stop. No matter my physical age, He continued to drive home the truth that to be self-sufficient is to be alone, and I must own that.
The word that has summed it up for me is humility. Many years ago, I started praying that I could learn what it means to be truly humble. A simple prayer, but not a safe one. God’s answer has led me through circumstances that don’t make logical sense; painful and confusing interactions with people I care for; and seasons of need where I have to depend on others in ways that I would rather not. Yet the fruit has proven to be life-giving—the kind of life and clarity of vision that I can’t produce for myself. The alternative, prideful self-sufficiency, does not carry the blessing of God’s eternal life. I’m reminded that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6 & 1 Peter 5:5). And I am needing all the grace that I can get from Him.
Growing old need never be a bad or dreadful thing. The blessings can go far beyond what a young person can imagine. Embracing the paradox of becoming more like a child in order to be more mature and intimate in your relationship with God is the key. It’s not too late.
Those blessings are the birthday presents I’m wanting and waiting for!