If we want God to approach us, small, meek, and abandoned to him, how then should we approach God? This conversation was uniquely impactful to discuss with these three men. Again, I am dealing with three men, as rehabilitated as they may be, who still have to command a little bit of respect in order to get along in prison. They still need some sense that they are in control of their own destiny, the way we all pretend to do in our lives on the outside. Surprisingly, this conversation resonated more with them than I would have suspected.
So how does The Little Waytell us to approach God?… Saint Thérèse answers,
I searched, then, in the Scriptures for some sign of this elevator, the object of my desires, and I read these words coming from the mouth of Eternal Wisdom: “Whoever is a LITTLE ONE, let him come to me.”
Simple: We approach God as an infant approaches her parents. That’s it. That is what God is asking of us. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his listeners that they must change, and become like little children if they want to experience his Kingdom.Then in the next chapter, he asks that the little children be able to come to him, those very children who he just told his followers to become like.Christ makes himself clear. We are to approach God as a small child. We sure enjoy complicating simple matters, especially us seminary students, however, it is not rocket science. This should be great news, and it was, the more the four us discussed it.
Speaking through the Prophet Isaiah, God promises his followers that he will comfort them as a mother comforts her child.As rough and tumble as the reputation for the Old Testament can be, there are some very warming, and extremely encouraging elements. This is one of them. In fact, I would wager to say that the entire theme of the Old Testament is one of a mother longing to caress and heal the wounds of her child.
These verses assuredly were already known by Saint Thérèse, but she had a revelation moment where she let her heart feel what her head already knew. She allowed the knowledge in her head to make the eighteen inch trip down to her heart. Just like when C.S. Lewis had a heart reckoning moment about the forgiveness of sins. Lewis wrote to a friend,
It is astonishing that sometimes we believe that we believe what, really, in our heart, we do not believe. For a long time, I believed that I believed in the forgiveness of sins. But suddenly (on St. Mark’s Day) this truth appeared in my mind in so clear a light that I perceived that never before (and that after many confessions and absolutions) had I believed it with my whole heart.
Like Lewis, Saint Thérèsefinally let her knowledge penetrate her heart. The simple idea of approaching God like an infant approaches her mother was a simple and freeing thought. It was a moment of rejoicing. She wrote, “The elevator which must raise me to heaven is Your arms, O Jesus! And for this I had no need to grow up, but rather I had to remain little and become this more and more,”or as Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist said, “I must become less and he must become more.”We are the infant. God is the Good Parent.
I should probably make a disclaimer before I get into this illustration a bit more. I know not everyone has had a positive example of what a good parent is supposed to be. I know many people have never had a personal example of a father, loving and providing for his children, or being present at all. Many in prison certainly have not. Darrin Elliott has developed a relationship with his father only after having been sent to prison. He now feels very fortunate that he has this crucial relationship in his life, as many beside him do not. Fredrick Watson was raised in the country by a single mom, still today, with no father to speak of. David Young has no relationship with either his mother or his father. His father was not present in his life, and his mother was dependent on drugs and random men all of David’s childhood. David was not raised by good parents. He in fact, had to raise his mom.
So I was relieved that, although they all three had twisted examples of the Good Parent in their individual lives, they knew what the Good Parent shouldlook like. That is how they were able to detect the bad and the missing in their lives, because in their soul they knew how the Good Parent should have treated them. I was happy to learn this, and relieved to know they would be able to comprehend and appreciate our discussion about coming to God, the ultimate Good Parent, as an infant.
So what exactly does it look like to approach God as an infant? How does this play out in our day to day lives and how does it play out in our hearts? What does that mean from us and what does that mean from God. Well, as my three inmate friends and I discussed, there is a lot to it. It is, as Saint Thérèse would say, a potent “well” to draw from for the rest of our lives.
The first thing it means, as Darrin Elliot pointed out, is trust. In a healthy household, children trust their parents. They do not necessarily have a reasons to, other than recalling their history of being fed, provided for, cuddled, and nursed. But beyond that, if the child was asked why they trusted their parents, they probably would not have any good answers besides, they just do. That is how we approach God. Simple trust. Simple trust in our father, because he is the Good Parent and we are the children.
Elliot had a moment of nostalgia thinking about this. He was locked up a relatively young man, and during his adolescent free years, his life of crime kept a distance between his father and he. But he recalled being a young boy, growing up in the Ozark mountains of southern Missouri. There was not a lot to do in these hills but to explore the woods, knock cans over with rocks, and drive to the closest convenience store. Elliot shared fond memories of being a small child who could not even see over the his father’s dashboard, loading up and driving the twisting roads to Mr. Quick. Here, even in the late 20thCentury, the soda jerk was still in fashion. Young Elliot and his dad would sit at the bar and order up their favorite soda, typically with a scoop of ice cream. It was good times for young Elliot. I could tell recalling this story was bringing up a bit of emotion for him, as he went back to simpler times. He grew somewhat sentimental. I grew somewhat sentimental right along side of him.
It was trust though. This was what Elliot was recalling. He trusted his dad. He had no real reason too, besides he loved his and his father loved him back. He recalled how he never worried how much gas was in the truck. He probably did not even know what gas was. He recalled how he never worried about the truck starting or running off the side of a mountain road. He was never concerned if there was enough money in his father’s wallet to cover the cost of the soda and ice cream. He simply trusted because of the status of being a child. This is what The Little Wayteaches us: We trust God for no other reason than we are his children.
Elliot, still in nostalgia mode, recalled how this was how his relationship with God was after he first came to know him in his county jail cell. He did not know why. He just knew that he trusted that his soul was saved, despite his flaws. He was not worried about earning God’s approval, even though he was just sentence to life without parole for an awful crime. He was confident in God’s love for him and his status as a beloved child of God. Then, as Elliot recalled, he became a respected pastor in prison, and started studying God’s word more and more. Elliot snapped out of the nostalgia and made a statement that gave me, as a full time doctorate student, the chills. He said, “The more knowledge I gained, the less I trusted God.”
I am obviously not anti-knowledge. I have been in some seminary for most of my adult life. The goal is not to shun biblical knowledge, nor other types of knowledge. The goal is to let that knowledge penetrate our hearts. Like Lewis, like SaintThérèse, we need to be melted by our biblical knowledge. We must not let our intelligence be a badge of honor to place on our chest or a diploma to place on our walls. We must let our knowledge destroy and rebuild our hearts regularly, and transform us back into children, dependent on our Father, and in awe of he who died for us.
David Young had highlighted a few lines in Story of a Soulthat read,
The heart of a child does not seek riches and glory (even the glory of heaven). She understands that this glory belongs by right to her brothers, the angels and saints. Her own glory will be the reflected glory which shines on her Mother’s forehead. What this child asks for is Love. She knows only one thing: to love You, O Jesus.
We discussed what this childlike attitude looks like. A child never seeks riches and a glory. A young child’s desires have little to do with fame and finances. They do not long for respect nor status. The heart of a child wants one thing only: to be loved by her mother. She knows one thing, the love of her mom… and she is confident of her mother’s love in return. The Christian is afforded the luxury of never needing anything more out of life than to love and to be loved by her Creator. This is the top priority of a child. This should be our top priority too.
This can be hard to accept. We earn everything else in this world, so naturally we want to earn the love of our Father. David talked about how prisoners have this problem to a greater extent than the outside world. They committed a crime in their past, and for the rest of their lives they are trying to prove to the world that they are not a criminal. Everything in prison is given and taken away based on their merits, even down to life’s most basic needs such as a decent meal or hygiene supplies. Everything they have in life that is good can be earned when they are good and will be taken away when they are bad. Their very reputation was in fact taken away, and for most prisoners, it will never be given back to them.
Those of us on the outside live by a similar merit system. We work our way up the professional and social ladders based off what we have to offer the world: intelligence, money, beauty, talent, etc… One to many mistakes though, and we are knocked down. The sort of car that we drive, the square footage of our homes, the kind of clothes that we wear, and the brand of food and drink we consume, these are all dependent on what we have earned, and all can be taken away at a moments notice.
There is one status however that is there, consistently and invariably, and has as strong of an impact in our lives as we allow it to, and that is the status of a being a child. We may have had a poor excuse of what it means to be a parent, but the status is still there. We are someone’s child. Someone knows us, or they did. We matter, at least to some extent if not the greatest extent, to somebody, somewhere, at sometime. We will never cease to be a son or daughter of our parents.
Now, when one removes the sin nature and imperfections of an earthly parent, and views this through the lens of an all powerful, loving Creator, our status before him is more concrete than any other status we could ever dream of. It is more than consistent. It is eternal. We are his children, and that is exactly how God wishes us to approach him, with that childlike confident who knows little more than the Good Parent loves us.
Saint Thérèse wrote,
O my Jesus! What is your answer to all my follies? Is there a soul more little, more powerless than mine? Nevertheless even because of my weakness, it has pleased you, O Lord, to grant my little childish desires…”
Those of us who are parents have been given an incredible lens to view this from too. We know that our children are not working on a merit based system. We know that their status as our children is unchanged, on their best days and on their worst. There may be times when we praise them. There may be times when they let us down. But there is never a moment when they cease to have our love or loose their status as our dearly beloved children.
So switching from the lens of an infant to the parent, let’s look at the lens of the Good Parent towards the infant: What is it that we expect from our small children? Truth be told we do not expect much. We do attempt to teach them and train them. We lay down the house rules that are put in place to protect them and others, but after that, we simply expect to enjoy them and they enjoy us. We do not put strenuous demands on them. We do not come home from work and demand they sit in solitude in front of us for six hours. We just want to spend time with them, to hear about their day, to laugh with them, and watch them play. If our toddler breaks the rules we would never dream of kicking them out, or bringing up their mistakes again, day in and day out. In fact, our hearts would melt the first time they sincerely apologized. The Good Parent would jump at the chance to forgive their dear child the moment she said “I’m sorry.” The illustration can go on and on… You see the point.
Becoming little children in the eyes of God is not only extremely beneficial for us, it’s the proper place Christ would have us be in. All of us theology students who have been reading Spurgeon since we have been in diapers, all the legalists whose relationship with God is a series of checklists, all the pastors who slave their lives away, trying to lead their flocks well, all of those with low-spiritual-self-esteem who are constantly caring the weight of their mistakes on their shoulders… they can all relax. God prefers that each one of them come to him as a child, helpless, dependent, needing nothing out of this life but for his love and acceptance, no matter what yesterdays mistakes were or what tomorrow’s will be. The status of child will remain, and the priority of love will prevail.
I remember when my son was born, after the the nurses laid him in a warm bed while they tended to his mom. I had a moment alone with him. He had stopped crying for a moment, and in the corner of the room, between only he and I, with no clue the adventures that awaited us, we locked eyes. I choked up a bit as I introduced myself, and informed him that I was his Daddy, and would be taking care of him from now on. It was one of the most emotional moments of my entire life as my son and I gazed looked into each other’s eyes. It was love at first sight, just because he was my boy… That was it. He had not done anything for me. He had not preformed positively or failed miserably. He was simply my son and that was all I needed to be melted by his eyes. (Come to find out that he couldn’t see me at all, and was probably staring at the undefined blur that was blocking the light, but it was a fun thought anyways). I have had, as I am sure many parents have had, moments of holding my child close, and embracing his gaze. Knowing that he does not have the proper words to say, nor would I expect him to say anything… We just enjoy one another. That’s all that is expected out of either parties. Just sharing in the moment together. These are some of the most special times between a Good Parent and a child. Why do we feel the incessant need to complicate our relationship with God more than this simple picture? Just gazing and enjoyment. Remember, it is HE who desires us to be small children, not a cop out on us.
Sometimes, before I wake my son up to take a bath and get ready for school, I’ll take a second to rub his head or his back, and just look at him and love him. That’s all I am doing in that moment. I can only imagine how God looks at us sometimes… just in love. It does not matter that we are dirty, he knows the bath is coming. It does not matter what will happen to us in school, whether we will preform good or bad, whether we will be bullied, honored, or suspended… in those moments, good or bad, he simply loves his children. I can only partially imagine the love he has for those he calls his sons and daughters. Likewise, I cannot begin to imagine the pain of a father who looks on his children with love while they have chosen to ignore him. Either way, the love is there and it takes priority. The father in the Prodigal Sonwouldn’t even let his son deliver his first sentence of excuses. He simply met him where he was, embraced him, and celebrated him. Our God loves us, in good times and bad. In prison and out of prison. While loving him and serving others or while cursing him and destroying others. The love of a Good Parent remains.
My friends in prison had a choppy example of what a good earthly parent should be, to say the least. But they all resonated to these writings by Saint Thérèse. They were thrilled to become small children, gazing up at the loving eyes of their savior… no matter how blurry those images may get from time to time, they were happy to trust the Good Parent.