Becoming Childlike Learners

August 7, 2012

“[Jesus] called a child, whom he put among [the disciples], and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-3)

Scholarly discussion—in which, I can assure you, children do not take part—revolves around just what childlike qualities Jesus had in mind when he talked about entering the kingdom of heaven. Was it their helpless dependence? their innocence? their lowly stature in the community? their teachability? Within the gospel context, Dale Bruner favors the notion of childlike humility based on their low social status, which required them to listen and obey (Bruner, Matthew II, 208). From an educator’s standpoint, I see several aspects of childhood that set us up for fruitful exploration:

1. Children are wired to learn. Innate curiosity is a strong motivator.

2. Children thrive in a guided learning environment. Curiosity is expected and welcomed but not unbridled, for the child’s own safety. Listening and obeying are essential.

3. Children know they don’t know everything, and humility accompanying their questions is the appropriate attitude.

4. Children trust their teachers and take their words at face value. It is up to teachers to be truthful and trustworthy, though the wider community has responsibility to hold teachers accountable, as we all too sadly recognize in today’s world. A teacher who misguides or abuses a child-learner is despicable. This is Jesus’ point in Matt 18:6-9.

So how this applies to teaching adults about marriage and sexuality:

1. Our people may have forgotten it, but they are wired to learn. It is a spiritual and emotional issue whether a person is ready to learn, not primarily a cognitive one. However, I know adults whose intellectual “curiosity” was really masked spiritual rebellion, echoing the question that rattled around in Eve’s mind, “Did God really say . . .?” Because this is always a possibility, a wise teacher is also a spiritual director, helping learners anchor in God’s Word for God’s sake to do God’s will. “Unless you change and become like children . . .”

On the subject of marriage, people bring all sorts of experience and history to the learning environment. The teacher’s prayer is that God would instill in learners a holy desire to relearn and reorient their thinking about marriage and sexuality to conform with God’s design. A good deal of repentance is required, and in fact is necessary for learning to take place. If our personal sexual experiences define “normal,” then how open can we be to God’s authoritative word on the subject? “Unless you change and become like children . . .”

2. A prepared learning environment sets parameters for teaching and learning. Our parameters are scripture-based, and our consciences are held captive by the Word of God. This is why it is imperative to develop a curriculum of Bible study on marriage, as opposed to leaving discussion completely open-ended at the whim of the participants. It is also why teacher and learner alike come to the learning task with the mutual desire and drive to know the truth and to commit themselves to it. “Unless you change and become like children . . .”

3. We know that we adults do not know everything, and our childlike position places us in God’s circle as obedient learners and listeners. It is a statement of faith and commitment to acknowledge that God knows what is right and how to act, and that God has revealed his will to us in his Word (2nd Helvetic, BOC 5.001-5.003). Sometimes a child must be told, “Because I said so,” and obedience does not come naturally, as any two-year-old will demonstrate. Nevertheless, the discipline and order God applies to our lives is for our own good and for the well-being of the community of faith. And God’s promise is that his children will experience his love if they will listen and obey (Jn 15:8-11). “Unless we change and become like children . . .”

4. We trust God not to have misled us, and can trust God’s Word to lead us into all truth (Ps 25:5; Jn 17:17). We do not second-guess God’s intention or his teaching based on our limited experience or our feelings on the matter. Dr. Mark Patterson suggests the following image: Christian teaching is a top-down exercise (from God to us), not bottom-up (our experience defining what God must have meant). Dr. Parker Palmer prefers the circle of learners gathered around the truth they are all trying to discern and live within. Both illustrations understand that God’s truth is outside of us (as God is wholly ‘other’—Martin Buber). Learning entails internalizing the truth to change our thinking/beliefs and incorporating it into our life to change our behavior. “Unless you change and become like children . . .”

5. The role of teacher is very important, and a bad teacher bears a strict judgment (James 3:1). This thought will be developed in my next post as we explore Matthew 18:6-9 and the care we must exercise in teaching ministry.


2 Responses to “Becoming Childlike Learners”

  1. Jodie Says:

    Hi Mary,

    Interesting comments. I would add one more crucial aspect of the way children learn: It is mostly by imitation. Children listen to what you say and watch what you do, and if they have to choose between them they go with what you do, not what you say. They are very keen on body language. They learn by example.

    The question then is what examples are they learning from?

    (I think it is people who aspire to have authority that project the quality of obedience to authority as a childlike attribute. But as anyone who has raised children knows, starting with the ‘terrible two’s”, and maybe sooner, their most striking posture towards authority is their consistent testing of it. One tries to bend but not break that spirit.)

    Paul says “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”

    We need to give our children good marriages to imitate.


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