Little Children: Cognitive Acceptance and Spiritual Gifts

I have always found it fascinating that our Lord told as many stories as he preached sermons. In fact, Christ usually included stories and parables in his discourses to help communicate his point to his audience. Stories resonate with people, and they tend to understand and remember them better than sermons. I had a friend comment to me one day that she remembered sermons better because of the stories the pastor integrated into sermon.

Ironically, Christ also told stories to be cryptic. He told stories not only because his audience would remember his discourses and truths better but also because he could communicate to the right people. Not everyone understood his stories (nor that his stories were about them), but Christ proclaims that the Father has obscured his teachings (including his parables) “from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25).

How interesting it is that Christ used the term infant to describe the people who could understand his teachings. At first, it seems like Christ might be speaking ironically. His words about God withholding truth from the wise correspond to Paul’s statement to the Corinthians about God choosing the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. Christ, thus, might be playing with meaning here as to who actually might be the more foolish or immature person.

Nevertheless, our Lord has decided to use one of the lowest members of his society for an analogy of his followers. Though Christ probably had a social comparison in mind when gave this statement, my study in children’s literature has brought me to a place of one possible understanding.

In studying developmental psychology, I have learned that children think concretely. They do not have the cognitive ability to think abstractly, which will not occur until they reach puberty. Hence, when you tell a child that he must behave because Santa Claus is coming to town, you will see his eyes light up and suddenly you have the best behaved child on the block. This child believes in Santa because you, the parent or teacher or adult figure, have said it is true and what you say must be so.  A child usually cannot comprehend that you are pretending unless you have told him otherwise. (Interestingly, children know what it means to pretend, though they sometimes have trouble understanding the line between pretend and fact.)

Children, further, accept everything their parents tell them because they tend to focus their understanding of relationships around the home. If asked who their best friends are, young children might tell you their mother, father, or sibling. All they really know are those who they have contact with every day, so their association with the word friend happens to be the people most familiar to them. As they grow older, they tend associate their friends with people outside their home.

Further, most of their activities revolve around the house. If asked what the word love means, children will project that meaning onto an individual or action, possibly stating again their parents tell them “I love you” and kiss them good night. Rarely can they conjure an abstract equivalent meaning to love, such as affection, sacrifice, unconditional, and unmerited. They think concretely, so everything about their reality centers on the tangible and familial.

In some regard, we can draw a spiritual application to this psychological behavior. Because children think so concretely, they believe anything you tell them. Followers of Christ perhaps will accept his teachings in this way. They trust their Father’s word almost completely and become defensive when someone says something contrary to his teachings. This is not a blind acceptance, though. Christ says that the Father himself gave them this ability. However, they receive Christ’s teachings as concrete truth, willingly accepting his words with faith and repentance.

Further, Christ uses the most familial term we know to express our relationship with God: he is our Father and we are his children. They have concrete evidence of the Father and his love for them through Jesus Christ’s personhood and his life and death. Christ is also the tangible person with which we associate abstract spiritual terms: the Way, the Truth, and the Life, for example. As proverbial small children, we hold fast to this relationship which encapsulates our need for our Father’s love and our desire to have his Son as our only true friend, all of which God gives us out of his love and good pleasure.

Christ makes several other analogies to his followers and small children. Most of the time, he does so to humble them and demonstrate the severity of their want of love and mercy for their fellow man. Here, however, Christ shows his disciples a different image of their childlike position to their Father. Truly, God has given his children a unique gift in understanding the truths of his Son’s teachings, for they all reveal his character and redemptive design and their need and total dependence on him.


Posted on February 24, 2013, in Children's Literature, Christianity, Meditations, Stephen Parish, Teaching, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I had never made this connection before, Stephen- very astute! All truth is God’s truth, even secular insights into developmental psychology.

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