Childlike or Childish?

Last week was the week of our local County Fair. We missed having a Fair last year, so people were pretty excited to go. The exhibits, the rides, the animals, the events and attractions, the food, the games…there was a little something for everyone. I love watching the faces of the children– their wonder and excitement is contagious as they see the various farm animals, or ride the Merry-Go-Round, or discover the joys of Cotton Candy and Elephant Ears.

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I grew up with the County Fair– not just as a visitor, but as a participant. And I am encouraged to see a new generation showing animals, exhibiting craft projects, learning new skills, and having fun. Some of them will return as 4-H parents; some to work as judges or to volunteer at a booth for local churches, clubs or businesses ; some to visit from out of town with their own children and grandchildren. There is something about a County Fair that is simple and pure–something that can inspire childlike wonder, even in adults.

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Childlikeness is something we are called to by Christ. He loved children, and He told His disciples that if they wanted to be part of God’s Kingdom, they would have to become like little children (See Matthew 18:2-4). We are to pray to Our Father, having childlike faith in His good will and His promise to hear us. Childlike faith is not “blind” faith. Children are often frightened by the big animals or loud noises at the Fair. And they tend, (especially small children) to want to hold hands or stay close to those they know. But they also want to see and experience “everything”– because they trust that their parents and the Fair organizers will not put them in jeopardy. A childlike attitude and trust in God brings us the kind of joy and peace we see in children as they discover, rejoice, explore, and enjoy life– especially during Fair week.

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This is not to be confused with childishness. While Jesus encouraged His disciples to have childlike faith, He reminded them that the “children of Israel” had often behaved with childish disobedience and complaining. God is a loving Father. He wants children who follow Him out of love, and who trust Him completely. But He will also lovingly discipline those who have developed a childish rebellious streak. I didn’t see much childishness at this year’s fair, but when I did, it was not exhibited by children, but by those who consider themselves adults. Tantrums, selfish demands, complaining about the weather or the crowds or the noise… While the children at the fair were gracious “winners” and “losers” at the shows, patient and content (for the most part) as they waited for rides or food, some of the adults were grouchy, whine-y, and difficult to please. I’m sure I missed a couple of epic meltdowns by toddlers, and some tears from a few exhibitors, but most of the children were just thrilled to be able to go to the Fair again.

It is easy to recognize and call out childish behavior in others. Obnoxious, foolish, self-centered, unreasonable– those are just some of the adjectives such behavior warrants. A childlike attitude is also easy to recognize– eager, grateful, joyful, hopeful, teachable, honest and open, loving and caring. Oddly, I know several adults who sneer at childlike behavior, even as they exhibit childish behaviors. They brag about their very “adult” approach– cynical, “realistic,” confident, “tough,” clever, independent, and self-sufficient. But they are stressed, angry, bored, distrustful, lonely, and sad. Our loving Father wants so much better for us! Being with childish people is tiring and depressing; being around childlike people is refreshing, joyful, and encouraging!

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I’ve been thinking this week about my own attitude. The County Fair is finished for this year, but each day comes with wonders and struggles, competitions, waiting in lines, and dealing with crowds. Do I face them with an attitude that is childlike or childish? Do I trust God to be with me when I go through new experiences, even if they are a bit daunting? Or do I complain and demand my own way, expecting to “win” every game or competition, dragging myself and others through stress and tears? Father, help me to see Your world through childlike eyes of wonder and gratitude. Help me to see others with the love and joy You alone can inspire.

“I Would Prefer Not To..”

Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.

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Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.

So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.

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God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. And every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.

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One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.

Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which seems to be singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse.

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What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey?

10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com

God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”

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