When you’re a teenager, few things are as humiliating as being treated like a little kid. You want to be thought of as independent and responsible. You want people to respect you. You want to establish your own identity. In other words, you want to stop being a child—which is precisely why it’s so frustrating when you’re treated like one.
Even though I’m in my 30’s, I still find that my inner teenager comes out from time to time when I sense that I’m being talked down to. “I’m an adult, for goodness sake, and the least I should be able to get is a little respect!” Or so I think.
Perhaps that’s why I feel uneasy whenever I read the book of 1 John. Time and time again throughout that letter, John addresses his readers as children. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 Jn. 2:1). “And now, little children, abide in him” (1 Jn. 2:28). “Little children, let no one deceive you” (1 Jn. 3:7). “Little children, let us love not in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18). “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21). There are many more examples, but I think you get the point.
All of it throws me off balance and makes me ask: What’s John’s deal? Does he think I’m some snotty-nosed little kid running around eating Happy Meals? Does he think he’s writing to a first-grade Sunday school class?
Yet if I silence my self-justifying tendencies for a moment, I’ll see that John isn’t talking down to me or making me feel insignificant. Instead, he’s helping me see a deep mystery of discipleship, namely that following Jesus is in many ways analogous to the experience of childhood.
Think about it. When you’re a child, do you meet your own needs? Do you have extensive knowledge of how the world works? Do you make your own rules and call your own shots? Well, unless you were a remarkably prodigious child, probably not. Children don’t do any of those things, and neither do we when we follow Jesus.
Do we meet our own needs? Nope. We depend daily on grace that we receive from our Father. Nothing good in our lives is ever brought about by our own strength or piety.
Do we know how the world works? Hardly. We’re profoundly ignorant. We don’t see the path of wisdom clearly. We misjudge at every turn. We have to learn the same lesson hundreds of times.
Do we make our own rules and call our own shots? I sure hope not. Following Jesus means giving up the reins. It means submitting to authority. It means taking all of our cues from the word of God.
John wants us to see that every Christian is a child: dependent, naïve, subservient. And lest we find that too upsetting or demeaning, he makes sure that we comprehend another aspect of childhood that coincides with the Christian life: love. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn. 3:1).
Sure, being a child means having limitations. Lots of them. But being a child also means being loved. Lavishly.
John wasn’t the only person in the Bible to call us children. Jesus did the same thing. But his intention was not to dress us down or put us in our place. His intention was to invite us to himself: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
In the end, maybe we shouldn’t resent being called little children. After all, that’s who Jesus loves. And whether you’re nineteen or ninety, you’re never too old for his embrace.