Children are open, like open books. They stand in front of us with wide-open eyes; they let us look freely into their little souls. As long as we let them be children, they will tell us right away what they feel: what they like and what they do not like. Genuine children never keep quiet in front of a person’s face and then talk about him behind his back. Such cowardly deception is simply not found in children. Children are completely open. They always reveal whatever is in their hearts. And this is how a childlike soul acts in the church of believers. If they see something that should not be, they speak their mind - directly and at once. They are completely honest and straightforward.
The eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel contains deep words of Jesus about the childlike spirit. To be a disciple should mean to be a learner, to be a child. But the disciples were often unchildlike. They wanted to learn from Jesus, but they were still not of a childlike spirit. They came and asked, “Who is the greatest among us? Who will play the main part; who will play the first violin? Who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God?” That was when Jesus called a little child before them and said, “Unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1–5).
If we are like children, we will not think of asking who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God. If we demand to be the greatest and first, we will end up being smaller than the smallest. Those bent on having the right of disposal, on speaking the final word in the church, will not enter the kingdom of God...
Jesus said, “Whoever receives a child, receives me.” When the church receives a tiny child, it receives Jesus, truly Jesus himself. And the word “child” includes all those who have childlike hearts: those who are chaste, who have pure hearts, who do not want to be great, who are unable to show any great accomplishments. Whoever receives such people receives Jesus. Whoever has respect for such a person has respect for Jesus. The only spirit Jesus acknowledges is the childlike spirit. Thus one of the sternest things Jesus ever said becomes clear: “If anyone of you corrupts one of these little children, so that he or she can no longer be a child, it would be better for you to be drowned with a millstone around your neck.” Jesus says it would be better for him not to live: “Woe to the person who is the cause of this corruption! If your hand or foot causes you to sin, chop it off and throw it away. If your eye entices you to evil, pluck it out and throw it away.” And he warns us not to hold little children in contempt: “Their angels always have access to my Father” (Matt. 18:6–10).
Remarkable words! How infinitely deep was the insight that set these words, about cutting off the hand or foot and tearing out the eye, next to the words about children. It is better for the church to have the eye that oversees everything torn out, or the hand that guides cut off, than for children to lose their childlike spirit. It is better to die than to corrupt children, to take away their childlike spirit.
Anything that puts an end to childhood is corruption. Anything that destroys a child’s true nature is corruption. We despise children not only when we mislead them to sin, but when we in any way deprive them of their childlikeness. Therefore Jesus calls us to hold children in the highest esteem, to love the childlike spirit, to long for nothing other than to become like children.
Adapted from Johann Christoph Arnold, ed. Eberhard Arnold, Modern Spiritual Masters (Rifton, NY: Plough, 2011). The original meeting transcript from October 13, 1935, can be read in our digital archive.