Is it childish to be a Christian?
Many people who grow up attending church stop as they get older. Some suggest that Christianity is really only for children and that faith in God is a childish way of making sense of the world. Jesus does talk about child-like faith, but does Christian faith need to be childish?
It is true that Christian religion, as all human religions, can be used as a way of avoiding the big problems that all humans face. Everyone needs security and fulfilment, which we can never fully find in day-to-day life. As a result, some people project these needs onto religion, hoping it will provide a form of safety and emotional assurance. I see it sometimes when people choose old Sunday School songs for weddings and funerals. A superficial Christianity also sometimes promotes a “me-first” attitude: if I’m alright with God then I can ignore everyone else. But even more profound faith can sometimes lead to a childish dogmatism, refusing to accept that Christians will face difficulties and doubts. Critics will argue, ‘Doesn’t all Christianity really encourage childish ways of thinking and behaving’?
Sometimes Christianity is also made out to be morally childish. It promotes feelings of sinfulness and guilt, also claiming that human beings are incapable of living genuinely good lives. As a result, some people say that Christianity promotes a “can’t do” attitude, meaning that people lose any motivation to grow up morally. Sigmund Freud, in his book The Future of an Illusion, argued in this way: religious ideas are ‘illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.’ Rather than dealing with these feelings properly, Freud supposed, religions teach people to believe in childish illusions outside themselves. In some cases, Christianity might just be a refusal to grow up.
But is this really what trusting and following Jesus Christ means? As we look through Jesus’ life and those of his closest followers we see human beings confronting directly the most fundamental of human problems: death and sin, sickness and failure, poverty and injustice. We don’t see childish foolishness in Jesus. He’s not disabled by these great opponents of human life and flourishing. Instead, we see His response in love and healing, forgiveness and grace. Jesus’ moral teaching has a depth and purity that is unmatched. Yet He proclaimed that all this came from a childlike dependence on His Father.
Among Jesus’ close followers we also see a commitment to depend on God. But this dependence does not lead to childish wilfulness or refusal to confront their own sin. Rather, it leads to a willingness to confront one another over the deepest aspects of their character. The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church: ‘Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. Regarding evil be like infants, but in your thinking like adults.’ (1 Corinthians 14:20). He expects that Christian ‘love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.’ (Romans 12:9). The early Christians changed the world through following their Lord.
So what is the difference? A faith that makes us childish is a self-centred faith. It demands that God satisfies our needs. It expects that God will shield us from difficulties and protect us from awkward doubts. Instead, a child-like faith focusses on the character and actions of God in Jesus. This faith trusts that God ‘will use even our present difficulties for our good and His glory’ (Joanie Yoder). The Christian faith is for all, children and adults alike.