Childlike, 1: The Delusion of Self-Sufficiency

The veil of sleep had lifted several long minutes ago, and Madeline was all alone in the room. All alone between the bars of her crib, awake now for what seemed like an eternity. She might have been hungry, might have been frightened, might have been lonely, but one thing was certain: She was in the throes of full-on panic.

Mother heard as soon as she opened the back door. Madeline had found an entirely new pitch above her normal pitch, and was wailing away in it, the siren of distress sounding from deep within the house — Find me! Help!

Anyone who has raised children knows the sound and feel of a baby wailing to be gotten. There is a primal, almost irresistible instinct to respond. So the signal found its mark, accomplished its purpose, and she was still teary-eyed when Mother carried her outside to me. The hair on the back of her head — the only place hair has grown so far — was matted and damp from the exertion of crying out for rescue. She softly hiccuped for air as the rhythm of panic subsided.

Ask someone to write a list of what makes an adult, and it will be filled with the various forms of self-sufficiency. Adults make do. Adults solve problems. Adults fix things, weigh options, make lists of goals and priorities. Depending on whom you ask, no responsible adult is without a five-year plan, a ten-year plan and a retirement plan. Whatever else is true about an adult in the midst of a trial, we all know that he or she will furnish a solution.

But what a baby knows is that they do not have the solution. Mother has the solution. So a baby will invest all of her energy, every last breath, trying to summon Mother. The survival instinct of a small child is hard-wired with a sense of reliance; the survival instinct of an adult is essentially self-reliance.

Jesus told his disciples, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What he meant by “like children” has so many possible applications that I will revisit the statement again and again.

But one thing it means — one of the first things it means — is that we must abandon all delusions of self-sufficiency. Like Baby Madeline, wailing away on her back, all four limbs raking impatiently at the air, I must embrace the fact that I am not equal to the task of rescuing myself.

When I confess my need of God, it cannot be in the sense that an adult says they need another adult — needing a little help from a peer — but in the sense that I am helpless. It has to be the cry of a child for his father. “God helps those who help themselves” has to be one of the worst statements of God’s methods ever uttered. It is the opposite of what Jesus is teaching his disciples. God helps those who confess that they cannot go on without him.

And here is an even more urgent and basic lesson about self-sufficiency: I am by no means entering the kingdom of heaven by my own wits and hard work. All of my most valiant efforts to save myself amount to a newborn’s attempt to climb up and out of the crib, leave the house and somehow procure what she needs. Am I going to be that type of disciple? Striving to earn what the Father has freely offered? Will I insult his grace by trying to supplement what Jesus has done? Will I turn from his resplendent wealth to rummage for a solution in the poverty of my soul?

I pray he won’t allow it.

Before commencing with the lists of goals, solutions, pros/cons and preferred outcomes, let my heart align itself with the Father’s. Before I try to save myself, let me cry out from my place of insufficiency and watch for him to respond, like he always does, like the best of fathers at the sound of a helpless child.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’”   {Matthew 18:1–6}
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” {2 Corinthians 12:9—10}