What does it mean to become childlike? Traditionally, we have juxtaposed the virtue of being childlike with the vice of childishness. Childishness is when we give a greater priority to what is less important, when we stubbornly insist on having our own way, and when we refuse to put others’ good before our own. This vice reflects a self-centeredness that is typical of children, the relief of which is the goal of good parenting and education. Being childlike, though, is very different. When our Lord encourages us to become like children, he is encouraging us to imitate their humility.
What, then, is humility? It is a quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits to God and to others for God’s sake. St. Bernard of Clairvaux says that it is a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself. In this regard there is another popular definition of humility that is useful for us: seeing ourselves as God sees us. In this way, informed by the virtue of humility, we see our flaws and weaknesses, but we also see our strengths, successes, and virtues. Most importantly, we see ourselves as beloved sons and daughters of God who derive all of our dignity and worth from being loved by Him.
Think about the position that children have before their parents or guardians: they are totally dependent. Young children are completely dependent on others for even their most basic needs and survival. This is the sort of humility that ought to mark our disposition towards God. In order to make it to Heaven one day, we will have to realize that we are totally dependent on God. Though we are asked to cooperate in God’s work of salvation through our good works and meritorious actions, we must recognize that it is God who saves us.
What does this mean for us? First, humility is the foundation of the spiritual life. That is, seeing ourselves as God sees us, recognizing our total dependency on Him, should motivate us to constantly seek His help in prayer. It also allows us to look honestly at ourselves to see our own weaknesses and sins and to confess them, both in our daily examination of conscience and in regularly going to confession. Similarly, the virtue of humility has an important role in removing pride. The epistle of St. James tells us, “God resisteth the proud and and giveth his grace to the humble” (4:6). When we recognize our dependence on the Lord, He gives us an increase of grace in order to help us grow in holiness.
Being humble means not just becoming like a child, but it also means imitating our Lord Himself, who says, “Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt. 11:29). If we must become childlike, it is because He has become childlike, being Himself the Son of God. It was Christ who became so humble, so lowly, as to take on human flesh even though He is God, and who consented to die the gruesome death of a criminal, all to be obedient to the will of His Heavenly Father and to save us from our sins.
Christ promises us that if we become humble like little children we can be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. This desire should imbue all that we do. Every choice we make should be informed by our desire for Heaven. When we choose to do good, when we recognize ourselves as God sees us in humility, we choose Heaven over the things of this earth. Today we ask the Lord for the grace to be like humble children and for our hearts to be on fire with desire for Heaven.
Written for the radio show “Readings and Reflections” on Redeemer Radio. Aired on August 10.