I had imagined mothering a large family would warm my world like a well-lit wood-burning stove. You would open the doors to our house and, like the music box of my childhood, a singular, sweet tune would play. You’d be welcomed by giggling children, prancing about like good-natured foals in a grassy field.
Moving across the world and living in a different culture didn’t squash my dreams of a houseful of children — it just made them more flavorful. We would serve the poor together, enjoy simple pleasures, and raise goats for the glory of God.
I am now six children in. The music box of our home often plays in a minor key, and on any given day my good-natured foals may look more like moody house cats hiding under the bed, ready to claw.
Children are spicy, not merely sweet. The weight of raising them is so complex it’s tempting to throw in the towel and settle for a hobby like collecting spoons. When their pain is your pain, when you sin in front of them and against them, when their behavior has you cringing in embarrassment, the task feels impossible and somewhat akin to death.
The Bible says kids are gifts from God, even a reward (Psalm 127:3), but if we’re honest, some days they feel more like leeches, sucking us dry of all time and energy.
Oddly Wrapped Gifts
Where we live now, people stick to one or two kids. They count our parade in disbelief and click their tongues in disapproval. It’s common to hear grown-ups here call children, especially the boisterous ones, little satans. That’s pretty offensive. For all my failures as a parent, at least I don’t call them that.
However, aren’t we Westerners often guilty of pursuing our personal goals so ruthlessly that our children seem in the way of bigger and better things? They are costly to our bodies, schedules, and wallets. Their little years can feel like a case of chickenpox, a season to get through as quickly as possible.
It’s natural to call children gifts from God when they emerge from the womb, stand on stage with combed hair, and make quilted forts in tranquility. In such moments, we swell with pride at our vibrant olive shoots and shiny arrows. But are they still rewards from our Lord when their anger is red-hot, they’ve been vomiting all night, and they harbor stony hearts?
Lord of the Little Ones
When such rewards look as desirable as a pair of socks unwrapped on Christmas morning, we look to the Giver of all things. Clustered inside of Mark 9:33–10:45, Jesus makes not one but three important statements about the value of little ones. We must close our fleshly eyes and set our minds on the Spirit to see them as Jesus does (Romans 8:5). Here, we discover that, to God, children are nothing like unwanted socks and everything like reward.
Greatest Among the Lowest
First, Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37). The context of these words helps us make sense of what Jesus is saying. On their way to Capernaum, the disciples passed the time by ranking each other’s importance. Instead of reprimanding them immediately, however, Jesus waits until they are reclining in a home. Perhaps he thought the issue called for a quiet room with quieted hearts.
He asks them about their conversation earlier. Where words once flowed like the milk and honey of Canaan, they suddenly evaporate. The disciples squirm in awkward silence (Mark 9:34). Jesus doesn’t need them to answer; he knows every case and point. But instead of belittling their desire for greatness, he corrects their means of measurement. The real measuring stick is lowliness, the man who is “last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
“We serve the lowest in order to gain the Greatest.”
He has their attention. They curiously watch the child called into the middle of the room. It’s here Jesus tells them that by welcoming children in his name, they welcome God himself. To become a servant to the weak, to the likes of children — those who normally come last and contribute little — is to understand and enter into the heart of God. We serve the lowest in order to gain the Greatest.
Why are children gifts from this first statement of Jesus? Because they shine a spotlight on true greatness and usher in God himself.
Protector of the Weak
Jesus’s second statement about kids, just five verses later, is a grim warning. Still seated among the small, Jesus says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). Does this warning sound over-the-top in an age that cultivates and celebrates the sexual curiosities and “gender choices” of children? Is a drowned man too violent a picture for those who lead children away from Jesus? In a society that prizes personal truths, such a warning may sound irrelevant at best, morbid and immoral at worst.
However, if we pass over Jesus’s words too quickly, we miss the protective heart of a father who treasures children. The judgment awaiting those who mislead Jesus’s most vulnerable followers is grave and guaranteed. Scripture is full of the Father’s protective care of kids, commanding fathers not to “provoke [their] children to anger” (Ephesians 6:4) and assuring us that the angels of believing children “always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).
Why are children gifts from this second statement of Jesus? Because only the most valued gifts require this extent of safe-keeping.
Kids Hold the Key
The third statement is found in Mark 10:13–16. Jesus’s attention has turned from the Pharisees toward his tiniest listeners, who flutter about him like butterflies on sweet-smelling hyacinth. He blesses their small heads with what must have been a smile, even laughter. Such tenderness is lost on the disciples, who rebuke the families for wasting valuable time. The Lord is grieved by their jumbled priorities. The biggest advocate of the young turns their rebukes around: “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14–15).
Kids hold the key to the kingdom. Children enter the world wearing nothing and needing everything. They cry for things they can’t even name. God isn’t surprised that we come filthy and poor. It’s his good plan. We don’t look to our 4-year-olds to pitch in on the mortgage or do their chores to earn a hug. How much more does our perfect Father love us through Jesus, not merit of our own? Instead of rebuking the children, Jesus invites them into his very embrace. It’s an invitation with one requirement: weakness.
“On their best and worst days, children are forever rewards and gifts.”
Why are children gifts from this third statement of Jesus? Because they teach us what our God is like and how salvation works.
The More Children, the Jollier
These three statements made by Jesus are sandwiched by adults acting grown-up in the worst kind of way — people grown-away from the One they need most: religious leaders trying to trick Jesus on the hot topic of divorce to look smart (Mark 10:2), a rich man who walks away from true treasure (Mark 10:17–31), and the Sons of Thunder calling dibs on the VIP seats of heaven (Mark 10:35–40).
The world may continue to call kids little satans. If we aren’t careful, we too will overlook and resent these noisy, messy, impossible mercies. Our houseful isn’t as neatly packaged as I had imagined. Our bathroom hosts many tearful retreats. Nevertheless, Jesus is clear that on their best and worst days, children are forever rewards and gifts.
Above one of my daughter’s beds is a canvas she painted of our stick-figure family, with these words crayoned above their heads: “The More Children, the Jollier!” What a good little theologian.