Imagining a Childlike Faith

A Peek at Mandy Smith’s book, Unfettered

Cali Yee / 6.10.21

Depending on who you ask, children are believed to be different things. They can be stereotyped as beacons of pure innocence, cherubim who dwell on the clouds in idyllic benevolence. Or children can be monsters, the uncivil tyrants of Lord of the Flies. Parents largely think both are true. Or so I hear.  

These stereotypes form the backdrop of Mandy Smith’s truly delightful new book, Unfettered, which explores the concept of childlikeness within and beyond Western culture. Specifically, experiencing childlike faith invites us to rest, receive, and respond to God’s grace with fresh eyes. Smith asks and answers the question: What would it be like to rediscover God’s heart and mission in a childlike way?

Smith broaches the topic of incompleteness and dependency through what she calls “the void” in her chapter titled “A Theology of Childlikeness.” I find myself tempted, upon reading the words “gaping void,” to run away and grasp onto any semblance of control I may think I possess. How dare I think my attempt for control will prove to me anything more than my fierce dependence on things outside of myself. The acknowledgement of this scary and unknown void may be the antidote to what Smith calls “adultish despair.”

Whether they call it a lack, emptiness, abyss, void, chasm, wall, or sacred wound, all these thinkers and many others acknowledge that something is missing. Together they say that human life ultimately drives us at full speed to the end of ourselves — where we can no longer control, fix, endure, or understand. And thankfully, not only do these wise friends present us with the terrifying reality of this abyss, they all find some kind of wonderful possibility hidden in all that’s missing. In a culture obsessed with consuming, it will take some time to learn comfort with empty spaces. In a culture ashamed of incompleteness, it will feel raw to confess our need. 

Of course, Scripture knows a little something about empty spaces. The scriptural metaphors of purging, purifying, and pruning all speak of something absent. A purged system feels the lack of what it has given up, purified metal remembers its dross, a pruned branch feels its phantom limb. Scripture sees the potential in fasting (an absence of food), solitude (an absence of company), silence (an absence of speech), and Sabbath (an absence of productivity). Jesus’s own emptying invites emptying (see Phil. 2:5–7). Even the tomb at the center of our hope is powerful because it has been vacated. While Scripture acknowledges the ache of the emptiness, it also sees great potential in how God can fill it. It is deeply unpleasant to let ourselves confront what’s missing, but if it is a place where God reveals himself, what might be possible if we take the risk to feel our not-enoughness?

What a desperate situation we’re in! We’re tormented by our own humanness, ashamed of things fundamental to our limited human state. Yet this experience of our not-enoughness is simply the human experience. As children we were used to the discomfort of it. We knew we needed something or someone outside of ourselves and were not surprised or ashamed. In the childlikeness of the kingdom, there’s a better possibility than our adultish despair. That sense that something’s missing is a wound where something used to be, not just a ghost limb but a ghost being, a knotted scar that was once an umbilical cord. Every experience of what’s lacking doesn’t have to cause our usual knee-jerk reaction of shame, anxiety, and despair. This is just simple recognition that we’re designed to be in deep communion with Someone. And if we will be small and unashamed long enough to switch out of our desperate habit of trying to be God, we will find a new habit that allows us to be with him. (p. 169-170)