Lord I believe: help thou my unbelief

Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief – and Child Theology


This paper, I see, has some links with the last one I posted.   It starts with a  passage discarded from the draft of chapter 6 of our book on Matthew 18.1-10.   

 ‘Jesus did not merely welcome a child, to play with her or to do something for her benefit;  Jesus valued the child as a clue to thekingdomofGod, and so received the child into his own quest for and proclamation of the kingdom.  In this story, the child is not received into care as a child in need.  Nor is the child there to receive a  blessing (as in Matthew 19.13-15).  Rather, the silent child, who is simply in the midst,  partners Jesus in the active service of thekingdomofGod, by signing it.

How is the child an agent of the kingdom of God? 

Talk of the child partnering Jesus in active service requires care.    Active service does not imply that the child is asked to do anything that is unnatural to him, or  requires the child to be either a   prodigy or to be trained to a skill.  The child placed by Jesus  is not  made to grow up prematurely.   The child is placed in the midst, in his simple being as a child.   Nothing is asked of him.  He does not speak, or teach, or work.   The child who is mobilised as a key agent in some contemporary  missiological strategies aiming at global transformation is not found in this story.   Could it be that Christians today who make such plans are in danger of repeating the mistake of the first disciples about the nature of thekingdomofGod, and the relation of child, Jesus and kingdom?   Keen to have a great effect, they build organisation and processes to transform the world.  They have their eye on a certain greatness, even though they may be humble, cooperative rather than competitive as individuals.   They see  children as having the  potential to be agents and even leaders in world-transforming mission, and seek to  mobilise them for thekingdomofGodin the world.  Children are then at risk of being instrumentalised.   The discernment on whichallthis is based may be mistaken and exaggerated;  it is certainly not to be grounded in a reading of this text and sits uncomfortably with the way Jesus took.

The child placed in the midst by Jesus is a child and is allowed to be, as a child.  That means the child may come and go.  The child is embraced, but not imprisoned –  at the end of a true embrace, the arms open to release the embraced one,   in respect for his own identity and life (M Volf).   The child is not to be used, or put to work, or flattered and built up with premature public functions.   The child is received not because of his capacity or his potential, but simply as child.     Thus the child is received, perceived and valued in the welcome of Jesus, in the kingdom of God.

But of course those who put a child on a platform believe they are working for thekingdomofGod, and doing itallthe better because the child is in the midst.’


This passage has been taken out of the draft of our book.  It is too closely tied to criticism of Singapore 2011  to fit there.

It has led me to see that the criticism ofSingaporeand of 4/14 needs to be based on more than our reading of Matthew 18, fundamental though that is.   It is too simple to oppose the silent child to the managed-masterful child ofSingapore.


Why?   The smallchild is not to be put on a platform or managed as a public actor.  That is a premature adultisation, abusive.   But the older child and the teenager will and must find ways of acting beyond the family.    Society needs people to grow up to be able to take social responsibility in some way, and the teenage is in many societies the time when that is to be learned.   Teenagers are to be seen as apprentice-adults.   They, colluding with the exploitative entertainment industries, often want to go on being  provided for as hedonist consumers.  But that is not good for them in the long run, and societies cannot afford it; in the short-run, it is dangerous, for it leaves young people bored with lack of purpose, adventure and commitment and they fallinto prodigal trouble (the younger son in Luke 15 seems to have grown up with luxury and servants, and had no vision of life except ever more riotous enjoyment;  he suffered perhaps because unlike his older brother, he was not being trained up to take over the family business).

Teenagers are not adults.  Yet they are different from the child who should not be burdened with any kind of leadership or social responsibility – it is a con when they are.   A misreading of the text, A little child shalllead them, is much to blame for the way unthinking Christians make serious mistakes here.  (A little child shalllead them precisely because a little child does nothing but be a little child, and so not at all a leader; the meaning of this text is the same as the meaning of Mary as compared with Martha.)   Teenagers,  however,  are not little children, and cannot be left to do nothing but be a teenager.  Teenagers are not adults, but they should be apprentice-adults.  In Judaism, which is clearer about this question than Christianity, the teenager bar-mitzvaed takes the Law on himself in an act of speaking and being received and acknowledged.  The apprentice-adult is not left to his own devices.  It is quite clear he still has much to learn and is under authority; and he learns by being accompanied by adults and by sharing progressively in their work.

There are many different ways in which this can be accomplished.  It is part of the value of some kinds of serious sport, that young people are in teams which are trained by competent adults; they are prepared and ordered and debriefed by them.   They are not left alone.  But a key part of the process is when they go out on the field, to play in the match which is the centre-piece of the process.   Then they are exposed; they have to show what they can and will do on their own;  they learn to take responsibility and through the responsibility they grow up.   What they do is indebted toallthe training and preparation they have received, but now it is down to them.

There are many little moments in a smallchild’s life when being oneself alone occurs;  such moments multiply as time goes by,  so that the person is built up.   The teenage apprentice-adult is therefore not a totally new form of being, but is anticipated and prepared for over the years.  But there is still an enormous step-change.   A smallchild may stand alone for a few moments, realise he is alone, be deeply frightened;  then it would be cruel and not constructive to leave him longer.   (When Nathaniel was about three or four we went on holiday inCornwall.  Nearby was a windfarm on a wide open moor.   I wanted to get a photo of him, a little boy,  at the base of one of the great  turbines.  Because it was so tallI had to go some distance away and Nathaniel had to stand alone and see me disappearing into the emptiness.  He wanted to run towards me.  He managed to stay with great courage.  But only for a minute, which must have seemed much longer to him.  Now he is a teenager, it is quite different.)

What it is wrong to demand of a smallchild may be quite right to ask of the apprentice-adult.  To put teenagers into situations where they not merely suffer risk (even babies do that) but have to take risk, and make their own decisions about risk is a good gift to them (cf Duke of Edinburgh awards).

If anyone is put prematurely into exposed situations, it is not only likely to be a damaging burden to them (distorting their growth, as putting children to labour in mines and factories does) but the product will be inauthentic, unreal.   Any suspicion that someone is really a puppet, a coached witness, deprives the produce of authority; we no longer are confronted by a person who is speaking truth as they have found it, but with someone more or less impressively saying what they have been told.   We may applaud the performance;  Isn’t she a good girl to speak her lines like that?  – I’m so proud of you, says the parent, who a bit later may be saying: It’s time to go to bed, (and, under her breath,  don’t argue with me because I know,  and you don’t, what is good for you) – but the meaning of what the performer says does not challenge us.

When a child says, I am hungry, we would often be inclined to believe them – though sometimes we say, How can you be?  You’ve just had a big dinner.    But when a child tells me, You need to be saved or I am saved  or God is wonderful, I ask who taught them these words and who thinks it good and worthwhile to get a child to say them, imitating preachers they have seen?   For I have some idea, now that I am further along in my apprenticeship, that talking about these kinds of things is very difficult.  It is very easy to say words that have little meaning and even less real engagement.   Finding words that even point to God is difficult, and to go along with the words  as an honest person, living in the world, is an even more difficult business.  Thus, we find ourselves in the company,   not of the confident preacher-showman-salesman, but of the man who cried out, Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.

Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief

When do we teach that story to children?  When do we expect them to be able to make that kind of confession of faith?  We do not teach them to confess faith in that way.  We teach them simple formulae and then rejoice in what they echo back, as evidence of simple, sure faith.   It is right that, in talking with children – and adults – we should be simple in what we say.   But every simplicity is a step on the way, which will lead on to something else.  Inculcating ever repeatable formulae  is not what we want.

And we should not be naïve in the way we take what children say.   Their words are interesting, stimulating, to be played with, but not to be taken as reliable statements of truth.   What do children speak out of?   They are opening their eyes newly to a strange world,  confronted with raw reality, a mysterious existence, and they only have the beginnings of language in which to focus any of it, so what they say, about anything, not just religious matters, can be no more than a step on the way.  Andallalong the way, it is always possible that the next step will take us in a wrong direction – that is true in religion as well as elsewhere.  Even when we have more than the beginnings of language, our situation is not much different.   That is what Barth brought to light in his early perplexity and wonder about preaching, about how the Word of God could be in ‘human mouth’, even the mouth of the theologically well-educated.   Our words do not do more than point, like John the Baptist’s long finger in the Grunewald triptych – pointing to,  not touching or grasping,   the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

I knew from a child  the story of the man who cried,  Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.   I am sure it was mentioned in sermons – in those days, sermons were full of biblical material, more or less profoundly sensed.   But the kind of  sound evangelical truth and assertive witness-bearing I was active in meant that this saying was pushed to the margins of my mind.  It is only slowly that it has come to be really illuminating for me.  It is significantly different from saying,  as is still common,  I believe (maybe with a sideglance at Luther’s, Here I stand).  And it is obviously different  from saying, I don’t believe but I would like to – or,  I don’t believe but I envy those who have faith.  And of course from the increasingly common nonsensical:  I am glad I don’t believe and I want to free the world ofallthat nonsense.

I believe, help thou my unbelief, is, I would argue, the only honest way for preaching.  If we merely believe, we are not safe in the pulpit or anywhere else.  And if we don’t believe, we won’t as honest people want to be in the pulpit.

The religion of children may have the unrecognised  beginnings of this kind of confession.  It would be an interesting and novel piece of research to find out – I don’t think I have seen any study of the religious talking of children which explores this.   It may be impossible research because mostly children are so much at the beginnings that this kind of confession does not emerge into any visibility in what they say.  So even if we could by sensitive research see the elements of this confession swimming around inchoate in the child, we cannot expect the child to show us this kind of believing in operation.

About This Author

Haddon is regular contributor to the Child Theology Blog, he lives in Leeds, UK and has been writing and thinking about theology for much of his life. For more information see our page 'About our Bloggers'.

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