See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 18:10)
Last week I mentioned that “these little ones” could refer either to children or to disciples. As we move through this passage, I think it becomes more likely that he’s speaking of disciples. More specifically, I think it’s probable that he’s referring to young and/or new disciples, those who are young and immature in the faith. Inserting this interpretation into the passage it becomes something like:
See that you do not despise one of these new Christians…
See that you do not despise one of these young Christians…
Our minds probably immediately raise defenses: “Wait! We would never despise new Christians or young Christians!” But in reality, this is more common than we’d like to admit. On Monday, Steve talked about how our sin can cause others to stumble. Here I think Jesus is warning us against swinging to the opposite extreme and becoming legalistic. And from my experience, legalism is often directed at those who are young or those who are new Christians.
My wife came to faith shortly before turning 15. Even though she was young, she was pretty much already on her own. Her dad was an abusive alcoholic who left the family when she was 12. Shortly thereafter, her mom had the first in a series of strokes that left her bed-ridden and sometimes unable to even remember who my wife was. Shortly after becoming a Christian, she had to drop out of high school in order to take care of her mom full-time. Because she had never been exposed to church and her life being in such disarray, there was a lot about her that wasn’t “church-appropriate,” most notably her clothes. Needless to say, unchurched 15-year-olds in Russia in the late-90s didn’t dress any more modestly than unchurched 15-year-olds in America do now, but the only income her family had was her mom’s disability checks from the government, and those barely covered basic needs, leaving nothing with which to buy new clothes.
Where this applies to this passage from Matthew is that instead of helping her, or at least trying to understand her situation, people in the church (mostly older women) criticized and scolded her. She would even skip church in cold weather because the only cold-weather shoes she owned were sneakers, and she knew that she would be scolded for wearing sneakers to a church service.
I think this is what Jesus is talking about when he warns us not to despise “these little ones.” My wife didn’t need to be criticized or scolded or gossiped about because of her clothes. She needed someone to understand her situation and help her acquire more appropriate clothing. Would any of us have blamed her if she walked away from the church because of how she was treated early on?
The temptation is to think that this is an isolated incident in a different culture and that we would never do that. But again, I think we do it more often that we think.
When I was a teenager, my brother and some other kids in youth group started a band and were given the chance to play a song at a Thursday night church service. They chose Jars of Clay’s “Love Song for a Savior,” a song that had great meaning for many of us who grew up in the late-90s. After the service, instead of being thanked for their participation or encouraged, they were criticized because the song’s subject wasn’t clear enough (even though it was plenty clear to all of us who were younger than 25). The group had started the experience with enthusiasm, but by the end they were deflated. Whether they overreacted or not, the lesson they learned that night is that their contribution wasn’t needed or important to the rest of the church. I’m not sure any of the kids who were in that band are still attending church. I don’t mean to say that this one incident is the reason they don’t, but I’m sure it didn’t help.
See, we need to be careful that we seasoned believers do not crush the enthusiasm of those who are baby Christians. We live in a society that is increasingly unchurched, especially among the younger generations. New believers will be increasingly unfamiliar with church culture and what is and isn’t acceptable or appropriate. We cannot assume that everyone who walks through our doors knows how our church culture operates? So how do we do that? How do we ensure that we don’t crush the enthusiasm of the youth or ostracize the new believer?
1. Know the difference between biblical principles and personal preferences.
2. Remember that different doesn’t mean wrong.
I’m lumping these 2 together because they are often connected. When the Bible talks about dress, it talks about modesty, not style. Just because the younger generations or unbelievers dress differently than you, doesn’t mean their styles are inappropriate for church. If someone walked into church on a Sunday morning with a purple mohawk, would you rejoice that we were reaching people different than us or would you avoid him because he is different? If you would rejoice, would you still be rejoicing if he had the purple mohawk even after becoming a Christian and attending church for a while or would you whisper behind his back or question why he hadn’t adopted a more “church-appropriate” haircut?
When the Bible talks about music, it’s in reference to the heart behind the music, not the style of music. If someone is listening to Christian rap music or Christian metal music, do you rejoice that they are able to worship God in their own cultural context or do you cringe because it’s different than your music?
I think it’s good to search our hearts occasionally and question whether we really value diversity in the body of Christ or whether we filter everything through our own cultural lens and condemn what doesn’t fit.
3. Pray for the children, youth, and new believers in your church.
After saying not to despise the little ones, Jesus said, “For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” The author of Hebrews calls angels “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14). The picture I get is that these angels minister to the little ones by interceding on their behalf before the face of God. And what Jesus is saying here is that if even the angels are interceding for them, how much more should you be interceding for those who are your brothers and sisters and children.
When you get to know someone, learn about their life, find out what their struggles are, and pray for them, it becomes a lot harder to criticize them and crush their spirit. Think back to what my wife experienced as a new believer. If those older women in her church would have taken the time to know her situation and why her clothing wasn’t church-appropriate, it would have been easier for them to help her and harder for them to criticize her.
When you get to know someone and you pray for them, you know their heart without seeing how they measure up to an arbitrary system of rules.
Things to Reflect on in Light of This Passage:
1. Do I spend time getting to know and pray for children, youth, new believers, and unbelievers or am I insulated in a bubble of seasoned Christians?
2. Have I criticized, discouraged, or scolded a younger Christian in a way that could have deflated him or crushed his spirit? If I have, how can I make it right?
3. Do I believe that my way of worshipping God is complete or do I recognize that I can learn things from those who are different from me?
4. Do I know what the non-negotiables are, the things that I cannot compromise? Do I recognize the difference between those things and the things that are my personal preferences?
5. When was the last time I encouraged a younger or newer believer?