Recently I was visiting a family who have a four year-old daughter. Some of her friends were over at the house playing with her and her siblings. There were about six kids in total, all under the age of eight. Kids can play cruel games and these kids did just that. At a certain point, the others began to tease this young girl because she still occasionally wets her bed. They had a little jingle that they sang within which they rhymed part of her name with the word “pee.”
The poor kid! She flinched every time they repeated the rhyme and yet she was helpless to protect herself. She was exposed and ashamed. You could also see that she was angry, not so much at the other kids and their teasing as at herself, at her weakness, at her inability to not do that for which she was being taunted. Sometimes kids are powerless to stop wetting their beds, long after they’ve matured enough to experience great shame in doing it.
To such as these belongs the kingdom of God. Jesus had just such a child in mind when he made that statement. But generally we misunderstand why the kingdom belongs to children. We tend to idealize the innocence of children—and, indeed, childlike innocence is a beautiful quality. That is not what Jesus most idealizes in a child however. The quality that makes children so apt to receive the kingdom is not so much their innocence as their helplessness, their powerlessness to not wet their beds, among other things. Very young children cannot even feed themselves, let alone provide for themselves. And certainly they cannot protect themselves, especially against their own weaknesses.
There is more than one fruitful theological reflection that can be spun off of the phenomenon of bed-wetting. At a more obvious level, of course, we have St. Paul’s great dictum in the Epistle to the Romans: “Woe to me, weak and inept, bed-wetter that I am! The good I want to do, I can’t do; the thing that I most don’t want to do, I end up doing.” What a pity our young four year-old couldn’t have quoted Romans to herself in the face of their cruel teasing.
There is a congenital ineptness inside of all of us and, try as we might, we cannot always or often protect ourselves against our own weaknesses. That’s basic biblical anthropology. But there is something even more important theologically here. It’s how God sees us in our weakness. I was one of the adults in the room as this child was being teased, as was her mother. What an adult brings to this situation, beyond a pretty immediate call to the kids to stop it, is understanding and empathy: A three year-old cannot always help herself, cannot be responsible for herself as an adult can, and should not be subjected to this kind of cruel, wounding judgement. Any adult not jaded in the soul, witnessing something like this, will spontaneously feel a burst of tender empathy for the one who is little, who cannot protect herself against her own weakness.
That, I suspect, is how God looks at us. We grow up, grow more responsible, and grow more capable of taking care of ourselves, still we never quite achieve adequacy. We simply humiliate ourselves in other ways, though we become more adept at hiding this from others. Or, at least, we think we do. But, to use Jesus’ own metaphor, the beam in our eye is always evident to others. We are never whole and adequate, nor do we look it.
Physically, our bloom is pretty short-lived and, long before we are ready for it, our bodies begin again to betray us. Wrinkles, fat, and the humiliating sags of mid-life appear in ways that cannot be hidden. Our friends don’t tease and taunt us about these weaknesses, as very young kids do. They don’t need to, we are painfully aware of our inadequacies.
That is true too for us emotionally and morally. There are mid-life wrinkles, fat, and sagging in these areas too. When we are young, the beauty of a youthful body and youthful spirit helps compensate for, and partly camouflages, our hidden and not-so-hidden selfishness, bitterness, and envy. These become more and more evident in us as we grow older and are a lot more shameful than bed-wetting. In the end, none of us can protect ourselves against our own weaknesses, nor indeed can we forever hide them from the view of others.
But, and this is the point, in the face of our inadequacies, we must begin to see ourselves as God sees us, a child who cannot yet be fully responsible for his or her life. Then our shame can give way to tender compassion. We are all bed-wetters and live in that humiliation. But, as Jesus assures us, to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven.