The surprisingly scary side of childlike faith

In her new book, Unfettered, Australian pastor and writer Mandy Smith tells the story of how she discovered the joy and freedom of acting like a child while on sabbatical from her job as lead pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“I just thought, ‘What am I supposed to do with myself for eight weeks? And I sensed the Lord say, ‘Well, you just get to be like a kid again – you can sleep in if you feel like it, you can cry when you need to, you can dance if you want to, you can wear what you like and eat what you like and follow your nose’,” Mandy tells Eternity via Zoom from her home in Brisbane.

“That sounded lovely and whimsical, but it actually took me into some challenging places as well. It actually became apparent to me that our culture puts a lot of baggage on us related to identity and worrying about what people think and there’s a lot of false-self stuff in Western culture that gets us all twisted up in knots and gets in the way of our ability to follow Jesus.”

During her sabbatical, Mandy promised herself that anytime she felt a prompt to jump in a puddle or look at the sky or watch a bird or some such whimsy, she would go ahead and do it – unless it was illegal or immoral. “I’m just going to say ‘yes,’ even if it makes me feel stupid, and I worry about what people will think,” she says.

“But by the time I went back to work, I could no longer tell the difference between this kind of childlike instinct in me that I was listening to and the work of the Spirit in me prompting me because when I went back to work, it became more serious. It was things like, ‘Pray for healing for this person that I could hardly imagine could ever be healed and invite the congregation that you lead to pray for healing for this person.’ That was scary but some really good things came from it, so I’m really glad that I pursued those prompts.”

There’s a lot of excitement in Christian publishing circles about Mandy’s new book, Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture, which has been shortlisted for the Sparklit Australian Christian Book of the Year Award. The reviews are glowing for this invitation to detox from the deeply ingrained habits of Western culture – more ideas, programs, and problem-solving – and be transformed by Jesus’s surprising invitation to the kingdom through childlikeness, ultimately discovering how to follow God with our whole selves again.

Mandy, who returned to Australia last year after almost 30 years in the UK and the US, stumbled on the idea for her latest book through experiences that she felt God was drawing her towards.

“And the more I explored them, the more potential there was in them. And I was finding myself transformed by them. And then I wanted to read and learn about if other people had made sense of what I was experiencing. So instead of learning about it first and then going out and trying it, it was kind of experiencing it and then trying to learn about it and understand what God was doing.”

A key idea that Mandy explores is the damaging effects of Western ways of thinking and habits on Western Christianity through our addiction to rationalism, achievement and control.

“The two main ones that I talk about are the, ‘I think therefore I am’ kind of thing, that we define ourselves primarily as intellectual thinking creatures, which we are, and that’s a beautiful part of our identity, but it’s only part of our identity.

“A lot of people have written about this problem in Western culture that we chop ourselves up into ‘our thoughts are here, our body is here, our instincts and our senses are over there, our emotions are over here and some of those are more important than others.’ We trust some of those more than others. And so it actually does damage to what it means to be a human being. And I don’t think God functions that way, but if we bring that into our faith, it makes us really just kind of brains on legs, just wanting to understand God.

“And when that doesn’t lead to answers, then we say, ‘Oh, well then maybe I don’t believe,’ instead of saying, ‘Maybe there are other ways to be listening to how God is prompting us and talking to us through our senses and our emotions and our bodies and all the other things.”

“That leads to a kind of burnt-out faith, of activism, always trying to get things done and never seeing the results we’d like.”

The second harmful habit Mandy identifies in Western culture is what she calls “I do, therefore I am.”

“We identify ourselves by our accomplishments and by our understanding that whenever there’s a problem, we need to jump in and solve the problem. That’s deep in our Protestant work ethic, the industrial revolution, which again is a Western culture thing but not a Christian thing. And so that leads to a kind of burnt-out faith, of activism, always trying to get things done and never seeing the results we’d like.

“So none of it feels like good news if we’re just dry and doubting on the one hand – because we see ourselves as mostly brains on legs – and worn-out dry, burnt-out Christians because we’ve just been working really hard. It’s not to say we should do away with our thinking or our activity or industry, but I think that the hope is found in Jesus’ invitation into the kingdom through childlikeness. As children, we knew how to engage as a whole being – mind, body, spirit, the whole thing – without having to say one’s better than the other. And as children, we also knew how to engage without expecting the world was entirely up to us, that we could contribute without having to dominate the whole thing.”

Mandy believes Western Christians skate over Jesus’ passing comment that unless we become like little children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).

“I’ve never really seen a serious exploration of this invitation. It’s so brief that we kind of read over it. And I think it shows that we don’t think much of children. We think they’re just cute little things. So I started to wonder if maybe that’s what he’s on to, that children are humble and they’re brave, and they’re just attentive with their whole selves. They don’t expect the whole world to be on their shoulders, but they try to engage as best they can. So what would it be like for us to really approach the world and approach God in that way? And I can say, I’ve never looked back. It’s been terrifying in some ways – it really has gone against so much in my culture and so much in my faith tradition, but it has brought so much life to me and to my faith and to my ministry too. So I don’t look back, I don’t regret it.”

“As children, we also knew how to engage without expecting the world was entirely up to us, that we could contribute without having to dominate the whole thing.”

Asked for examples of how this has played out in her life, she says there were times in her normal life, catching the bus or whatever, when she felt a prompt to reach out to somebody.

“And so many times this kind of false-self kicks in, shame and fear and all the things that are focused on ourselves that say, ‘Oh, that would be dumb, or that would be foolish, or somebody will think I’m stupid or whatever,’ but so many times, little moments have turned into really significant engagements where the person was like, ‘I was actually just waiting for somebody to say something like that to me, or how did you know that’s exactly what I was thinking about or what I needed?’

“Then I can give credit to God because I’m like, ‘Well, it wasn’t actually my idea.’ And there have been moments of real transformation. I was part of what I think is a little revival that began because I asked to pray for somebody, and then this whole amazing thing happened that became a church planting movement in Canada.”

Another benefit of this childlike approach is that she doesn’t doubt God in the same way that she used to because she no longer expects that her brain is the only way she should engage with God.

“I used to wonder does God even exist and rethink my whole system of belief. And it’s not that I totally understand, or I totally believe perfectly now, but it’s that I feel like God’s given us various ways to learn about him and receive input from him,” she says.

“I feel like God’s given us various ways to learn about him and receive input from him.”

When our tired brains and limited human understanding let us down, we don’t have to immediately assume we don’t have Christian faith, but rather we recognise our tiredness and limitations and take a nap.

“We trust that sleep is a gift from God. God is even working in the gift of sleep or in the flavour of this melted cheese on my toast this morning. I just am trusting God is in all those things. And Scripture says he reveals himself to us through all these things. And the people in Scripture were not ashamed of that.”

She cites the passage on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) when the disciples are having a conversation with the resurrected Jesus, but they don’t see who he is as he unpacks Scripture for them. “But it’s when they have a meal with him that they have this relational, physical experience, sensory experience that then their eyes are opened. And they actually verify it by, ‘Weren’t our hearts burning within us this whole time? Like, we were feeling something emotionally, instinctively.’ Whereas we tend to doubt our feelings.”

I tell Mandy that her book has already influenced the way I wake up in the morning because I no longer feel I have to immediately jump out of bed and focus on my to-do list but, as she advises, I listen to the birds singing and pay attention to all the other things that are going on around me so that I can hum along with a world that’s already humming, to use her metaphor. And I have found it a great stress relief.

“It is, isn’t it? A big part of the dynamic is, I break it down to rest, receive, respond. Because Western culture says, respond, respond, respond. It’s like problem, respond, question, respond, fix, fix, fix control, control, control. And so we flip from it’s all up to God, to it’s all up to me,” she says.

“We can do both of those things, but neither of them actually requires much real partnership with God, because if it’s all up to God, then we are just going to do nothing, but then we think God invites us to do something. So then once we engage, then it’s all up to me.”

Mandy coins the word “adultish” to describe the negative ways in which adults abuse power, with underuse of power as bad as overuse of power.

“So a big part of what I was discerning was, how do I engage? This is what rest, receive, respond is saying – it’s saying, ‘We still have a place. We still have agency. We still have ways God calls us to respond, but that’s not the first thing.’ And how we will determine the best way to respond is by resting first from our ego and our assumption that it’s all on us.

“And when we rest and start the day like you were just describing, then we just naturally connect to God as the source of everything. And that’s where we receive his insight, his prompting, his direction, and then we know how to respond and then we’re putting our energies into it in a way that’s partnership, as opposed to just problem solving and fixing things in our own strength and understanding.”

“We will determine the best way to respond is by resting first from our ego and our assumption that it’s all on us.”

When I tell her a lot of people are excited about her book, she says she’s excited that people are excited about it because it has been life-changing for her and she couldn’t keep it to herself.

“The funny thing is because I knew that I was writing into a world that wanted to think about things, I’ve rewritten it four times. And the first version of it was a very serious argument for childlikeness, which, of course, was inherently lacking in integrity. It was like I’ve experienced this beautiful, wonderful, subjective, emotional, embodied and intellectual thing, but I know people are not going to take that seriously, so I’ve got to read a bunch of books to explain it to people.

“I had to rewrite it four times until God was like, ‘Okay, now it’s actually being communicated in the way that you experienced it.’ And it hopefully will touch people in that way. That’s why I have a lot of ‘field guide’ moments throughout where I’m offering people to experience it with themselves in a way that’s meaningful in their life because it’s more than just ideas. It’s limiting with a book because a book is inherently sit and read, but that’s why I added a playlist and some kind of other ways to engage.”

To learn more about Mandy and her work, visit her webpage here.


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