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The Beautiful, Deeper Meaning of the Phrase “Become as Little Children”

Early one morning, I woke up and quickly asked my wife, “What day is it?”

Before she could even answer, I excitedly said, “It’s Saturday, and the grandkids are coming!”

Now the funny thing is we don’t have grandkids—not yet anyway. We do have 12 children, but we are anxiously awaiting that glorious day of grandkids. I get excited when little children come to visit and affectionately (and somewhat facetiously) identify them as grandkids to my wife. On this occasion, it was one darling little niece and three nephews coming over. It’s times like these that I am reminded of Mormon’s statement in Moroni chapter 8, “I love little children with a perfect love” (Moroni 8:17) because I feel much like he did.

The day after the “grandkids” visited, I was studying Moroni 8. Mormon uses the phrase “little children” 16 times in this chapter. As I read, my excitement started to increase. An answer to a question I’ve had for many years became much clearer: What is the deeper meaning of the phrase “become as little children?”

"Become as Little Children"

We are all familiar with the Savior’s teaching in the gospel of Matthew, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (18:3) and “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (19:14). What does the Savior mean when he says to “become as little children?”

King Benjamin is an authority on this matter. Similar to the Savior’s words, he declares that his people must 

“humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

King Benjamin’s list of qualities is probably the most common understanding of what it means to become as little children. We must be submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, and so forth. While we all can potentially attribute those qualities to children, it’s likely not the first thing we think of when asked to describe them. Submissive? Sometimes, but not always. Meek and humble? Maybe, but it’s a stretch. Patient? Hardly ever. Full of love? Okay, that’s true.

So is this what we are to learn from the Savior’s declaration to become as little children? Another list of attributes we need to work on becoming? As with many scriptures, there is more than one meaning. The deeper meaning here is one we’ve largely missed. It’s the doctrine that little children are completely covered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

Mormon teaches, “all little children are alive in Christ” (Moroni 8:22) and Abinadi says “little children also have eternal life” (Mosiah 15:25). In modern revelation, the Lord affirms, “But little children are holy, being sanctified through the atonement of Jesus Christ” (Doctrine and Covenants 74:7).

Covered by Christ's Atonement

We often think of little children as pure, innocent, and blameless—and they are, but not always on their own account. They are completely covered by the Savior’s Atonement! As the Savior revealed to Mormon, “wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them” (Mormon 8:8). To become as little children is to be completely covered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Isn’t this exactly what the Lord is asking of us—to fully apply His Atonement? Let’s look again at King Benjamin’s writings in Mosiah 3:18-19.

“. . . [E]xcept they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:18-19, emphasis added).

The emphasis of these two verses isn’t about little children’s qualities, it’s about accepting the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The only way we can become pure and innocent like little children is to have a Savior—one who not only takes away the punishment of our sins but actually takes the very sins away. As we exercise faith in Christ, repent of our sins, and strive to keep our covenants with Him—we too can be pure, holy and sanctified through the Atonement—just like little children.

As further evidence of this meaning, it’s interesting that the Savior addressed His apostles as little children. As the last supper was concluding and after Judas had left, Jesus said, “Little children, yet a little while I am with you” (John 13:33). Yes, you could argue He was telling them they had much to learn. But isn’t it more likely he was emphasizing to His 11 apostles that they were under the covenant and covered by His Atonement that was about to take place—just like little children are?

Perhaps the greatest evidence of this idea comes from the Apostle John, who also addresses the saints as little children: “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12, emphasis added). Paul also uses this phrase in addressing the Saints (Galatians 4:19), and in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Savior called His leaders little children: “Fear not, little children, for you are mine, and I have overcome the world, and you are of them that my Father hath given me” (50:41).

Let us become like little children by fully applying the Atonement of Christ in our lives and trusting in our Savior who makes us pure, clean, and innocent. The next time you have the heavenly opportunity to interact with a little child, think about how the Savior’s Atonement completely covers them—as it does us—as long as we continue to exercise our faith, repent of our sins, and keep our covenants with Him.

Lead image from Getty Images
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