Why does Jesus tell us that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3)? I’ve heard several different theories. It’s their innocence, or their honesty, or their humility, or perhaps their sense of wonder. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt completely satisfied with any of theiseanswers (though I’m sure there is some truth in each of them).When I read Ann Chao’s “The Red Sweater,” which appears in the most recent issue of The Ichthus, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words. “The Red Sweater” is a simple story about a little girl who doesn’t smile. Why should I become more like this sweet, sad little girl?

As I thought about it more, I began to wonder if that was the right question to ask.

To me, the “unsmiling eyes” of the girl in “The Red Sweater” are a powerful reminder of the fundamental brokenness of the world around us. If a child naïve of sin cannot be happy in this life, who can be? And yet, before adulthood or puberty, before knowledge of good and evil, a little girl was already scarred by badness, abandonment, and loneliness.

What was I supposed to imitate in this little girl? It seemed contrived and wrong to say that Jesus intended only that we imitate the happy little children – I couldn’t simply ignore the sadness. Was I then to share in it, to lose myself in my own gray dream-world and show the real world outside only unsmiling eyes? That didn’t seem right either.

But maybe it’s not always a question of sheer imitation. Maybe it’s sometimes a question of realizing that I don’t have to imitate the little girl – that, in many ways, I am the little girl, weak and lost and alone and trapped in my own secret worlds. I am the little girl; my Father loves me, and I don’t even know how to respond.

And there’s more to it even than that, I think.

Last week, I prayed, “Lord, make me a child again.” I wanted to be innocent again, naïve again. Only after reading “The Red Sweater” did I think about childhood in the context of being born again. Perhaps Jesus tells us to become like little children simply because little children is what we’ll become in Heaven. After all, salvation is not mere clemency; it is a complete and utter cleansing of the pain, hardness, heartbreak, the adulthood of this life. It’s forgiveness for the sinners, but it’s also healing for the sinless – the children.

Someday, that little girl will laugh and “paint [her smile] across a spectrum of keys” – and someday, I hope, I will be laughing and smiling alongside her.