The Wisdom of Innocence

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, June 7, 1998


Isaiah 11:6-9 The peaceable kingdom

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Matthew 18:1-5 Becoming like children

The disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

"He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me."

Marital Love #413 Innocence & wisdom

In heaven, the Lord sees to it that the innocence of childhood becomes the innocence of wisdom, and that in this way children become angels.

Many people say that children remain children and become angels immediately after death. But intelligence and wisdom make an angel, so as long as children do not have these, they are among angels, but are not angels themselves. However, they become angels as soon as they become intelligent and wise. So children are led forward from the innocence of childhood to the innocence that comes with wisdom--that is, from outward innocence to inward innocence. This innocence is the purpose of their learning and their growth. When they achieve the innocence that comes with wisdom, the innocence of childhood that has served them as a basis continues to be a part of them.


I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)

Innocence. It is not a highly prized attribute in our society. Very few adults want to appear innocent--unless they happen to have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. We tend to equate innocence with naivete, and no one wants to appear naive. People who are naive get taken advantage of; they get hurt; and worst of all, they get laughed at behind their back! This is something we simply can't stand.

Instead, in our society we value an image of being in the know, in control, able to cope with any person or situation that comes our way. Historically, the pressure to maintain this image of being casually in control has been especially heavy on boys and men. For teenage boys, appearing innocent and naive can be a social death sentence. And men are supposed to project an air of confidence, competence, and power. We see these images of superficially strong men everywhere in the media, from sports figures to movie stars.

Girls and women are not immune from the pressure to project an image of competence and control either--especially in recent decades when women have pushed for equality with men in the workplace. Being perceived as a "nice girl" is not as important for a girl or woman these days as being able to handle herself well in both work and social situations.

All of which confirms the thought we started with: that innocence is far down the list of sought-after qualities for people in our society.

And yet, though we may admire people who have that air of being in control, we are not touched by them. Perhaps Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger make a smash at the box office. But if, instead of cheap thrills, we want something that will warm our hearts, we are much more likely to turn to Tom Hanks in movies like "Forrest Gump" and "Big." In both of these movies, it is not being in control, but being innocent and vulnerable that makes the hero of the story great, and at the same time lovable. With Forrest Gump, everything is right there to be seen--stupidity, naivete, and all. And we love him for it.

In the movie "Big," a ten or twelve year old boy is suddenly transformed physically into an adult, while he remains a child in mind and heart. As he makes his way into the adult world, his innocence at first remains intact. But soon the lure of money--and a beautiful woman--begins to take its toll. Our heart sinks as he turns his back on his best friend (who remains "small"). Then, at the end of the movie, our faith is restored as he becomes his old, innocent, preadolescent self again.

Perhaps our culture is discovering innocence again. If so, it is a good sign. For the Lord tells us in our Gospel reading that if we do not change and become like little children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Striving for greatness in other people's eyes is nothing new. In the Gospel story, the disciples themselves were wondering about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In the versions of this story found in Mark and Luke, they were actually arguing about which one of them was the greatest. In response to this dispute, Jesus turned the whole idea of greatness on its head, confounding both his disciples and our modern norms and notions about who and what we should strive to be. When the disciples asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus held up a little child--the embodiment of innocence and dependency--as an example for us to follow.

What can we make of this? Are we all to throw aside our responsibilities and revert to the carefree days and ways of our childhood? Surely not. Jesus himself took on the greatest burden anyone ever has, confronting the accumulated evil of the entire human race. And yet, there was a quality of innocence about him. He did not look out for his own advantage, or take advantage of others. Though he had an extraordinarily keen mind that penetrated deep into the hearts of those around him, he never used that knowledge to harm another. Instead, he always used it as a tool to help bring people closer to God and to each other.

In his relations with others, Jesus was both vulnerable and powerful at the same time. He was not careful about the company he kept; he was unconcerned about the impression he would make if he were seen with the "wrong crowd." He (naively?) treated everyone with the same directness and simplicity, whether it was a helpless child he held in his arms or the Roman governor Pilate, who appeared to hold Jesus' life in his hands. Jesus was not careful to protect himself from trouble or pain, but allowed these things to touch him and move him, and responded with tenderness and compassion to people who were experiencing them.

No, we are not literally called to a childish innocence. Instead we are called to a childlike innocence--but an innocence that has wisdom in it. As Swedenborg explains it, the innocence of children is only an outward form of innocence because it comes from not knowing any better. Little Caleb, for example, (who is being baptized today) is anything but innocent when it comes to his ability to rip things apart and make a complete mess of any place he is in or any delicate thing he gets his hands on. Yet there is no malice in his destructiveness. He is simply curious about everything around him . . . and one way to find out what something is made of is to tear it apart.

If an adult were to act the same way, we would consider that person anything but innocent. In fact, adults who do things such as destroying other people's property and hitting other people when they get mad at them are likely to end up behind bars. The worst a child usually gets (we hope) is a good scolding, and perhaps a trip to his or her room.

The innocence of childhood is not the only kind of innocence. Swedenborg refers to "the innocence of wisdom." This, he says, is true innocence, only attained after a life full of effort and struggle in this world, and in our own soul. We gain the innocence of wisdom when we have seen both the best and the worst that the world has to offer, and have, of our own free will, chosen to turn our hearts, minds, and lives toward the best. True innocence does not come from ignorance and naivete, but from knowing the end results of both love and hate, both destructiveness and useful service, and consciously choosing what is good.

This is the kind of innocence toward which we can all aspire as our highest ideal. It is not just a human ideal, but the ideal that the Lord our Creator sets before us. For when we have achieved this kind of innocence--this devotion to not harming others, but to serving their needs and making them happy--we will have achieved the heavenly kingdom, both within ourselves and in our society here on earth. And then, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, "They will neither harm nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." Amen.

Painting entitled "Partners in Crime" is ©Tom Sierak 
and used with his permission by Moon And Back Graphics to construct this set

Music: Pachebel and Me
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer

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