Spiritual Adoption (Adoption Awareness Month)

Adoption is a wonderful concept and action. It is beautiful. But with adoption comes a host of questions. Doubts. Insecurities. Identity issues. Trust issues. It’s complex.

November is ‘Adoption Awareness Month’ focused on the need for foster care, and ultimately adoption. While I most definitely appreciate the focused efforts of those that acknowledge the need to care for our kids (and continue to join them in that), I also have deep tensions when it comes to this month’s focus. I’m not an expert on the subject of adoption or scripture or really anything, nor do I want to be. But Adoption and Fostering is a part of my journey in a couple of different ways, and part of my recovery, in ways that I am not yet fully aware of.

While working with teenagers in a local church I decided to embark on a book venture I never completed. I decided I would write about the development of a child as it related to spiritual development. I began reading everything (I was especially interested in Fowler’s theory, As Rose Ann Karesh summarizes) that I could get my hands on, regarding the subject because somehow, in some way, the idea that we progress as a child and progress spiritually work hand in hand. At least that was my premise. I ended writing that book after realizing the vast nature of the project. I also flirted with  contemplating ‘adoption’ as a spiritual concept.

I was taught from an early age that adoption was a good thing. I’m adopted, and that’s a good thing. I was taught that God was “loving” but was also taught that being adopted by God was important and that it represented the means of living forever with God. Within that belief, I was taught that if I was not adopted by God, I would go to hell for all eternity. Seemingly, there is dissonance between the idea that God is ‘loving’ and sending people to Hell. In no way do I want to argue the validity of heaven or hell, because I personally see that to be a clear truth in scripture, rather, I want to specifically share my own thoughts as it relates to this dissonance.

My premise as I write currently is: adoption is a great choice, a good concept, a complex decision and undertaking, and a difficult spiritual concept for those that have been adopted or adopted a child themselves. I’ll try to address each of these in the following words, but the reality is that people a lot smarter than me have numerous scholarly and smart things to say about the subject.

A Great Choice

For those that make the decision to adopt a child into their home, however young or old that child might be, it’s a great choice. Our culture (at least in North America) has made adoption a badge of not being able to bear children, although statistically, those that adopt are not always those that cannot have children biologically. Those that are unable to conceive do choose adoption more than those with the ability to conceive, but there is a stigma associated with adoption that may not be completely accurate. Often, when I am having a discussion with a friend or acquaintance, I am reminded of this stigma. There is often a question regarding whether or not I have other children and how old they are. The assumption is often that those other children are also adopted. In my case, they are not. In many cases, and sometimes in painful cases, all the children in the family are adopted. Whether one is infertile or fertile does not diminish that adoption is a great choice for adoptive parents to make. And there is a great need for adoption in our country and world, as there are millions of children that do need a loving home and environment to grow up in.

It’s a great choice for the mother of a child to make when determining the future of her child. I’ve never been faced with the hardship that it must be to adopt a child away from me, but I would imagine it is extremely painful for all involved. I have watched a mom give a child to adoption, because she loved her child in amazing ways and wanted the best for that child. But I also recognize that it wasn’t easy. It was a great choice, but one that was one of the hardest that a woman could ever make.

It’s a great choice politically speaking. I’m not overly political but the issue of adoption is close to my soul, so when politicians start talking about adoption or put into place laws or other actions supporting adoption, I am ecstatic. Barack Obama (regardless of what you think of him overall) did a great job of supporting those in the adoption journey through tax reform. There were other taxes that I did pay that I would prefer not to have paid but the help that I received when adopting, from a financial standpoint, was substantial. It’s a great choice for the government to come alongside adoption and do anything and everything that can be done to both promote and support it. Anytime our governing officials take the welfare of a child into account, it’s a good thing.

But adopted children don’t get a choice. It’s not a great choice for them, because there is no choice at all. And to some degree, this is a great thing in and of itself. Can you imagine if we gave children under the age of 18 the choice of who their parents would be? We would live in far worse chaos then we already do! In all seriousness, generally speaking, adoption is a great choice made for the welfare of the child. Barring some psychotic, sick, or demented adoptive parenting, most children that are adopted are loved, and cared for by their adoptive parents.

A Good Concept

Making sure that the next generation is cared for and that child rearing is a priority is a good concept. It is a concept that cultures and generations have held for a long time. We find families caring for one another in almost every historical account within any culture, religions, creation story, and mythical stories. Caring for children has always been on the forefront of humanity, probably because there is an internal drive within humanity to keep the kids alive, to continue the lineage and race of humans. At its simplest level, it’s what God meant when he told Adam and Eve to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ or why Mormons are encouraged to have children or why Catholic folks are discouraged from reproductive limitation. We want our kids to grow up, succeed and live a life that reproduces more children. If you ever meet a grandparent with ‘great-great-great’ grandchildren, you can see the pride in their eyes as they discuss how many offspring and family that they have. It’s a good thing to have many kids and raise them successfully.

It’s also a good thing that adoption has been around since the very inception of life, whenever that might have been. When a child needed a parent or a caretaker, there is always an example where that is provided in history and throughout stories that we find (scripture is replete with familial homilies and narratives, for instance.) We want all children, regardless of who their biology says that they are a part of, to both survive and thrive.

But adoption is a complex decision and undertaking.

We adopted our youngest child and that was a complex decision because we knew that it would have a significant impact on our family dynamic. Just as the decision to have another biological child is sure to have implications on a family, so it is to add another child whether by birth or by adoption. It’s difficult and it causes tensions to rise, relationships to spar, and all of the issues that seemed small before, to loom within a family.

The first time that I had the opportunity to hold our new daughter, there was a unique and special bond that formed. We were both experiencing adoption in our own ways and I saw the story unfold in front of me that I resonated with, even if only in thought process. I obviously don’t remember my own adoption, as I was an infant in the process, but I still resonated with our daughters reality.

My biological children were the first people on earth (that I had met) that were related to me, via genetic makeup. That was a new and amazing experience. And then with our adopted daughter, I experienced another relation to me, but it was experiences shared, not DNA given. The decision was complex and at times painful, but our adopted daughter has become part of our lives just as our other children are. There isn’t favoritism, there isn’t a singling out of either adopted or biological child, there is just extreme love for all of the.

We have experienced relationship with our daughter’s biological mother. She is an amazing young woman that has been through so much, and has come so far. While I wouldn’t wish what she has been through on anyone, I know that she has conquered much in her life, the past few years. She has been a great mom from afar to our youngest. I have often wondered how complex it must be for her. To be far away from a daughter that she doesn’t know, to work through the trauma that is associated with giving a child to adoption, both of those things must be so heavy, so complicated. And I am so grateful that she chose us, to our adopt her biological daughter. As complicated and difficult as it was, we are forever grateful for the opportunity to raise our youngest, and we don’t ever want to take that for granted.

Our daughter will have a lot of questions. She will have a lot of concerns, both spoken and unspoken (though she currently shares her mind more often than not…) and she will have to grapple with the reality that she is an adopted child. She knows, even at a young age, that she is adopted and we try to celebrate that fact. She is already very interested in the concept of what a family is and loves her brother and sister. She is fascinated with the idea of being with family and is a cuddle bug. But I know for her it will be complex, complicated, and sometimes, quite confusing. I know from both research and experience, that it is a difficult task of self identification and discovery of identity.

We are teaching our daughter to know who God is and know God personally. She is open to learning and understanding simple concepts, with the very smart brain God has given her. However, I know that the prevalent theme in both scripture and in church doctrine, regarding adoption, is going to be a difficult spiritual concept. Those that are far smarter than me and that study these things day in and day out point out that children that are adopted struggle in various ways to the idea that God ‘adopts’ them. There are many different theories of why this may be the case and I suppose you can read about each of these theories in the many books that are written on the subject, but I thought I would just share my own wrestling, as a case study.

At a very basic level, in Christianity, one learns that God loves them. John 3:16 is a verse that many people have memorized and even those that are not part of the pop culture of christianity would know the verse.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son…”

For an adopted child, this is pretty close to home. Why would God give his only child? How does that show love for his Son? These are questions that are probably more internal than external and for me, may have been present even in my subconscious. I have always been and will forever be thankful that Jesus was willing to live a human life and die on a cross, but really struggle to understand how it was ‘loving’ that God would give his Son, for folks that were otherwise destined to defeat as a human race. I know me. And I have seen enough in human nature to know that giving my children away for someone else’s well being would be insane!

In adoption, often the reason that the child is adopted is because the biological family ultimately loves that child enough to give them a home that will be best for them. Even if a child is taken by the state and then given to the state to be adopted, the child’s wellbeing is the reason that these decisions are made. We want our children to succeed. The concept that God would give his child is both ostentatious and mind blowing. 1 Corinthians 1 talks about the struggle that I have with Paul’s authorship when he writes that ‘the message of the cross is foolish to those who are perishing.’ The easy answer for those that seek to understand God is to ‘have faith.’ But sometimes, oftentimes for me, that is an easy answer, but not a complete answer. It’s also not an easy answer to live. I don’t trust most people, including myself, and so to have faith that God, the great Father, would give up his Son, seems like foolishness to me. But what do I know? God is God, and the mystery of God is just that…A mystery!

So, I choose to live with the tension within the concept that God both gave up his ‘one and only Son’ and then chose to adopt humanity, if they chose to follow him. I’m not God and don’t want to be (well sometimes, I do, but that would end poorly for everyone involved!) The issue of adoption in the bible is further complicated by the cultural norms that existed for adoption when this is referenced by Paul several different places in the New Testament.

In 1984, Scottish Law Professor Francis Lyall published a study of the “Legal Metaphors in the Epistles (Slaves, Citizens, Sons, Zondervan) and pointed out several different concepts within adoption that Paul’s readership would have understood because of Roman reign and rule during that time period. Here is what Lyall concludes in his dissertation of adoption in scripture.

  • First, we have to recognize that there was no Jewish concept of adoption. If a parent was unable to care for a child, whether by death or otherwise, the immediate family was responsible for that child (brother, brother in law, or otherwise.) With this in mind we find that Paul is referencing “Roman” adoption or a Greek paradigm.

 

  • Romans had a very different idea of adoption than what we as Americans immediately think of when we process adoption.

As Ellen Mady rightly points out in her discussion of a similar subject,

“In ancient Rome, adoption had a powerful meaning. When a child was born biologically, the parents had the option of disowning the child for a variety of reasons. The relationship, therefore, was not necessarily desired by the parent, nor permanent.

 

Not so, however, if a child was adopted. In Rome, adopting a child meant:

 

  • That child was freely chosen by the parents, desired by the parents.
  • That child would be a permanent part of the family; parents couldn’t disown a child they adopted.

 

An adopted child received a new identity. Any prior commitments, responsibilities and debts were erased. New rights and responsibilities were taken on. Also, in ancient Rome, the concept of inheritance was part of life, not something that began at death. Being adopted made someone an heir to their father, joint-sharers in all his possessions and fully united to him.”

There was a punishment for those that would go back on their word as it related to adopting a child, sometimes resulting in death by the government in horrific fashion. Adoption was a very legal process, and one that was not for the faint of heart (but had great benefit to the family that was adopting as they received special government treatment). In Roman culture, there seems to be a very clear connection between familial bonds and adoption. There was first a legal contract, and then the adoptive parents were ‘forced’ to parent that child in a way that was deemed as loving.

I don’t know that I have really understood the cultural concepts of Roman adoption (nor am I an expert now), so I have always lensed God’s adoption of humanity through my own ‘experience’, questions, and doubts. It’s not the ‘right’ way to process scripture, and until recently, I had simply suppressed the compulsion to really seek to understand my own heart and mind as it relates to this subject.

Paul is describing a very legal obligation, a contract of sorts, that God engages in, when he adopts us as His kids. When Paul writes about adoption, he is NOT making a statement about God’s love, primarily. Instead he is making a statement about the legality of our ‘purchase.’ When adoption is referenced, often slavery is an accompanying metaphor that is used. Slavery was not a positive thing, at least for the slave (unless they had a fair master) and is certainly not a positive in our current culture, and so these were problematic pairings, for my small mind.

It has only been in the past few months that I have been able to somewhat reconcile God’s love apart from the legal contract that he had to make, with the ‘giving’ of his Son. Had Paul been writing today, I wonder if he would have instead focused on a different ‘legal contract’ such as the contracts between governments, or even the contract that many people make with their banks to pay a mortgage. The example that Paul is giving is providing evidence that God has ‘paid the contract in full’ with other places in scripture that reinforce God’s love for us AND his only Son. Jesus himself talks to the Father and declares his love for the Father, and his Father’s love for him. Adoption by God is not devoid of love. Giving of God’s only Son is not devoid of God’s love for the Son and does not show us that God loves humans more than his own Son. His love transcends that of my small mind. And for that I am grateful.

I do want to follow God’s example by being a good Father to my kids. God was  and is a good Father to his Son, a good Father to his human kids, and a good master of his slaves from a legal perspective. And then in a very relational and personal way, he loves each of his kids, Jesus and humanity, well beyond our understanding.

Adoption is a wonderful concept and action. It is beautiful. But with adoption comes a host of questions. Doubts. Insecurities. Identity issues. Trust issues. It’s complex.