As I listened to one of my favorite Bible teachers speak about the doctrine of adoption, my stomach began to twist with concern. Eventually, I found the words for the unsettled feeling: “This could build a wall between my child and the gospel.” As a mom, it’s my utmost desire for my children to know and love the Lord. When we became an adoptive family, I began to notice the gospel barriers we Christians inadvertently create for adoptees.
Consider this powerful truth of the Christian faith: Spiritually, children of God gain everything and lose nothing when we are adopted into God’s family. And yet, children adopted by earthly parents, though they may experience gain, endure unspeakable losses which often include parents, family, culture, connection, and medical history. They lose, “He has your eyes!” and, “You remind me of your grandmother!” Many lose the ability to blend in with their family and may combat feeling like they are different. Some lose their original name and birth certificate.
While those adopted into the family of God have the joy of knowing they were chosen at their worst, those adopted into earthly families may worry they were abandoned when they were most vulnerable. (Perhaps these losses give insight into a 2013 study that reported adolescent adoptees have a suicide attempt rate four times higher than their non-adopted counterparts.)
The gospel is overwhelmingly good news for these precious ones, and yet, through the way Christians teach and talk about adoption, we may be building barriers for adoptees to know and love the Lord.
Take care when teaching the doctrine of adoption
The doctrine of adoption is beautiful and stunning: We are enemies made children, forever reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of adoption is always, always good news. But the practice of adoption is fraught. In addition to the losses adoptees face, the adoption industry itself can be a breeding ground for corruption. Because of this, we honor those who have been adopted by earthly parents when we are careful not to sloppily conflate the doctrine with the modern practice.
Consider the way we use marriage illustrations to enhance our understanding of Christ, the groom, and the church, his bride. We understand that though husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the church, the earthly practice of marriage doesn’t offer gospel fullness. We understand the limits of this metaphor, and our teaching reflects it. After all, even the best marriage is simply a glimmer of a greater thing! And on days when marriage feels particularly lacking or difficult, we have the joy of hungering for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
Adoption is often not handled with such care in the church. Imagine an adoptee, who longs for his or her birth family, hearing the gospel inextricably and fully linked with the practice of adoption. How does he or she process that natural longing for a birth family? How does he or she cope with the deep loss he or she rightly feels? Will it seem ungrateful or anti-gospel to express longing and loss?
Imagine a birth parent hearing the gospel inextricably and fully linked with the earthly practice of adoption. Will he or she feel erased from the narrative? How will he or she process who the Savior is and who the savior isn’t? What kinds of connections might he or she make and potentially internalize?
Then, think of adoptive parents. Will it feel as if their church has skipped over the loss woven into their families? Will it feel impossible for their church family to meaningfully come alongside them? Or, if they haven’t grappled with their theology, will they feel the pressure to play a savior rather than feel the freedom to cling to the Savior? If their theology is not gloriously enhanced, what kind of additional burdens will they carry themselves and place on their children?
The ones who are living the metaphor experience its limitations, and they may make connections we do not intend because we have not considered the associations. Perhaps you can talk to an adoptee, birth parent, or an adoptive parent in your church and begin a thoughtful conversation about the impact the practice of adoption has had on them and offer support that honors the glorious truth of the doctrine of adoption — we are brothers and sisters in Christ forever.
Take care when talking about adoption
Similarly, when we talk about adoption thoughtlessly, we can create barriers to the gospel if we’re not careful with both our celebration and our storytelling.
When we offer unexamined celebration — about the 6-year-old adopted from overseas, the infant adopted domestically, or the teen given a new last name, for example — without considering the nuance and complexity of such events, we are in danger of distorting the beauty of the gospel. Though our default posture should be to celebrate when a family grows, we should do this with sober-minded wisdom, thoughtful gentleness, and a desire to honor everyone involved. After all, what had to be cut short before this family grew?
God calls us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15) But what if we have overlooked mourners? And what if our actions have unintentionally communicated to mourners that they should be rejoicing instead?
In the same way, when we aren’t thoughtful with our storytelling, adoptive parents can be viewed with extra sparkle while birth parents are deleted from the narrative or treated like misunderstood background characters. Understandably, the adoptee in the middle may feel profoundly confused about how to react, worry his or her reactions are not welcomed, and feel overwhelmed or exposed to have his or her story broadcast.
Instead, we should let adoptees take the lead in the storytelling. If they are young, we should honor them by protecting the details of their story as best we can and by telling them God’s story as often as we can, with humility and compassion.
How can we take care?
Rather than shiny illustrations, we can offer a carefully-told gospel of hope, one that considers the loss and longings an adoptee may experience and seeks to point to the One who is crafting a forever family no one can take, in a home no one can break.
Rather than the unexamined celebration we may have inadvertently offered in the past, we can rejoice with those who rejoice without failing to mourn with those who mourn.
We can embody the gospel to adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive families, offering them eyes that seek to truly see, a heart that carefully considers, a mouth that is slow to speak their stories, and ears that are willing to hear their story as it is, even if it’s uncomfortable.
In a perfect world, a parent would never have to place his or her child for adoption, and a child would never have to wonder what his or her parents look like. As we encounter those involved in an adoption story, may we be tender to the range of emotions they may be experiencing. May the family of faith see and honor them by welcoming their weeping, rejoicing, and questioning. And may we hold out the promise that one day, our Father will wipe away every tear, pain will be no more, and togetherness will be everywhere those in Christ look (Rev. 22).