“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”Romans 12:2
I am a Christian. I’m an adoptee. I don’t believe adoption was God’s plan for me. Yes, I have had a great life in many ways. I do believe my adoptive family was loving. So how is it that adoption wouldn’t have been God’s plan for me?
At this point, the “pattern of this world” (aka the dominant cultural view) is to see adoption as a win-win-win situation and, if you’re Christian, to see it as part of God’s will and God’s purpose in your life. Even though adoptees have long been speaking up against the inaccuracy and danger of this perspective, this theology of adoption persists. And it’s still hurting adoptees and our families.
Christians, we need to “renew our minds” on the relationship God has with child adoption. What might that look like? We should think critically about how we talk about God’s will. What is God’s will, really, and what is not God’s will but human choice?
Let’s start here. These are a beliefs about God I’ve seen emphasized in (usually white, evangelical) Christian discussions around adoption.
So the logic of adoption goes something like this:
…then God must have planned for this (i.e. adoption) to happen all along.
This is the logic of “meant to be” and “God’s plan” with adoption. This is the dominant Christian view of adoption when things seem to have worked out for the adoptive family and the child.
On the whole, the Christian view of child adoption is that it gives a child a loving family and prevents them from living a more difficult or less-loved life. I’ve already written a lot about how Christians see a flawed (re: false) parallel between adoption and salvation.
But what about us adoptees? For those of us raised in these Christians homes, it’s a difficult logic to contradict. After all, if I love my adoptive family or love the life I have now…or if I can see God using my adoption story for the healing and wholeness of others…then my adoption must have been God’s plan from the beginning. Right?
The experience of being an adoptee isn’t static. It changes as we grow and learn new information about ourselves and/or our families. So it’s only natural that our view of our adoption and our feelings about it will shift with time. It is natural for adoptees to question and wrestle with the reality of life as an adoptee.
However, the view that our adoption was God’s plan immediately puts the adoptee at odds with the Divine if we dare to question or wrestle. Trying to hold on to the idea that it was God’s plan and yet incorporate our new perspectives can lead to host of confusing ideas:
Of course these things bring up more questions, like:
Does God want families separated to form new, adopted families?
Does God want me to have lifelong struggles with adoption trauma, abandonment or rejection?
Typically, Christians will say, “Of course not…” and then start the mental gymnastics to justify the trauma that makes adoption possible. In other words, they will try to preserve their view of adoption as being God’s plan for everyone (the mom, the child and the adoptive parents).
The answers given tend to fall flat, especially for the adoptee who realizes they cannot pray their pain away.
How could God have wanted me to experience this lifelong trauma?
How could God have been OK with my first family’s suffering and pain?
When we try to validate this view of adoption, we skew our view of God and we fail to support adoptees.
What we believe about God shapes what we believe about ourselves and the circumstances we are in. We can believe that God has a good and pleasing will for us and yet God also allows us to make our own choices (freewill) that differ from or conflict with that will. Theologians call it God’s Perfect Will vs God’s Permissive Will.
Perfect will is what God desires; e.g. our salvation and collective restoration.
Permissive will is what God permits; e.g. human choices and consequences.
Family separation and adoption is a result of human choices. Here are a few examples of what I mean by that:
Often those choices are made within the context of larger, man-made issues, for example:
The are just a few things that are connected to families being in crisis and children being adopted. They are the result of human choices and actions that are not inline with God’s will or desire for us. Family separation and adoption might be something God allows to happen, i.e. its God’s permissive will. That doesn’t mean God orchestrated adoption.
Even if something good comes from adoption, it is only evidence that God can always create beauty out of brokenness; not that God planned the brokenness or desired it.
Sometimes adoption has positive outcomes for an adoptee; they grow up in a loving home and have access to opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Sometimes adoption has tragic outcomes for an adoptee; they grow up in an abusive home with less love and support than they would’ve had otherwise.
This is why adoption is not gospel; because if the gospel is not good news to everyone then it is good news to no one.
Just because there are or might be some positive outcomes from our choices doesn’t mean that what we’ve done reflects God’s perfect will. We need to be careful not to put God’s name on OUR choices. This is taking God’s name in vain.
It is true that God is able to take what we meant for evil and use it for good. God can incorporate our hurtful or just unhealthy choices into the timeline without altering the outcome God desires.
Wait, isn’t it the family separation that is bad, not the adoption?
You could argue that adoption IS God’s plan for addressing the hurtful human decisions and conditions that caused family separation. Therefore adoption can still be part of God’s perfect will, right? Well, let’s think about what God’s perfect will is.
The Bible shows God carrying out a plan for the restoration of all creation through Christ. God’s perfect will is restoring our relationship with God and with one another and with the earth. It is wrongs being righted, broken things being mended and lies being exposed so that truth can restore us, heal us and make us whole.
Is adoption part of God restoring a family that was in crisis to a healthy and whole place? No.
Adoption actually assumes that the permanent destruction of the family is what’s best for everyone. Adoption leaves the broken circumstances that led to adoption broken. For example, instead of addressing the financial insecurity of a young single mother, adoption takes her child and leaves her more broken than before as she now has to deal with her trauma of child-loss.
God’s perfect will is that we care for the [orphan + widow] + the poor + the foreigner. Remember the orphan + widow = a child and their mother; because once the father had died a child was considered an orphan.
The Bible has already told us to provide for those slipping through the cracks of our society; the marginalized, the exploited, the forgotten. We should clothe them and feed them, i.e. make sure they have what they need to be healthy and whole. If we did this for families in crisis, their children would not need to be taken or away or relinquished.
God’s will for restoration requires we cultivate a holy imagination and resist fatalistic views of the world. We can only believe adoption is the best option if we first accept that there are some people and situations that God simply cannot or will not restore. So either God is not all-powerful or some people are just “throw away people”. Again, this is skewing our view of God or others to fit the narrative that adoption is God’s plan.
I’m a Christian. I’m an adoptee. I don’t believe adoption was God’s plan for me. In my case, adoption was a human attempt to make the best out of a difficult situation. The results are mixed and ultimately, there is a great deal of pain.
That pain is not on purpose.
That pain does not need to have a purpose.
I do not need to put a spiritual spin on that pain to believe God is good or to give God credit for the good things that have happened in my life after being adopted.
God does not rebrand my pain. God does give me Christ, who is able to enter into the pain with me. Christ knows abandonment and rejection and displacement. Christ knows what it is to walk between two identities and different families.
God can also give me purpose in my pain. Not always, but sometimes my healing is bound up in being a participant in the healing of others. Finding that I can have purpose in my pain is not the same as saying that my pain was purposefully created. It is not evidence that adoption was God’s plan for me, but that restoration is and God is able to work toward that no matter what.
Nothing I said here is new but perhaps it’s the first time you’re hearing it said this way. And no, I don’t believe all adoptions are bad. That’s another overly simplistic and unhelpful view. So don’t focus on that. Focus on this next bit.
If we shift our perspective on God’s role in adoption, we lose our ability to ignore the social inequities and injustices that lead to family separation. We lose our ability to pretend we didn’t know and absolve ourselves from doing something about it. We lose our ability to celebrate someone’s child being available to a another family without asking the disturbing questions about why this keeps happening.
More importantly, if we shift our perspective on God’s role in adoption, we gain the ability to confront and acknowledge the pain and suffering of all broken families. That means we gain the ability to enter into lament and mourn with those who mourn. We cultivate our empathy for our fellow humans, and from that we gain the ability to have real solidarity with the marginalized and forgotten. We gain an opportunity to join in God’s work and support them toward their own restoration, healing and wholeness.
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It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and about to have my own child that I started wrestling with the fullness of my experience as an adoptee. I can’t help but wonder why it took me so long? I can’t help but think if I’d wrestled with these things when I was younger, my adoptive parents would’ve handled it better. So far, I’ve come up with 4 reasons I didn’t acknowledge adoption loss.
My relationship with my adoptive mother was marked by a lot of raw and vulnerable conversations. As a teen and young adult, I felt safe and comfortable telling her exactly how I felt and hashing out all kinds of things. My adoption was just never one of those things.
In fact, I knew I was adopted before I even knew what “adopted” meant. My parents were very open about it. I met my first mom when I was around 9. I had ample opportunities to ask questions and explore my feelings about being adopted, but I didn’t. I assumed that it was all good, never acknowledging the possibility of adoption loss or trauma.
I’m now doing this work as an adult and suddenly finding it impossible to connect with my adoptive parents, unable to broach the subject with them. I’ve been mining my memories, searching the mindset of my younger self for answers as to why it took me so long to face the complex reality of being adopted. Here are the 4 reasons I’ve come up with, so far.
When they explained my adoption with the common positive, religious spin in a matter-of-fact manner, I believed their words were gospel truth. It didn’t occur to me that there could be another perspective. It’s in my nature to be loyal to an authority I trust. So I resisted asking further questions, figuring if they knew more they’d have told me. I resisted entertaining any feelings that did not fit with their positive adoption narrative.
What could my parents have done to help me know it was ok ask questions? I think they would have literally had to say something like, “You know if I were you, I might have a question about __[insert adoption related thing here]__. Are you curious about that?”
And I might have said no the first time and refused to think about it further. Eventually though, with regular prompts, I might have felt comfortable questioning things.
They also could’ve said something like, “While our experience of adopting you has been wonderful, you might find your experience of being an adoptee is sometimes confusing or difficult. We want you to know it is okay to feel that way and we want you to tell us if you do.”
My family was very spiritual. Very Christian charismatic. There was a pull to believe my adoption was part of God’s plan for my life and as such, it wasn’t something I felt I could question. How could I question God?! If He wanted something to happen then it must be good for me.
What would’ve helped? If my parents had taught me the difference between what God approves of (perfect will) verses things God merely allows to happen (permissive will) and applied that to my birth and relinquishment, that would’ve helped. I could’ve understood this by high school and it might have opened up space for me to begin to acknowledge adoption loss. However, I suspect they thought that since I didn’t show signs of wrestling with my adoption, there wasn’t any loss to grieve.
As a transracial adoptee, there were racial things that happened in my childhood that didn’t get properly assessed and addressed. Why? There was no person of color in our life (at least none willing to take the risk) to point out what was not ok and explain why. I believe I sensed that being racially different was uncomfortable and tried my best to fit in. That meant not questioning what the majority thought or said. That also meant internalizing the racism that I wasn’t taught to recognize as such.
I needed my parents to know things that they didn’t know they needed to know. In the 80’s, being racially colorblind was the moral and Christian (e.g. “God looks on the inside, not the outside”) approach to racial difference. At least for most white people. So while I know it would’ve helped if they’d found an Asian American community and learned to prepare for racial issues, I also know its unrealistic to think they would’ve known to do any of those things. I don’t blame them for not knowing what they didn’t know, but the result of that was still harmful for me.
Adoption, I thought, was something that happened the day I was born and then I just lived the rest of my life like nothing was different. In some ways that naivety provided a buffer from pain. However, this made us resistant to the idea that my adoption could/should inform how we assessed and addressed any issues I had growing up. I got used to looking for any other reason aside from being an adoptee or being racially different to explain adverse experiences or feelings.
What would’ve helped? To help me understand that being an adoptee was going to continue to impact my life in different ways, we would’ve had to have heard that from adult adoptees. We would’ve had to have found someone who knew they were adopted, had come out of the fog themselves, and had the desire and ability to talk about their lived experience.
First and foremost, I hope other adoptees might find something they resonate with and maybe hearing me articulate my experience will help them better understand how to communicate their own.
Secondarily, there are a lot of folks out there who love an adoptee and I hope this sheds light into the reasons why some adoptees do or do not or maybe just have not yet felt the need to acknowledge or process adoption loss.
I wrote this essay for The Art of Taleh for National Adoption Awareness Month. I’m reposting here with additional thoughts and breaking it into two parts. Part 1 is about Paul’s use of “adoption” as a metaphor for salvation in the New Testament. We look at what the legal process of adoption meant in Roman law and culture. We’ll see how Paul’s original audience had a different view of adoption than what we have today. So different, in fact, we should question if our modern practice of adoption can really be related to the gospel of salvation at all (see Part 2).
Some things (about me) to know up front: I’m an adult adoptee. Mine was a domestic/kinship/open adoption. I have 35 years of intimate experience navigating the pros and cons of human adoption. In other words, I can speak with authority on the nuances of adoption today, especially in American Christian culture, as I have lived it. It is from this lens that I dove into researching adoption as a metaphor in the Bible.
We Christians like to see adopting a child as an example of what Christ has done for us. Hashtag #adoptionisgospel. In addition to the Biblical mandate to care for “orphans and widows”, the language of adoption in the New Testament is a go-to for validating this perspective of modern adoption.
However, adoption in the Bible is a metaphor, not a mandate. The wrongful use of Scripture to spiritualize the adoption journey is harmful to adoptees in various ways; contributing to feelings of shame when we think about our birth parents or ethnic background, making it difficult to verbalize the painful aspects of our experience, and often walking away from God altogether. I’ll cover that in Part 2, but first let’s look at what the concept of adoption is in the Bible and appreciate Paul’s artful use of this legal metaphor.
In the New Testament, Paul the Apostle uses the Greek word “Huiothesia”, which means “placing as a son”. This is translated to “adoption” in English. Paul uses it five times to illustrate what Christ has done for us in salvation.
Remembering Paul wrote to Christians struggling to find unity across ethnic and cultural lines is interesting. Were the Jews who had grown up in Greek culture Jewish enough? Did the gentile converts have to become Jewish (get circumcised) in order to be saved? Who belonged? Who didn’t?
As a transracial adoptee, I feel the sting of doubting whether or not I belong because of ethnic difference.
Can I embrace my ethnic heritage, embody my faith differently from my white adoptive parents, and still be saved? Yes! I see how the adoption metaphor would further inspire oneness and unity within Paul’s audience, even if it wasn’t his main reason for using the metaphor.
Romans 8:15*: the God-given “spirit of adoption” contrasts with the “spirit of slavery” that keeps us in fear and condemned.
Romans 8:23: they are “waiting eagerly for our adoption,” aka the future hope of complete redemption when Christ returns.
Romans 9:4: Paul discusses the Israelites, “to whom belongs the adoption” if only they would have faith in Christ.
Galatians 4:5*: “adoption as sons” contrasts with being a slave, a state from which Christ redeems us.
Ephesians 1:5*: God’s choice is highlighted as “He predestined us to adoption”.
*In these chapters, Paul also connects being a child of God with being an heir of God. Inheritance is a recurring theme. The ideas of predestination and God’s will are also mentioned in Romans chapter 8.
Even in these woefully brief summaries we see familiar salvation concepts highlighted in the adoption metaphor; the change of position before God from a bad state (slave) to a good state (child/heir), and the emphasis on salvation being God’s will and for his purpose, not ours.
What did “huiothesia” mean to the original, intended audience? A few details about adoption in Roman law shows us why Paul’s use of this metaphor is brilliant!
The legal process of adoption in Roman law allowed a wealthy man (e.g. the emperor) to place a younger man as his son in order to have an heir. Wealthy patriarchs who had no sons (or at least none they trusted), could appoint their own successor through adoption.
In other words, adoption in the Bible was not about giving a family to orphaned children. Adoption was about securing an heir for a wealthy man. Those who did take in orphaned or unwanted children would not likely have gone through a legal process of adoption as it wouldn’t have been necessary in order to simply provide for the child’s needs.
Why is this important? This picture of adoption is more closely tied to inheritance than our picture of adoption today. This metaphor enables Paul to explain how our salvation (or adoption) means that we inherit all that is God’s (i.e. the earth, His glory, redeemed bodies). Often this idea of inheritance helped Paul’s readers put their trials and sufferings into perspective (Romans 8:17).
This adoption metaphor is also smart because it focuses on the desire of the wealthy man (God) to choose an heir (us, through and along with Christ). It reminds us that our salvation is for God’s purposes and glory, to carry on His name, and is not centered on us.
A wealthy man seeking an heir could be reasonably sure a that younger man in his 20’s had the desired traits and skill set, unlike a child who was still a question mark. Some commentaries say that an adopted son, being chosen, could not be disowned like a natural born son. After all, a natural born son could always turn out to be a disappointment.
In this regard, Paul’s idea of adoption is pretty different from our idea of adoption today. We’d see legally adopting an adult as a pretty strange and rarely necessary because we can name anyone in a will. Well, it’s likely Paul would think it just as strange and unnecessary for us to legally adopt children in order to simply love and provide for them.
Why does this matter? First, Paul uses the adoption metaphor to instill confidence salvation is secure, that God’s promises will be fulfilled! Second, this metaphor reinforces the supremacy of God’s choice and love.
God knows exactly who we are, how broken we are, how undeserving we are. There is no question as to whether or not we’ll turn out deserving of salvation. Paul is telling his readers, “God adopted you with eyes wide open, knowing exactly who you are, as you are.”
God knows us completely and yet He still saved/adopted us, not because He was certain of our worthiness, but because of His certain and unquestionable love.
In Roman law, a son was the property of his father; he had no possessions of his own and, legally, the father could sell him as a slave or even put him to death if wanted too. Roman adoption transferred a son from the complete authority of one father/master to another father/master. The son could no longer inherit from his first father and, many commentaries say old debts were cancelled.
I bet you can already see how brilliant Paul is again in using adoption in Roman law as a metaphor. It emphasizes the clear cut transition from being owned by/ a slave to sin to being a debt-free child of God, no longer condemned (Rom 8:1) or obligated to sin (Rom 8:12), but able to call God our Father because of Christ!
Why does this matter? The frighteningly total authority of a family patriarch in Roman culture and law is a little lost on us today, I think. No one I know thinks any father has a right to kill or sell their child with impunity. However, if we can just imagine this for a horrifying moment, we may see how the metaphor of a legal adoption would help Paul’s readers grasp how their salvation in Christ completely severs them from the frighteningly total authority of sin and death.
Can you feel a weight lift off of your spirit? I can. What an encouraging message! Good work, Paul.
In many ways, it is the DIFFERENCES, not the similarities, between Paul’s “huiothesia” and our concept of adoption today that make this metaphor the most meaningful.
I feel I need to gently mention why this metaphor often gets interpreted and applied with a bias before I send you to Part 2, where I’ll lay out what twisting this looks like and the impact on adoptees.
Well-known theologians, pastors and Christian podcasters promoting modern adoption are typically adoptive parents themselves. Perhaps they didn’t do a deep dive into this adoption metaphor until they already felt the “call to adopt”? Perhaps the adoptive-parent centered perspective is so elevated in our world that we rarely question whether or not there is (or was) any other view or form of adoption?
Many Christians come to these scriptures already assuming that modern adoption is the right/ Godly thing to do. And that’s normal! We all come to scripture with a lens, with biases that are difficult to see. So I understand how it would be easy for Christian authors and influencers to downplay or all out miss the glaring and important differences between the Biblical metaphor of adoption and the reality of modern adoption.
Another possible why: Many adoptive parents who write or speak on adoption do this when their children are still…well, children. Five or ten years into being an adoptive parent definitely gives them experience that has value. I don’t deny that. However, at this point in their relationship with their child, these adoptive parents still control the narrative. They have not yet seen how their child’s entire life continues to be shaped by their adoption in ways they never anticipated, in ways that are often deeply painful.
These parents have not yet wrestled with an alternative and equally valid perspective (their adult child’s) that counters their own as adoptive parents.
It’s not a leap to state that pastors and Christian influencers who are adoptive parents may (not always, but often) come to these scriptures seeing what they want to see. And those who see it differently rarely challenge this bias because, after all, their heart is in a good place, right? Unfortunately, this has led many to speak/write on adoption with a dangerous blindness to own their biases.
The next post will lay out how we get it twisted as I share examples from my own story on the negative impact this can have on adoptees’ view of God, family and self.
Before you read that, though I hope you chew on some of the things I shared here. I invite you to reflect on the excellence of Paul’s adoption metaphor and what that meant to the believers in Rome and Galatia and Ephesus, especially the non-Jewish believers.
How does a better understanding of “huiothesia” strengthen your understanding of your own salvation?
If you’re already in the adoption constellation (meaning you are a first parent, or an adoptee, or an adoptive parent, or know and care for someone who is), how does this look at Biblical adoption sit with you right now? What feelings, thoughts and questions does it bring up?
I’d encourage you to be self-reflective and prayerful before reading Part 2. It’s a little heavy.