Adoption is the act of taking a child born to another woman and claiming that child as family. It is an act, born out of the complicated and broken nature of our world, that can make God’s love and redemption manifest in lives. Through adoption, brokenness and pain can tell another story.
Adoption is ultimately the story of God’s people. God “adopts” the people of Israel to be God’s people, and covenants to be their God. God becomes a birth parent, relinquishing the divine son to be raised by other parents. Jesus knows what it is to be an adopted child. The triad of adoption is complete in the story of God’s own self and God’s people.
An early function of adoption was to secure someone to inherit a family farm, a family name. Abram, before his name change and before his heirs were born, planned for Eliezer of Damascus to be his heir (Genesis 15). Biological children still had priority in inheritance. It was an unequal if still beneficial process. The transactional nature of adoption transformed over time into strangers becoming family.
The biblical narrative continues to expand our notion of family, and by increasing how we see our relationships with and to one another, it increases our circle of concern. The health, safety and flourishing of a stranger may not be my concern. If the stranger becomes family, our concern for their well-being changes too.
In Romans 8:15-17, Paul writes: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Romans 8 contains Paul’s clearest and most poetic writing about the ways we are adopted into God’s family, and about the lengths to which God’s love for us extends. Paul reminds us all that, whether or not we are adopted in our human families, we are adopted into God’s family.
Paul continues: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:32) Most people likely hear “gave him up” in reference to salvation. There is also a resonance with adoption. “Giving up” is adoption language. Children are given up for adoption. Adoption is not unrelated to God and God’s saving work in the world through the person of Jesus.
Adoption is the lens through which I see God most clearly. I was adopted as an infant, and my earliest memories are of my parents telling me, “We prayed for a baby, and God gave us you.” Being adopted meant that God was active in my life, working for good, before I was even born. God’s providential care for me has been tangibly manifest in my life.
Adoption also taught me the complicated nature of prayer. My parents’ prayer for a baby joined with a prayer of hope in my unformed lungs, and with the prayer of a woman desperate for a solution to her unplanned pregnancy. In our pain, in our hope, in our despair, God was at work, bringing our lives together, healing wounds, creating family. The answers to the prayers may not have been what was hoped for or expected. Looking back at my life, I can see how God used disparate prayers to work together for good in my life.
Psalm 139 speaks of God knitting us together in our mother’s wombs and I have long taken great comfort from its verses:
“Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.” (139:16)
I didn’t know the details of my birth mother’s life, but even as a kid, I understood that if she’d had other options, I would not have been placed for adoption. I knew, somehow, my very existence came about through her most difficult pain.
Wounds and blessings coexist
There is a wound in adoption, even in the best ones (as mine was). It is a wound of rejection. The woman who gave me birth chose not to be my mother. It is a primal wound to be separated from the body that gave you life. I’ve always felt loved, cherished, wanted by my family, which has been a balm over the wound, helping it heal, keeping it from being infected, or from spreading and becoming larger than it already was. The wound leaves a mark, though. A scar that does not go away.
Rejection is language Jesus voiced, at the cross. In Matthew 27:46, Jesus’ last words are: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is comfort in knowing that even my most primal wound is not beyond God’s own experience.
Ultimately, the wound of rejection is a wound for which I am grateful. My adoption has been a blessing. I’ve always experienced my birth mother’s decision to place me for adoption as an act of love, a recognition that in the difficult situation in which she found herself, this was the best she could do for me. I feel like she released me to live the life I was meant to live. I am so grateful to have been adopted, and the wound that comes with it is one I gratefully bear for the gift of my life, the gift of joining my family.
My own wound reminds me to give space for the wounds of others. When I speak of my rejection, my wound, people often rush to minimize it, or to soften its edges. Occasionally, someone is so uncomfortable with it that they try to tell me it isn’t there at all. I’m told I should be grateful to be adopted (I am) and I shouldn’t judge my birth mother (I’m not). The wound of my rejection exists alongside the gift of my adoption, and with my gratitude for my birth mother’s gift of releasing me to live my life. The many blessings in my life do not erase my wound.
Do our congregations give space for people to share their wounds? Or do we expect them to act as if being Christian means they don’t have any wounds? Do we allow them to remain in fearful anxiety, falsely believing wounds are a sign of unfaithfulness? According to John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he appeared to the disciples, who were hiding in fear in an upper room. Jesus gave them peace, and he showed them the wounds in his hands, in his side. The resurrection, for all of its really, really good news, did not erase Jesus’ wounds. And Jesus never pretended it did.
Wounds that live in the quiet dark are difficult to heal. When shame keeps us silent, when we hide the pain we carry in the locked upper rooms of our lives, how can we learn to connect our story to God’s story of redemption, and to God’s story of our adoption as God’s children?
My life intersects with adoption in another way too. I found myself facing my own unplanned (by me) pregnancy when I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college. Adoption ended up being the best choice for me, out of many choices I could have made. I’m grateful it was my choice, and that I had options, and that I had supportive friends and family.
The support of my church during my pregnancy showed me God’s love in ways that were truly life-giving. They fed me, loaned me maternity clothes, made me stand up on Mother’s Day in worship even after I’d placed my son for adoption and returned to my life as a college coed. I wasn’t sure if joining a church at such a time was a good idea, and the pastor, John Miller, said to me, “When could you possibly need a church family more than you do right now?” Whether adoption is in your story or not, shame likely is. The gift of being invited into community, and away from shame, was a life-giving gift that has informed my ministry (and probably led me into ministry). I am eternally grateful for a community that offered me grace and wouldn’t let me pick up shame.
Birth mothers are often the silent members of the adoption triad, who have a difficult time finding space to share their stories. They have been told to be silent, sequestered away to hide what is seen as sin or shame. From my own experience, shame and judgment are not something people need help knowing. We take that on with no need of help from the church, from family, or from society. What I needed from the church, and what I got, thankfully, was grace. I needed the reminder that nothing could separate me from the love of God.
Other people wanted me to carry their judgment. They wanted me to quietly slink away, a young woman who dared to have sex outside of marriage. Church people (not from my church, thankfully) felt empowered to ask me why I wasn’t marrying the birth father so that my son would not be born in sin before he was placed for adoption. My son was not born “in sin.” He may not have been planned by me, but he was knit together by God. Speaking of children as sin does not bring people closer to the God of redemption and grace.
Setting aside qualifiers, expanding definitions
While many things have changed about adoption in the almost 30 years since my son was born, I remind us to attend to the language we use to describe children born, through no fault of their own, into complicated birth stories, outside of historic norms of “woman married to man, gives birth to child more than nine months after the wedding.” For example, “illegitimate” is not a word to describe a human life. When someone adopts a child, it is not necessary to refer to the child as their “adopted” son or daughter. When people try to refer to a friend’s child that way, she can always say, “she’s just our daughter. Adopted only describes the way she came into our family. She doesn’t need that qualifier before her name.” People sometimes refer to my “real” family as my birth family. For me, my “real” family are the people who raised me, with whom I’ve spent my life.
It is our own adoption into God’s family that models for us how to set aside those qualifiers. There are not limits or borders to the depth of God’s love for us. Whenever we set limits and borders, we deny our own welcome into a new family, our membership in the household of God.
John’s Gospel reports this story at the crucifixion of Jesus: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
The beloved disciple took Jesus’ mother into his home, as a son cares for a mother. From that hour. No longer strangers, but family. This is the story of adoption. One minute, people are strangers. The next minute, family. My adoptive parents and older sister were a complete family, until they met me and immediately expanded their definition of family to include me.
A few years ago, I got my birth certificate and started meeting my birth family. It’s astonishing, really, to consider. Members of my birth family answered a phone call from a total stranger – -me – and from that call, managed to expand their definition of who was included as a part of their family.
In an instant, I went from being nobody to being family. The welcome I’ve received, while it has had some rough patches, has really been humbling. And it has reminded me of the wildly inclusive love of God that causes us to be joined to God’s family. They’ve shown me God’s own love in their welcome.
Even at the cross, as his mother has to watch her son be crucified — she does not have to be alone in her grief and pain. The pain is her own, but the beloved disciple stands there next to her and Jesus makes a connection between them, shows them what adoption into God’s family looks like. In their grief, in the brokenness of the world, there can still be connection, consolation, adoption into the household of God.
MARCI AULD GLASS is the pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church and lives with her husband and sons in Boise, Idaho.