Saints and Sinners, All of Us

“Don’t you want to have your own children?” someone asked me. I cannot fathom how my adopted daughter could feel any more “my own” than she does, or more beloved.

“God has blessed us with another child.” she said. I smiled weakly, but because adoption is the lens through which I view the world, I wondered where that theology leaves people who either struggle with fertility or have unwanted pregnancies?

What if I told you that many “religious” comments made to adoptive families contradict how we actually believe God works? In any congregation there are likely to be multiple families touched by adoption. Birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees: we are each both saint and sinner, simultaneously and constantly. I am convinced that this theological concept from Martin Luther, if discussed often and well, would change the unexamined, often hurtful theology put on members of adoptive families (including birth parents). There are so many kinds of adoption, including domestic or inter-country adoption, foster care, kinship adoption by relatives, and adoption by step-parents. That is to say, it’s not a small niche community affected, but a wide-spread network of people who have been touched by adoption of all kinds.

Parents who adopt children are simultaneously saints and sinners. There are all kinds of reasons to adopt, from fertility struggles to family history to deeply-held beliefs. Yet the first assumption of many people is that adoptive parents must not have been able to birth children, and that carries some unfair judgment. Despite all we know now from science and anatomy, archaic views still linger about causes of infertility. Some judgment from the sidelines is rooted in old wives’ tales about how certain actions can cause a miscarriage, or blaming women for “putting off children” to have a career first, as if finding the right spouse or right timing for children is anybody else’s decision than the parents. But the insidious, unexamined theology people of faith might still harbor based on references to “The Lord God closed her womb” is that God is somehow behind fertility or infertility. Most miscarriages are caused by chromosomal deficiencies. God’s “will” is indeed for our bodies to determine when conception cannot lead to a healthy human being, but is God intervening in every specific instance? A close, critical reading of some ancestor stories can help all of us to make conscious attitude adjustments about those struggling with fertility. Try reading Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, or Elizabeth’s stories; how is God involved, and for what purpose? Does giving God the glory for “blessing” some with children turn into a whispered impression that God must be withholding the blessing from others? Is that understanding really how we believe God works, even if it is how fertility struggles were explained in ancient times, or used to tell the story of God at work through our faith ancestors? It is very helpful to mention these often-assumed, rarely-named assumptions when reading actual Scripture. Notice how, for example, Hannah does not conceive Samuel simply because she prays hard enough, but she dedicates him to the Lord’s service in the Temple beforehand (effectively making an adoption plan!). This does not justify telling anyone that they would birth children if they prayed hard enough.

Parents who adopt children are simultaneously sinners and saints. While ultimately the emotional, financial and social challenges unique to adoption might make this way of forming a family seem altruistic or sacrificial, I assure you, as an adoptive parent, that we are all sinners too. While the process of becoming adoptive parents is more intentional than the 50% of pregnancies that are unplanned, our families end up being just as vulnerable to the pressures others experience, with some added baggage. Adoptive parents separate and divorce, and struggle with addictions and mental health issues too. Fortunately, now there are many more resources to support adoptive parents than in past generations, including education on possible challenges due to the circumstances that led to our children being available for adoption and talking about our children’s adoptive identities in healthy ways. There are challenges, but there is no doubt that our love for our adopted children is just as strong as for biological children. And that’s theological too, because we believe that we are all God’s children through adoption, siblings with Jesus Christ, and God loves us unconditionally too. But let us be clear: we are not saviors. Sometimes adoptive parents hear something similar to: “You are such a saint for adopting! I could never do that.” Or even, “You really saved them.” But neither of these are what we believe. We are all making decisions the best we can, in our complicated, flawed, human ways. We are all capable of committing – in our families and our “church families” – to loving those who are not “flesh of our flesh.”

Birth parents (and especially mothers) are both saints and sinners. Most of us believe there is nothing we would not do for our children. But does that extend to making an adoption plan? Whatever the situation was that made a child available for adoption, ultimately placing them in a family that is prepared to love and care for them is a great act of love and sacrifice, and a cause of enduring heartache for the birth parents. Many, many factors create these complex situations, and some of them are definitely personal, for which birth parents hold responsibility: having unprotected sex, substance abuse, abuse or neglect. Yet other factors we might attribute to society and all feel some culpability for ourselves as well: oppressive political regimes, lack of access to mental or physical health care, generational poverty, or laws restricting access to birth control. These are all human-caused situations, so what has God to do with it? We might credit God with inspiration to do what we believe is best, even when it means heartbreak. The story of King Solomon judging between two women who claimed the same child (1 Kings 3:16-28) highlights the love it takes a birth mother to choose life for her child, even if it means separation. When the wise king declared that the child should be cut in half, the true mother begged for the child to be given whole to the other woman. She made an adoption plan, for her child’s future. We also imply God’s participation in these decisions when we talk about “God’s plan,” but we must do that theology carefully. My adopted daughter and my birth daughter look alike, and people say to us: “God sure had a plan!” But I am certain the same person would never say, “God planned for your adopted daughter’s birth family to be incapable of parenting her.” Under the human-caused circumstances, the Holy Spirit could have credit for working out the possible outcome that we would be brought together. But that’s not exactly what was said, is it? The actions and choices of birth parents to make an adoption plan can result in the children they birthed questioning their identity and worth, and bearing a primal wound, but birth parents bear this knowledge and their own loss too. That’s actually enough. No outsiders are either qualified or needed to comment on how they could never “give up a child.” Any of us could be overcome by pressures both personal or societal, but the question is our capacity to love enough to do what is best for the child.

Adoptees (people who have been adopted) are sinners and saints too. It is helpful to talk about that, even with children. I wonder about the unconscious thoughts or feelings adoptees, working out how their behaviors make them like or unlike both their birth and adoptive parents. Some might gravitate towards risky behaviors as they reach puberty and are determining their identities. Does that mean they are innately drawn to such things, or is it because they haven’t processed their inner questions? Being adopted doesn’t mean just one thing, for example that you must be a hero or an outcast. Adoptees are simultaneously both, just like everyone. From Scripture we can lift up those who were adopted, like Moses or Esther, who were empowered by their identities to lead their people. We can lament those whose families were not nurturing. For example, we can talk about how Sarah responds badly to Ishmael and his birth mother Hagar once Isaac is born, but God makes a nation out of Ishmael too. No matter what decisions people have made about us, God wants the best for us! Of course, not all adoptees grow up to be heroes of biblical proportions. But from some examples in Scripture we claim that we can all channel the painful parts of our histories to make a difference for others. And that is one way we definitely believe God works. While “being adopted” may be woven into any part of an adoptee’s life, consciously or unconsciously, every action is not about being adopted. The vast majority of the time, it’s just about being a kid. As the saying goes: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” Behaviors or feelings, both positive and negative, arise for all of us, and are much more likely to be about age, developmental stages, or circumstances than they are to lead back to being adopted. That said, some adoptees could have struggles related to the reason they were adopted in the first place, such as abuse or neglect, in utero or after birth. Where is God in making us who we are? Adoptees in our midst can remind us to unpack carefully how we use verses such as Psalm 139:13 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Or Jeremiah 29:11 “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Our whole lives are comprised of sinner-saints making the decisions. God cares about what happens to us, inspires, and empowers us. But it also helps a whole lot to admit that we are all simultaneously saints and sinners, all the time.

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