Adoption and the Image of God
When I was in my early 20s, I met a college friend of my parents for the first time. After a short conversation, she smiled and commented, "You're just like your dad!" She wasn't just referring to my appearance, but to my personality, mannerisms, and demeanor. She was talking about what I was like. I took it as a compliment. My dad had passed away several years before, so it was especially gratifying to have someone recognize him in me. I love my dad and am thrilled to reflect something of him. That's one way that love works. There's something built-in and natural where children should be pleased to reflect their parents and where parents delight in passing on their likeness to their children.
Sadly, my wife and I are in a position where we may never enjoy that feeling. We have not been able to have children of our own. I wonder if I'll ever see any of my wife's loveliness or personality in our children. Because we've not been able to conceive on our own, we've begun to wade into the complicated, emotional world that is adoption. We had always intended to pursue adoption at some point, infertility just moved up the clock. This article arises partly out of the realization of how much there is to sort through, both emotionally and spiritually.
One of the early hurdles in the process of educating ourselves about adoption was to reckon with the loss of what is commonly called "genetic children." Before living through it, I had (naïvely) thought it would be as simple as coming to a fork in the road and going left instead of right--the other direction was simply closed. I had even felt a mild reproach towards others who were hung up on the issue. It had seemed like a vanity to fixate upon genetics when the world is full of children who need loving parents. After all, adopted children would be just as much "our" children as genetic children would be. What's the big deal about genetics?
It is unquestionably true that adopted children would be "ours" in the fullest sense of the term. Nevertheless, the thought that losing genetic children would be simple or painless was far from the reality we encountered.
The Reality of the Loss
I have come to realize what many others already know that--real or only perceived--there is an emotional and even spiritual sense of loss when a couple cannot conceive their own children. While we can adopt and intend to, it's a reality that any children my wife and I do adopt won't physically look like us, have that genetic connection, share with us whatever is nature as opposed to nurture. To put it in biblical terms, they will not bear my "image." Genesis 5 describes the birth of Adam's third son, Seth, with that terminology: "[Adam] fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth" (Gen 5:3). The loss of genetic children feels like the loss of image. They won't have my wife's eyes. They won't have my smile.
There is a Christian truth that underlies that sentiment. God created Adam in his image and only then did he declare his creation very good (Gen 1:31). Likewise, Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), is his beloved in whom he is well pleased (Matt 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11; 9:7; Luke 3:22; 2 Pet 1:17). God delights in seeing his likeness in the world. There's something of that same inclination in any mother who sincerely loves her husband and delights in seeing his characteristics in her children. We are meant to delight in the likeness of the people we love.
That sense of loss is real. But, I'm writing this article to try to refocus the question and put the loss in a broader context.
While the sense of loss is real, it is important to not misunderstand what is actually lost for what cannot be. Yes, adopted children may not have my smile or physiological characteristics. But, is that the most valuable thing I have to pass on?
I quoted Genesis 5:3 above which describes Adam having a son in his "image" and "likeness." At first we might consider that unremarkable because we tend to take it physiologically. Of course, Adam's son looked like him. But that same language was also used in Genesis chapter 1 of God creating mankind, where God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen 1:26). What God imparted to man by making him in his image was not physical at all. He imparted characteristics, but they weren't eyes or a smile. God is spirit. The characteristics he gave were far more valuable. They are the spiritual virtues of true knowledge, righteousness and holiness.1 God made us to reflect his true and perfect thought. He made us to reflect his justice and character. He made us to reflect his sinless perfection. Simply put, he made us to be godly.
Godliness was the very quality that was tarnished in the fall. Mankind stopped reflecting God in his thoughts and behavior. In that light, we can say that God knows what it is like to lose his likeness, far more than I do. In fact, the reason God sent Jesus, his son and image, was so that he could restore it in the people Jesus came to save. Romans 8:29 says, "those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." God's concern in redemption has nothing to do with preserving physical characteristics of any kind, but with restoring mankind's godliness and glory.
The loss of genetic children is a real loss. But, that loss is only physiological. The most valuable image I have to pass on is not my smile or my wife's eyes, but my likeness to Christ. He is restoring his image in me day by day. Godliness has nothing to do with my genetics and everything to do with my heart. There are many commands in Scripture to train children for godliness (e.g., Prov 22:6), but no clear commands to perpetuate our genetics for their own sake. Would it not be vain of me to inflate the value of my image and diminish the value of God's? Because God has shown me grace, I am in the position to raise children in the knowledge, righteousness, and holiness of God. I can raise them in the Lord and call them to godliness.
I have two images to share. I can narrow the focus to my own genetics or recognize that my reflection of Christ is of vastly greater value than any likeness to myself alone. The privilege of seeing my wife's eyes in my children (as wonderful is that would be!) cannot be compared with the privilege of seeing even a hint of the beauty of Christ in them.
1. Cf. WCF 4-2; WLC 17; WSC 10.
Rev. Dr. David Barry is an Assistant Pastor at Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, GA and Adjunct Professor of New Testament for Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta.