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Human Adoption Is Like and Unlike God’s Adoption

My mom loved retelling a conversation she overheard between me and my best friend when I was 5 years old. Mark had just found out how babies were born and was eager to enlighten me. After hearing his version, I shook my head, gave a big “Nuh uh!” and proceeded to set him straight: “My mom and dad lined up all the babies in the world and chose me.”

At that young age, I had a positive view of adoption. Years later, I realized I was blind to what was going on underneath. My awakening came around age 40 through a book that put words to the deep shame I felt but couldn’t articulate. Reading other adoptees’ stories was a revelation. For many of us who were adopted, gratitude will eventually intermingle with grief.

The vast majority of what I’ve read and heard from Christians about adoption has been from the perspective of adoptive parents. While I appreciate much of what I’ve read, sometimes the differences between human and spiritual adoption aren’t sufficiently discussed—or are ignored entirely.

Important Differences

There are beautiful parallels between our theological adoption into God’s family and adoption into a human family. In the theological doctrine of adoption, our orphan status is transformed and we’re given a new surname, forever part of God’s family with all the rights and privileges it affords. This is true of human adoption as well. I’m a Dillard, as are my children. When my father dies, I’ll receive an equal share of the inheritance with my brother who’s biologically a Dillard.

We look at the Bible’s picture of God adopting us and are grateful. Adoption as a theological truth is glorious. But we ought to be careful to not overplay the parallel with human adoption. There are important, inglorious differences that hinge on the experience of the adoptee.

Adoption as a theological truth is glorious. But we ought to be careful to not overplay the parallel with human adoption.

In human adoption, the adoptee sometimes experiences deep, lingering trauma and a nagging sense of abandonment. This shame is compounded when adoptees are told something like this: “Isn’t it great you’re in this wonderful family instead of in whatever dire situation you would have known? You were rescued. You should be grateful.”

Adoption is a wonderful gift and gratitude is an important response. But the wounds we adoptees carry are real, and the trauma beneath the surface sometimes manifests in harmful behaviors. Adoptees are significantly more likely than nonadoptees to have mental health disorders. They often struggle in school and are at a four times higher risk for suicide. You may know a well-adjusted and fruitful adoptee. I fit that category, thanks be to God. But others have a different experience. Even for those “doing well,” the wound is often deep and lasting, still affecting us and our families well into adulthood.

The doctrine of adoption affirms we’re full heirs as sons and daughters in God’s forever family. We were rescued from slavery and have become children (Gal. 4:7). Human adoption, on the other hand, involves a pregnant woman, usually in a difficult situation, who chooses or is forced to give her baby away. The baby has been growing in her womb for nine months and has developed a deep attachment. When that baby is born and separated from his birth mother, he experiences a traumatic wound that’s not easily recognized.

When Christians ignore this reality, they compound the wound with expectations of gratitude.

Adoptee’s Psalm

I’ve found comfort in Psalm 27, which I dubbed “The Adoptee’s Psalm.” The longing and insecurity many adoptees feel are voiced: “Cast me not off; forsake me not” (v. 9). This is the fear for many who were adopted. Verse 10 then captures our hope: “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in.” Yes!

Adult adoptees may know cerebrally that they weren’t abandoned, but the babies they once were experienced abandonment, and the lingering effects of that experience remain. God’s promise to “take me in” has helped me heal, 55 years after my adoption.

I remember a moment when God met with me profoundly through this psalm. As I sat with verses 9–10, I allowed my imagination to go to that hospital nursery on February 14, two days after I was born, when I was left with strangers tasked with keeping me physically OK until I was taken home by my new parents. What was that 2-day-old baby experiencing? I sat in that moment and let God meet me and minister healing.

Psalms like this remind us God isn’t afraid of our pain. Scripture doesn’t sanitize the pain of life in a fallen world, even as it points us to hope and healing.

Be Present and Patient

As we look at adoption theologically as children of God, we can rejoice in what it means for us. But we must realize adoptees of human parents often bear closer resemblance to the Israelites in the desert, maddeningly wanting to return to Egypt. The trauma adoptees experience can be healed but often takes many years—and sometimes isn’t fully healed.

Stepping into a relationship with an adoptee—whether as a parent, a spouse, or a church family—can be an up-and-down adventure in faith. But our presence in the journey is vital. Patience and forbearance are necessary. Don’t get frustrated that an adoptee’s struggle is ongoing. Be with her in it, be for her in it, and make it clear you aren’t going anywhere.

Scripture doesn’t sanitize the pain of life in a fallen world, even as it points us to hope and healing.

Practical steps church leaders can take on this issue include recommending the excellent book The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family; making space for adult adoptees to share their stories; and, if professional help is needed, referring individuals or families to trusted, trauma-informed therapists in your area.

When we deal with adoption in the church, we need to recognize the deep wounds of some adoptees and understand the road to wholeness will be long and difficult. Let’s take this step with eyes wide open and full of faith. May our churches be communities of grace in which adoptees and their families are shepherded with understanding and compassion.


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