The first time I saw Third Day’s video for the song Children of God, it brought tears to my eyes. This isn’t saying much, as I once choked up at a scene in Air Force One (the F-16 pilot’s taking a missile for the President struck a noble chord in my soul), and the music video clearly aims to manufacture such a reaction. Still, the video tapped into something personal for me the first time I saw it.
The song is simple—almost simplistic. It marvels over an image that appears in various places in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s epistles, like Galatians 4:5, which says believers in Christ “receive adoption as sons,” thus becoming, as Third Day puts it, children of God.
The video features children who have clearly been adopted—their international faces don’t match their white American families and to ensure crystal clarity, each conspicuously wears a white t-shirt that reads “adopted.” American viewers likely feel happiness for these children who, we presume, have been saved from languishing in some orphanage that barely provides for their physical needs. Given that set up, the emotional kicker comes when the band and the adopting families remove their layers to reveal their own “adopted” t-shirts.
I teared up in part because the sentiment echoed the reasoning I’d been using to explain why my wife and I were looking to adopt, reasoning I’d also acquired with a reading of Russell Moore’s Adopted for Life. The sentiment is sincere, touching and simple: Christians are adopted into God’s family, so they should identify with (and champion) adoption. In this way, adoption is a mirror of a Christian’s own faith journey.
My wife and I chose to adopt after having three biological children. As Christians, we were looking to the Bible for insight into the process, and as we did so, I was surprised by how frequently I saw references to adoption in the Bible—it was like looking to buy a Camry and realizing suddenly that half the cars on the road were Camrys but I had never noticed. And this metaphor of God adopting believers was a central piece of what I noticed anew.
It was at such a point that I saw the video, which captured so poignantly the reality I’d discovered.
Except that it didn’t.
That is, it did capture what I’d discovered, just not the reality I would experience.
The adoption reality began to crash when I read James Gritter’s Hospitious Adoption, where Gritter points out that adoption places the adopting parents in a position of power over the birth parents. I did not appreciate Gritter’s labeling me with a kind of privileged power archetype, but my discomfort arose from the accuracy of his claim. Similar to Gritter’s insight was a comment from our adoption agent, which assured us that every adoption begins in mourning, with loss.
These were not the triumphant situations I’d been envisioning, the tear-infusing moments of salvation for an orphan, but they were right, because what mother wants to give up her child? Maybe a few truly do, but surely the vast majority of mothers placing their children into adoption would like to change their situations, would like to raise their babies. And when they cannot, they mourn. And the children, when they’re big enough, will mourn as well.
The trend in adoption in the United States that tries to address these realities constructively is called “open adoption.” At its best, “open” means everyone is open about the process—open with the child about explaining the situation, open to maintaining contact with the birth parents. With time, my wife and I embraced the open framework, finding it the best way to be honest with our child and the most loving way to relate to birth-parents.
Four months ago, Tim and Suzie reached out to us, asking to place their baby in our home. Tim and Suzie and their families will not raise Paul, our now-adopted baby, but they want to take part in his life in smaller ways, to let him know they care. Convinced that receiving love and knowing the fullness of your story is a good thing, we will keep these relationships open and encourage Paul to experience them.
And with that I think how starkly Paul’s adoption contrasts with the concept celebrated in the music video. To the Christian, adoption is a helpful metaphor for capturing the dynamic of God’s relationship to his people. That’s why it’s in the Bible. In this way, God has dramatically and authoritatively altered the situation, pulling his people from slavery to sonship, transferring them from darkness to light, to invoke another oft-used metaphor of the Bible.
But what if I extend the metaphor in its reverse direction, to say that the nature of God’s relationship to people describes the essence of adoption’s reality? That is inaccurate and can ultimately impair a believer’s understanding of adoption. Paul, my son, has not fled a kingdom of darkness. Though unable to parent him, his birth-parents love him; though their world is not ideal for a child, it is not a world of slavery. And though wanting the best for Paul and possessing a home situated well to receive a child, my wife and I are not saviors. We are not the light, with Tim and Suzie standing in as darkness.
I am not a theologian, but I try to be a good lay student of the Bible. Looking back to my own reaction to Third Day’s video, I think I misused a metaphor; I took an idea the Bible uses to communicate one thing, and I used it to say something else. A metaphor seeks to illuminate a piece of reality; to expand it beyond its purpose limits our understanding of the reality it intends to describe. I would say the Bible contains plenty of convincing ideas that might motivate me to adopt—one of them being God’s care for the “alien” and those in need—but my extended application of this metaphor is not one of them.
It is easy to do this, to take some kind of insight into life and extend it beyond its original span. I can apply my understanding of a political truth, or a friend’s character, and I can push it to apply further than it should. If I am not careful, my insight can lead me to misinterpret the reality before me, to see reality as more simple than it really is. It’s not necessarily so complex I cannot comprehend it, but with my interpretive lens, I do not see it.
My reality is rich and, to my ultimate joy, far more complex than a music video. Paul is adopted, but his adoption is not like my adoption. The world he leaves behind is not a world of death. In fact, the idea of open adoption is that he need not leave that world behind; instead, he can maintain communication and communion with Tim and Suzie, and doing so will not be evidence of his lack of commitment to us but to his love for them.
I confess, I teared up at a cheesy music video, but I’d like to observe that I have matured beyond the simplistic understanding of adoption that manufactured my tears. In my maturity, I am far more capable of loving Paul, his birth family and a world full of people I as a Christian believe God wants to adopt out of darkness.