taking the words of Jesus seriously

“You’re God’s gift to us.”

“God brought us together.”

“It was God’s will for you to join our family.”

Have you ever said things like this to your adopted child? For adoptees like me—growing up in Christian circles where adoption is often presented as biblically sanctioned and as abortion’s golden opposite—these blessing statements are often enthusiastically shared—both directly with adoptees and with others when our adoption stories are told.

While you’re likely speaking your sincere truth, and while God certainly may have lent a divine hand in bringing you and your child together, this kind of spiritual-speak can be dangerous. As someone who grew up hearing these messages again and again, I’m warning you that it could erode your parent-child relationship—and possibly your child’s belief in a loving God.

As a child, my journey with this started when I was a seven-year-old, following a huge yellow and black veined butterfly all over my front yard. Sadly, my butterfly friend was hit by a car. I stayed by her side as she suffered and ultimately died. As an adoptee prone to sensing and feeling anguish, I felt the butterfly’s death so deeply I thought that I, too, might die.

My mom didn’t know how to console me, especially as I spent days mired in tears and grief. She figured the best way was through church—and the promise of heaven.

Only, it was my mom who was consoled and transformed into a full-fledged “born-again Christian.” She dove in big—first with a Mothers of Preschoolers group, then by starting a neighborhood Bible study.

“It’s because of Sara that I found God,” my mom would boast to her friends and religious cohorts. Sooner or later, she’d launch into a re-telling of my butterfly story, which became a public talk she gave over and over throughout my life. Thanks to adoption, my mom was given the blessing of a child who led her to her loving Savior.

People delighted in my mom’s beautiful story of a double blessing. But there was a long-term cost when it came to our mother-daughter relationship. There was also a cost to my faith.

While children are undeniably blessings, being overly effusive about “God’s divine plans” when it comes to adoption discounts the very real loss for adoptees and first/birth families—as if only one family’s triumph is what matters to God, as if the lifelong consequences for adoptees and first/birth families don’t matter.

Anytime we look past loss and grief in order to center ourselves in a story, we’re presenting an overly simplistic, and oppressive, view of religion. Touting “God brought us together” is the equivalent of saying, “Your tragedy is God’s will for my own benefit.” I’d even argue that declaring God’s very mysterious will with strong authority could violate the third commandment: “God won’t put up with the irreverent use of his name.” (Exodus 20:7 MSG)

READ: Adoption Lament

What’s more, for adoptees—already prone to feeling unworthy from the moment of relinquishment no matter how wonderful the circumstances are in our adoptive homes—this presentation of God’s preference reinforces our tendency toward flawed thinking. It becomes more proof that we are broken, unwanted, insignificant. We’re already inclined to silently hold on to this pain and feel ashamed. Feeling that God is all about our adoptive parents, and we’re merely a tool to bring them joy, fulfillment, and family, can reinforce a belief that we don’t matter, further silence us, and alienate us from the God our faithful parents are desiring to point us toward.

This alienation is not entirely the result of religious messaging, to be fair. Adoption, by its very nature, can lead adoptees to question God. Nancy Newton Verrier, an adoptive mother and psychotherapist focused on separation and loss in adoption, has referred to a common experience for adoptees in infancy where “the overall feeling is a betrayal of the universe, of God, of the cosmos, of the infinite being. This was not supposed to happen,” Verrier writes. “It is outside the realm of the natural order of life.”

Adoption is not natural—and we gloss over this with heavy leaning on spiritual speak. An infant is not supposed to be separated from the mother whose womb brought forth life. Isn’t that at the heart of the pro-life argument?

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that so many adopted children raised in the Christian faith run from it as adults. Similar dissonance that adoptees notice in widespread religious messaging around adoption is real:

  • God takes sides, and it’s not mine.
  • Premarital sex is a sin, but it may also be God’s will to bring a baby to a family in need.
  • We can be sure of God’s will when it suits, because it couldn’t be God’s will for anyone to struggle with infertility and not have a child.
  • Adoption is the answer to abortion, but pro-life isn’t as important when it comes to the historical and still prevalent use of corruption, coercion, and racism that can factor into adoption.

My private adoption happened to be the result of coercion. My adoptive mom had a hint that something wasn’t right about the circumstances surrounding my adoption, but she wanted a baby so badly she didn’t ask questions.

Knowing that she was a good person, I have come to understand that she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself if she thought she’d taken another mother’s baby. She had to believe that my adoption was divinely arranged. Once I realized this, the spiritual-speak began to make a lot of sense.

Similarly, once I understood God in my own way, apart from religious justification, I could see that God always cared deeply about me as an adoptee. There was a holy hand looking out for me in my adoptive family. But I’ve come to understand that same divine presence would have been there had I stayed with my first/birth family, too.

I share all of this not to make you feel wrong for adopting—nor for fiercely loving your child and saying so. But rather, I say it out of a sincere hope that adoptive parents will steer away from the blessing language to be more honoring to adoptees and to God.

“Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven.” (James 1:17 MSG) Children are no exception, no matter how they come to your family.

Thank God for the child who has blessed your life—but keep it private, remembering that adoption is always more nuanced than simplistic religious language can possibly convey.

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