Gary Thomas recently published an article “Does God Care How Many Children We Have?” It’s one of those really banal questions that people only ask when they have a poor, flat, empty view of God.
Of course he cares.
God has emotional investment in every area of our lives – because he has emotional investment in all of us as people.
Oh, but that’s not what Gary was getting at.
The question he really meant to ask was this: “Should we allow God’s desires to influence our decision when we consider how many children we have?” I’m not exaggerating when I say that his answer opens himself up to accusations of racism and sexism; but hey, for the purposes of this post, I’ll make the case for why it’s deeply flawed theologically.
According to Gary Thomas, the mere contemplation of what God wants to do in our lives is a “shocking thought”. And I suppose if you’re an atheist it might be. But if you’re a Christian then I reckon you’re probably very familiar with the idea of What God Wants and the concept is embedded in your thinking. It’s not a shocking thought. It’s a normal one.
For some Christians it’s normal because they view God as a trusted friend and companion who shares their grief and joys, and who spars gently with them, using wit and humour you can find nowhere else.
For other Christians the question has been normalised through the inculcation of the rules of ‘God Knows Best’ and ‘Thou Shalt Not Question’, because he’s the supreme and omnipotent parent – a perfect blend of Judge Claude Frollo from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mother Gothel from Disney’s Tangled. And when that’s the ‘God’ you know, you’re too afraid not to think about how many children God wants you to have.
But for some reason Gary thinks that this question of what God would desire for us is missing from the thinking of many Christians.
According to him, Christians are too concerned with the depletion of the earth’s natural resources or trying to put the command of Genesis 9:7 to ‘be fruitful’ and ‘multiply’ into its cultural and literary context.
And Gary says this is an error of the church. With a little reading between the lines he makes a thinly veiled argument that the world needs Christians because only then will there be a sufficient number of Christians available to be leaders of the world and keep the world free from threats – particularly that of Muslims.
Meanwhile, Gary speaks about how he and his wife are amazed by how Syrians are heeding God’s call to multiply, by having children in immense poverty. The challenge is implied: if these impoverished people can do it, why can’t we affluent, middle-class, white, Western Christians? Strange thing is, by framing these women as heeding God’s command, he implicitly assumes that they all want to be pregnant and having children. That they are experiencing motherhood despite their poverty rather than because of their poverty. This is a strange assumption to make given that the World Health Organisation says there are about 225 million women in developing countries would like to delay or stop childbearing, but aren’t using any method of contraception.
But Gary appeals to his audience – having children is a good thing. The kingdom of heaven belongs to children. No wait, he doesn’t say that – he says that to welcome a child is to serve Jesus. And because we welcome children by having our own children we should have children to serve God. He gives a token comment about how it’s hard work but emphasises that nothing, nothing, nothing a Christian married couple can do compares with this.
Well, as a childless, married Christian woman, that made me feel just fabulous.
As a theologian, it made me angry.
It’s not that I think we should cut God out of our choices. We can be unyielding in our lives – where we aren’t desiring autonomy and self-expression, but desiring control for its own sake. And actually, when God shares his imagination with us, unexpected doors and possibilities can open up with riches that we hadn’t anticipated.
For some people, that really does happen when they have an unplanned pregnancy.
I remember reading a blog post titled “Never Say Never” from a woman who was determined not to get pregnant, but who then did. She said, “Yes, this baby was planned – just not by me”. Even so, in this story, where God seems to have intentionally put his desires into a couple’s life almost ‘against their will’ there is not the merest hint – as Gary claims – that God’s motivation was to combat the growing population of non-Christians in the world.
And you know what? If we look at the Bible, we find plenty of other stories. Stories where of people who have children without having children.
We find the bold claim in Isaiah 54:
‘Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,’ says the Lord. (NIVUK)
There’s even a male version of this sentiment in Isaiah 56:
‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant –
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure for ever. (NIVUK)
What can this mean? How can someone have children without having children? How can someone have a ‘name’ or a legacy if they have no descendants?
Well there are several answers to this.
Some do it through adoptive parenting. And when it comes to the abortion debate, the most compelling pro-life article I’ve read is one that says pro-life must involve wholesale investment in fostering and adoption. You can read it here: What would really happen if we defunded Planned Parenthood and ended abortion?
But you’ve also got to understand that “parenthood” as a concept in the Bible is way, way bigger than having children. The essence of parenthood is about nurturing other people, growing them towards maturity, helping them move from a relationship of dependence to one of independence. Bringing them to a place where you can hand over the reins. Or, if we use the Bible’s royal imagery of the kingdom of heaven, it’s about bringing them to a place where they are fit to reign.
That doesn’t just happen with biological children or even adoptive children.
Paul, for example, never married or had children, yet he referred to Timothy as his ‘son’. Paul doesn’t claim this fatherhood over Timothy because of their respective positions in the church. He claims it on the grounds of their history together – how he had fostered Timothy’s faith.
And let’s not fool ourselves by downplaying the significance of this relationship. Timothy was the son of a Jewish woman who’d intermarried with a Greek (Acts 16:1). In first century Judaism that kind of relationship was more than frowned upon. But Paul completely looks past Timothy’s ancestry and welcomes him and his fellowship, nurturing him to become a leader within the church.
In other words, where Gary Thomas is saying it’s important for Christians to have Christian children because that’s how you make a legacy that lasts, the New Testament says it’s important for Christians to bring people into inclusion within God’s kingdom and nurture them to maturity and leadership. And this kind of legacy is not exclusive to child-bearers and church leaders – it’s a treasure that every person can build up as they invest themselves into the lives of people around them.
Gary says that his major “human” accomplishment is the writing of his book Sacred Marriage. However, he says this is not a work that will endure, it’s not an accomplishment of God, because there will be no need of his book in heaven.
I haven’t read Sacred Marriage so can’t comment on it specifically. But, does Gary not realise? A good book – one that builds into people’s lives, opens their eyes, deepens their relationship with God – will be a work that endures. Because the words will have dwelt within people. In the new creation, they will gather together and say, “Hey, so you read it too? How did it change your life? Do you feel the same way I did?” Those people, those strangers, they would be the ones who would greet the author as a father or mother; not because they were genetic descendants, but because through the book’s words they had received something of the author’s heart and labours. Indeed, a work of the Holy Spirit had been performed – and they had grown and matured through it.
It is a deeply flawed theology that says the best way to invest for your eternal inheritance is to reproduce here on earth – but that’s what Gary seems to be saying. Even his caveat about how he and his wife stopped at three because of medical complications comes with the words “I still think [our reasons] make sense.” He “still thinks”. Like he’s not even sure.
As he rounds off his article, Gary appeals to Christian couples: at least consider having more than your 2.1. He says no one should do so out of guilt, but…
(and if you hadn’t realised, people always say what they really mean after a ‘but’)
…if you stop at 2.1, your decision won’t be biblical. You’ll be blinkered by the ungodly culture of the world. You’ll be working against Christ’s affection for children.
Funny thing is though, children grow up. We’re not called to love children because they’re children. Frankly, that would be abhorrent. We’re called to love children because they are human beings. We are reminded to love them, because they are often vulnerable, have little power, are different to us, and because they can seriously try our patience.
I don’t know how many children God wants me to have. But he has my life in his hands; he knows my capacities and my desires. I don’t need to contort myself into a narrow spiritual career path so that I can contribute toward God’s terribly fragile redemption plan. Because, for one thing, his plan is in hand. For another, it is good. And for another, it’s big enough for people with different stories.
If you fancy some further reading, the multi-author blog which hosted the “Never Say Never” story of the woman her had a God-planned pregnancy, has some more interesting stories considering parenthood, children and childlessness. Here are some of them:
Fertility, family planning and women’s choices: Just because Western women are generally giving birth later in life doesn’t mean they’ve chosen to sacrifice their chances of procreation on the altar of careerism.