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Understanding the Adoption Experience

Adopted children commonly struggle with understanding their own identity because their experience often includes abandonment and rejection. By design, the family consists of a husband and wife who procreate and give birth to children who, together, grow up and mature in relation to one another. Disruption in the family, for a variety of reasons, causes children to be displaced from their birth parents. The negative experiences of the adopted child can jade his perception of himself. His relationship to those who gave him birth has been broken and he has been chosen and placed into relationships with people who now function as his parents. Every adopted child has to confront this reality of being both rejected and displaced. However, that is not the whole story. Adopted children also experience being chosen and embraced by parents who welcome them into their families as legitimate members with all affection, rights and privileges. 

Priceless Doctrine of Adoption 

The doctrine of adoption, especially its emphasis on the familial union with the triune God, helps adoptive children perceive their experience rightly. Regrettably, the majority of adopted children do not have a theological understanding about their adoption experience. The majority of counsel available to adopted children and their parents is not from a biblical perspective. Most counsel relies heavily on empirical studies and people’s own explanation of their personal experiences. This leaves adopted children without sure resources to turn to for help in thinking rightly about their adoption experience. Relational attachment, personal identity, and behavior problems are common issues among adopted children. The doctrine of adoption, however, underscores the significance of being placed into a permanent familial relationship, accentuates a person’s identity as primarily one’s union in Christ, and promotes relational responsibilities that are consistent with being adopted into God’s family. 

Parents’ Conscious Awareness of Adoption 

Adoption emphasizes a relationship 

There are two major themes of adoption that parents must keep in mind. First, the doctrine of adoption emphasizes a relationship. J. I. Packer’s famous book, Knowing God, is most quoted by authors and preachers who teach on adoption. In that book, Packer invests one chapter on the doctrine of adoption, but his lack of quantity does not minimize the importance he places on the doctrine. Packer asserts that “If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 226).  

Our cry of “Abba! Father!” defines who we are and to what family we belong. Adoption is an expression of the calling of a father to make orphans His own (Hosea 11:1). It is a proclamation that in Christ we have been given a right—a choice birth (John 1:12-13). The paternity test is not a blood test, but a Spirit test (Rom 8:14-17). Adoption is the meritless choosing of God to graciously and permanently bring us into His family with Him as our eternal Father (Gal 4:4-7; Eph 1:5-6).  

Adoption comes with privileges 

Second, recognize that the permanent family relationship through adoption comes with privileges. As already mentioned, there is the tremendous privilege of our relationship with God that is based not on performance or birth, but by grace (Eph 1:5). With that comes the privilege of a family. When we experience the gracious gift of adoption we have the privilege of having other family members with which to share our lives. As adopted children of God we are placed into His family, the church, with brothers and sisters bonded not by blood, but by the Holy Spirit. These relationships also come with the privilege of communication. Namely, because of our status as children of God, we have confidence to approach the throne room of God in prayer (Heb 4:14-16). We have the privilege of communicating with our heavenly father. 

Additionally, adoption gives us the privilege of discipline. The author of Hebrews makes a point to teach us that discipline is a gracious show of love and acceptance by God. It is a sign of belonging (Heb 12:7). Discipline is a gracious means of producing Christlikeness in our lives. As adopted children we have the privilege of imitation and conformity to the characteristics of our Father (Eph 5:1). It’s one thing to be told we look like or act like our earthly Father, but to be like our heavenly Father…is extraordinarily amazing! Lastly, we have the privilege of inheritance. Our permanent and family relationship to God as our father comes with the inestimable gift of eternal riches.  

Practical Parenting Implications

Prepare for temptations 

First, with a conscious awareness of the doctrine of adoption, let us consider a few practical implications for everyday parenting. One, be prepared to handle the temptations that come with adoption. An adopted child may wrestle with identity (“Who am I”; “Where do I belong”) throughout life and be tempted to respond to it sinfully. He may accuse his parents of playing favorites. Challenge his parents’ authority. Seek to overly control his environment and the people around him. He may be overly competitive, and the adopted child may use his unique identity in an “I am a victim” way to get his way or excuse sinful behavior. Therefore, show him kindness and patiently remind him of the permanent presence and permanent provision of God (Deut 31:8; Ps 46:1; 1 Cor 10:13; 2 Pet 1:3), helping him live with a conscious awareness of the permanent family relationship that adoption brings to him with God and with you along with all its privileges and responsibilities.  

Address the past 

Second, when needed, address the experiences of the child’s past. A child who throws a tantrum in church may do so because she suffered many years in an orphanage at the hands of adults and sees adults as harmful and threatening. It is better to address issues pertaining to her suffering before her sin. Show compassion. Address her thinking first, then move onto helping correct the sinful patterns. Provide hope and remind her of God’s wisdom, goodness, sovereignty and nearness. Help her understand the purpose of suffering; that her wise, good and sovereign father uses her suffering to conform her to His image and to glorify His name. Remember, conformity to Christlikeness is a wonderful privilege of our adoption the worship of Him is a fundamental purpose for His children. 

Proclaim the legitimacy of the adoption relationship 

Some mistakenly and ignorantly estimate adoption as illegitimate or as a second-rate means of having children. The doctrine of adoption shouts legitimacy and value! Every adoptive family must share the conviction of the priceless and legitimate nature of their adoption experience and communicate that regularly. Practically, this means that discernment must be used when determining how much of the adopted child’s background information is explained and talked about. The greatest gift you give to your child is the conviction that he is without doubt your child. Always find ways to communicate to your child, “You’re one of us.” Therefore, when you speak to your child about his background, assure him of the permanent and personal relationship with you as his parents. 

Explain the importance of identity 

Speak to the child’s need for a savior. True identity is in Christ. Our world has placed an erroneous emphasis on one’s identity being rooted in his biology and ancestry. Am I saying that his biology and his ancestry have nothing to do with his identity? Absolutely not. However, through the rejection of God, the world has nothing else by which to identify people other than temporal and finite constructs. As people created in the image of God the adopted child has a much greater authority by which to identify who he really is.  

Contrary to common belief, the adopted child is not any healthier in life by knowing his ancestry, but by knowing his creator and savior. He can survive mysteries in his life, especially when he knows who he is as revealed by His creator God through His sufficient and authoritative Word. “To claim to be a son or daughter of God is a higher word than if a man could deduce his genealogy from an uninterrupted line of a thousand kings and princes. There is more honour, true honour, in it, and more profit too” (Joel R. Beeke, Heirs With Christ, 16). In Christ the adopted child is a forgiven and reconciled sinner (Acts 10:43; 2 Cor 5:18-19; Eph 1:7; Col 2:13-14), is born again (John 3:3; 1 Pet 1:3, 23; 1 John 5:1), has access to God (John 14:6; Eph 2:18, 3:11-12; Heb 10:19-22), is a member of God’s family (John 1:12; Gal 3:26; Eph 1:5; 1 John 3:1-2), and is permanently indwelled by the Holy Spirit and guaranteed entrance into Heaven (Rom 11:29; Eph 1:13, 4:30).  

While we instruct the adoptive child on the privileges of adoption, we also instruct him on the responsibilities of his legitimate family relationship. In Christ he is to grow up into the likeness of Christ (Phil 2:12-13; 2 Pet 1:3-11), he is to discover, develop and deploy his spiritual gifts (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Pet 4:10-11), he is to love and care for his family (John 15:17; Rom 12:10), he is to depend on the truth, wisdom, authority and sufficiency of God’s Word for life (Prov 3:5-8, 16:20; Ps 19:7-11, 84:12; Eph 5:15-17), and he is to live for Christ on purpose (Ecc 12:13; Matt 28:18-20; Luke 9:23; Gal 2:20; Phil 1:21). 

This brief blog shows how the doctrine of adoption richly provides adoptive parents and adopted children with a robust and accurate view of their shared adoptive experience. It comes with priceless privileges and remarkable responsibilities. As parents of adopted children, you do well to help your child make sense of her adoption experience through the glorious truths of our adoption by God. Every adopted child has the experience of family disruption. They have been displaced from their birth family and without a proper theology they will more than likely have a distorted view of their experience. You have the wonderful privilege of helping your adopted child see her experience differently. You encourage, strengthen and comfort her with the reality that she has been chosen and embraced by parents who welcome her into their family as a legitimate member with all the affection, rights and privileges just as God adopts us and makes us His children and Him our father.  

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Andrew Rogers
Andrew is a fellow and board member of ACBC. He is also is the Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling and Program Coordinator for Biblical Counseling at Boyce College in Louisville, KY. He is husband to Jenny and father to their four children.