The Stigmata of Adoption


Recently, a friend approached me and proposed I write about adoption. We talked for a minute about how the act of taking an unwanted child and trying to love them well is a physical reality that’s reflected in the Christian life. It seemed like a great idea. Then I sat down to write and realized something: I wasn’t adopted. I’d heard all the sermons about adoption, and I knew what the Bible said about it, but that doesn’t count. How do you write about something you aren’t sure how to fundamentally approach?

I understand adoption psychology in the spiritual world; or rather, I have a tiny grasp on it that I can put into words. But I have no first-hand experience with adoption in my life. The closest knowledge I can claim is that I have friends and family members who have undergone the process. So what follows is a mix of speculation and research, with just a dash of comprehension of the love that Christ has shown to a world of sinners.

We all struggle with adoption in different forms. We want to be adopted into a friend group; a bride is adopted into the groom’s family–and vice versa; we work at a job long enough and we begin to feel like we’re “part of the family.”

Regardless of how serious and real things such as these are, they are mostly superfluous. Someone who claims to understand adoption on such grounds is like someone who makes the rather audacious claim that they know the feeling of flight because they once enjoyed a quick jump on a trampoline.  They know only the shadow of the issue–an issue that is a fundamentally defining aspect of the human experience.

Regardless of when it happened, regardless of how loving the new parents are, the adopted child is a scarred child. Even the most well-adjusted, understanding adopted child will have to learn to bear these marks–a stigmata all their own. Jodi Picoult, in her book Handle With Care, explains that “Since I was five, I’ve known that I was adopted, which is a politically correct term for being clueless about one’s own origins.” At the very least, an adopted child is left without a relationship befitting a parent and their offspring. Is it any wonder they can be prone to act out?

Our origins define us. As Americans, we tend to feel otherwise—“It’s where you are, not where you’re from.” While this is a nice thought, it is an inaccurate one. Whether you have stayed home your whole life, or were left in an orphanage, or ran away to join the circus, your roots have shaped you, even if it was just by leaving you in the care of someone else. A tree may still grow despite having been planted in dry sand, but you can’t get around the fact it’s playing against a stacked deck. A number of studies point to the unfortunate reality that adopted children are statistically more likely to end up in correctional facilities or find themselves succumbing to drug or alcohol abuse and suicide.

And while the thought of being given up in infancy is harsh, perhaps even more traumatizing is the child who had the misfortune of knowing a parent that did not want them. Tragic is the image of a baby left on the steps of a home by a weeping mother; soul-rending is the reality of children being turned away on their front steps and forcibly orphaned. This deliberate separation is terrible when it is so brutal and stark–it is perhaps even more insidious when it comes about in subtle words and actions that remind the child they are not wanted. When this child is finally placed in the arms of parents who love them, if these memories didn’t occasionally spring up it would indicate a problem–the fact that they do (consciously or not) is inevitable.

And now the spiritual crux: we are all orphans. It’s a cliché, but it’s true in ways that we generally don’t acknowledge. We are an unwanted people, cast into the world by Nature. Whether we understand it or not, we are left on the doorstep of this life desolate and alone. If we have loving, caring parents who cradle us in our infancy, we may not recognize this hard fact till we are much older. On the other hand, those who have been physically adopted are confronted with the reality of their situation and understand it in a way that those who weren’t must struggle to understand.

So what do we do? We tend to flail a bit, to lash out in a misguided and understandable attempt to protect ourselves or deal with our confusion. Is it any wonder the world can be so hard, so illogical, so broken? It’s a world of orphaned children. Some of them have parents, some of them don’t, but we all have been thrown out of the womb of Eden and left crying in the cold. Orphans raise orphans and the problem continues.

We grow up ignoring our Father; when he shows up, instead of running and throwing ourselves sobbing into his arms, we wonder where he was all this time. Christ was looking for us before we were born; just because we’ve gotten good at covering our ears and hiding doesn’t dismiss the fact he was searching.

Even when he does find us, there’s work to be done. Just because he has given us a home does not mean that we will appreciate it. We’re left with physical scars and emotional trauma that takes time to heal. We act out. We rage against the arms holding us and take our inheritance and throw it away for a weekend in Vegas and a night in a brothel.

A professor I had a class with once said that when it comes to adopted children, the fundamental response to their inevitable anger and rebellion shouldn’t be punishment and discipline. He relates that whenever he counseled a person he knew to be adopted, when they began to get heated or confrontational, he would–with a heart of compassion–ask, “Why are you so angry? Who hurt you?”

Mother Nature hurt us, and how can we blame her? She can barely keep her own act together, and she’s not fit to raise kids. She does what she can, but Nature is broken and has abandoned us.  When the Father comes to take us home, we run away, and we bite and claw and scratch. There is no example of this response more vivid than the Cross: we murdered our Father because our Mother abandoned us.

And all the while, God keeps whispering: “Who hurt you? Let me love you. You don’t need to do anything, I forgive you. Just come to me, just relax. Let me take care of you; let me show you I won’t hurt you.”

As for myself, I still often find myself rejecting this love. I will lose my temper, lose my control, get run down, then run away. But the outbursts are getting shorter; I’m starting to get a little more disciplined. My Father’s love is starting to heal old scars and old habits. Every time I head down the road with my pack slung over my shoulder, I’m more acutely aware of my Father watching me go, and I come home a little sooner. But while I’m out in the cold, I meet all the other wayward children, all us adopted sinners, and we know–know that it’s just a matter of time before we get to go home. Maybe it’s something behind our eyes, or the fact our heads are held a little above the fray. Maybe it’s because we’re just all so screwed up, and no amount of love can fix that in a single instant. It takes more than a lifetime–it takes a childhood.

Maybe that’s why Jesus says we must become like little children–it’s easier to accept love when we start from scratch and all we know is trust. Heaven will be like that–a bunch of adopted kids who know where they came from, but know they are loved. Until then, we are all still trying to work it out. But it will only take a lifetime; and then we can dance in an eternal, conscious surrender–a beautiful, adopted childhood.


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