Adopted By God
One of the biggest shocks to happen to me took place around fifteen years ago. My mother sat me down and revealed to me that I was adopted. Now my adoption story is a bit different than most. My mom was my birth mom but my dad adopted me. He was not my step-dad, as he went through the legal procedures to adopt me as his own. As far as I’m concerned, he is my real dad.
I had no idea in that moment that I would eventually adopt three children of my own. Nor could have I have anticipated what it would be like for me having two biological and three adopted children. I don’t see a division between them, they are all my children. While I can’t speak for them, I don’t get the sense that I’m “just” their adopted dad. I’m their dad and that’s it.
For some people, there is shame in adoption. We think of it in the negative sense, in that someone didn’t want us. But in the ancient world it was the opposite. Instead of seeing adoption as someone not wanting the person, it was about someone wanting the person enough to adopt. It was honourable to be adopted and in some ways it had a higher status than biological children. With biological children you get what you get. But with adoption, you chose specifically the person you wanted to adopt into your family.
I find it interesting that this is the image that Paul uses in this passage to describe our relationship with God. Let’s dig deeper.
Paul and Adoption
It is important for us to understand the context of the letter to the Romans. The original church in Rome was made up of Jewish believers in Jesus. Eventually some gentiles were added but then the Emperor kicked all of the Jews out of the city, leaving just the gentiles. The gentile Christian church grew and grew. Eventually the Jews were allowed back, including the Jewish Christians. This is important because the situation that Paul is addressing is the conflict between the Jewish and gentile Christians. Each of them thought they had an advantage over the others.
The first part of the letter to the Romans is Paul explaining that one group does not have an advantage over the other, that we all start from the same place. The passage that we are looking at is the good news that both groups have the same opportunity to have a relationship with God.
Central to Paul’s theology is the Holy Spirit. Christians receive the Holy Spirit when we become believers. But for what purpose? We can imagine a master wanting to keep tabs on his slaves by imprinting some marker on them. Is that the reason? Is the Spirit there to let God know when we mess up, so that we can live in fear of the next thing that we will do wrong?
Paul tells us that it is not a spirit of slavery but a Spirit of adoption that we receive. God is not a master looking for more slaves, God is a Father looking for more children. That is wonderful news. But reality is that we don’t always feel that way. We may feel unworthy to be God’s children and we may fear that God feels the same way.
Paul tells us that the Spirit helps us to cry, “Abba, Father.” This is an interesting prayer. Our Bibles are in English, translated from Greek. But Abba is neither English nor Greek. Abba is an Aramaic word for father. It is the same word that the Gospel writers tell us that Jesus used to pray to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion. At that moment, Jesus was at his lowest point and he cried out to Abba, Father.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that Paul uses these words for us. What Paul is saying is that even at our lowest point, we can call out to God, not as slaves fearful of punishment, but like Jesus calling out to his Father. Our relationship with God is not defined by circumstances.
Obviously we are different from Jesus. Jesus is the true Son of God, sharing his nature, the second person of the Trinity, the one through all creation came into being. He is the natural Son and we are the adopted children. But we are not second-class. In fact we are co-heirs with Christ. We share with Jesus what the Father has for his family. Before we get too excited about how we are going to spend our inheritance, Paul specifies that we share in both Christ’s suffering and his glory. That was the experience of Jesus, our big brother, and that is what we as his brothers and sisters will experience as well.
When you think of your relationship with God, what is the primary image that comes to mind? Is it worshiper, servant, follower, disciple or something else? Those are all good and they are biblical. But this passage challenges us to consider our relationship with God in terms of being his children.
This can be a challenging step for some people. Some people have amazing relationships with their parents and some less so. There may be abuse, neglect, abandonment or more. We may feel as if parents are unreliable and that we need to do things in our own strength. We may see parents only as those that demand of us and not those who give.
However, the Father that Jesus reveals to us is not like that. He is a loving Father that gives and gives. He doesn’t just tolerate us as his children, he cherishes us.
But what if we don’t feel like that? What if we don’t feel worthy? What if God feels far away or we don’t like the way our life is turning out?
I think that Paul is assuming all of those things in this passage. By pointing us to Jesus’ most difficult time. By reminding us that God’s Spirit testifies our spirit. The assumption is that we are going to have to be reminded of our status with God. It is like the Spirit reaches into our wallet pulls out the adoption papers to remind us who we really are.
Our relationship with God is not based on emotions, even though it includes emotions. We hear stories of spouses who divorce because they lost the feelings of love. Our relationship with the Father is nothing so fickle. Feelings will come and go but that does not affect the relationship. There are times that my child and I feel closer to each other than others, that never destroys our relationship. Remember that even our big brother Jesus could say, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Enjoy the feelings when they are there but don’t get reliant on them.
For some people, the thought of being told they are adopted is a nightmare. Yet today, if you are a follower of Jesus, I need to tell you that you are adopted. You may have looked to God in the past as an angry judge ready to condemn the slightest infraction. But I want you to know that God is your Father, he has adopted you as his sons and daughters and he loves you.
One of the reasons that God gave his Spirit to us was to remind us of this. The Spirit is, among other things, our certificate of adoption. The Spirit seeks to remind both with and without emotions that we are in God’s family. Let that truth surround you and shape the way you live as a Christian.