When this month’s “Topics To Write About” list for Patheos authors arrived in my inbox, I was overcome with disbelief, anger and disgust upon seeing the first topic. Not that the editors had done anything wrong, the suggested topic is well worth writing about (it is why I am doing just that). It was just that the first suggested topic for August had to do with a “holiday” I could not have imagined existed. Well, I suppose I could have imagined it– I have a rather low view of human nature, after all– I just never did imagine it. Yet even with a sober view of human depravity, it still shocks the system when one sees yet another concrete example of it.
The Topic Being Considered And My Initial Response
What was the topic of theological discussion that aroused in me this Aslan-like response? It is the fact that August 1st is, although it was certainly news to me, “International Childfree Day.” Yes, you read that correctly. August 1st is apparently set apart as a day to celebrate couples who intentionally avoid doing something tremendously difficult, yet beneficial, to themselves and society: bearing and raising children. Talk about giving every kid a trophy! (pun intended). Apparently one can be recognized for not even showing up to the game to at least sit on the bench. You can literally do nothing and get a reward for it.
Of course, it didn’t help my response that when I became aware of this alleged holiday, I had just finished a long, 5-day weekend with my three young boys. This made it harder for me to consider this faux celebration seriously, and with the dispassion I try to employ when approaching a given topic. At the time, the idea we would bother to celebrate those who intentionally choose to avoid doing something which demands great virtue was just too much for me to swallow. Thus, I simply hung my head in what I think was justified bewilderment that such things exist.
Nevertheless, some time has passed and I now feel better suited to reflect more deeply, and theologically, on this issue of choosing to not have children. I still believe in the end my conclusions will be commensurate to my initial shock. After all, at face value, this proposal seems to be the most selfish, egotistical “holiday” possibly ever conceived by men. Perhaps not quite as despicable as “International Child Neglect Day,” although, in theory, there already seems to be a seminal form of neglect in any couple that would choose not to have children. But I should qualify that statement carefully. To do this, I will consider what it means to choose to have children, or not have them, in light of three general orientations: an orientation of sacrifice, of selfishness and one of self-regard.
Some Qualifying Remarks
Before unpacking these three orientations, I have to make some preliminary remarks. First, I assume we are talking about people who can actually have children. That is, I mean people who have the physical capacity, the financial means and the relational and mental stability to actually bear and raise children. However, these capacities can exist on a fairly wide-spectrum.
For example, one doesn’t need to be Michael Phelps or Simone Biles physically before one can reasonably bear and raise children. Neither does one need to be an Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos financially to have a few kids and raise them well. Finally, there is no perfect family when it comes to the emotional trials of life. Leave it to Beaver was just a TV show, and most of us wind up looking much more like The Adams Family than Father Knows Best when it comes to the day-to-day grind of life in a broken and complex world.
In addition, this essay is primarily intended for Christians than at non-Christians. While I still argue that the non-Christian couple that chooses to not have children may be missing out on something incredibly significant, perhaps the most significant thing available to them in a world “without” God, my focus is nevertheless on those who hold to a biblical worldview.
I say this because it could be the case a non-Christian couple might adopt a moral system too foreign or far removed from a Christian one for me to address it here. This is in spite of the fact that many still live within some kind of generic, Christian moral framework, regardless of whether they acknowledge the Framer. However, there may be a significant number of couples who embrace some kind of hedonism. Perhaps they adopt something like Fred Feldman’s attitudinal hedonism. Within such a moral system, the choice to not have children would be entirely reasonable (even if still objectively wrong), because having them might prevent various kinds of enjoyment–enjoyment being the summum bonum of the hedonist.
In sum, therefore, I am speaking primarily to Christian couples who have every capacity to bear and raise children, yet who choose not to do so. However, I will save an additional comment at the end for the very idea of a “holiday” dedicated to not having children (although I have already foreshadowed what is to come on that).
God’s Attitude and Man’s Attitude Toward Children
We are all familiar with God’s attitude toward children, most poignantly through the words and actions of Jesus Himself:
Some people were even bringing infants to Him so He might touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. Jesus, however, invited them: “Let the little children come to Me, and don’t stop them, because the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I assure you: Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.
Luke 18:15-17 (Mark 10:13-16)
Of course, we also know that from the beginning bearing and rearing children was part of God’s divine plan for man and woman:
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.
However, with regards to how children were actually understood in the ancient world, vis-a-vis the “modern West,” James R. Edwards writes:
The modern West generally regards the qualities of childlikeness–innocence, trustfulness, humility–as inherently praiseworthy, and hence tenderness to children as virtuous. The ancient world did not regard children likewise. In Judaism, women and children derived their position in society primarily in relation to adult males. Sons were of course regarded as blessings from God, but largely because they ensured the continuance of the family for another generation. In general, ‘childhood’ was an unavoidable and uncelebrated interim until the young were mature enough to bear children and contribute to the workforce. One will search ancient literature in vain for sympathy toward the young comparable to that shown by Jesus.
Edwards, PNCT The Gospel of Luke
In this dominical validation of children, Jesus restores the proper understanding of innate human value to God’s own chosen people, the Jews, who had, like all human cultures, devalued the intrinsic worth of both women and children. We need not rehearse here how much worse the Greco-Roman culture of Jesus’ day treated children, the historical facts are well known.
Indeed, children throughout the non-Christian world have consistently been subjected to the very worst of mankind’s cruelty. Today we see the hatred of children most viscerally in the sex-trafficking industry and in the religious fervor of the pro-abortion lobby. But these varying attitudes toward children are antithetical to the heart of Christ, and are orientations of the human heart furthest removed from His love. And so if Christians are to emulate their Christ, then their attitude and their actions toward children must be as His are.
A Very Brief Theology of Child Rearing
However, there is a curse upon men and women (Genesis 3:16ff). It is one that makes the bearing and rearing of children, in one sense, the most burdensome task we can take on. Still, from the bearing of the children by the woman to the proper raising of them by mother and father, bringing novel human persons into the world is analogous to nothing less than God’s own act of bringing the cosmos into existence ex nihilo.
After all, every single individual is like a micro-cosmos unto him or herself. Just consider the sheer magnitude of the inner life of any given human person, even those whose inner lives may be obscure to us (like infants or the severely disabled). Bringing novel human life into being may seem mundane, but if we are rightly oriented in our spirit, we will awaken to the depth of the procreative mystery; recognizing the tremendous metaphysical weight of the act of conception. It is a perspective on life we have almost utterly lost, however, and it is to our deep shame that we have abandoned it. It is this grand distortion about human life the late Pope John Paul II attempted to encapsulate when he called this generation a “culture of death.”
However, this most natural, and supernatural, act of creation we must also perform without the “omni” attributes of God. We do not possess omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and omnibenevolence, even if these divine attributes are communicated to us in part. We have some power, some knowledge, some presence, and some capacity to love; but by no means to a maximal degree. And so our capacity is not commensurate to the task before us. Thus, in bringing a child into existence, we take on a responsibility that mirrors God’s act of bringing humanity itself into existence, but without the ability of the Creator to manage the affair.
The Sacrificially-Minded Person
What this dynamic engenders, therefore, is a genuine sacrificial demand. It is a demand that, throughout the life of the rightly-oriented soul, will often bring that parental soul to its breaking point. Bearing and raising children well is not unlike God’s own struggle with us, His rebellious children:
2 Listen, heavens, and pay attention, earth,
for the Lord has spoken:
“I have raised children[c] and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against Me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s feeding trough,
but Israel does not know;
My people do not understand.”
4 Oh sinful nation,
people weighed down with iniquity,
brood of evildoers,
They have abandoned the Lord;
they have despised the Holy One of Israel;
they have turned their backs on Him.
Jesus places Himself in the role of God when he echoes the words of the prophets and Psalmist (Psalm 17:8, 36:7, 91:4):
Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Of course, God’s response to the burden of rebellious children is complete sacrifice. Paul summarizes for us in his letter to the Philippians this kenotic self-giving of God on behalf of His creation:
5 Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus,
6 who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be used for His own advantage.[a]
7 Instead He emptied Himself
by assuming the form of a slave,
taking on the likeness of men.
And when He had come as a man
in His external form,
8 He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.
And so we see that there is a deep theology to having children. Having children is an act that will draw out of the true Christ follower a sacrifice analogous to that of his or her Lord and Savior. We also realize that if we do not have the innate capacity to accomplish the task, then we cannot rely solely on our own powers. To successfully raise children we will need God in our lives and the power of His Spirit to guide and strengthen us.
Conclusion: To Have Children Is To Pursue Christ-likeness
To have children and rear them well is itself a mirror of the self-emptying of Christ for His Creation. But to have and raise children is not entirely without its reward. There can be, although not always, an exaltation that comes with or in light of carrying the burden. The mother and father who sacrifice for their children may, although it is not guaranteed, receive a blessing that those who choose not to have children simply cannot have.
The blessing is the experience of seeing the novel human beings you helped create flourish on their own. To see children grow into independent and, hopefully, virtuous men and women is a reward unparalleled in human experience. There is no occupational success, no amount of material wealth, no type or degree of sensual pleasure that can match that which redounds to parents who have faithfully raised children.
But to embark on this journey takes courage, for the risks associated with bringing life into being are great. Just ask Jesus (John 1:10-11) who both created and died for His creation. And so it is only the sacrificially-minded person who can truly begin to entertain the bearing and rearing of children. Yet Christians should already be pre-disposed to this kind of sacrifice in virtue of their faith in Christ. And so, I must admit, that I find it quite difficult to validate any couple that claims Christ, yet intentionally chooses not to bear and raise children. Let’s at least say I am skeptical of their motivations and their commitment.
Of course, there can always be extenuating circumstances that might make the choice somehow more congruent with what I believe to be the biblically accurate view of marriage and family. Yet for those without such attenuating circumstances, I am compelled to think that the intentional choice to not have children is also an intentional choice to not pursue Christ-likeness. In the next post, I will look at what I think is likely the main motivation for choosing not to have children, and for coming up with fake holidays to celebrate it, namely: selfishness.