In my first post, I mentioned what inspired this series– me becoming aware of a “holiday” I never thought could exist. That “holiday” is the “International Childfree Day.” This day is dedicated to couples (or singles) who have the capacity to bear and raise children (not to be confused with “child-less” couples), yet who intentionally choose not to. To be honest, after reviewing the ICD website, it looks like this great day for celebrating doing nothing has not gained much traction over the years. We can probably thank God for that. It should also come as no surprise that the ICD was established shortly after Roe v. Wade was unjustly deemed a federal “right.” Today, at least, we can now hope that after 50 years of treating unborn babies as waste material, the day will not only continue to fail to gain traction, but itself die.
However, I am not aiming these essays at secular-minded couples. As I mentioned in the first post, secularists may live and breathe within a moral system, by some “pleasure-pain” metric, that, given that metric, makes their choice to not have children reasonable (albeit still wrong). My target audience here is the Christian couple that is committed to following Jesus, as a couple, yet who intentionally chooses to avoid having children. In the previous post, I tried to point out why this is biblically and theologically deficient. Here, I will discuss what I believe motivates this negative desire (negative in the sense of “not wanting x or y ” as opposed to “wanting x or y”).
The Teleology of the Christian Life
We must point out that Christianity is not based in some kind of hedonism. Although some have used the term “Christian hedonism” in clever and winsome ways, at the end of the day that kind of hedonism is qualitatively and categorically different from what most ethicists mean by hedonism. Most moral philosophers, past and present, argue that hedonism is seeking out the best life for oneself and, usually, on one’s own, subjective terms. This means that one is not pursuing life according to a deontological principal (per Kant) or some set of divine commands.
The kind of Christian hedonism pastors like John Piper talk about certainly have “the best life” in mind for the Christian. But this “best life” is not in accordance with the Christian’s own subjective views about life or personal preferences. There is a “renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2) that must occur by the power of God so that the Christian does not live his or her life to the fullest of their own conception of it, but in accordance with God’s divine commands. That is, the Christian lives in accordance with what God knows about the life He created and not in accordance with our speculations about what causes happiness in life.
So, while the end goal of every Christian is indeed “to enjoy God forever,” which, in this qualified sense, is the ultimate hedonism, it is not hedonism in the sense of carving out for oneself a life suited to oneself. But this is what most hedonists, ethical (Epicurus) or non-ethical (Sade), have argued throughout history. That said, what is the goal or aim of the Christian in this life, and what is the moral system through which that goal is achieved?
The goal of the Christian life in this world is Christ-likeness. The moral system that determines how we achieve this is that which relates to God’s divine commands. The most important command within this moral system, the one that matters intrinsically to achieving this goal, is to be crucified daily with Christ. Our joy is in becoming like Him and to do so we must share in His sufferings. Paul summarizes this paradoxical attitude of the authentic Jesus follower in his letter to the Philippians:
7 But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ[b]—the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death,11 assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead.
Even for those Christians predisposed toward liberalism, those who enjoy pitting Paul against Jesus or Jesus against Paul, we can go directly to the red letters themselves:
Summoning the crowd along with His disciples, He said to them, “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.
But how does one lose oneself for the sake of Christ? How does one take up a daily cross and have fellowship with Jesus’ sufferings? The answer seems to be in assuming responsibilities and burdens that one might not have assumed, had one never become a Christian. For the Christian couple, therefore, the most natural (and supernatural) burden to bear would be that of raising children (of course there is also a blessing that comes with that burden).
The Parable of the Missionary and the Monk
Recently a friend of mine shared a parable with me, one not from the Bible, but that expresses quite profoundly the same biblical truth that Paul expresses in his epistle. The story goes roughly like this:
Sadhu Sundar Singh, a Hindu convert to Christianity, became a missionary to his people in India. Late one afternoon Sadhu was traveling on foot through the Himalayas with a Buddhist monk. It was bitterly cold and the wind felt like sharp blades slicing into their skins. Night was fast approaching when the monk warned Sadhu that they were in danger of freezing to death if they did not reach the monastery before darkness fell. Suddenly, on a narrow path above a steep precipice, they heard a cry for help. At the foot of the cliff lay a man, fallen and badly hurt. The monk looked at Sadhu and said, “Do not stop. God has brought this man to his fate. He must work it out for himself. Let us hurry on before we, too, perish.” But Sadhu replied, “God has sent me here to help my brother. I cannot abandon him.”
The monk trudged off through the whirling snow, while the missionary clambered down the steep embankment. The injured man’s leg was broken, and he could not walk, so Sadhu made a sling of his blanket and tied the man to his back. With great difficulty he climbed back up the cliff, drenched now in perspiration. Doggedly, Sadhu made his way through the deepening snow and darkness, pouring out all his sweat and energy carrying the burden now affixed to his back. It was all he could do to follow the path. But he persevered, though faint with fatigue and overheated from exertion. Finally, drained to the core and exhausted to his bones, he saw ahead the lights of the monastery. Sadhu was overcome with relief, but then, for the first time, he stumbled and nearly fell. But not from weakness. He had stumbled over an object lying in the snow-covered road. Slowly he bend down on one knee and brushed away the snow. It was the body of the monk, frozen to death.
Years later a disciple of Sadhu’s asked him, “What is life’s most difficult task?” Without hesitation Sadhu replied: “To have no burden to carry.”
Whether or not the story is apocryphal is not the point, although Singh was well-known for his perilous, ascetic treks through the Tibetan mountains. The point is Singh’s teaching, which mirrors that of Christ’s and speaks loudly to the human condition; without a daily cross to bear, a great burden to struggle on behalf of, life is more difficult than not. In fact, without the burden of love for someone other than ourselves, we die under the crushing weight of our own self-interest.
The telos of the Christian life, therefore, is not a burden-less existence. It is not the Buddha’s avoidance of suffering nor the Hindu’s understanding of pain as illusion. A Christian teleology is the bearing of pain on behalf of the other–both to the glory of God and for the sake of the other’s welfare. This is what we call agape love.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
Jesus’s own parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (the Divines) in Luke 16 demonstrates rather starkly the consequences for those who intentionally refuse to deviate from the course of preserving their own life, or lifestyle, to aid their neighbor. Not carrying a burden, or intentionally avoiding a potential burden, especially when it relates to God’s image bearers, is antithetical to the doctrine of Christian sanctification.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable refuses to share his treasure, his gifts from God, with Lazarus, the beggar outside his front door. In doing so, he refuses to heed the call of God on his life. He refuses to look outward and instead his focus remains on the self. To paraphrase Luther, the Rich Man (and the “rich man” in us all) is homo incurvatus in se (man turned in on himself).
There is an analogy here, albeit not exact, which I believe every Christian couple must take seriously. If Christians are endowed by God with every capacity (physical, financial and mental) to bear and raise children, to bring them into existence and care for them, then to avoid that is to also avoid sharing one’s treasures and gifts with others. As I mentioned at the outset of the first post, this is where it seems to me in choosing not to have children, there is already a seminal orientation toward neglect. There is already an attitude of not wanting to serve my neighbor in the choice not to create that neighbor who is capable of being served. If one is oriented toward neglect, one is not oriented toward agape.
Moreover, the sharing of one’s self with children is something that can hardly be replicated in other types of social interactions. The intimacy that naturally emerges between parents and children, and the degree of sacrifice required on the part of parents for their children, can never be fully reproduced in alternative relationships, even ones within the church. Children in the home will always make demands on parents that friends or family members or other peoples’ children (nieces, nephews, etc.) never will or could make. It is these demands, these burdens, that will transform parents into the types of Christians they have been called to be, given the sacred vow of marriage they have already entered into.
Are There Extenuating Circumstances?
Perhaps, however, I am being too strict. After all, do we not have Christian freedom? Might there not be extenuating circumstances that provide good reasons not to have children?
I suppose there could be mitigating circumstance, even among healthy Christian couples, that would make their choice not to have children less selfish than how I have presented that choice so far. My guess is that currently one reason Christian couples might give for refusing to have children is that the world itself is too dismal, too dark and too dangerous a place for children to exist. After all, just consider the ills of our own country: school shootings, gang violence, opioid epidemics, sexual abuse of minors, inflation, global pandemics, unequal pay among Hollywood celebrities (horrific!); lions, tigers and bears (oh my!)
Perhaps I have already given away my response to this objection. In all seriousness though, here are my objections to the belief that it is a bad idea to bring children into the world because of the current state of the world. First, anyone with an iota of historical knowledge cannot seriously think this is a bad or especially difficult time to bring children into the world. At worst it is no better or worse than any prior generation. However, given moral, technological and especially medical advancement (also thanks to Christianity), there is simply no way to take this objection seriously.
Even a strong atheist like Steven Pinker argues that this is by no means a hard time in human history to raise children. It is, according to Pinker’s research, the exact opposite: it is the easiest time in human history to bear and raise children (to be clear, I am in no way endorsing Pinker’s thesis in Enlightenment Now, but I do think his statistics are accurate even if his philosophical and historical analysis for their cause is fatally flawed). Thus, this belief by some about not wanting to bring children into a dangerous world doesn’t even warrant being called “false,” (to paraphrase some philosopher I once heard about). It is merely ignorant.
Second, the idea that there is potential danger for a child is in principle not a good reason to not have a child. God knew in advance, with divine certainty even, that His incarnation would result in humiliation, torture and death. Yet he freely chose to become like us. While we cannot bring ourselves into the world, we can bring children into the world. That choice reflects God’s own choice to send His only Son into His creation in order to save it. While our children will not save the world, in confronting it they will also receive the opportunity to become like Christ. A non-existent being cannot be saved, cannot become like Christ, cannot do anything.
Thus, our granting existence to potential souls who can become like Christ is the far greater consideration than what they may or may not have to go through as embodied souls in this world. There is a metaphysical consideration here that matters. Increasing the number of souls that might freely worship God in an eternal love relationship far outweighs any concern about what some of those souls may endure in the short time they exist here on earth.
Third, it is not an act of compassion to children to refrain from having them. There is no virtue in this choice, because there is no “here” here. One simply cannot have compassion towards that which does not exist, e.g., a potential child. That would be like me saying I can have compassion toward “Pegasus” or “Sherlock Holmes.” I can only have compassion toward some aspect of that which actually exists. So in choosing to not have children, one is not being compassionate toward anything, most certainly not to merely potential children, since potentialities are incapable of receiving anything.
But a couple might claim that by not having children they are “sparing the environment,” so that the earth itself can be sustained. Their compassion is not for some potential child who might suffer, but for the suffering natural environment of our world. Unfortunately, this is another argument I simply cannot accept. Even a media outlet like Vox, reports that this is an entirely bankrupt moral consideration. If one is worried about damaging the environment, refraining from having children is not the way to prevent that damage. It also does no positive good to the environment to prevent another human being from living in it. Christians who use this argument have bought into a convenient lie.
Finally, new studies are showing that having children may actually be one of the most critical things we could do for the environment and the future of the human race. To not have children may be catastrophic for the future, and the data seems to bear out that there is, again, a serious moral obligation upon us to populate the earth.
Conclusion: Selfishness Cannot Lead to Sanctification
In sum, unless I am missing some other extenuating circumstance, I cannot see any good reason for a committed, healthy Christian couple to refrain from having children. This would seem to be a theologically very weak decision. It is one that not only fails to take into account foundational metaphysical truths but that seriously hinders Christians from pursuing their most fundamental aim: Christlikeness.
My conclusion, therefore, is that the choice of healthy couples to not have children is itself selfish. In being a selfish choice, it is one that cannot lend to one’s own sanctification. Christian couples would do better, much better, to have children and, in doing so, honor God and challenge themselves to be more like Jesus.
In the final post, I will look at some reasons why couples may have to make a choice to not have children, yet out of a different kind of motivation, namely, self-regard. But this will take us into some more morally complex waters.