“My wife and I don’t want to have children. Is that selfish?”
He’s looking at me with complete earnest. This isn’t one of those hypothetical questions. He really expects an answer.
Straight out of Bible school, I quickly run through everything I can remember from my last theology class. Nope, I’m pretty sure we didn’t cover this. Great, now what am I going to do?
So, like all good pastors hit with an unexpected question, I shoot back with one of my own. “What do you mean?” I ask, hoping desperately for some flash of inspiration or suddenly remembered lecture to prepare me for whatever comes next.
“Well,” he continues, “we’re really happy and neither of us are particularly good with kids.” He fidgets a little before continuing, “But, we’re afraid that it’s selfish to keep some child from being born just because we don’t want kids. Is it fair to keep someone from existing just so we can be happy?”
And my brain froze.
But apparently my mouth kept working. He went home after a while thinking that he’d received godly counsel. I should track him down someday and find out what I said.
Now that I’ve had a few years to think about it, I realize what an odd question that was. It’s entirely possible that this couple really did have selfish issues that they needed to work through. Don’t we all? But, how can it be selfish to keep someone from existing? They don’t exist. You can’t owe them anything. Parents shouldn’t have children because they feel obligated to provide existence to these possible people, but because they want to share themselves and their love with their children.
Parents don’t have kids because they somehow owe it to their children. Having children is an act of grace.
Indeed, every act of creation is an act of grace.
For it to be grace, though, it has to be free. When we were living in Scotland, my wife would often take my daughter to one of the thrift shops in town. They loved to browse the various odds and ends that accumulate in a store like that. And, they developed a friendship with the lady who ran the story. Almost every time they left, the shop owner would run over and give Leah some little toy to take with her. The toys were for sale, but she was the kind of person who just loved giving presents and couldn’t stand to see Leah walk away empty-handed.
There were other times when Leah and Mary would buy something in the store. But, that’s not grace; it’s a transaction. For grace to be grace, it has to be free. Indeed, Mary could have insisted that she needed to pay for the toys; they weren’t expensive. But, that would have ruined the gracious nature of the interaction. Grace is gift. And, true gifts are free.
At the same time, grace is unmerited. “Merit” has to do with what you deserve, what you’ve earned. Leah will be coming home with her report card soon. And, since she does very well in school, she will be excited to show us her grades and hear us praise her for how hard she’s worked. She’s excited about her grades because she’s earned them. If she brought home her report card and discovered that her teacher had arbitrarily given her low grades, she would be devastated. She would rightly feel cheated because she’d earned much higher grades, she deserved better. (Now, my wife and I are both teachers, so I am very much aware that students—and their parents—often think they’ve earned much higher grades than they really have. But, let’s assume for the sake of the analogy, that Leah really has earned the higher grades.) Grades aren’t supposed to be arbitrary. They are supposed to be about merit. You earn them.
Paychecks work the same way. If my wife opened her pay statement at the end of the month and discovered that the school district had only paid her half of her salary, she would be upset, and rightly so. She works hard. And, she has an agreement with the school district that they will pay her a certain amount in exchange for that hard work. She’s earned her pay.
Grace works very differently; grace cannot be earned. Grace is gift. Kids understand grace better than adults do. Imagine a five year-old girl bringing her father some present that she has made at school. Has the father earned the present? Does the daughter owe her father a present? Such questions never enter the little girl’s mind. Sadly, the opposite is often true. In reality, many fathers have done much to suggest that they do not deserve the present. They have not been good fathers and have not earned the right to this gift of love. But, again, such questions rarely enter the little girl’s mind. They probably will when she gets older; but, for now, she just wants to give her daddy a present—a gift given regardless of merit.
No created thing deserves to be created. And, it certainly can’t earn its own creation. It just doesn’t work that way.
Every act of creation is a gift.
Every created thing testifies that this story is about God’s grace.
[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]