January 15, 1995
Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Psalm 127:3
Once upon a time there was a village where a strange disease afflicted many of the people. It was often fatal, but not always. Anyone who got the disease would lapse into a deathlike coma, with no detectable signs of life. Medical science wasn’t very advanced back then, so there was no way of knowing whether the victim was actually dead or only in a coma. The people would bury a victim when a certain time had passed and burial seemed fitting, but they feared that several of their relatives had already been buried alive and that they might be next. Somehow they had to deal with this uncertainty.
One group of townspeople suggested that the coffins be well stocked with food and water, that an air vent be drilled into them, and that there be some means of signaling people above ground, just in case some of the “dead” happened to be alive and woke up. This was expensive to do, but it seemed worth it.
A second group, however, came up with a less expensive and more efficient idea. Each coffin would have a long, sharp stake attached to the inside of the coffin lid, exactly at the level of the heart. Then, when they slammed the coffin lid shut, all uncertainty would cease.
Which idea was better? Well, it depends what question we ask. If we ask, “How can we make sure we don’t destroy people who are still alive?” then the well-stocked coffin is better. But if we ask, “How can we make sure everyone we bury is dead?” then a long, sharp stake to the heart is the cheaper and more efficient way to go. In Neal Postman’s retelling of this story, we’re never told what the townspeople finally decided. But Postman does show us that the way we frame our questions has a powerful impact on the answers we come up with.
Let’s look at a problem we face today: the problem of unwanted children. The problem is a serious one. The parents of these kids feel unfairly burdened. The kids are often mistreated, abused, and unloved. As they grow up, they’re often a danger on the streets, a disruption in school, and a drain on society’s resources. There’s no doubt that there ought to be a lot fewer unwanted children–none at all would be the ideal.
But here too, as in that once-upon-a-time village, the way we ask our question makes all the difference. If we ask, “What’s the most effective way to eliminate children we don’t want?” the answer seems fairly obvious: population programs and ready access to abortion. The more effectively we eliminate unwanted children, the fewer there should be. Some people even take this thinking a step further. In some parts of the world, where unwanted children clutter the streets, there are death squads that simply exterminate the kids. All this is a perfectly sensible and efficient answer to the question, “What’s the most effective way to eliminate children that aren’t wanted?”
But what if we ask a different question? What if we ask, “What will it take for us to treasure and care for each new child that is born?” This question still addresses the problem of unwanted children, but the focus is very different. Now it’s not a matter of getting rid of kids we don’t want, but of changing our attitude so that no children are considered unwanted. That approach is harder and more costly. It takes a lot more of our emotions, our time, our resources, ourselves, to care for each child, than it does to get rid those we don’t care about.
Many nations and international organizations have been dealing with population issues. A nation like China handles it with great efficiency. Under the Chinese government’s one-child-per-family policy, any child after the first is by definition unwanted by the government. Under a recent law ratified by China’s parliament, any unborn child with genetic defects is by definition unwanted by the government. Chinese law makes it mandatory for couples that are expecting an extra child or an imperfect child to abort the baby.
Now, there are some who admire the Chinese government’s policy, but most people don’t want the government to declare which children are unwanted. However, many of these people still think that individuals should have the right to declare children unwanted. They don’t want abortion forced on them by political decree, but they do insist that abortion be a availabe as a personal choice if they don’t want the child. That way, if an unplanned baby seems too much of a burden, or if the baby has genetic defects, or if the baby is a girl when they want a boy, they can simply get rid of that unwanted child.
So whether it’s a political concern about excess population and social misfits, or a personal concern about a problem pregnancy, many of us wonder what to do about unwanted children. And it all depends on what question we ask. If we ask, “What’s the most effective way to eliminate children we don’t want?” we’ll come up with one answer. If we ask, “What will it take for us to treasure and care for each new child that is born?” we’ll come up with quite a different answer. The way we ask the question is literally a matter of life and death.
In order to ask the question in the right way, we need to have a sense of wonder and respect for each new person that God brings into being. There’s a poet in the Bible who exclaims to God, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). Sometimes, when we look at the problem of unwanted children, we forget what an amazing miracle occurs every time God brings another person into being.
But what if nobody in the world could have a baby? What if, for some unknown reason, all the men in the world suddenly went sterile and couldn’t get a woman pregnant? That’s the scenario P. D. James imagines in her novel The Children of Men.
She describes a situation where technology is advanced, most people are secure and well-off, government technocrats keep everything efficient and well-organized, the police are tough on crime, and immigration is strictly controlled. Technology offers more convenience than ever, entertainment offers more thrills than ever, and government offers more services than ever … just what many of us are looking for. But it’s been decades since any babies were born. There are no children or teenagers. Humanity is headed for extinction, and meanwhile, most people care less about loving others than their own comfort. P.D. James portrays a world that is physically sterile and spiritually sterile.
It’s a gripping book, because it helps us look at things in a in a whole new light. P. D. James helps us see that whatever our technologies and bureaucracies can do, they can’t match the miracle of creating a new human life, and they can’t replace faith and love and freedom and dignity.
These days many of us marvel at the miracles of technology, while we take the birth of babies for granted. Indeed, we may even see the birth of babies as downright problematic. Our problem isn’t that people can’t have babies, but that they’re having far too many–at least that’s what we keep hearing.
The journal First Things reports on an author named Pentti Linkola who is very popular in Finland. Linkola thinks the earth needs far fewer people. He wants to cut off all aid to poor countries and put an end to asylum for refugees. He wants every government to make abortion mandatory for women who already have two children. He also thinks another world war would be “a happy occasion for the planet.” Linkola says that humanity is like a sinking ship with 100 passengers and a lifeboat that can hold only ten. “Those who hate life,” he says, “try to pull more people on board and drown everybody. Those who love and respect life use axes to chop off the extra hands hanging on the gunwale.” In this view, the earth has too few resources and too many people. For some to live, others must perish.
There are at least two problems with this approach. One is moral. I don’t trust anyone who promotes killing as the way to help life, and I don’t trust anyone who talks about “loving life” in the abstract but treats actual people as expendable. It’s utterly immoral, it’s hateful and murderous, to think this way. It ignores the value of each person formed in God’s image. If the only way we humans can survive is to treat others inhumanly, then what’s the point of surviving? I’d rather be dead.
But there’s a second problem with this whole approach. It’s not only morally repugnant, but just plain mixed up. It’s not in touch with reality. The notion that we’re short on resources, that we’ve got so many people that disaster is inevitable–this notion has been around for a very long time now.
Listen to this quote: “Everywhere there are buildings, everywhere people, everywhere communities, everywhere life … We weigh upon the world; its resources hardly suffice to support us.” Now, guess when that was written. It was written 1800 years ago. Earth’s population has multiplied many times over since then, but there’s still plenty of food to go around.
In 1968 Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist, wrote a book titled The Population Bomb. His first sentence was a prediction: “In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” But what’s happened in the past thirty years? While global population was growing at an unprecedented rate, hunger was falling at an unprecedented rate. World food production more than doubled in that period. The only famines we’ve seen have been the result of war and poor distribution–not of any shortage in the world’s food supply. In The Population Bomb Paul Ehrlich portrayed India as a hopeless case where only mass starvation could bring the population down to a sustainable size. Today, India has 200 million more people than it did then, but India raises enough food for all its people and is even exports food.
Many people who adopt the lifeboat mentality, who see the earth as overburdened with people, who speak of population as “popollution,” base all this on the fallacy of using a present trend to predict future problems. Richard John Neuhaus puts it this way:
Most scenarios of ecological apocalypse depend upon extrapolations from present practices. If we continue to do such and such at the present rate, it is said, then such and such will be the dreadful outcome in the Year X. In 1883 one could extrapolate from the existing transportation system that our cities today would be covered by six feet of horse manure. Our urban areas have many problems [adds Neuhaus] but that is not one of them.
It’s a mistake to swallow any ideology that uses present trends to predict an oh-so-grim grim future. Despite the talk about earth as an overcrowded lifeboat, the fact is that we have no idea how many more people the earth is capable of sustaining. Who can predict the new ways that human inventiveness will find to make use of God’s generous provision?
Again, if we only look at people as a problem, as so many more mouths to feed, then our main question will be how to keep that number to a minimum. But if we see people as God’s image-bearers, and if we consider each child a blessing from the Lord, then our main question will be how to support the dignity and supply the needs of these people. And as we do that, we may just discover ways of meeting the need that we never before dreamed were possible, and we may even find that some of those children are the very ones who make those much-needed discoveries.
This happens at the national and global level, as we keep finding ways to sustain a growing population, and something similar can also happen at the personal level. When you first find out you’re going to have a child you didn’t plan, it can be devastating. You see no way you’ll ever be able to handle it. But when you stop seeing an unplanned child simply as a problem, and start seeing your baby as a blessing, you find that instead of being overwhelmed by the responsibilities, you’re tapping reserves of love and energy and creativity like never before, and you also find that your child enriches your life.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me here. I’m not saying we should all have just as many children as possible, or that birth control and family planning are evil. When family planning is used in a context of faith and love and marriage, it can help make a better life for parents and children and even the broader society. Used in the right spirit, the power to exercise greater control over the number of children we have can be a blessing.
But this control isn’t such an absolute right that we may kill babies we didn’t plan on. It’s one thing to limit how many babies we have. It’s quite another to destroy a baby that is already growing in the womb. In both Canada and the United States, the month of January marks the anniversary of Supreme Court decisions approving abortion. But remember, just because a court approves something doesn’t mean it’s right. There’s a huge difference between birth control and abortion. Birth control is a decision not to bring a new life into being. Abortion is a decision to destroy a life that already exists.
It’s okay for individuals to give careful thought to family planning, and it’s okay for nations to think about population planning. But all this planning must be driven by regard for human life rather than contempt, and it must occur within proper moral boundaries. Anything that encourages sex outside marriage, anything that promotes the killing of the unborn, anything that promote a lifeboat mentality in which people are abandoned to poverty and starvation–these are not acceptable ways of approaching population questions.
In all of this, government has an obligation to protect the life of all people, including the unborn and the impoverished, but government does not have the right to dictate to families the number of children they are permitted to have, or the kind of children they are permitted to have.
One of the founders of lifeboat ethics, Garrett Hardin, insists that we stop thinking that having babies is a private matter left to parents. It should be a policy matter, not a personal matter. Hardin thinks that decisions about whether a child should be born, and what to do with what he calls “abnormal children,” should be made on the basis of “costs to the community.” He says, “A national health care system will be well justified if it reinstates discrimination as a proper function of the social order.” Hardin doesn’t mean racial discrimination, he says, but discrimination between who is fit and who is unfit.
Somebody’s got to decide who’s fit to live and receive care and who’s not, according to Hardin, but he’s not sure who will do it or how it will be done. He says, “The final solution (if there is one) is unknowable.” Interesting choice of words … “final solution.” Somebody else once talked about a final solution for dealing with misfits and burdens on society. His name was not Hardin but Hitler.
Now, I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to understand all the issues connected with unwanted children. But amid all the complexities, there are two simple realities we need to stay in touch with at all times. The first reality that God is in charge, and anything we do without God’s help or against God’s will is bound to fail. The second reality is that children are a marvelous gift and blessing from the Lord. In Psalm 127 the Bible presents both of these realities.
The first part of Psalm 127 shows how a family and a society depends completely on God. Here’s what it says:
Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat–for he grants sleep to those he loves (Psalm 127:1-2).
In other words, you can plan and strategize and work, but without God, your efforts are wasted. On the other hand, if you’re living under God and in his love, a lot of the problems begin to seem a lot smaller, and you’re able to relax and rest.
Take the problem of unwanted children. For many years now, many of us have bought the argument that even if we’re uneasy about abortion, we can at least be glad that it reduces the number of unwanted children. But does it? In the last few decades, the U.S. and Canada have aborted more than 30 million babies. Do we have fewer unwanted children? Do we have fewer kids that are neglected and abused? You know the answer. We’ve tried to solve our problem our own way rather than God’s way, and the situation is worse than ever.
Strange, isn’t it? The more condoms we pass out to school kids, the more teenage pregnancies we’re getting. The more abortions that take place, the more unwanted children we have. It doesn’t fit our logic, but that’s the way it is, and nobody can deny it. It’s proof positive that unless the Lord builds our homes and cities, our godless efforts do more harm than good.
God is in charge, and we’d better remember that if we want things to change for the better. Sex outside of marriage is a spiritual problem, and any attempt at a technical solution, such as condoms for kids, is bound to backfire. Refusing to value and treasure all children, including children we didn’t plan on, is a spiritual problem, and the technical solution of exterminating the unwanted only makes matters worse. We’re working without God–even worse, we’re working against God–and that can only mean futility and disaster, as Psalm 127 tells us.
God’s peace and well-being comes to those he loves. That means we need the kind of spiritual renewal that comes only from knowing God in Jesus Christ. We need Jesus’ forgiveness and guidance and power. We need to live every moment and approach every challenge with a sense that the Lord is in charge, and that we are living in his love. Only then can we approach the challenges and complexities of life in a way that builds up rather than destroys.
A second reality, simple but very profound, is that children are precious. Psalm 127 puts it this way: “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in ones youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” God is telling us that children are a blessing to be celebrated, not a problem to be solved. Children are valuable just for who they are, and what’s more, they’re often valuable for what they end up doing for us. They’re often just the arrows we need in some of the battles we face. Children aren’t our biggest problem; they are our greatest resource.
So, when children are unwanted, the problem isn’t with them but with us. It’s not that the children aren’t valuable; it’s that we don’t value them. The solution, then, isn’t to get rid of the children, but to get rid of our hard hearts and get a new heart that beats with the love of God.
Once we’re in tune with God, and once we sense the value of his children, we’ll no longer ask, “What’s the most effective way to eliminate children we don’t want?” Instead, we’ll ask, “What will it take for us to treasure and care for each new child created in God’s image?” Then we’ll be asking God’s kind of question, and God will make sure we find the answers we need.
Father in heaven, we so often forget you and go our own way. Forgive us for Jesus’ sake. Take away our heart of stone and give us hearts that are alive with your love. Give us eyes to see you in the world all around us and to see the wonder in each child you’ve created. You were once a child yourself, Lord Jesus. Help us see you in each little one.
Dear Jesus, you did so many great and important things while you were here on earth, and yet you found nothing more important than taking the time to embrace and bless little children. Help us, Lord, to bless and embrace the children too. Lord, help us approach all the challenges and complexities of our world with the mind of Christ. Give us wisdom in the decisions we make in relation to our own families, and show us effective ways to help the unwanted children in our world. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.