Be Fruitful and Multiply
Childlessness is twice the level it was a generation ago. Of the women who had reached 45 in 2018, 19% were childless, compared to 9% for their mothers’ generation (born in 1946). There is, therefore, perhaps a little less stigma these days in having no children.
But this is little comfort to those who cannot have children. Some married couples would have loved them, but infertility closes that door to them. For many TFT members who would have desired their own children, their call to singleness has also been a call to surrender this desire to God. For many, coming to terms with this loss can be a long and painful journey. During a person’s 20s and 30s, friendships with peers can be tested as new parents “move on” to a new life stage, leaving the childless feeling left behind. Later in life, this divide can recur as peers talk about the achievements of their grandchildren. So, can we look to the Bible for any encouragement?
Jesus the father?
Genesis tells the story of God’s covenant with Abraham – “Look up at the heavens and count the stars... so shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5). This theme of God’s blessing through the provision of children continues all the way through to the first chapter of the New Testament. Matthew’s Gospel opens with a genealogy, showing how Abraham’s line is completed with Jesus.
But then it’s easy to miss the shocking reality that the biological line ends here. Miracle upon miracle had kept the line going through eighteen centuries, but then Jesus had no biological children. In a culture where singleness and childlessness invited pity, Jesus never got married and had no kids. Instead, Jesus invites people by name to join God’s family, saying “Come, follow me” (e.g. Matt 4:19). At the Resurrection, we see that Jesus’ death was not the “end of the line”, as Jesus rose again to live forever, and his spiritual descendants will be “a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 7:9).
In Jesus, God is doing something new. The New Testament is God’s new agreement (‘agreement’ is another word for ‘testament’) with his people. Jesus’ great work of parenting was to adopt into God’s family anyone who trusts in him from every race, nation, class and gender (Gal 3:28-29). The New Testament introduces the hope that we can have a spiritual family, regardless of our age, fertility or marital status. When we receive Christ, we are adopted into a spiritual family at three levels:
1. Psalm 68:5 tells us that God is a “father to the fatherless”. God becomes our spiritual father.
2. The next verse (Psalm 68:6) says that “God sets the lonely in families”, which has particular poignancy for single people. When Jesus was called to attend to his biological family, Jesus “looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (Mark 3:34). The church becomes our spiritual brothers and sisters.
3. We are called to become spiritual parents, encouraging and training fellow Christians who are younger in the faith. Matthew records that, “the people brought little children to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them and pray for them” (Matt 19:13). As a single and childless man Himself, Jesus modelled to us how we can become spiritual parents.
The Apostle Paul addressed his fellow-worker Titus as, “my true son in our common faith” (Titus 1:4) and those in the Galatian church as, “my dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). To the Corinthian church, he writes, “in Christ Jesus, I became your father through the gospel” – (1 Cor 4:15). His letters are full of fatherly love and concern, both for whole churches and individual disciples. Barry Danylak writes, “Paul’s legacy was greater than that of any physical parents, for Paul’s progeny were those begotten in Christ through the limitless power of the gospel for an eternal inheritance in heaven.”
There is a character called Sarah Smith in CS Lewis’s classic book “The Great Divorce”, whose large spiritual family is described like this:
“Every young man or boy that met her became her son - even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”
The church needs more people like Sarah Smith, single or married, to be nurturing the lives of young disciples. A report from Care for the Family cites the biggest challenge for Christian parents as, “family time was devoted to other activities, or not having enough time with the child. This was followed by needing help with knowing what to do.” Parents need help in bringing up their children, especially in encouraging spiritual growth. The report also shows that when “children receive positive multigenerational input from the wider family and church”, they are more likely to embrace their parents’ faith.
We need to challenge the secular thinking that puts walls around the nuclear family. In some church traditions, the role of spiritual parenting is formalised in the role of godparents. But surely each of us can think of people in our church families who are less mature in the faith than us – other adults, perhaps, as well as children. If we serve in a kids work team at church, we have been invested with the privilege to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Prov 22:6). To adapt the African proverb, “it takes a church to raise a child.”
When Jesus referred in the parable of the sower to true fruitfulness in His followers (“Other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop - a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” - Matt 13:8), he was not suggesting very large families! Rather, he was showing how we can be fruitful and multiply by sowing spiritual seed in one another’s lives.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Winter 2020 edition of Ascend