Is it selfish not to have children?

“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.

That’s grace.

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.

That’s merit.

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.

That’s grace.

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.]

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 26, 2011, in Creation, Gospel. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You never answered the question. Sure, we don’t “owe” it to our potential offspring to bring them into the world, but the question is not about whether or not we have some kind of obligation to our offspring. The question is more about whether or not we have an obligation to God to allow the processes he created to work the way he designed for them to work. The exact question was about a couple’s motivation.

    You said that parents should have children because they want to share themselves and their love with their children. But what if parents don’t want to share themselves and their love with their children? Is “not wanting to share” grounds for contraception? Should I refrain from doing all the things I am supposed to be doing because I don’t “want” to do them? I should serve my wife in ways that she appreciates because I want to (I should do it willingly); but if I cannot bring myself to do it willingly, is that grounds enough for me to refrain from doing it?

    When a husband and wife purposefully take action to prevent conception, serious consideration must be given to the question “why?”. Would God tell a man, “Hey, I just don’t think it’s a good time for you guys to have a baby right now, you should start pulling out?;” or to a woman, “Hey, have you looked at your budget lately? It’s about time you start taking some pills until you get your act together.”?

    Doesn’t the Bible say that children are a blessing? Why do we go to such great lengths to prevent something that God tells us is a blessing from him?

    This is obviously something that every couple needs to come to a conclusion about on their own as they walk through life together, but I can’t imagine that a couple who truly, humbly, and honestly seeks the Lord and searches the scriptures (and their own motives) would conclude that God wants them to do everything they can to not have a baby.

    My answer to this couple would be, “Well, yes, you are selfish not to have children. Any more questions?” Easy.

    • I don’t want to get into the specific issue of contraception, though I can tell that we’re going to approach that issue rather differently. But, I would definitely disagree that the mere fact of deciding not to have children necessarily means that a particular couple is being selfish. You suggest that such a couple is being selfish because they don’t want to share themselves and their love with their children.” But, it may well be the case that a couple might do this so that they can share their love more freely with other people. Thus, it’s not a selfish act but a decision to utilize time and resources differently. And, of course, it’s not a question of taking time/resources away from a child to share with others because the child in question doesn’t exist.

      I also find it interesting that almost all of your arguments could be directed against the single person as well. Would you contend that being single is also an expression of selfishness and a rejection of God’s blessing and intentional design for human persons? If so, what do you do with the rather positive comments that the NT makes regarding celibacy?

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