By Zach DeLoach
Let’s talk about Christmas. Or at least let’s talk about the Christmas story as it’s told in the book of Matthew. And to be even more specific, let’s narrow our focus to one important character from the Christmas story who doesn’t usually get much screen time: Joseph of Nazareth, the carpenter, and the “earthly” father of Jesus (and we’d better not forget that all-important qualifier “earthly”, lest by even unintentionally suggesting the biological legitimacy of Joseph’s paternity to Jesus we blaspheme Jesus’ divinity).
When I recently read Joseph’s side of the whole immaculate conception brouhaha, I was struck by how relatable Joseph was for me as an adoptive father. If we assume the veracity of the virgin birth narratives, then that means God chose an adoptive father to raise Jesus and teach him how to be a man. That’s significant, and it shows me that God must have a special place in God’s heart for adoptive parents.
In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, Joseph found out that his fiancee Mary was pregnant, which was weird since the two had never consummated their betrothal and we all know where babies come from. Mary would have faced public disgrace or even execution for such a scandal, but Joseph, being an honorable man, resolved to quietly back out of the engagement so as not to completely ruin Mary’s life. Sometime after making that decision, Joseph went to sleep and in his dream got a stern talking to from an angel. He was told to go ahead and marry Mary, and to raise the child (who will, of course, be God incarnate) as his own son.
No big deal.
Except that, in reality, it was an unfathomably big deal. For Joseph to be obedient to this calling, he had to stage a major disruption in his own life, one he wouldn’t have otherwise had to have dealt with. For one thing, Joseph had to obey God when things didn’t make an ounce of sense (pregnant by the Holy Spirit?!); for another thing, Joseph had to obey God when it required him to fly in the face of social norms (Mary, being pregnant before marriage and seemingly by a man who was not her husband, should have been disgraced, not embraced). Obeying God and doing what was right meant willfully being misunderstood and probably even ostracized.
I can relate. Not only, like Joseph, am I raising a son who isn’t biologically mine, but I also believe that (in my best moments) I’m doing what is right, even when it doesn’t make sense (why is this so damn hard all the time?) and it flies in the face of social norms (after all, I’m a 25-year-old man raising a 13-year-old boy). This leads to feeling misunderstood and ostracized. Just this week I had a conversation with someone who made it very clear that I’m crazy for choosing this lifestyle and that they would never in a million years choose to adopt from foster care. Cool beans.
But what I’m learning from Joseph and my own experience is that oftentimes choosing to do the right thing is choosing to be misunderstood. And that’s okay. There are worse things in life than being misunderstood. (I’m talking to myself here. Quit eavesdropping.)
As I continued to chew on Joseph’s story, I realized something even more compelling and resonant. I’ve written before about how unqualified I feel as a parent, how I don’t have enough practical skills to pass on to my son, and how I’m not patient or understanding or engaging enough to be a good dad. And then I thought about how Joseph must have felt. Sure, he was a carpenter (which is a career that would make me feel very capable had I only the skills) and was at least somewhat respectable, but he was still a mere human being. And what was his task? Oh, nothing much. Only to teach God how to be a man.
Talk about feeling unqualified.
I start to feel bad about myself anytime my son proves himself to be handier than me, even though in reality I have way more practical life skills and emotional regulation skills than he does. So I can’t imagine Joseph’s experience as a dad when his son, according to certain sources in the Bible, literally never messed up once, and yet Joseph messed up every single day (if he was anything like me). How does a man in that situation ever feel qualified for the job he’s been called to do?
I also have this bad habit of assuming every parenting decision I make has the potential to utterly ruin my son’s entire future, like if I let him play a first-person shooter game he’s going to become a serial killer or if I don’t make him read in the summer he’ll completely lose the skill by August. That, of course, is ludicrous; however it doesn’t make the pressure any less intense. But good grief, at least I’m not raising God-in-flesh, the long-awaited Messiah, the savior of all humanity. The stress of that task must have been unreal for Joseph. A few parenting mistakes on my end might mean that my son ends up living with me until he’s forty; a few parenting mistakes on Joseph’s end might have meant that the whole salvation thing didn’t work out and humanity was screwed. No pressure.
But in spite of all of this–the being misunderstood, the ostracism, the feeling unqualified, the pressure–Joseph was still obedient to God’s call. Joseph trusted God when God declared him qualified to be Jesus’ father, even when Joseph didn’t feel that way at all.
Now God never visited me in my sleep to tell me to adopt my son, but I still believe in my bones that what I’m doing is right and that God is pleased by it. The choice is mine, then, either to live above the feelings of inadequacy and isolation and embrace my parental duty, or to give in to the thoughts that tell me I’ll never be good enough. The Bible doesn’t say anything about it, but I’m guessing Joseph chose the former and his son ended up saving the world, so if I also choose the former, imagine what my son could do!
That’s a joke. Calm down.
Anyway, all of that is to say this: adoptive parents, take heart! God must have a particular fondness for us, or else he wouldn’t have used adoption when forming Jesus’ family. This task is incredibly difficult, but it’s also incredibly worth it. Just ask Joseph. We’ll have to assume his answer since he’s long dead, but I’m guessing he’d agree with me: it’s worth it.