Dear Dr. Moore,
My wife has been hurt horribly by a secret no one knows but her parents and me.
Years ago, when she was shortly out of high school, she was brutally raped by a man she had known since childhood. For various reasons, she didn't report it at the time (I know that was a mistake, and she does too). The man later raped again and, ultimately, committed suicide. After her rapist's death, it started to be known in our small hometown that he had done this before, many times, including the molestation of minor children. That's in the past, but we've got a real ethical dilemma in our present and in our future.
This rape resulted in a pregnancy. During this time, she and I started dating and we were both convinced (and still are) that abortion is wrong, so she carried her baby to term. We married, and have raised this child together. He is nine years-old. He's gentle, loving, and a delight to me. I couldn't love him any more if I were biologically his dad. He recently professed faith in Jesus and was baptized.
Here's my problem. He doesn't know. I know from reading Adopted for Life that you think children should know about their adoption from the very beginning. Whether you're right or wrong, that's just not what we did. He only knows me as his Dad. Maybe even more important, we just don't know how to tell him he was conceived in rape.
I don't think a nine year-old could understand that. I'm not sure he'll ever be able to understand that, without it shaping the way he thinks about himself. Might it even lead him to think that he's genetically "predisposed" to that kind of behavior himself (whether rape or suicide or whatever)?
So here's my question. Is it my Christian obligation to tell my son about the circumstances of his birth or is it my obligation to protect him from that knowledge? If I do need to tell him, at what age and how?
I am sorry to hear of this horrible hurt that your family, particularly your wife, have been through. This won't be easy. Here's what I think your ethical obligations are.
You're to pattern your fatherhood after another, an already existing eternal Fatherhood of God (Eph. 3:15). But our Father in the heavenly places also adopted his children after a horrific tragedy (Rom. 8; Gal. 4; Eph. 1). Model your parenting your son through this after the way our Father has parented us.
Yes, you must be honest. God honestly speaks to his children about the circumstances of their backgrounds, whether back there in Ur or back there in Egypt or back there in the "power of the air." You must not hide this from your son. Imagine what it would be like if he were to find this information out from someone other than you. He would then wonder whether everything in his life is fraudulent and illusory.
Having said that, you must not "exasperate your son" (Eph. 6:4) with knowledge he can't handle. A nine year-old lacks the maturity to understand this horror in its fullness.
Our Father God doesn't tell us everything he has to say to us as soon as he announces the gospel after the Fall (Gen. 3:15). He speaks for thousands of years "in many times and in many ways" until finally in "these last days" he speaks to us in Christ (Heb. 1:1-2). It isn't until the "fullness of time" that God reveals the mystery of Christ in a way not known to the previous generations of prophets (Gal. 4:4; Eph. 3:5). But God did, in all those times, reveal Christ. When we received the full revelation of the mystery, everything else he said tied together in Christ.
You must do the same, preparing your son to be able to see himself apart from the circumstances of his conception.
I'd start by, as the years go by, telling stories about children who came from an evil parent or an evil situation. Take time to find these themes, and not just in Bible stories (Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker will do, if that's what your son likes), and teach the truth of Scripture that one isn't biologically determined toward his forefathers' sin. Point out all the evil and treachery in Jesus' family line, evil and treachery that didn't implicate him in the least.
In your son's life, show him all the ways he resembles you, and tell him why: because a son learns to be like his father by watching his father (John 5:19).
Start out, very soon, by telling your son, when you tell him his adoption story, that he was born after a lot of hurt and a lot of pain, but that God brought good (your son) even out of some of the most tremendous times of hurting. You don't need to go beyond that, for now. But start showing your son how God continually brings blessing out of curse, even out of sin.
When you determine that you son has the maturity to receive this knowledge, tell him. Expect him to be hurt by this news. There is no easy way to take it, for all kinds of reasons. Honor your wife in this. Show your son what a hero she was in protecting and loving her son. Point out all the ways he is like her.
Assure him that, despite the human horror of his conception, he's not an accident. God watched out for his mother, and for him, by seeing to it that he would have a father who would love him and raise him.
And then tell him what your Father has told you in Christ: "You are my beloved son, and with you I am well pleased."
Do you have an ethical question? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll keep it anonymous and change all the identifying details.