It used to be so straightforward. We got married, then we had children. It’s just what we did. But then something changed, so that today both marriage and having children have become optional, matters of preference. Countless millions are choosing to delay marriage or take a pass on it altogether. Many of those who choose to marry decide not to have children at all. In the face of these new realities we do well to ask: What’s the purpose of children? In the answer that follows, we will not consider methods of parenting or provide an explanation for why we should raise our children in certain ways. Rather, we will ask a far more foundational question, “What’s the purpose of having children at all?” In today’s world, which too often exalts self and writes off children as an inconvenience, this is a question we must ask and answer.
Common Views of Children
In Western culture, self is king. We judge the merits of almost everything by the degree to which it brings us self-realization and self-advancement. Ralph Waldo Emerson charged, “It is easy to live for others, everybody does. I call on you to live for yourself.” And we have. The pursuit of dreams and the fulfillment of personal potential has become our highest priority. A recent Forbes article tells that in 2015, Millennials spent nearly twice as much on self-improvement than Boomers, even though their income is only half as much.
This individualistic culture has a profound effect on our understanding of children. When self is at the center, children are regarded as yet another means of self-realization—one that can be pursued or rejected according to personal preference. Those who choose to have children do so only when it is convenient; when they are in a stable place in life, relationship, and career; and when the burden of having them will be as small as possible. Little wonder, then, that the percentage of women between 40 and 44 who have never had children doubled between 1976 and 2006. Children have become an optional accessory to a well-rounded, successful life. Many people essentially believe that the purpose of children is to add value to the lives of their parents.
But others, working from the same self-centered worldview, reach a different conclusion. Recognizing the financial, physical, and emotional burden of having children, they conclude that children cannot add value to their parents’ lives. If self-advancement is the highest priority, and children keep us from reaching our full potential, then the natural conclusion is that we should not have them. In an article in the New York Times, Anna Goldfarb lays out the reasons why she has chosen to remain childless: “We cherish our flexible lifestyles, children are time-consuming and expensive, child care costs are prohibitive, and we all have varying degrees of anxiety about our future. Why take the leap when so many aspects of parenthood feel so risky?”
In the first view, children are an accessory to the good life and those who choose to have them do so because of the sense of fulfillment they will gain from being parents. In the second view, children are an obstacle to the good life, a hindrance from reaching full potential. Sadly, even Christians are not immune from these ways of thinking about children. Many within the church have deliberately or inadvertently embraced the culture’s emphasis on self-fulfillment.
What Does the Bible Say about Children?
The Bible makes it clear that God expects human beings to marry and bear children. Though some will choose to honor God through singleness (like the Son of God himself), though some will want to be married but be unable to find a spouse, and though some couples will be unable to bear children, God’s general expectation is that people will beget more people. Al Mohler says, “Couples are not given the option of chosen childlessness in the biblical revelation. To the contrary, we are commanded to receive children with joy as God’s gifts, and to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We are to find many of our deepest joys and satisfactions in the raising of children within the context of the family.” The Bible lays out at least four purposes in having children: obedience, blessing, disciple-making, and knowledge.
We have children to be obedient to God. As God created the first man and woman, he assigned them a crucial calling: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). The world began with two human beings living in one place, but God’s desire was for the world to be populated by billions of human beings living in every place. When we have children, we directly obey God’s first command: to procreate. God is glorified in each and every one of his image-bearers.
We have children to experience blessing. Obedience to God always brings joy. Contrary to the culture’s view that children are an obstacle, we believe and declare that children are a blessing. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-5). When we consider children a blessing rather than an obstacle, we are obeying Jesus and aligning our will with his. When we have children, we experience the blessing of God that comes with and through them.
We have children to make disciples. We do not procreate simply to have more people on earth, but to have more Christians on earth. John Piper says, “The purpose of marriage is not merely to add more bodies to the planet. The point is to increase the number of followers of Jesus on the planet. … God’s purpose in making marriage the place to have children was never merely to fill the earth with people, but to fill the earth with worshipers of the true God.” Thus, the key text for every parent is the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). The ultimate purpose of parenting is not fulfilled at the birth of a child but at his conversion. Chap Bettis says it well: “God’s desire for your family is to be a Trinity-displaying, God-glorifying, disciple-making unit.”
We have children to know God more. By having children we come to a deeper knowledge of God. After all, God relates to us as a Father to children and having children gives us a deeper understanding of what this entails. J.I. Packer says, “If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father.” But we do more than come to a deeper knowledge of God—we also come to greater conformity to the character of God. He uses all the joys and challenges of parenting to make us more like him. Gary Thomas says this well: “By God’s marvelous design, few life experiences humble us quite as effectively as parenting. … This tiny tyrant is providentially placed in our house with one grand program: to mold his or her parents into the image of our Lord.”
At a time when children are regarded as an optional accessory to the good life or written off as an obstacle to it, we do well to return to the infallible Word of God to once again establish God’s purpose for having children. We have children to obey God, to experience his blessing, to have the joy of making disciples, and to grow in our conformity to him. Children are a great gift of God.
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