“I could see myself adopting, but fostering isn’t for me.”
“I couldn’t handle the fear of losing the child.”
“I wouldn’t want to get entangled with the system.”
“I’d get too emotionally attached.”
As foster parents, my wife and I hear these sorts of comments from friends, family, and even strangers on a weekly basis.
Although in recent years there has been a resurgence in the adoption movement, fostering is viewed differently. Perhaps this is because the gospel symbolism in adoption is plain and apparent. God unconditionally elected his children from among a sinful race of spiritual orphans, and sent his Son to purchase the legal right of adoption into the family of the Godhead (see Ephesians 1:3-10). In turn, many feel called to adopt orphans into their own family, mirroring the Father’s radical love.
But by contrast, foster parenting is fraught with legal uncertainty, awkward interactions with biological relatives, and the nagging knowledge that the whole arrangement could be temporary. It lacks the romantic appeal of adoption.
Is there a gospel parallel in foster parenthood? I believe there is — and it’s more than the straightforward command to care for orphans (James 1:27). My wife and I believe that the whole Bible tells the story of God initiating the greatest foster-to-adopt plan ever conceived.
Our Old Covenant Guardian
Theologians have long grappled with the degree of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants. Regardless of where one falls on the covenants, we all have read the Old Testament on this side of the cross and felt the tension between gospel promises and the conditional language of law.
Initially God promises a serpent-crushing seed (Genesis 3:15) who would bless all nations (Genesis 12:1-3). But after these fatherly promises are given, crushing conditions are introduced. Laws are imposed. “If a person does them, he shall live by them” (Leviticus 18:5b). “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).
As the story of God’s “son” Israel unfolds, the nation’s sin appears to eclipse the original paternal promises. “You are not my people, and I am not your God,” they’re told (Hosea 1:9c). God’s “son” Israel is exiled out of his home in the land, and cycles of pagan domination culminate in 400 years of divine silence between testaments. Certainly, were justice done, the divine legal system would remove this unworthy child from the household of God.
But in Galatians, Paul uncovers a glorious truth. The law, he posits, was a temporary legal guardian — yet God’s plan was always to assume permanent custody of his people.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Galatians 3:23-26, ESV, emphasis added)
Some translations render the word “guardian” with “tutor,” evoking imagery of schoolteachers instructing children in grammar school before graduating to deeper and higher studies. While the law does have this teaching effect, the Greek paidagógos (from which we derive pedagogue) signifies more than education only; most translators recognize a paidagógos as a legally-appointed caretaker responsible for the holistic development of a youth. The similarity to modern, court-appointed custodians is striking.
The implication for us is this: under the old covenant, God fostered his children. The relationship between God and his people appeared (outwardly) to be based on conditions while the people were still learning from the Mosaic covenant the nature of sin, law, and judgment. These truths were critical for the people of God to learn. In time, the law fulfilled its job tutoring the people on their need for a Savior — and a better arrangement arrived in Christ. The good news of the gospel is that his plan was always to foster-to-adopt.
Gone from us is the fearful spirit which anxiously wails for its Parent, replaced by the Spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:5-6). Once aliens and orphans, now we receive a sure pledge of the Father’s love. “I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God’” (Hosea 2:23b).
Permanence in God’s family arrived in the person of Christ. In him, perfect, legal adoption is ours at last, through faith.
Living it Out
Court hearings, check-ins with caseworkers, visits with biological family. Fostering can be messier than adoption. Is it worth it? Yes. Both adoption and fostering are stages on which our family can meaningfully act out the drama of redemption.
If fostering was a futile venture, God himself would not have “fostered” his covenant people before sending Christ, subjecting them to centuries of unease before finally unleashing his adopting love upon them in the new covenant. Just as those dealings between God and Israel served a purpose, for us, every ounce of gospel-driven love and care we show to our foster child has eternal value, regardless of whether we adopt. Our labor for the Lord is not in vain. We are nurturing a child in need, planting gospel seeds, and imaging forth the Father’s love.
Moreover, the foster relationship can do in your family exactly what it did for God’s people — prepare hearts to receive the privilege of permanent adoption with eagerness and joy, making visible God’s eternal commitment to us he made once-for-all in sending Christ.
The love of a foster parent is never wasted, because we serve the fostering God. Don’t be afraid to foster.