I have written often on the subject of knowing and doing the will of God. Sometimes, though, particular situations arise in which we need very specific applications of those general principles. A reader of this site recently asked me about how to think about how many children to have. Here is what he wrote:
The topic of deciding on family size and what’s right for your family has come up among ourselves and our friends. It seems different for everyone. On the basic level, we know that God calls us to be fruitful and multiply and we know that to be a parent is an unselfish act as you give your time to parenthood. Yet big families are not for everyone and can cause problems in certain situations.
Let me explain how I go about thinking through this issue. The first thing I look for is clear and specific guidance from the Bible. Is there a clear command in the Bible that tells me that I must have as large a family as possible? And conversely, is there a clear command in the Bible that tells me that I must limit the size of my family? To my knowledge and understanding there is no clear command in either case. In the absence clear and specific commands from God, I am now out of the realm of absolute right and wrong; I am now free from being blatantly disobedient if I choose to have two children or if I choose to have twenty children. But this does not mean that I can now just do whatever I feel like.
In the absence of clear moral commands, my calling is to act wisely and to act in accordance with biblical principles, so my next action is to look to the Bible for principles that may guide me as I consider this issue. Here are a few that come to mind:
Be Fruitful and Multiply. God created human life and as one of man’s primary roles told him to “be fruitful and multiply.” It is our duty as humans to procreate and our special duty as Christians to fill the earth with people who know and love the Lord. Therefore it is reasonable to say that as a general principle God expects that a husband and wife will have at least some children.
Children Are a Blessing. The Bible is clear that we are to regard children as a blessing and not as a burden. Psalm 127 tells us that “children are a heritage from the LORD, The fruit of the womb is a reward.” Where our culture may see children as a financial, emotional or psychological burden, the Bible tells us that they are a blessing and a reward. Further, Many Children Is a Great Blessing. God gave no conditions to his command that we be fruitful and multiply. He did not say “multiply up to and including eight children at which point you must stop.” At the same time he did not say “be fruitful and multiply until you have exceeded two children.” We are given no rules about how many children are appropriate in God’s eyes. We do hear hints, though, that God approves of large families and that many children represent a special blessing. Psalm 127 continues, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.” Many children represent many blessings.
God Is Sovereign. God is absolutely sovereign, having foreordained every birth. Whether a woman has one children or seven or seventeen, God has decreed the beginning and end of each pregnancy. It is the Lord who opens and closes the womb and he makes no mistakes. Every pregnancy has in some way been a part of his plan and his will.
These are all principles pertaining to children; there are also principles that pertain to life and marriage.
Life Is Valuable. All of the Bible values human life and we can thus have confidence that if a mother’s very life is at stake in a pregnancy, we ought to protect her life, even if that means ensuring that she has no more pregnancies. This means that there must be at least one instance in which it is objectively right and good to limit family size.
Live in an Understanding Way. 1 Peter instructs husbands to live with their wives “in an understanding way.” One way a husband may be able to be understanding toward his wife is to help her from being overwhelmed by the number of children in her care. Some women are naturally equipped to deal with huge families and others simply are not. A husband and wife ought to discuss this and decide between them how they have been equipped by the Lord.
There are Different Callings. The Lord calls different people to very different lives. It may be that a couple called to be missionaries to a third-world nation may find that fourteen or fifteen children would make them unable to fulfill their calling. A couple will want to consider family size in the context of how they are serving God and his church.
Once I have pondered these principles and others like them, and once I have worked on applying them to my life and marriage, I am now free to act in accordance with my conscience and my desires, knowing that the Lord is pleased. I am now free to act in the way that brings me joy, provided that I am looking for joy in the Lord and not a fleeting counterfeit of joy. If I long to have a huge family, and if my wife has the same longing, we have complete freedom before the Lord to have as many children as he grants us. If three children seems just right, we have freedom to stop right there.
But even as I do this, I need to keep an eye on the principles laid out in Romans 14, that if I am not careful I may find myself despising or condemning Christians who have chosen the very opposite of what I have chosen. (This article discusses those specific temptations.) The decision I make ought to be right for my family, but I have no business making a decision on behalf of someone else and then despising or condemning them.
Like so many areas of the Christian life, the Lord gives us freedom to choose how many children we will have. He gives us the principles we need to know how to live in this world for his glory, and having done that, he now grants us freedom to apply those principles very differently from person to person and couple to couple. And in all of this he is good.