The lengths we go to to combat the effects of a fallen world. By Stuart Holloway
Is it time to make three-parent babies?
This is an intriguing headline from the BBC homepage, the content of which will surely prompt much discussion and debate. It’s a headline that also suggests public opinion might not be wholeheartedly favourable towards such a medical development. My colleagues at work were sceptical at best and did suggest that it probably is too much interference in genetics and unnecessary. As the day looms in which a baby will be legally born in the UK who contains the DNA of three different parents, this is surely a topic worth trying to understand from a theological point of view.
Personally, I am not initially closed off to the idea of whether this is a morally acceptable way of helping couples to experience the privilege of parenthood by eliminating mitochondrial disease in children. On the surface this seems like a positive thing, although when you think it through further, all kinds of moral dilemmas arise. What is proposed is that faulty mitochondria from the fertilised ovum are replaced with healthy mitochondria from someone else’s cell, preventing the disease being passed on. No physical characteristics of the mitochondrial donor are in any way passed to the recipient – only the ability of all its cells to now energise themselves normally. Also, it is worth noting that a person’s cells containing the DNA from three people would in no way hinder the possibility of salvation in a person.
However, I recognise the dangers involved in such a process, as well as the strength of sincere debate amongst Christians on these issues. It is also unknown whether agreeing it is acceptable to fashion a baby using DNA from three people will then regress to creating any other desirable characteristics – leading to ‘designer babies’. It also needs theological reflection on how this reconciles or not with God’s design for two people of opposite genders to have the privilege and responsibility of bearing and bringing up children. Also there us there is the issue of how fertilised embryos are handled in the process, much like in the process of IVF.
The wider issues
However, without wishing to comment too much on the ethical implications of ‘three-parent babies’, I do feel that this concept is just another development that highlights the wider issue, (which is the main point of this article), that is the constant struggle the world is in to reverse the curse of the fall. It is symptomatic of a people scared to die, and desperate to be fulfilled by having their best life now. This is the real issue we must first get to grips with.
Now, I in no way believe that advances in medical technology that continue to promote the health and wellbeing of individuals are necessarily a bad thing. Of course, I’m so very glad that my daughter was born in the year 2015 when a caesarean section operation is a standard procedure. And although everything has turned out well, that particular procedure has probably saved the life of at least one member of my family, probably two. We should be very grateful that the medicine available to us is far beyond what was available even just a few years ago, and that cures are being found to illnesses all the time. This is God’s grace to us, and where possible, it is the Church’s duty to help promote these developments. And certainly, any medical developments that better enable couples to conceive and enjoy the privilege it is to bear and raise offspring are great in principle (though we do need to think through all of the implications of them).
And so, what I’m suggesting is that in our enjoyment of God’s grace to us, through things like medical development, we should not forget that we are actually under a curse. We should not forget, especially as Christians, that this world, this life, will never be free from pain. We should remember that even when we become Christians and can count ourselves as saved and redeemed ultimately from the curse, we are still at present under the curse, and should expect life to produce many kinds of unpleasantness.
Pain is inevitable
We should, I believe, in one sense, accept that pain will come to us; we should acknowledge it as the sign of God’s judgement of sin that it is. Therefore, we should be cautious as to how much effort we put into temporary measures of relief, particularly those which might provide us with ethical implications. For instance, as millions of children are killed each year before they’ve even had a chance to be born, and when there are millions of children waiting for adoption, there is clearly a deep issue running through society that needs addressing. One for which developing such a complex process as three-parent babies is not the answer.
But there is a line to be drawn between trusting God and accepting his sovereignty over our lives even if it is unpleasant, and being so dissatisfied with what he is providing us with that we put all our efforts into seeking satisfaction in life now. Instead of futile attempts at trying to reverse the curse and fight against God’s judgement on us, perhaps we should seek to cultivate in our own lives, and in the lives of others, a lifestyle that breeds hope in a full and final redemption from the curse and all the devastating effects of it. That, of course, stems from a deep and lasting faith in Jesus Christ. Because only through faith in Jesus can we enjoy the hope of redemption from the heart-breaking condition in which we presently exist.
I recently read an article on singleness that I believe is relevant here. The take-home from that article was a wonderfully refreshing turn of phrase that astutely manages to align our thinking on the issue. It said that singleness is not a problem to be solved. To borrow this phrase and carry it further: pain, suffering, dissatisfaction, loss, grievances, the inability to conceive children… These are not problems to be solved (not by us at least), but they are opportunities to glorify God in very particular ways.
And so, there are three particular biblical truths that I think would be worth remembering when confronted with issues like three parent babies.
God speaks loudest in pain
Because of the ethical implications (not discussed in this article, but there are many online that do address these), it is likely that many of us will have to make a decision and take a stance on three-parent babies. Just because the state declares something legal, does not mean the church should accept it as moral. Whatever the outcome, God is speaking.
Suppose that the church finds the idea of three-person babies unbiblical and a step too far, as genetic modification goes. And so, the agony is prolonged for couples who might have relied on such a technique as their only hope of having children. But in this, God will be speaking, and when God speaks, his words do not fall to the ground. As through all pain and suffering, God is reminding us of at least one thing: that sin is an offence against a perfect God, and must be punished, and the punishment will be painfully in proportion to the offence (Genesis 3:17). It’s important for us to understand that we are sinful people. If we don’t understand this, we will never turn to God for the salvation he offers.
I’m sure many are aware of the well-known quote from C.S. Lewis, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. I think the reason Lewis says that God’s loudest call to us is in our pain, is that because we are condemned sinners, our deserving God’s wrath is the hardest message for him to get across to our proud hearts. But it’s essential that we understand our sin; that we are sinners, or we will never see the need for salvation in our lives, or the lives of others. God will go to great lengths, and let us endure great hardships, to get his message across. So, he lets us taste the painfulness that his judgement of sin will ultimately bring, so that we might learn to hate sin and turn from it (Luke 15: 11-32). So, as pain and suffering and the effects of the curse come upon us, instead of wishing only to be relieved of it, perhaps we should dwell on it. Without falling into the trap that specific sufferings are punishments for specific sins, it may do us good to dwell on the reason for suffering, the message God has for us in it, and decide how we might respond to it.
Missing out now is not missing out
As God uses pain to remind us that sin will be judged, we must never forget that God doesn’t just leave it at that. Although, rightly and justly, God could have left the world condemned to its fate, he didn’t. God has a greater plan, and a greater purpose in mind. So he sent his son Jesus into the world. Being fully God, yet fully man, meant that Jesus was able to represent mankind before God. Thus he lived perfectly, providing us with righteousness that we ourselves could not earn. Jesus died in agony, relieving us of the wrath that was reserved for us. Finally, Jesus rose from the dead, proving his power over death. This gives us the assured hope that he will likewise secure life after death for all who trust in him.
It’s essential that we remember that although God is right to judge sin, judgement is not what he wants for us. And so, in Jesus’ incarnation, we have the sure hope that one day, when Jesus returns, all who trust in him will have eternal life (John 3:16). They will be able to live with God in peace, fully satisfied and content. There will be no more pain and suffering to remind us that the world is cursed. There will be no more longing for particular joys that might be denied us now. Even though our existence in heaven will be somewhat different to how it is now, in that things like parenting and marriage will, it seems, not exist, we will not long and yearn for these things, and a lack of them will not feel like loss.
As we enjoy the closeness of fellowship with God, the distraction of preoccupying ourselves with becoming satisfied in this life will dissolve like snow. There will be no more longing and no missing out. All the frivolous (and not so frivolous) things that make us feel complete in this life, will not factor in heaven, and we will feel complete as we enjoy life truly to the full for the first time. God is wrathful against sin, but he loves his people. Jeremiah 29:11, speaking to Israel, puts it like this: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”. We too can know that God wants health, wealth and prosperity for us, but he won’t fully give it yet, not until Jesus returns.
I mentioned earlier that people are scared to die. But it’s the gospel that gives us a hope so strong that even the grave is relieved of its power and we no longer have need to fear it. If we think this life is all there is, we are scared to die because we are scared of missing out. In Jesus we never miss out, and because of the Gospel, we have a certain hope of a fulfilled life to come, being eternally satisfied in Christ.
God has purpose for our pain
Holding these two truths together can be massively liberating and effective for the cause of the Gospel. Knowing that because of Jesus we have the hope of heaven, and because of this hope our pain is not redundant, but instead is used by God to pry us from our love of sin, we can be free to live the radical Christian lives the Bible calls us to. We can be free to serve others and to be slaves of Christ.
Hope in an eternal future allows us to forego full satisfaction in life now, especially as God’s message in our pain is that we shouldn’t expect full satisfaction in this life. So we can let go of some of our desires, and be freed to serve Christ and serve the Church in other ways. Paul talks about the anxieties of the married, not being as able to concern themselves with the burdens of the church as fully as others. Supposing the church does affirm the ethical problems with three-parent babies; there will likely be times in the future when Christians will have to deny themselves the chance to have children due to matters of conscience, as many do now when considering IVF.
But remember, though very painful, this is not a problem to be solved, and to speak like this is not to speak of compromise, but perhaps an opportunity to serve in a way that parenting would otherwise have hindered. Thinking back to couples unable to conceive – there might be opportunity in God’s providence to care for orphans and adopt children who have lost the parents. Their pain might be used by God to cause them to bring joy to someone else. Matthew 10:17-27 speaks of the rich young ruler who was asked by Jesus to reject his wealth that he might use it to care for the poor. Even though he was promised eternal life as a reward, he put his own pleasure first. God could perhaps do much good in the world if were to give up more of what we love and are satisfied by.
How to respond
Having spent some time thinking about these issues, I feel that as we begin aligning our minds with the mind of God, our prayers and our lives should begin to be transformed. Even since writing I think that my priorities are being reordered, and instead of being primarily concerned with myself, I am seeking more the good of others. For instance, with a simple headache, the time I could spend in prayer on that has shifted right down the pecking order. I realise that a headache is just a part of life, that I should not spend endlessly wishing away. But I should persevere through that because there is the sense in which, well, why would God even answer that prayer? (Or I could just pop a couple of painkillers – sometimes God has answered a prayer before it’s prayed).
If I prayed against every pain and struggle I came up against, I’m sure God’s answer would be ‘no’ to much of that. Because God won’t get rid of all pain now, it’s here for a reason and it will stay. Of course, I am my own person and I’m not laying down law; we must all be wise, and there will be times when God answers our prayers against pain. It is wise to ask God to take away our pain, and to make use of the means by which he might relieve us from it. But perhaps there are some principles here to think about. Let’s be wise, consider the reasons God has for allowing pain into the world, and, without being ‘martyrs’, think about when it might be appropriate for us to accept the pain that life is full of, and seek to prioritise our efforts in valuable ways. Let’s be sure we are living in light of the hope to come, thus making the best of life now, and stop thinking that ultimately we can reverse the effects of the curse in the here and now. Only God can do that – and he has, in Christ.
Written by Stuart Holloway
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