We have already noted in the previous article God’s special love and provision for these three vulnerable and needy groups. Orphans are children who have lost their parents. In the scriptures they are described as being ‘fatherless’, and this seems to focus on the loss of practical support. We have no doubt, however, that the additional loss of emotional support in the form of a mother’s love is equally devastating for any child who has lost both parents. This can occur through bereavement; it may also happen because of abandonment.
The fatherhood of God is a delightful Bible theme. In the context of the Old Testament, it denotes His divine love and care for His earthly people, Israel. In the New Testament, it is realized in fullest measure in the relationship between the Lord Jesus, the eternal Son of God, and His Father. Finally, every Christian can rightly call upon God as Father. The apostle Paul often introduced his letters with the following words: ‘Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ’. God is also described less commonly by Paul and others as the Father of mercies, glory, spirits, lights, and, indeed, Father of all.1 Fatherhood denotes protection, provision, communion, counsel, and discipline, all undergirded by a constant love.
Israel knew much of God’s provision for them throughout their history, but it is all the sadder to read the divine lament in the last book of the Old Testament, because the nation neglected God and brought dishonour upon His name: ‘A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the Lord of hosts’, Mal. 1. 6.
God gave the nation of Israel instructions for the care of orphans: ‘He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and the widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment’, Deut. 10. 18; ‘The stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which are within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied’, 14. 29. As we have already noted, the harvest gleanings were to be left for these needy ones. When we read of God executing judgement, it does not mean that He punishes the fatherless, but rather, in the context, it means that He upholds their interests, acts on their behalf, and blesses them, ‘for in thee [God] the fatherless findeth mercy’, Hos. 14. 3. He expects His people to do the same: ‘Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy’, Ps. 82. 3.
God also spoke and warned against mistreating the fatherless: ‘Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child’, Exod. 22. 22; ’Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the fatherless; nor take a widow’s raiment to pledge’, Deut. 24. 17. He pronounced a divine curse upon those who would transgress in this way, 27. 19.
We have reached a very low point in human history when orphan children – indeed, all children – seem to be at an increased risk of exploitation and abuse. The violent nature of such abuse does not make for comfortable reading, even on the pages of scripture: ‘Ye overwhelm the fatherless’; ‘the arms of the fatherless have been broken’; ‘they pluck the fatherless from the breast’, Job 6. 27; 22. 9; 24. 9. Indeed, orphan children were sometimes robbed and even murdered.2
With shocking regularity, the media are reporting cases from all over the world of vile crimes being perpetrated against children, and we have every reason to believe that this world is fast ripening for judgement. God has taken note of every little one whose innocence has been shattered, and whose life has been permanently scarred. The cry goes up, ‘How long, O Lord?’ In a day to come, we believe, every godless person will be judged according to his or her works. Their punishment will be in direct proportion to their evil deeds. God will not be mocked: what men sow, they will one day reap.
The Lord Jesus Christ thought it necessary to issue a warning in His own day regarding the attitude of some people to children: ‘But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea’; ‘Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones’, Matt. 18. 6, 10.
Turning with some relief to a more positive aspect of truth, we recall our Lord’s tenderness and warm welcome for little children when He took them up in His arms and blessed them. These were not orphans, of course, having been brought to Him by their mothers, but the Lord had to counter the common disregard for children shown by the disciples: ‘Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven’, Matt. 19. 14. He had earlier used a little child to teach the essential features of His kingdom.3 The Lord was indicating that the childlike qualities of humility and unquestioning trust were essential for admittance to His kingdom. Pride and unbelief would prohibit any person from being part of the same.
The apostle had many children in the Lord. He described Timothy as ‘my own son in the faith’, and Titus as ‘mine own son after the common faith’.4 These verses suggest that he was used by the Lord in bringing these young men to know their spiritual need, and that they came to believe in Christ under his ministry. Paul was not one to abandon converts, but he maintained his links with them and sought to encourage them in the ways of the Lord. The travail involved in seeing others born again was not an end in itself for Paul;5 he continued to labour so that they would develop in their faith and become more like Christ.6
This is well illustrated by his first letter to the Thessalonian believers in which he reminded them of his initial visit to the city. He had conducted himself wisely, and as a steward, ‘put in trust with the gospel’, he had preached the truth with faithfulness to God and integrity before men. He continued, ‘But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children’. He warmly and lovingly tended to their spiritual care, just as a nursing mother would nourish her newborn child. He saw himself as much more than a preacher: ‘we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us’, 1 Thess. 2. 7-8. Motivated by sacrificial love, he gave himself unsparingly to them.
There was another firmer side to Paul when he reminded them of how ‘we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children’, 1 Thess. 2. 11. In other words, he gave them godly counsel and sought to guide them aright on the pathway ahead. As has been s ‘Truth is hard if not softened by love, and love is soft if not hardened by truth’. In these ways, Paul fulfilled the spiritual functions of both parents in regard to his children in the Lord. There should be no spiritual orphans as far as he was concerned.
Depending upon where one lives, the needs of orphans may not be so obvious if the state intervenes and undertakes for their basic care. Otherwise, in many developing countries, orphans are still cared for by the extended family. The stresses and strains of either arrangement can take an emotional toll on the lives of such children. Many of them never seem to overcome the sense of abandonment, if that was the way they were robbed of normal family life. Others, who have been bereaved, can feel cast adrift. Institutional care leaves much to be desired, and even the extended family situation in many countries is not free of tensions and inequalities. All in all, whichever way we view the plight of orphans, they are rarely shown enough love and understanding.
Some Christian couples have risen to the challenge of providing practical care as foster parents, or even adopting orphans. Others seek to help the street children found in many of the cities of the world, or regularly visit orphanages. Christian orphanages are now much less common, but those who have read the story of George Müller are left in no doubt that a real work of God was accomplished during his lifetime in the nineteenth century. Relying solely upon God’s provision he was able to build homes for hundreds of orphans in Ashley Down near Bristol. His name became synonymous with the principle of living by faith, never soliciting help from men but always and often bringing one’s needs before God in prayer.
We have deliberately widened the definition of orphans to include those newborn Christians who require spiritual parenting. Applying the truth in this way highlights the responsibility to provide spiritual support for new believers, especially those from non-Christian homes. Wise elders will recognize this need and make sure that those young in the faith are well fed with a healthy diet of good spiritual food in an atmosphere of love and care. In addition to Bible teaching, individual Christians and couples can also open their homes and include the new believers in their family and social activities. There is always a cost involved in caring, but the Lord will not forget these sacrifices for His sake.