After years of secondary infertility, my wife and I discovered she was pregnant on Father’s Day of 2016. It was a stunning moment for us, a seemingly miraculous answer to prayers that we had mostly given up on.
But three weeks later we were called into the Emergency Room because of a concerning blood test. After follow-up tests, the doctor told us the pregnancy was likely to end in a miscarriage, but that we shouldn’t be too upset because this happens to a lot of women, and it was only a fetus, not a baby. He mumbled something about a counselor and left the room when he realized his attempts to comfort my wife had failed miserably.
The experience of infertility and miscarriage for my wife and I was deeply painful to the point where words mostly fail. But deep feelings also have a way of demanding some articulation, and there are two words that are true of our experience more than others: shame and isolation. We had many people in our lives who were supportive and sympathetic, but none of them could take away our sense that there was something deeply wrong with us. We felt cursed, like God was withholding a blessing from us, and those feelings seemed to have a biblical basis: fertility is a blessing from God (Ex. 23:36; Dt. 7:14; 28:4) and infertility is promised as a curse for disobedience (Dt. 28:18; Lev. 20:20-21). The sense of shame and isolation we felt was spiritual as much as social, and that spiritual battle of feeling cursed is a battle for many people today.
A Widespread Problem
The doctor wasn’t wrong when he told us that many women experience miscarriage: many do, and many more experience infertility in some form. The CDC reports that 1 in 4 women of child-bearing age will experience infertility or failure to carry a pregnancy to term. Infertility is a truly common problem, and many Christians thankfully recognize the need to give it careful attention.
But Christians have often mistakenly treated infertility in isolating ways. One way this happens, as Russell Moore laments, is that care for infertile couples can be rendered in a detached, programmatic manner:
In too many churches ministry to infertile couples is relegated to support groups that meet in the church basement during the week, under cover of darkness. Now it’s true that infertile couples need each other. The time of prayer and counsel with people in similar circumstances can be helpful.
But this alone can contribute to the sense of isolation and even shame experienced by those hurting in this way. Moreover, if the only time one talks about infertility is in a room with those who are currently infertile, one is probably going to frame the situation in rather hopeless terms.
The Problem of Theological Isolation
The other way that Christians mishandle infertility is to make it theologically isolated. It is common for Christian books and articles written about infertility to be primarily directed towards infertile couples, only addressing fertile couples for the sake of building empathy for their infertile friends. But as good as those things may be, what God says about infertility is not only directed to the 1 in 4 who struggle with it, nor is it merely a call for support from the 3 in 4 people who don’t struggle with it. Scripture speaks much more broadly and deeply about infertility than that, and in a manner that is meant to form everyone’s theological imagination.
One of the ways Scripture hints at this is by using the idea of barrenness metaphorically: “Behold, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry enter it” (Job 3:7); “For the company of the godless is barren” (Job 15:34); “Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied” (Prov. 30:16).
Another way Scripture hints at this is symbolic: exactly seven couples wrestle with infertility prior to the birth of Christ, and each of them receive a son. The number seven is deeply meaningful in the Bible, and it calls us to dig for deeper understanding.
And a particularly important hint towards the larger importance of infertility is in the narrative of Genesis: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all dealt with infertility in some form in their marriages. Ours is the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Abraham’s experience, of course, is paradigmatic for Christians. In hope he believed against hope (Rom. 4:18), a doubly paradoxical phrase that every infertile couple can relate to, and Abraham’s hope was indicative of faith that was counted to him as righteousness, words that were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also (Rom. 4:23-24).
These are hints, but there is much more to how God intends to form all of us through the topic of infertility. Let’s look at two ways: the struggle of belief, and the mutual reward of our relationship with God.
The Struggle to Believe
This past Christmas, the words ‘Unto us a child is born, to us a son is given’ struck me more deeply than they ever have before; in the fall, my wife and I welcomed a little boy into our home through adoption. ‘Baby J’ has brought us great joy, but it’s not the naive happiness of a seasonal atmosphere. It’s a kind of joy that strains our belief: my wife regularly asks me if I can believe that he’s ours, and my honest answer is sometimes no.
The period of being ‘paper pregnant’, as the adoption process is sometimes called, was a strange time because it was simultaneously a massive battle of faith alongside endless administrivia and telling friends, ‘We’re still working on paperwork!’ We were in a challenging place between the promising circumstances of everything moving smoothly with our adoption agency, and our memories of past bitter disappointment. Throughout the process there were times where giving up on hope would have been easier for us. Hoping was hard, and battling cynicism about God’s goodness was constant.
And now that our hope has become sight with Baby J, it has exposed our struggle to believe in God’s goodness even more. I gladly live as if I am his father and he is my son, but I’ve struggled at times to say that out loud, even just to myself. And I know intellectually that Baby J is a gift from God, but my heart instinctively hesitates from saying that God really loves me enough to give me such a blessing.
I know my struggle with hope and belief isn’t just my own struggle. We all wrestle over our adoption into God’s family. We technically know he is our Father, and that we are his beloved children. But to fully believe deep in our hearts that He has redeemed us, loved us with an everlasting love, blessed us with every spiritual blessing, and is calling us to a future glory that outweighs our afflictions so much that we could call them light and momentary? In this ruined, sin-cursed world? That is hard.
God Knows Our Struggles
God knew that we would struggle with assurance of his promises, which is part of why he has given us the stories of couples who struggled with infertility. The idea that God understands and is patient with our waffling and incredulity towards him is much more believable when we take in the full story of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah is well known as the one who laughs at God’s promise, but Genesis 17:17 tells us that Abraham fell on his face laughing. Genesis repeatedly stresses to us how old Abraham and Sarah were, and does so on top of the jarring approach of Genesis 11, where we hear generation after generation of who fathered who ad nauseum, until we are told at the end of it that Abram was the father of no one. God, in the telling of Abraham and Sarah’s story is leaving no doubt about the full extent of the barrenness he is confronting with his promise.
Does barren describe the challenging circumstances you face? Are you tempted to fall on your face laughing in response to the idea that God could help you through it? If so, Genesis has good news for you. And if not, if ‘barren’ and ‘laughter’ are a little extreme for describing your circumstances and response, then this good news will be even easier to comprehend.
The story of God confronting overwhelming lack, failure, loss, bargaining, need, futility, betrayal, rebellion, decay, brokenness and disappointment with an incredible hope is the story of the Bible. And the story of God being understanding and patient with us as we navigate the faith needed to live between those two extremes comes to us again and again. Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham but God still gave her Isaac. Rachel was jealous of Leah but was still given two sons. The Shunammite woman responded skeptically to Elisha’s promise of a son by commanding him not to lie, yet she had a son right when Elisha said she would. Zechariah was made mute for his unbelief in the face of answered prayer, but his son still came and paved the way for the Messiah.
Expanding the Story
The prophet Isaiah extends this theme of struggling with belief in God’s promises to the Israelites. Though Israel was tempted to say that the Lord had forgotten them (Isa. 49:14) because of their wasted land and desolate places (v19), God would make them as a barren woman who is suddenly surrounded by children, and with fearful joy says,
Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away, but who has brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; from where have these come? (v21)
And again later, Isaiah points Israel to a barren woman who breaks out in song (Isa. 54:1) after describing the work of the Suffering Servant, “For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married.”
So when Paul says in Romans 8:18 that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us, we should not be surprised that he supports his statement by painting a picture of creation being subject to futility, but then groaning in the pains of childbirth, anticipating the coming freedom of the glory of the children of God. The futility, hope, promise, groaning, and glory of Romans 8 is the story of Sarah, Rachel, and the Shunammite, it is the story of Israel, and it is the story of all of us who trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Infertility in the Bible is no small topic, only intended to make infertile couples feel a little better and fertile couples to be more understanding. God intends for all of his people to learn that he understands the great struggle we have for faith in his promises.
We Get God and God Gets Us
After our miscarriage in 2016, we had some hope that despite the loss, we were able to get pregnant again. And we did in 2017, but that pregnancy of twin boys resulted in a late, deeply traumatic miscarriage (which I’ve written more about here).
When we were still in the hospital after losing the twins, my wife and I were grasping for anything to maintain some level of sanity, and I asked her if she wanted me to read a story from the gospels. She said no, because Jesus always healed the sick and helped everyone he met. I didn’t have an answer for her; Jesus hadn’t saved our boys, even though I had prayed that he would every night.
The fact that Jesus healed everyone who came to him with humble faith (and not those who didn’t; Matt. 13:58) can have the appearance of validating the prosperity gospel. And in a similar way, the fact that all seven of the infertile couples whose stories are told in the Bible received a son seems to reinforce the inferiority of anyone who lacks health and wealth (and fertility).
Wrestling with Jesus’ liberal approach to healing in the gospels, and his apparent reticence to save our two boys wasn’t just a struggle for us in the hospital. Anyone who suffers in this life while following Jesus will have to face the question of how a loving God allows his people to suffer. Ours is also the faith of Job, Jeremiah and the Psalmists who ask ‘How long, O Lord?’
The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 is one of the most helpful ways that I have processed the problem of Jesus’ healing everyone and the seven sons given to seven infertile couples. Hannah struggled with her barrenness, often provoked grievously by her husband Elkannah’s second wife. Many people remember the critical turning point in the story, where Hannah had been praying in the temple with such anguish that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. Eli blesses her though when he learns about her prayers, and she goes away and eventually gives birth to Samuel.
But there is a part of the story before that turning point that hints at something more significant than a simple narrative of answered prayers. What prompted Hannah to go to the temple in the first place was a question from Elkannah about why she was refusing the comfort that he offered her: “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8, emphasis mine).
This is the question that prompts Hannah to go to the temple. She doesn’t respond to Elkannah even though the question was about himself; something in the question pushed her towards wrestling with God instead. What she perceived is that her desire for a child would never be satisfied by the comfort and security that her husband offered her. Her desire for a child was about her need for God. She wanted to know that God remembered her. That He looked on her. That He knew her, not just knowing about her but knowing her, and knowing her pain. She did not want God to forget her. It seemed that He had forgotten her; He seemed distant, and far off. So she went to the temple to pour her heart out to God. She wanted a child and she wanted God.
Hannah Wanted God
Hannah’s offering of her son Samuel to the service of the temple is proof that she got what she really wanted. God was close to her, He heard her, He knew her, He cared for her and He belonged to her. Her infertility said absolutely nothing about her status before Him.
The other proof that she got what she wanted is her song in 1 Samuel 2. She rejoices in the LORD and in his salvation, and proclaims that there is no one like Him (v1-2). Prefiguring Mary’s Magnificat, Hannah is overwhelmed by God’s particular care for the needy: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the trash heap” (v8), “He guards the steps of his faithful ones, but the wicked perish in darkness” (v9). And more personally, Hannah sings that “The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn” (v5).
Hannah’s song and proclamation are reflected in Isaiah’s vision of the barren woman breaking out in song (Isa. 54:1). And this connection of the prophet’s vision helps us to see that God’s purpose for the topic of infertility in his Word has a much broader purpose for all of his people.
Our hope in our suffering in this life is ultimately a hope that looks beyond this life. The seven sons given to seven infertile couples do not make us demand what we want here and now, nor do they press us to give up our desires for a stoic peace. They call us to wrestle with God, pouring our heart out to him like Hannah did. In our suffering, God himself is asking us, ‘Am I not more to you than ten sons?’, and our response, like Hannah, should be to remember that what we really want is not health, wealth and prosperity, but God.
If Isaiah 54 is a picture of Hannah, then the barren woman of Isaiah 49, who is surrounded by children that she did not bear, in some way must remind us of Sarah. Sarah laughed at the thought of being given one son, but God’s promise to Abraham was ultimately a promise of a great nation that would outnumber the stars. So what might Sarah be thinking and feeling now? God has more than exceeded her wildest dreams for a family. Isaiah 49 shows us something of the amazement of what Sarah must have been feeling.
But Isaiah 49 is not Sarah’s hagiography, it was written for the good of the people of God: it prompts us to amazement at how God is growing his family. The Israelites hearing Isaiah’s prophecy were told in verse 22,
This is what the Lord God says: Look, I will lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my banner to the peoples. They will bring your sons in their arms, and your daughters will be carried on their shoulders.
This vision echoes Isaiah 2 where all nations and peoples stream toward the house of God. God is sharing these visions with the Jews through Isaiah because he wants them to be excited about his family expanding. God wants Sarah’s amazement to be the excitement of the Israelites that there are many Gentiles who will be joining his family.
This is Paul’s excitement in Romans 15:1-13 and Ephesians 2:11-3:13, that Gentiles have become “coheirs, members of the same body, and partners in the promise”. It is the excitement at the end of Isaiah 53:
he will see his seed, he will prolong his days, and by his hand, the Lord’s pleasure will be accomplished. I will give him the many as a portion, and he will receive the mighty as spoil. (v10, 12; emphasis mine)
God’s family has grown very large, and it is still growing. He is excited about that, and he wants his family to be excited about that.
The story of Hannah in the story of the Bible reminds us that we get God as our reward. The story of Sarah in the story of the Bible reminds us that God gets us as his reward. We get God, and He gets us. The story of infertility in the Bible is so much more than American Christians have often made it.
Over time, I know that I will be less hesitant in expressing my fatherhood of Baby J. In many ways, this is the experience of any father as his children grow up and are able to communicate more and interact with him. But Baby J is not ultimately the son that I need.
There were seven sons given to seven infertile couples in the Bible, but none of the sons given was the Son that was needed. Each one of the seven sons failed in some way: Isaac played favorites with his sons, Jacob manipulated his parents, Samson chased after Delilah, John the Baptist questioned Jesus. Joseph, Samuel, and the Shunammite’s son did not do anything wrong that we know of, but they all died and saved no one from their sins.
Talking about Jesus being the Son that we truly need in the midst of suffering can feel like needless theologizing and word play, irrelevant to daily life. But when we see the stories of the Bible as there for all of us, full of the wrenching pain, drunken prayers and fearful hope that they are, we can see the help and nourishment that God wants to give us on this side of glory. These stories are written for our benefit, useful for our daily lives and calling us to a promised glorious future.