Christ in Barrenness
Each one of us tends to cradle our burdens as our very own. We cherish our pain as if it belongs to us. We reap the fruits of suffering as if it is to our credit to endure. We recount our stories as if they were about us. I have heard these things said of parents in how they think of and cherish their own children. But I wouldn’t know that for myself. I always struggled to understand the story of Rachel in Genesis. Her life appeared to be a patchwork of good and bad...a rollercoaster of long passionate griefs and short fervent joys. It felt almost like a Greek tragedy. We often read the stories in the bible this way, forgetting that the point is not what happened to Rachel or what she did with it, but what God did through Rachel’s life.
Among the many circumstances that the second wife of Jacob walked through, one always stood out because of what felt like a morbidly ironic injustice on the part of her husband.
Genesis 30:1-2 says: When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
I always believed that Jacob was technically correct in what he said to his wife, but I wondered at how harsh and hypocritical it sounded. The whole personal story of Jacob and his wives and their servants is fraught with hypocrisy, petty jealousy and dishonorable competition. Wonderfully, God chose to use this twisted and deplorable manner of family life to build the nation of Israel and bring us the promised Messiah. But what was I to think of Rachel and her barrenness...and all the other barren women in scripture for that matter?
Then God put me in a new place. I got married.
Every culture has its idiosyncrasies. Little habits and customs are passed down and spread out from life to life. It is not profitable to blame a particular person for a cultural sin beyond the part they take in it, and so the purpose of this article is not to feed the pride of my generation and the false excuse of environmentalism, granting any the right to blame our forbears for whatever traditions we have received and accepted. We are what we are because we were born in sin. Only Christ, not perfect parents or a Christian society or good education or advanced technology can save us. I digress.
In my new little world of fresh married life, I felt I had arrived at an enlightened state because I understood very true things like:
- Marriage is not an end-all,
- The Christian is not guaranteed happiness in the manner one want’s it
- A wedding is just another step in a life of service to Christ.
Hooray for me. What a great level of sanctification I had reached!
I also subconsciously, thoughtlessly, believed that when one entered the marriage state, you had babies if you wanted to. I’m not entirely sure how that came about. My own arrogance and naivete played a large part. It was largely unconscious...not excusable. We all have a good share of that stored somewhere in a dark corner of our hearts that yet remains unyielded to the Spirit. I simply hadn’t looked the issue in the face as I should have. I am sure there are those among my readers who would say, “Welcome to reality ma’am!” Please bear with my true confession.
I took pride in the command “Be fruitful and multiply…” as if it were a credit to me that I wanted babies and wanted to raise them in the training and admonition of the Lord. Thoughtlessly, (and by that I mean literally without much thought) I considered myself capable of “making babies.” I do not admit to all of this to excuse it in others somehow, or to take pride in my wrong thinking as if I was particularly marvelously wicked. I erred...simply and thoroughly.
Months turned into years and no children came. Fear melted into unbelief, anger tempted me and bitterness knocked at my door. Once a month I confronted flippant denial alternated by heavy despair and punctuated by acute longing. My heart was gripped with confusion and I struggled in a way I never had before with insecurity about my body...it felt broken and inadequate. Grief became a close companion. Not because I suffered more than others. In fact I know I suffer far less than many. But my previous arrogance made a real and true sorrow an almost unbearable burden. Providentially, the Spirit and the Word bent my mind to the recognition of these sinful attitudes and I turned into the path of accepting my lot and examining the the true state of my heart.
Finally, I met and looked in the eye with understanding that host of women, that varied company of illustrious, then disillusioned, then pride-ridden, then righteous, then self-consumed, then God-fearing, then pathetic creatures whose wombs are empty. Culturally speaking, I learned that “infertility” is a widespread and growing issue that I was blind to and that there is a stigma attached to it. Within the church I found most have not considered this issue in a biblical light. With concern I realized that Christian culture has largely abandoned those among us who cannot conceive, for a variety of reasons, to the medical world, to modern humanist psychology, to silent shame and pride, or to public denial of God’s sovereignty.
I should point out here that I do not deny the real and good use of medicine in helping and healing the body to the end of bearing children. The purview of this record of observations is to delve to the deeper root problem of attitude. No matter how advanced the medical world becomes in aiding conception, if we do not believe rightly and presuppose God in the matter, medicine will only serve as a poor band-aid to cover a festering wound at best and as an aid to unbelief and wrong actions at worst.
Things I had been deaf to newly blasted my ears as if through a loudspeaker. From the tiny discrepancies to the great glaring errors. Phrases like “making babies,” which before seemed a bit crass but wholesome on the whole, became knives. The assumptions, the piercing curiosity, the naive questioning, the bold joking, all grew heavily disturbing.
You have heard it all said before. “Are you waiting to have children?”, “How long have you been married?” “Do you want children?” “When are the grandchildren coming?” “That will/won’t motivate him to let you have kids!” “Careful what you wish for!” “Do you want to borrow ours for a while?” “You can have ours...we have extra!” “How many do you want?” “You’ll see!” “We’re planning on waiting until we’re ready.”
And then the even more draining backbiting words came that cut deep at pride and self-worth “Do they know how to do IT?” “I know someone who did this to fix that problem…”
Even little complaints from parents around me grew frustrating. I balked at the truly weary mother or father who reminisced in my presence about how much I must be enjoying these days with just my husband. I inwardly grimaced when they sighed with regret over never sleeping or being consumed by diapers. All these became the proverbial fingernails on chalkboard, vinegar on teeth that wore a relational canyon between me and many people. I withdrew...not externally, but inwardly. After all, saying something would make me look the bitter, jealous, childless woman I knew I was not. Some withdrew from us...I'm not sure why. Though I can imagine confusion and discomfort with something they could not understand played a large part. For a short period, even this was an incubator for pride to grow in my heart. After all, I was enjoying my time with just my husband, and I didn’t envy anyone their children...I still loved seeing parents with lots of babies. I just wanted my own...and sometimes wanted desperately not to want them.
Pain and indignation rose up in me when conception was thrown about flippantly. Scripture unequivocally puts God at the door to the womb and credits him alone with creative power. The more I researched the more I understood how statistically, scientifically and humanly impossible conception really is and how divinely ordained. I fought fears of being judged or even pre-judged by others. I struggled with the thought that people were assuming that I didn’t want children, or that I did and was jealous, or that I didn’t like children because I couldn’t have them. All these things our hearts imagine and fear when we are concerned with self and forget to pursue Christ.
I looked at scripture in fainting desperation and, praise the Lord, his word never fails. I received with thankfulness the severe mercy of Hannah and understood why Eli thought she was drunk when her grief and desperation gnawed at her from the pit of her emptiness and she wept before the Lord.
I knew Proverbs 30 to be true with first-hand understanding when it says,
Three things are never satisfied; four never say, “Enough”: Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, “Enough.”
I saw for the first time that:
- The bible calls the empty womb barren not infertile and that both old and new testaments point out repeatedly instances of barrenness or conception as God opening and closing the womb.
- That many of the women in the bible were barren...and in that state pleased God. In other words, barrenness can be but is not always a curse, and should not be called so unless there is explicit reason in scripture to believe that is the case
- That barrenness, like everything else in the bible, is about God and his work, and not about me.
- That while children are a beautiful heritage from the Lord, they are not the only or the ultimate inheritance of the believer. Christ is! Happy thought!
I also understood in a new light Rachel’s outcry to Jacob in Genesis. I recognized in her what I could have become so easily. Unbelief, self-pity, bitterness, pathetic anger and the temptation to blame others and ultimately God oozed from her “Give me children or I die!” I understand now why Jacob was angry with her. Were children his to give or keep from her?
I learned a new and deeper love and appreciation for my husband who by the grace of God, bore with my frailty, grief and irrational fears with tender understanding and enduring patience, even while carrying his own sorrow.
Ultimately, I saw anew the sovereign, unsearchable lovingkindness of God. Just a glimpse of his fullness and glory and I shrunk closer to my proper size before him. I began learning to drink habitually of his grace in maintaining these attitudes concerning children:
- Actively desiring children in whatever way God chooses to send them at whatever time.
- Investing in children and parents around me, to instill in the next generation the fear and knowledge and love of Christ.
- Leaning into the right and biblical love of children … the sweetness of babyhood, the wonder of young people … even while the ache of empty arms remains, at the same time purposefully rejoicing in every stage of life in those around me
- Grieving honestly, and then rejoicing in my great and good reward, Christ.
- Bending my whole body and will to work at what God has set before me and find joy in it.
- Wash in the Word and repeat.
So...DO NOT be consumed by guilt, you who have said or thought those arrogant, ignorant, insensitive things, perhaps even in the presence of a barren person. I was once among you. I am not angry with you. I am not graceless toward you. I recognize each of us has a burden to bear. Continue to love your children and give yourself to their training without reservation. You do not answer to me. You answer to God.
Please...DO repent and reform your thinking. Watch the door to your heart and your tongue. Take heed to whom you grant the sovereignty over the womb and in what way. Yes, you are right to yield to God the right to fill it and rejoice. Are you equally ready to yield him the right to make it empty and still worship?
I’m learning not to congratulate myself on being enlightened in this matter or any other. Like Job I think I can begin to say honestly:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted... Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.... I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
The hope of the gospel is not in our individual success, sanctification...fruitfulness. The gospel is about Christ, it is the news of Christ’s victory. Christ’s kingdom is established, and Christ’s will is done, by whatever means he chooses. Isaiah 54 makes this clear. The promise Isaiah speaks of is not primarily given to comfort the individual barren woman, although it should comfort her. Barrenness is a sign...a crying out to the whole world that not man, but Christ is the fruitful, Christ is the victorious, Christ is the healer. This is not a promise of a child for a woman, but a promise of many children for Christ! It comforts us not in our own worth but in the matchless worth and preeminence of Jesus Christ.
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer. “This is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you, and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. “O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of agate, your gates of carbuncles, and all your wall of precious stones. All your children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children. In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you. If anyone stirs up strife, it is not from me; whoever stirs up strife with you shall fall because of you. Behold, I have created the smith who blows the fire of coals and produces a weapon for its purpose. I have also created the ravager to destroy; no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the LORD.”