One painful experience that is repeated throughout the Scriptures is infertility. It’s surprising how many biblical stories involve infertility. Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 11-21), Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 25), Rachel (Genesis 29-30), Samson’s parents (Judges 13), Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2), Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1) all experience the pain of infertility. Each deals with this difficulty for years. In many of the cases above, God speaks a word directly to those who are experiencing infertility and promises the birth of a child. Some do not have to wait long for the promise to be fulfilled (Samson’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth). Some have to wait much longer (Abraham and Sarah).
Biblical Examples of Infertility
Sarah laughs at hearing God’s promise. Zechariah questions the angel who delivers God’s promise. Still, some receive no such promise. Hannah and Rachel are the two examples where God does not speak to them directly. He makes no promise of their infertility ending. Both Rachel and Hannah pray to the Lord to give them children. In both cases, the Scriptures say that God remembers them (Genesis 30:22, 1 Samuel 1:19), and they bear children. Isaac and Rebekah also receive no such promise and wait 20 years before Jacob and Esau are born. Genesis 25:21 says, “And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer and Rebekah his wife conceived.”
In today’s world, very few (if any) people experiencing infertility receive a promise from the Lord that He will bless them with a child. Like Rachel and Hannah, people today are left to pray to the Lord and rely upon His grace and mercy. Sometimes, indeed, the Lord remembers those who call out to Him from the depths of suffering, and He blesses them with a child.
But since all of the examples of infertility in the Scriptures end with the birth of a child, where are we to look when the Lord has made no promise of a child? Where are we to point people who are suffering through this pain when the Lord may never bless them with a child?
Certainly, we can point them to the examples of Hannah, Rachel, Isaac, and Rebekah, who keep praying and pleading with the Lord. Sometimes the Lord answers prayers with, “not yet,” as is the case with Hannah, Rachel, Isaac, and Rebekah. But we must admit that sometimes the Lord’s answer to prayers is simply, “No.”
When God Says "No" to a Child
How do we care for people as they are waiting to see if the Lord’s answer to their prayers is “no” or “not yet” regarding infertility? The waiting, whether or not a promise has been made, has its difficulties. One difficulty I often hear expressed comes in seeing other people having children. Those struggling with infertility often have mixed feelings when the Lord blesses others with children. Certainly, there is joy and delight in the Lord’s blessings, but that joy is mixed with the painful reminder that the Lord continues to withhold the particular blessing of a child from those struggling with infertility.
I imagine Abraham and Sarah dealt with this struggle frequently. It’s unclear how long Abraham and Sarah are married before she gives birth. Perhaps 70 years. But from the time God first promises the birth of a child, they have to wait twenty-five years for the promise to be fulfilled.
In that waiting, before and after the promise, one detail that often goes unnoticed is just how big Abraham’s household is. In Genesis 14, Abraham gathers his forces to go rescue his nephew Lot. This is what the text says, “[Abraham] led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them . . . ” (Genesis 14:14). There are 318 men of fighting age in Abraham’s household.
Commenting on this, Luther writes, “From this one may estimate the wealth and power of Abram, who had so many domestics that had been brought up in his house and were fit for war. Among these were many husbands, who themselves had numerous children. If you count the children, the mothers, and the maids, I believe Abraham’s household amounted to at least a thousand persons. He supported them all. . . . Thus God played strangely with this holy patriarch by giving him such a large household, yet not even a foot breadth of ground (Acts 7:5).”
Luther notes God’s strangeness in dealing with Abraham considering this huge household of thousands of people, but, as Stephen notes in the sermon Luther references, “Yet [God] gave [Abraham] no inheritance in it [the promised land], not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child” (Acts 7:5).
Yet, for our purposes, we see another way in which “God played strangely” with Abraham. Imagine being Abraham and Sarah and seeing over the course of several decades of marriage the number of babies born into that household. Potentially thousands of infants had been born into their household before Isaac was finally born. One wonders how often Sarah or Abraham held a child born to other parents, wondering when God would finally fulfill His promise to them.
Abraham and Sarah could look back to that promise God had made to them. But where do we point those struggling with infertility when God has made no such promise of a child to them?
How to Support Families Struggling with Infertility
I would like to share three potential answers. First, we can begin by lamenting with them. Acknowledge that the situation is difficult, painful, sad, and just plain sucks. Sitting and listening to the struggle is always the first and most important thing for those who are suffering any kind of grief. Infertility is a unique kind of grief because what is lost is a hope. There is no ability to reminisce about joyful memories and the good old days as one might do at a funeral or memorial service as part of coping with grief. What is lost in infertility is intangible, which makes coping all the more challenging.
Many people say many stupid things to those who are struggling with infertility. Telling stories about God answering the prayers of others in similar situations is not helpful. Do not point people to promises God has not made. He has promised no miracles. Suggesting adoption is not helpful either. People struggling with infertility will walk that road if and when the Lord leads them to it. Do not try to solve the problem. Begin by entering into the faithful lament with those struggling with infertility.
Second, we can point people to the faithful who have suffered greatly in the Scriptures. Job is one example. When Job loses all of his wealth and his children are killed, his response is this: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). I think our response to the suffering of infertility can be similar. “The Lord gives, and the Lord withholds. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Jesus is the other obvious example of a faithful sufferer. Part of faithful suffering means bringing all the pain to God and asking the hard questions of God, just as Jesus does from the cross saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a question many suffering with infertility have brought before the Lord. That is okay. That is faithful. That is Christlike prayer of lament.
Third, we can point them to the promises and gifts God has given to them. God has promised that He will always be with us. No matter what we are struggling with, we know that God is with us. As Psalm 46:1 says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We can flee to God in all circumstances. We can rely on God for strength when we are struggling. We can even demand that God keep His promises of presence.
God has also given us many other good gifts. Though Abraham and Sarah had no child of their own for many years, they had others in their household that needed care and love. God has placed many people in our lives who need love and care. Though perhaps we would write our stories differently than God has, we bring our pain to Him and put our trust in Him, caring for those He has given us to love in our daily vocations.
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