When God became flesh and dwelt among mankind, He did not burst on to the scene in what we might call ordinary ways. The Holy Spirit came upon a young, unmarried girl named Mary. She was given a gift that she really didn’t want: to carry a child before she was married. The gift of motherhood was thrust upon her. The picture on your bulletin this morning is “Madonna del Granduca” by Raphael, and is perhaps the image of mother’s day, a mother holding her little angelic child.
But we should not forget the other mother in the birth story of our Lord and Savior. Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, was on the other end of the motherhood spectrum. While Mary had an unwanted pregnancy thrust upon her, Elizabeth had been denied a wanted pregnancy for far too many years. She wanted to be a mother, but was not able. Elizabeth is the last in a long line of women in the Bible who wanted to have children but were not able to. The Bible uses the same word for these women, a word that is harsh and cruel and final. In the Bible, these women are called “barren.” The word barren means “unable to produce offspring,” and even though we might prefer the term “infertile” or “childless,” the end result is the same: a woman who wants to become a mother but who is not able to conceive or carry a baby to term.
There is a trail of tears in the motherhood stories of the Bible, and Zechariah and Elizabeth are simply the last in a long line of line of barren couples in the Bible. Eight different times in the biblical narrative we are introduced to a woman who is labeled with this horrible word: barren. Sarah, the wife of Abraham who is called the father of faith, is the first barren women we meet (Genesis 11). In a rather odd turn of events, her son Isaac marries a woman who was also barren, Rebekah (Genesis 25). Isaac’s son Jacob marries Rachel, another barren woman (Genesis 29). In the book of Judges, we meet Manoah and his wife, who are also barren (Judges 13). Who can forget Hannah, another barren woman, praying so desperately for a child before the Lord that the priest thought she was drunk with wine (1 Samuel 1)? Rounding out the list is the Shunammite woman who befriends Elisha (2 Kings 4) and the wife of King Abimelech who crossed paths with Abraham (Genesis 20).
But each of these stories conclude with a happy ending. In fact, all of the stories in the Bible about women who are called barren end with the birth of a bouncing, baby boy. The Lord was gracious to Sarah and gave her a son, Isaac (see Genesis 21.1-5). Isaac prayed for his wife, and the Lord answered his prayer and gave Rebekah twins, Jacob and Esau (see Genesis 25.21-22). After a long period of agony, the Lord remembered Rachel and opened her womb for a son, Joseph (see Genesis 30.22). Manoah’s wife was visited by the angel of the Lord who told her that she was going to give birth to a special son, whom she named Samson (see Judges 13.2-5). Hannah’s earnest prayer was answered with the birth of Samuel (see 1 Samuel 1.20). And of course, the long line of barren women in the Bible ends with Elizabeth who gives birth to the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist (see Luke 1.5-7).
Each of these stories end with the happy note of Psalm 113.9: “God settles the barren women in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the Lord!” And yet…
Not All Women Can Sing Psalm 113
As I began to look towards Mother’s Day and seeking the Lord for what He might say to us this morning, He began to draw me to a subject that I have never preached on before. In almost 20 years of preaching, I don’t think I have ever preached a sermon about the trials of infertility. I felt drawn to seek the Lord for a word of encouragement or a word of hope for those couples, for those women and their husbands, who want to give birth to a child but are not able to. I knew that I was walking on hallowed ground, a pathway that I knew nothing of. I, myself, have never asked the deep questions of faith that surround this road, and I knew that there was so much dangerous possibility of speaking foolish words, empty words, trite words, or worse yet, words that weren’t even true. Perhaps a wiser man would have abandoned the topic altogether, but I felt like the Lord would speak a word to us if I would have the courage to seek Him in this issue.
Learning About Infertility
First, I began to learn things about infertility that I never knew. I did not know that anywhere from 10% to 20% of the population is affected by this struggle, striking people from all socioeconomic levels and cutting across all racial, ethnic, and religious lines. That means that of the 300 people who will gather for worship here on this Sunday, as many as 30 of our very own church family might be struggling with infertility. That was amazing to me.
I was very grateful this week to find that many men and women who have walked this road have had the courage to write down their journey so people like me can read them and learn from them. I read with great interest the stories of Nancy Devor, Judith Lee, Millicent Feske, Sarah Wilson, Faith Johnson, and others. As they told their story, several common themes were woven throughout all of their testimonies.
I realized that they all shared my ignorance and unawareness of the struggles of wanting a child but not being able to have one. We all grow up assuming that one day we will get married and have children, never considering the possibility that we might be one of the 10% of the population.
I read as they talked about the living grief of infertility. Unlike the death of a parent or even the death of a child, the grief of infertility is intangible. It is the mourning of “what might have been,” and while others cannot see what they have lost, it makes their loss no less real. This intangible loss leads to a series of other losses. The couple is not able to provide grandchildren to their parents or a child to see them through their old age. They often lose touch with their friends who are entering the world of parenting without them.
And the living grief of infertility has no clear cut beginning nor end. Instead, it is a reoccurring cycle of hope and despair month after month. The two extremes of hope and failure are revisited each and every month. Medical treatment only serves to heighten the hope and to deepen the disappointment. And it never ends.
Since most couples experience the trial of infertility early in their marriage, it is often the first real crisis in their relationship. Mix in a few doses of hormonal based medicines, add to it the different ways that men and women handle grief and decision making, and it becomes the perfect storm for a young marriage. Like all forms of grief, infertility usually produces anger, and most often it is the spouse who receives the brunt of that anger.
To make this grief experience even greater, couples who struggle with infertility must live out their grief in the midst of a very fertile world. The whole world seems child centered, and the church can often seem the most child centered place of all.
Crisis of Faith
But infertility is not just a grief experience, but it can also be a tremendous crisis of faith. One writer embraced the words of Rachel that she spoke to her husband Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die” (Genesis 30.1). But in many ways, Rachel had it easy, as did Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth. In fact, every other barren women in the biblical narrative eventually got to sing the words of Psalm 113, “God settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the Lord.” Eventually, they got to sing that song. Eventually, they were blessed with a child.
But that is not always the case for the barren women who live in the real world and not in between the pages of the Bible. Statistically speaking, about 30% to 40% of the couples who battle infertility will never be able to have a child of their own, not even with all of the medical advancements of today. That works out to roughly 3% to 8% of all couples.
These couples are faced with a great crisis of faith. If it is God’s will that we “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1.28), and if God does “settle the barren woman in her home as a happy mother” (Psalm 113.9), and if God wants our “quiver to be full” of children (Psalm 127.3-5), then why doesn’t God hear our prayer like he heard Jacob’s prayer (see Genesis 25.21) and give us a child? Infertility is a great crisis of faith.
With Friends Like These…
These men and women also talked about the difficult of sharing their crisis with their friends, mostly because of the typical reaction of “Fertile Myrtles” of the world. They described how hurtful some of the well-meaning comments of their friends can be, and all of the foolish things that we say to them. While we are trying to be encouraging, our foolish words often sting instead of heal. With friends like us, who needs enemies?
We say things like, “Relax. Stop trying, and it will happen.” But for a couple that is truly infertile, it is not an issue of stress, but a real physical problem that can no more be cured by going on a cruise than a ruptured disk can be cured by going on a mountain bike ride.
We say things like, “Just enjoy being able to sleep late, travel, and to be free from all of the hassles of having children around the house.” But would we ever tell someone whose parents have just died to be thankful that they never have to buy Mother’s Day cards anymore? How insensitive is that?
Or we start doing theology. We say things like, “Maybe God just doesn’t want you to be a parent.” How can it be that God would choose to divinely sterilize me when there are so many parents out there who abuse or neglect their children?
We say things like, “If you adopt a child then you will become pregnant.” While that does happen, it only happens for 5% of couples who have struggled with infertility.
The Word of the Lord
So what is the Word of the Lord today for these in our midst who share the cry of Rachel, “Give me children or else I die”? What word of encouragement or hope might the Lord give to those among us who are waiting for grandchildren that might never come? Even as I ask that question, I am looking at it as a crisis of faith, and I know that any crisis of faith is not solved with a few well worded phrases. I do not anticipate that the sermon this morning is going to wipe away every tear and bring an end to every grief.
But I do believe that our Heavenly Father is the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Corinthians 1.3-4). I offer these few thoughts, these few truths in humility to those who are experiencing great sorrow and grief in the hope that the Lord may use them in your time of trouble to bring you hope, comfort, and direction.
1. Living With the Crack (Romans 8.18-25)
In the book of Romans, Paul lays out a truth that has been very helpful for me as I seek to understand the frustrations of life. He talks about the fact that creation itself has been subjected to the bondage of decay and that one day we are looking forward to being liberated from this bondage and brought into the glorious freedom as children of God. He even talks about how we groan inwardly as we eagerly await for this libration from the bondage to decay, and part of that hope is the redemption of our bodies (see Romans 8.18-25).
In Romans 8, Paul is identifying with us this groaning that we feel as we live in a world that is in bondage to decay. We forget sometimes that we live in a broken creation, a creation broken by the consequences of sin. We live in a broken creation that one day will be recreated in full, in the fullness of time when Christ returns. But until that day, we groan.
And a very real part of following Christ and trusting Christ is living with the crack that is beneath our own feet. We are standing on a foundation, and the whole foundation is cracked and broken. As we stand on the foundation, we can see the spider web of cracks spreading out all over creation. There are cracks of natural disasters, cracks of famine and poverty, the cracks of war, and the cracks of disease. While the cracks spread out all over creation, the crack that concerns us the most is the one beneath our own feet. And our faith crisis is living with the crack.
We all stand over different cracks. The crack in the foundation under your feet may be a diagnosis of breast cancer. It might be growing up in a home with an abusive father. It might be working forty years for a company that has just gone bankrupt along with your pension. It might be having a child diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome or autism. It might be watching your parents slowly slip away in the horror of Alzheimer’s. The cracks spread all over the world. Some live over the cracks of a devastating earthquake. For others, it is growing up in a world of national poverty.
And for some, the brokenness of creation, the bondage of decay that is under your feet is the crack of infertility. It is wrong? Yes. Is it unjust? Yes. Is it unfair? Yes. Is it painful? Yes. Does it cause an intense inward groaning? Yes. Does it take faith to eagerly await our adoption and for the Lord to liberate us all from this bondage of decay? Yes.
A small part of the crisis of faith of infertility is coming to terms with the fact that this is the crack under your feet, this is the evidence in your life that all of creation is held in the bondage to decay. And these cracks will never be fixed until our Lord returns to recreate the heavens and the earth.
2. Focus on the “where to” question (Romans 8.28)
As we are standing over our crack, the question becomes, “What do we do with this crack?” The second word of what I hope is encouragement, or hope, or wisdom, is to encourage you to focus on the “where” question and not the “why” question. Our instinctive response to the cracks in the foundation below our feet is to ask the “why” question. Why is this happening to me? Why is God not doing anything to change the situation? And wrestling with these questions is part of the grief process, but you need to know that you will most likely never find an answer that will satisfy the pain in your soul. You might find an answer that will solve the pain in your head, the intellectual problem of pain, but you will not find an answer that will heal the pain in your soul. Peace is not found in asking “Why?,” but in asking “Where?”
Healing comes when we embrace the crack beneath our feet and say to the Lord, “Okay God, I don’t like this crack, but it is what it is. Where do we go from here?” And don’t accept the simple answers too quickly.
The testimonies I read this week talked about how God used their infertility to lead them to adopt. Others talked about how God used this to guide their career choices and involvements in various ministries. And of course many of them talked about the struggles of all the various medical treatment options that do work for 60% to 70% of the infertile couples. But none of those options, or the other options out there, can be arrived at quickly or easily. We are a microwave culture, we get impatient waiting three minutes for our instant popcorn to be ready, but the great crisis of faith in our lives are not conquered in one day, or week, or month, or even a year. And don’t let the Fertile Myrtles push you into adoption too quickly. You cannot adopt until the you grieved.
But there is another level of the “Where” question that we need to see. Remember, what you and I are waiting for is not nearly as important as who we become as we wait. The “where” is not just about whether or not to adopt or how far to go with the treatment options, but it is also about what God is doing within us through the trial. It is asking the question of how God is going to use this to mold you into His image, to create patience, or trust, or compassion. God may be working in you perseverance in prayer, or teaching you compassion. It is believing Romans 8.28 and knowing that God will cause this to work for good, and then seeking that good out.
3. Pray the Garden Prayer (Luke 22.42)
The third word of hope and encouragement is to encourage you to pray the Garden Prayer. On the night of His arrest, our Lord and Savior was looking at the crack beneath His feet. And the crack beneath His feet was that the only way to bring salvation to a sinful world was to offer Himself as the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. And to do that, He would have to submit Himself to the horrible pain of being scourged and then crucified. As He contemplated what was before Him, He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22.42).
To pray the Garden Prayer means to ask great things from God. You are right to pray the prayer of Isaac and to ask the Lord to give you a child (see Genesis 25.21). Seek great things from God. Seek miraculous things from God.
But not only must we seek great things from God, we must also submit to His will in our lives. It is to submit our request to God and to accept His answer. If God’s answer is that I will be part of the 3% to 8% of the couples who will never be able to have a child of their own, then faith becomes submitting what I want to God’s plan. And that is the prayer of faith that we all must learn to pray, as we groan and eagerly await the final liberation.
4. Trust the Good Shepherd (Psalm 23)
The last word that I will offer you this morning comes from one of our most favorite psalms. I don’t know how much comfort it is to be reminded that the whole world is broken and that the crack beneath your feet is part of that bondage to decay. I hope it is hopeful knowing that God will use all struggles for good in our lives if we focus on where He is at work both within us and around us. And I do want to encourage you to pray the Garden Prayer: ask big things from God and submit what we want to the wise and sovereign care of the King of Kings. But I do want to leave you with one final word.
One of the most beloved passages in all of the Bible is the 23rd Psalm. Unfortunately, we only really read it at funerals. David, the King of Israel about 1000 years before Christ was born, got his start in life as a shepherd. And he learned a lot about God caring for his sheep. He learned that the Lord was his shepherd, who cared for him, provided for him, guided him, and protected him. His words are so familiar to us now,
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for His names sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23.4).
David is drawing upon a specific experience as a shepherd. The day would begin with David taking his flock up into the mountains looking for green grass and quiet waters. As the day would draw to a close, he would lead his sheep back down to the safety of the pen below. On his way down the mountain, as the sun began to set, the sun would cast shadows over the crags and caves that surrounded the mountain path. Every shadow was the possible hiding place of a wolf or a thief. David knew there was always a good chance that he would never make it back to base camp with all of his sheep. And yet he took comfort in the fact that the Lord was his shepherd. And just like David used his rod and staff to rescue the sheep that had fallen into ravines or to fight off the wolves or other predators, so the Lord would be there to protect and rescue David. And so he wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of shadows, I will fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23.4).
We can take comfort in the fact that as we navigate the cracks that are at our feet, that the Lord is walking with us each step of the way. He is there to rescue us when we fall into the pits of grief that are too deep to climb out of in our own power. He is there to guide us through the decisions that we must make regarding treatment options or adoption. He is there to work mighty acts of miracles, should he choose. And, He is there to restore our soul through the valley of shadows.