At first glance the Bible and the Christian faith appears to be obsessed with fertility. From the command given to Adam and Eve to ‘go forth and multiply’, to the genealogies of the Old Testament declaring the importance of continuing the family line to ensure inheritance, status and purpose. Mothering Sunday is celebrated religiously and Hallmark’s introduction of Father’s day is fast becoming part of the church calendar and yet there is still no day dedicated to the celebration of the single or the childless. The diversity of clergy and pastors is slowly increasing, but as a vicar’s wife I can tell you the Church of England certainly isn’t going to win any diversity awards anytime soon as the majority of church leaders I meet are still white, middle class men with extravagantly fertile wives.
Until my first miscarriage I’d had never considered or questioned whether the Christian faith had anything to say to the infertile or the childless, but six miscarriages later, still no children and a husband about to be ordained as a vicar I was seriously doubting whether my faith had nothing to offer the childless.
In these moments of deep despair it felt like my faith as well as the world around me was telling me my childlessness made me useless, my losses were a mark of social shame both in the church and in the world surrounding me. Like any mature adult I avoided dealing with the questions that seemed to make my faith, my future and life in general more complicated. But then I found new friends, new books and a counsellor who began to show me a different to Christianity to the one I’d grown up on and it changed everything.
You’re not alone
The Bible actually has a really high view of the infertile and the representation of the infertile in the Bible is far more inclusive than many of the narratives within our society today and sadly often in the church. There are over twenty infertile women who participate in the unfolding of the biblical narrative reminding the infertile, childless reader that they are most definitely not alone in their struggle. The male voice is fairly silent around the struggle of infertility, whilst the disbelief presented by Abraham in the Old Testament and Zechariah in the New Testament when God reveals to them they will be fathers in their old age illustrates the impact of the years of disappointment on the soul, fertility is often associated with the female story. Although the emphasis on the female experience of infertility in the Bible does not accurately illustrate the reality that it almost just as likely for a man to be diagnosed with infertility as it is the woman, the inclusion of the female voice in these stories is compelling.
In a world where a childless woman would have found herself almost at the very bottom of the list of people deemed significant by society, the inclusion of the infertile female voice within the Biblical narrative of God and His people elevates them far above their place in the culture they were living in and even in our culture today.
The biblical text makes it clear that infertility is a reasonable, normal expectation for a substantial proportion of society. Finding so many barren women dominant in the biblical narrative suggests that God does not reject the barren woman but has a central role for her in the unfolding of His story, which is a powerful reminder to the infertile, childless reader that they are not alone.
It’s okay to grieve
Western culture is one of the worst in history at expressing grief. The church is pretty bad at it too. But the Bible is amazing.
It took 4 miscarriages before someone told me I was grieving. Until that moment I didn’t understand grief, I didn’t believe grief could be associated with someone or something you never met, or held, or even had in the first place. I didn’t know how to grieve. For years I’d believed grieving was bad because we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be sad. But over time my counsellor taught me how to grieve and then the Bible gave me the words I needed.
Scripture articulates the depth of grief in the most stunningly realistic and dramatic way and I believe our culture has a lot to learn from it. In today’s society the magnitude of the pain of suffering is often downplayed because we’re so frightened of giving space to it. For years I was scared that if I allowed myself to be sad I’d lose control and never escape the darkness of grief. But the Bible is not afraid of grief; it embraces pain and gives it space to unfold and express itself, because the Christian faith doesn’t just see grief as a normal part of the human story it elevates it as a precondition to joy and a necessary path to healing.
The Bible is particularly vocal and articulate around the pain of infertility; it dwells on this pain with powerful language and illustrations, unlike those witnessed in today’s culture. It expresses the pain, the shame and isolation from family and communities, the struggle of being surrounded by those who find pregnancy easy, the monthly cycle of grief, the struggle between husband and wife as well as the destruction of identity and purpose.
In the Old Testament a woman called Rachel suffered through years of infertility and the monthly cycle of grief. What made it worse is that her husband’s second wife Leah kept popping out babies and rubbing it in her face until she cried out ‘give me children or I will die!’
Hannah, another woman in the Old Testament was so consumed by the grief of her childlessness she stopped eating. One day she was found praying in the temple, pouring out her heart and her despair to God and began crying inconsolably. The priest who saw her thought she was drunk because she had completely lost control of her emotions, I imagine her body convulsing with grief, an experience I know I, and many of us are all too familiar with. When asked what’s wrong, Hannah she tells the priest ‘It’s because I’m so desperately unhappy and in such pain.’
Proverbs 30 talks about the four insatiables; the four experiences in the human story that will never be satisfied which are death, fire, drought and a barren womb.
Christianity takes suffering seriously. It takes the pain of infertility seriously.
Your story matters
I used to believe pain was an interruption to my story, it got in the way and often threatened to put an end my story altogether.
But this is not how the Bible views it.
Scripture has taught me that pain is not an interruption to my story, it is part of it and it’s an important part of it, because pain is not only inevitable, it is also the greatest agent of change. Christianity talks about how suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope.
God places great value on the lives and the stories of the infertile. Eunuchs were men who had no reproductive organs and in Isaiah, a book in the Old Testament, God says to them “make sure no Eunuch is ever made to think, ‘I’m damaged goods. I don’t really belong, that I’m nothing but a dry tree.”
The amount of space given to the retelling of the stories of those who struggled with infertility in the Bible is also significant. Often when women like Rachel and Hannah who had suffered years of infertility went on to have children, the Biblical narrative quickly moves on to the next story. The word count given to the years of struggle these women suffered are far greater than those given to their life as mothers; this emphasis on the struggle and pain of infertility indicates almost a higher value given to those years of suffering than the subsequent years that follow.
Throughout the Bible God has this habit of taking the lives of those who have experienced great pain and using them to become some of the most significant people in his story. It is not simply the happy ending He values, but the transformation and refining of character through suffering.
Whilst the Bible gives a lot of space to the emotional, spiritual and physical struggle of infertility it offers very little guidance around the science of reproduction which can be a source of confusion, isolation and pain for Christian couples trying to conceive. Fertility clinics did not exist in Biblical times, neither did IVF or donors.
The only option for a plan ‘B’ in the Bible was for the husband to take a second wife or a concubine, which never really went very well. Although the second wife may have produced a longed for heir, the pain of infertility was still very present and often led to years of jealousy and insecurity.
Christianity has always placed a very high value on life, even very young life which can pose ethical dilemmas for couples going through IVF as to how many embryos to inseminate and what to do with any remaining fertilised embryos after treatment.
Although Bible is not specific about the many options available today, I believe it offers most guidance around the decision-making process. Whatever your decision about treatment, you need to live with it and more importantly own it as integral part of your story and your child’s story if you go on to become a parent, otherwise you run the risk of entering into a moral crisis. But right at the root of all these questions, doubts and confusion around the science of reproduction is the heart behind these decisions.
The Bible tells us that above all, God is most interested in our hearts and more importantly who or what we love. The first commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. Whilst this may sound selfish or egotistical, Christians believe God created humankind and therefore he knows how our hearts work. Our first love will always hold the key to our identity, value and purpose in this world. God wants his followers to put Him first in their hearts because He wants their identity to stem from a place of love and acceptance that is not based on outside achievements, marital status or even parenthood.
The great danger with fertility treatment is how all-consuming it can become. The desire to have children is not wrong, the question is where this desire sits in your heart and how it defines your worth and your purpose on this earth.
After my fourth miscarriage I had a breakdown, shortly after I remember the moment when my counsellor asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I was left speechless. My pursuit of motherhood had stripped me of all the ambitions and dreams I’d carried with me for years until there was nothing left. I had lost myself.
For years I believed having children would lead me into a life of meaning, but I have since learnt that this is not how God defines my worth, this is not how God defines your worth. Despite what society says, parenthood does not complete you. Having children does not lead you into the promised land.
In the Bible those who had children did not have it easy, their kids lied to them, killed their siblings and sold them into slavery. After years of waiting for a child Rachel’s two sons hated each other and when they got married their wives were really mean to her. Now I’m not saying having children will be the end of your world and cause you nothing but heartache, but in the same way the Bible does not edit out the struggle of infertility, it does not edit out the struggles of parenthood. The inclusion of these very human stories of family life are once again a sobering reminder of how our society has elevated the role of parenting as the only pathway into the promised land, which just simply isn’t true.
On the night we returned from hospital after my sixth miscarriage, a vicar friend of ours Paul, popped in. Paul is a theologian, educated at Cambridge University with many years of ministry experience. Paul has three sons and when faced with the pain of our situation he simply said to us ‘there’s shit with kids and there’s shit without kids’. To this day his words still offer one of the most profound theological statements I’ve ever heard.
For me the best part of the Bible, the part that has most significantly changed my understanding of where I, as I childless woman fit into this story of God and His people is found right at the beginning of the New Testament. Matthew’s gospel begins with a long list of names, a genealogy, beginning with Adam and ending with Jesus. The list includes those women who’d struggled with infertility who had gone on to have children, as well as prostitutes, murderers and adulterers – it’s not exactly a family tree to be proud of. The lines of names go on and on for ages until eventually we get to Jesus.
This is the last genealogy in the Bible, because after the birth of Jesus, family line and fertility have no bearing on anyone’s value, purpose or inheritance in God’s world. Jesus was single and childless. Paul, who after a dramatic conversion to Christianity went on to start the early church after Jesus’ death, talked about his calling to singleness because he believed marriage and children would hinder the role and purpose he believed he had here on earth. And still today, some of most fruitful people I know are infertile, because they have not let their infertility define their value or purpose
I believe the Christian faith enables the infertile and the childless to assert their fertility challenges need not destroy or define them. The suffering I endured through the pain of multiple miscarriages and the inability to have my own children will always be part of my story, but my faith has taught me these moments of great pain do not have the power to end it. Whilst on the surface it can look like the Christian faith has nothing but shame to offer the childless I have discovered it is in fact quite the opposite. Christianity proclaims to the infertile You’re not alone, it’s okay to grieve and your story matters.