woman church alone infertility support

God Remembers the Barren, and So Should the Church

I walked in the door to a foyer teeming with children. My husband and I entered the sanctuary and sat down in the back, where I began counting the number of pregnant women in the pews around us.

We had just moved to a new town and were trying out a church. My husband had to drag me there, because I didn’t want to go. I thought it would be painful to be surrounded by what I wanted desperately, but God had not yet given.

My assumptions proved correct. As I flipped through the bulletin, I saw listed several ministries the church offered various adults: singles, newly marrieds, families with kids, empty nesters. Nothing for childless, not-wedded-yesterday couples.

I was already feeling rejected by God. Now, I felt left out of His church.

The truth of His promise

Though I was impatient with His timing, God was patient with me during my years of infertility. Even before He brought us our two sons, He granted abundant grace and revealed more of His character to me in a personal way.

During and after this season, God grew my compassion for others facing these trials and my desire to search His Word for true comfort, discovering how God interacted with women in the Bible who struggled to bear children.

One of the most prominent examples is Hannah, who is so distraught over her childlessness that she pours out her soul to the Lord in the temple and is mistaken by the priest as a drunk. She leaves with “her face no longer downcast,” and once she returns home, God answers her cry.

“And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her.” (1 Samuel 1:19)

The word “remembered,” when used with God as the subject doing the “remembering,” appears elsewhere in Scripture when He delivers His people: Noah from the flood (Genesis 8:1), Abraham and Lot from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:29), the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 2:24), and the Israelites from the desert (Psalm 105:42).

In all these examples, God doesn’t forget His people as if they slipped His mind. That would be impossible – it would go against His omniscient character.

Instead, God “remembers” His children by bringing His promises to pass.

He saved Noah, like He said He would. He saved Abraham and the people of Israel, like He said He would.

He enabled women like Hannah to miraculously conceive because He made a covenant (promise) to provide a lineage that would eventually produce a miraculously conceived Savior.

The Bible doesn’t guarantee that every couple will bear children. But it does confirm a powerful promise that God is committed to redeem the sorrows in our lives through the death and resurrection of His Son.

Left out of the club

Even with this biblical comfort, couples that struggle with infertility can feel forgotten and isolated – especially in environments like church that emphasize families and childrearing.

As the leader of an infertility support ministry, I’ve heard from women describing upsetting circumstances when someone at church made a comment implying that their infertility was caused by sin. This assumption adds to the shame those dealing with infertility already face, making them feel excluded from fellowship in the body of Christ.

One woman in an online support group describes her loneliness:

“I find church the hardest place to be at the moment. The lack of understanding has floored me. I can’t bear more hurt by other believers.”

In my experience, it seems most insensitive comments about infertility stem from ignorance about the subject. It’s hard to understand what you haven’t personally suffered.

As with other rarely discussed health issues, many people aren’t aware of the ramifications of infertility.

They don’t know that it’s a disease affecting one in eight couples. They haven’t felt the embarrassment of being the only couple in church without kids to send to Sunday school. They aren’t experiencing the month-to-month roller coaster of emotional and sometimes physical pain, only to be told by someone in Bible study the well-meaning but hurtful advice: “You just need to trust God and relax.”

Instead of perpetuating unwitting insensitivity, the church can seek better understanding about infertility to build one another up in unity of faith.

Bearing one another’s burdens

Armed with greater knowledge and empathy, those of us who lead or even just attend church can, by God’s grace, help carry the burdens of those who are suffering this type of disappointment. Working together, we can create an environment of compassion, rather than exclusion from the baby club.

Teaching

We know from Scripture that children are a blessing (Psalm 127:3-5), and are familiar with the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” though some miss the Old Covenant context within which God delivered this mandate and construe it as an assurance of reproductive ability. But how many churches have spent time expounding upon the many accounts of delayed fertility recorded in the Bible?

In miraculous displays backing up His declaration in Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”, God enables seven women whom the Bible describes as “barren” to conceive for His divine purposes: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings, and Elizabeth.

If you’re a pastor or other ministry leader, you can preach sermons and offer Bible studies examining these stories, not as a prescription for fertility success, but rather to demonstrate God’s attentiveness to His children who are longing for a blessing, corresponding to the gospel truth of our longing for a Savior.

Recognition

Mother’s Day is difficult to endure for women experiencing infertility and miscarriage. Having to stay seated while most every other woman in the congregation stands for applause or receives a rose shoots like a dagger to the heart of a woman who desires but hasn’t yet been given children.

While it’s appropriate for pastors and churches to honor moms on that Sunday, you can also acknowledge the sorrow this day stirs for those who’ve lost a baby or haven’t been able to conceive. Rather than making an ostentatious display showing the haves and have-nots, make it a point from the pulpit to commend all women who do important work “mothering” others in practical and spiritual ways and affirm the value of every believing woman as a daughter of Christ.

Apart from Mother’s Day, consider planning an annual service honoring the losses associated with miscarriage and infertility, such as the Service of Memorial and Lament priest and author Tish Warren offered at her church this January. Similarly, just as churches hold infant dedications or baptism services, provide prayer times for couples waiting for children, petitioning the Lord for healing, peace, and wisdom on behalf of those undergoing medical tests and treatments or who are pursuing adoption.

Focus adjustment

Churches have traditionally emphasized marriage and motherhood as worthy aspirations, and for good reasons. Yet somewhere along the way, the role of mother got propped up as the ultimate calling for all women, to the point that some women’s ministries are structured solely around mom life activities and events.

Though well-intended, this emphasis can become so overblown that it devalues women who don’t have the label of “mother,” and dismisses the vital role all women play in the church.

To better serve and utilize the giftings of women, those who are in church leadership can broaden its focus on the Kingdom callings of women to include motherhood AND other areas of service, such as administration, outreach, teaching, organization, communication, and many other facets that are all needed to keep a church alive and thriving as one body growing up in Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16).

Support

Infertility is a life crisis that entails a grieving process. To help people in the congregation as well as reach out to your community, you can host and/or help individuals start support groups, providing safe places for people to share their struggles and comfort one another with the comfort God supplies (2 Corinthians 1:4). If you offer a resource library, keep on hand books specifically written for those facing infertility, infant loss, and childlessness. Thanks to increasing awareness, we have more faith-based resources addressing these issues at our disposal today than we did 10 years ago, and we need more still.

God “remembers” couples experiencing infertility by keeping His promise to work for the good of all His children. Everyone in the church, from pastor to parishioner, can love those who are suffering in our midst by encouraging those who are aching for a child and pointing to Christ as our ultimate hope for a fulfilling life.

[Featured image: Ben White on Unsplash]

The one reminder we should set for life

remember to thank God phone reminder

It is a universally accepted fact that one of the primary jobs of a parent is to nag your kids ad nauseam about saying “please” and “thank you.” They demand a cookie; you reply sing-songingly “What’s the magic word?” They beg to open birthday gifts; you interject a rhythmic “Well, what do you say?” after each is torn into and tossed aside.

Given my constant chorus of sometimes gentle, more times exasperated reminders, it irks me that my boys still forget to utter these common courtesies on a daily basis. Why is it they can’t recall these simple phrases they learned and even signed with their cute, pudgy hands as infants?

The lack of thanks especially bothers me. How have they grown into such gimme gremlins who expect milk to be served on tap and my phone to be accessed anytime for whatever random, nonsensical questions they want to ask Siri? It’s not like we’ve raised them in a day spa equipped with silver spoons and bunk bedside service.

Amidst this aggravation, it hit me that my incredulity at my sons’ ingratitude should be tempered by the knowledge that a) they’re 6- and 4-years-old; b) all kids can act ill-mannered at times and are by nature whiners; c) I do my best to provide a wealth of love and meet their basic needs, so of course they’ve become accustomed to abundant care and can occasionally take it for granted; and, most strikingly, d) I’m much worse at giving thanks than they are.

This conviction recently latched onto me and pierced my heart down to its most prideful parts. A single, frank comment posed in response to a sarcastic statement I made on social media cut my tongue right through to the cheek: “You should count your blessings.”

Oof. That stings, and spins so many self-incriminating wheels turning: Am I truly ungrateful? Have I fallen into complacent indifference to this bountiful life God has given me? Do I frequently fail to praise Him for the grace upon grace He provides every day? Has my preoccupation with perceived shortfalls eclipsed my appreciation for tangible windfalls – my husband, my children, my friends, my home?

In deed and in word, I can be ungrateful at times, and far too often, my numerous blessings go uncounted. Even though my heart recognizes the need for and importance of giving thanks, my mind habitually forgets to express it, to my own detriment.

In her latest book, “The Broken Way,” Ann Voskamp conveys the risk we take maintaining this gaping mental lapse: “Whenever I forget, fear walks in … Forget to give thanks – and you forget who God is. Forget to break and give – and it’s your soul that gets broken.”

When we forget to thank God, we lose our grip on the reality of our relationship – the essence of our lives’ dependence on Him – a kind of fatal spiritual amnesia.

How could we be so dense as to blank out on these truths? Perhaps we can blame our biology.

Thankfulness should theoretically be stored in long-term memory, which is permanent but requires conscious thought and is subject to weakening over time. Forgetting from long-term memory can be explained through retrieval failure – as one professor of psychiatry and aging described in an article on tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (i.e., brain farts): “… if you don’t retrieve a memory often, it may be harder to remember. You know you have it somewhere, but you just haven’t used the information for a while. It gets a little a bit dusty.”

Lord knows how dusty-headed and absentminded His people can be, which could be why He repeats the concept of thanks more than 200 times throughout Scripture (according to KJV Hebrew and Greek concordances). In the Old Testament, “thank” appears most frequently as yahdah, which literally means to use the hand; to throw – think: hands extended in praise and confession. In the New Testament, it often shows up as eucharisteo, from the roots eu = good/well + charis = grace, as in Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In whatever we do, we must do whatever it takes to remember to thank God, to thank others, to live with hands outspread in thanksgiving for our redemption. Our Father has faithfully provided reminders throughout His Word to cue gratitude: through the aromas and rituals of thank offerings and Passover, through songs and hymns of praise, through the breaking of bread and pouring of wine in remembrance of the Cross.

As Voskamp intones, like a doxology, “the eucharisteo, then koinonia”: “Everything He embodied in the Last Supper – it is what would heal the body’s brokenness. Brokenness can be healed in re-membering. Remembering our union, our communion, our koinonia, with Christ.”

This is Truth worth committing to memory. It is a commitment, and because we’re human, requires reminders – whether that’s a note on the mirror, a notification on a phone, a song, a smell, a memento or alert of some kind – whatever signal or process that can help jog our memories of our undeserved grace and trigger the flow of our praise.

I’m still figuring out the best way to do this. Maybe I’ll recruit my boys to aid me in this effort and repay me for all the nagging I do to them. I can hear them now, chanting wholeheartedly: “Mom-my, you forgot to say thank-you.”

Nice reminder, kids. Irritating, but necessary, and vital for living life to the fullest.

Biblical smack talk with @JillianMichaels

It’s the type of thing you’d expect to snag at a church ladies’ swap – I mean, besides those near-threadbare yoga pants that you can totally still get some use out of and a coupla vintage glass jars that are just begging to be repurposed in some darling yet probably doomed Pinterest project.

The awesome find I scored at a recent moms’ group exchange was a Jillian Michaels kickboxing DVD. In it, the celebrity trainer blasts through three 20-minute cardio workouts while barking belligerent threats intended to scare the fat off of you.

More than helping me sculpt a mombod physique, this DVD has provided ongoing entertainment value watching my kids mimic the moves of Jillian’s fiercely fit crew, whom they identify by the color of each woman’s sports bra – “I’m following the orange girl!” – and hearing them repeat her violent phrases in situations outside of an exercise context – “Let’s break some ribs! Push this guy through the wall! Take his jaw off! Smack him down! Take him out!”

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Amidst all her hollerin’ to work harder, dig deeper, and thrust your hip out farther, Jillian issues a blunt proclamation that stirred spiritual implications in my mind: “You’re gonna get out of this what you put into it.”

What my girl Jillian is talking about here isn’t the length of time you spend working out; it’s the amount of effort you exert working out. Over and over again throughout the DVD, she reminds you that you’re only training for 20 minutes, so you better make it count and jab, chop, and whack as vigorously as you can.

Pep talks like this from the fitness/athletic field can be applied several different ways in a Christian living conversation: press on in the faith, run the race set before you, and so forth. What struck me about this particular motivational invective was the principle of return on investment and how that relates to our approach to the Bible.

Just as in cardio kickboxing, the level of examination and meditation I pour into God’s Word directly affects the amount of wisdom and edification I reap from God’s Word. Stated another way, per Jillian Michaels: You wanna play? You gotta pay.

This is logical from both a physically fit and fiscally sound perspective. Exerting little effort to study Scripture is likely to yield minimal results (learning/growth), while investing greater effort is more apt to yield better results (more comprehensive understanding of who God is and how we can be like Him).

Certainly, there are circumstances and seasons of life that can make it difficult if not impossible to engage in intense study (hello, newborn parenthood). But I think we sell ourselves short when we automatically assume we haven’t got the time or mental capacity to go deeper, and instead, settle for completely acceptable yet not terribly substantial contact with the Bible – like, say, spending a few minutes a day scrolling through elegantly scripted verse memes on Instagram.

Consider this admonition from Jen Wilkin in “Women of the Word”:

Learning what the Bible says and subsequently working to interpret and apply it requires quite a different practice than many of those we commonly associate with ‘spending time in the Word.’ We cannot afford to assume that our good intentions are enough.

I can just hear my grace-extolling crusader comrades now: “Alert! Alert! Legalism detected! Someone call for Philip Yancey while we lock her up in a room plastered with pages from the epistles!”

Friends, I’m not trying to be legalistic here. Of course we must be wary of implying some religious formula, as if x number of hours spent studying Scripture = x number of stars on our holiness charts. This has nothing to do with the basis of our salvation, or our position in Christ, or the ability of the Spirit to move in our lives through means besides direct engagement with the Bible.

Please hear me out in a spirit of love and mutual conviction when I say that pursuing knowledge of our Lord and Saviour should be our utmost of #lifegoals. To love God is to know God, and to know God is to study God.

#lifegoals quote

Thankfully, there are many good resources available to help us accomplish that: the previously mentioned “Women of the Word,” Kay Arthur’s “How To Study Your Bible,” and some great apps including IF: Equip, She Reads Truth, and First 5.

Psalms 119:2 says “Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek Him with all their heart” (NIV), or rephrased “Joyful are those who obey His laws and search for Him with all their hearts” (NLT).

I pose this question to myself, and to you: Are we dripping sweat to seek Jesus? Like, at all? Isn’t He worth the effort – any amount we can make?

I urge you, in my best Jillian butt-whupping voice, to sweat with me and dig deeper in God’s Word for the sake of knowing Him more.

joyful obey God's laws search with hearts Psalm 119 2