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]

writing heart vulnerability God sees love

On writing, sharing your heart, and feeling it bleed out

There’s a story I’ve etched in my mind’s eye for its vivid illustration of regeneration.

In “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the third book in the classic children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, a whiny and entitled British boy named Eustace lands himself in a dreadful plight when he steals treasure from a dragon’s lair and then turns into a dragon himself.

After several days of feeling miserable trapped inside a monster’s body, Eustace is saved by the lion Aslan, who takes him to a well to be bathed. Aslan instructs the dragon-boy to “undress” first, and though Eustace attempts to scratch off layer after layer of scales, he cannot break through to the smooth surface of bare skin. Then Aslan tells Eustace he must let him do the undressing, and the child, desperate to return to his own body, agrees. The lion does so, claws ripping away the entire beastly mantle, throws Eustace in the water, and dresses him in new human clothes.

The restored Eustace later describes the process to his cousin:

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

CS Lewis Narnia Dawn Treader Eustace dragon

Many interpret this story as a metaphor for salvation. We are dragons imprisoned in bodies of death due to our hardened sins, which we cannot remove on our own. Only God can strip away the husk of our wicked nature, wash us clean through the blood of Jesus, and clothe us in His righteousness. This process necessarily inflicts pain on the creature being transformed, as tearing off an essential part of self would naturally do, and comes at a steep cost to the One who does the tearing: the death of His Son, who in Scripture is referred to as both a Lion and a Lamb.

It’s a striking portrait, isn’t it? Eustace’s “come to Aslan” story bears such fantastical imagery that since reading this book as a child, I’ve held it dear as an emblem of what it means to become a new creation in Christ, demonstrating both the agony and the joy of rebirth.

Labor pains

Recently, I’ve discovered another life process to which this parable can be applied.

This is what writing is like for me. When I write how I feel about someone or something, it’s like peeling off skin. Whether it’s really me doing the peeling, or more accurately God rubbing a pumice stone to slough off my flesh, I cannot necessarily say. I just know that it hurts.

I also know that it’s good. Writing helps me process my emotions, to harness the swirling waves of doubt, sadness, grief, and longing, and funnel them into something sensible. Then, I can sort through the rubbish of sin and shame and lies, and pinpoint the Truth that anchors my soul.

It also helps others, or so I seriously hope. Although as a kid I got hooked on reading and composing great works of historical romantic fiction, what really got the ink flowing through my veins was when I began blogging about my infertility issues to encourage others who were aching like me. And nearly all my posts then and now have carried that same intent: reveal the struggle, comfort the heartbroken, exalt the Lord.

Other writers feel this way, I suspect, as well as anyone who lets down their defenses and puts their true selves out there for some greater cause. Those who take up the dare of vulnerability know it’s worth the burn of ripping away your public veneer if it ultimately facilitates healing, for yourself or others. It leaves you tender, sore, unguarded against attack, but it also saves you, changes your thinking, creates new life – like how the Creator breathed the world into life through the words, “Let there be …”

As Brene Brown says in her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead”:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

vulnerability purpose quote brene brown

Disappointment and true worth

I explain all this so others can understand that when someone uncovers a bare facet of her heart – like when a writer reluctantly pushes “publish” on a gut-spilling post – it feels like both heaving a weight off her chest and deliberately stepping into a nightmare, where she’s standing in front of a classroom, buck naked.

And, when she receives little to no response to her disclosure, left there hanging in the harsh limelight of full exposure, she feels embarrassed. Ashamed. Loathing her decision. Doubting her purpose.

It doesn’t make sense. Why would people not react to something that’s so visceral to you? Do they not care? Should they not care?

As I’ve spent the past several months “putting myself out there” to build a platform for my writing, I’ve experienced a little of this raw and lonely discomfort when I haven’t received the level of reaction I was anticipating. Being vulnerable on social media and not receiving much social support isn’t all that likable.

While valid points can be made about how I shouldn’t care so much about what people think, and should probably spend less time on social media, anyway, that doesn’t negate the genuine pain of feeling let down – a feeling that everyone experiences at some point. And those who unveil deeper layers of their public masks have harder to fall in their disappointment.

Just as I’ve done in the past, writing on subjects like infertility and the challenges of motherhood, I’m writing about this type of discouragement to get it out in the open so that others know they are not alone in suffering the biting chill of unrequited vulnerability.

When you share a private struggle in an attempt to uplift someone else, and that person fails to reciprocate at the same depth of disclosure, you are still heard.

When you passionately step out and take action to advance justice or expand empathy, and few others seem at all interested in that mission, you are still seen.

When you labor over growing a ministry to serve God and love your neighbors, and it reaps a meager harvest, or no visible fruit whatsoever, you are still valued.

We are still heard and seen and valued because we are cherished by a God who measures our worth according to His love for us, not by how others regard us.

Limited and loved

As I’ve been tending to wounds of unmet expectations, it seems no strange coincidence that the next book on my reading list would be one emphasizing how we should embrace our limits as a means of glorifying our limitless God.

In “None Like Him,” author Jen Wilkin highlights traits that are true only of God, and describes how we can better bear His image by acknowledging our human inadequacies.

“Our limits teach us the fear of the Lord. They are reminders that keep us from falsely believing that we can be like God. When I reach the limit of my strength, I worship the One whose strength never flags. When I reach the limit of my reason, I worship the One whose reason is beyond searching out.”

limits fear Lord quote jen wilkin

Through my writing, I cannot always successfully reach a sizable audience or elicit a preconceived level of emotional reaction, but God doesn’t have this problem. His Word goes forth and does not return empty (Isaiah 55:11). He Himself will fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory (Habakkuk 2:14). If no one would speak about Him in worship, the stones would cry out in praise (Luke 19:40).

We are limited in how much good we can accomplish through our disclosure. We cannot control how people will respond to our vulnerability. We do not have the power to save souls, no matter how greatly our hearts are invested in that purpose.

And that’s OK. We don’t have to be God. We don’t need others to constantly validate our feelings because Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses. Rather than being ashamed of our naked state, we can approach the throne of grace with confidence, knowing we’re never hidden from His sight. His Word is living and active, and will pierce the hearts He intends to indwell (Hebrews 4:12-17).

He sees me. And He sees you. He loves us all enough to continually strip away our callused scales of sin to ultimately dress us in robes of His holiness.

God’s words will never fail even if mine go completely unnoticed. Knowing this truth, I will continue to write and peel off my skin, risking the sting of feeling ignored. This process hurts. And it also feels a bit like glory.

[Cover photo courtesy freestocks.org on Unsplash]

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