Doug and Susan Felch
Among all the moral and social issues that surround reproduction, the one that probably gets the least attention in our culture, and especially in the church, is infertility. This is true even though the problem is remarkably widespread. According to the Mayo Clinic, 10–15 percent of married couples are infertile. This is a sizable minority, and it provides both the opportunity for ministry and the need for sensitivity within the church of Jesus Christ.
For many, the inability to have children is a deeply painful, unspoken, and hidden sorrow. It may only occasionally rise to the surface, but it is a sorrow that carries with it persistent hurt and sadness.
We ourselves are childless and have had the opportunity through the years to speak with couples, and especially with women, who struggle with infertility. These thoughtful, sincere Christians deeply long to have children of their own and to fulfill the stewardship of being parents. Their sense of emptiness, grief, and failure at not being able to conceive or to carry a pregnancy to term can be both excruciating and debilitating.
We know this is so because they have told us, and we have shared their sorrow. However, many churches, and even close Christian friends, may be unaware of these struggles and may be particularly insensitive to women who have experienced a persistent, unmet longing for motherhood. Our purpose in writing this article is to offer some counsel both to those who are suffering from infertility and to the church community at large.
To the couples who are infertile: don’t deny that this is a hard providence. Face up to this disappointment head-on and acknowledge it before the Lord and others. However, realize that you are not without options. In response to infertility, many couples seek medical treatment or pursue adoption. Both of these are appropriate options and should be seriously considered. Although having children is not the only reason God instituted marriage, it is one of the blessings that he promises, so to be denied this blessing is a real disappointment. It is completely appropriate for infertile couples to feel that “something is wrong” and to want to do something to address the problem.
This is, in fact, what God calls us to do in the world. As his image bearers, we recognize the good gifts that God has given, we experience and name the pain of fallenness in many areas of life—including infertility—and we look for ways, through God’s grace, to right those wrongs. As Christians, we understand that we are not the victims of circumstances, but are called, as we love God and neighbor, to make difficult situations better and to address deep and legitimate longings.
Since both medical treatments and the adoption process are often stressful, time consuming, and expensive, it is important that Christian couples who pursue either of these options have the counsel of their pastors and elders and the support of their church community. There are ethical issues to be sorted out, particularly with certain types of fertility treatments; there are practical concerns that arise as treatments or the adoption process gets under way; there are many emotional ups and downs when the medical treatments are unsuccessful or the adoption process falters. In each of these areas, couples should expect that their church community will surround them with warm, thoughtful counsel and love. Families, pastors, elders, and deacons may also need to consider what financial resources the church can provide to help either with medical treatments or with adoption.
When we became aware, fairly early in our married life, that we were not simply “pre-children,” but were being unsuccessful in conceiving, we began to talk seriously with our doctors. The first few rounds of medical tests were inconclusive, and we were then faced with a decision: should we commit ourselves to investing considerable time, expense, and emotional energy in a quest to become pregnant? At the time, we were living in North Carolina as essentially self-supporting home missionaries, we had minimal insurance, and we were deeply involved in a new church plant and a local Christian school. We were also told that we would not be seriously considered as potential adoptive parents until we had pursued at least some additional fertility tests and treatment.
After a great deal of thought and prayer, we decided on a third option: to welcome any children that the Lord might give us and simultaneously to commit ourselves, in an intentional way, to investing in other people’s children rather than in medical treatments or adoption. This has meant being actively involved in the lives of young people, both in pastoral ministry and now as professors at two different Christian colleges. It has involved becoming informal mentors to young people at church or school and especially reaching out to international students. This was then, and it has remained, a satisfactory solution for us.
But it may not be a satisfactory solution for everyone. That is why we began this article by talking about medical treatment and adoption. In God’s good providence, infertility may be the means by which orphaned children are brought into loving homes. Or it may the means by which couples learn, through the strenuous course of waiting to conceive, to be patient and to rely fully on God. Whatever “solution” infertile couples pursue, however, there are both promises to claim and temptations to avoid.
Perhaps the biggest temptation is to consider infertility a tragedy that has somehow escaped God’s notice. But 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us that our difficult circumstances are not unique. They are common; others have faced similar troubles and persevered. But better than that, God promises that he will not permit us to be tempted beyond our strength. This means that our circumstances are tailor-made, that the providential circumstances in our lives are not accidental, that all things ultimately work together for good.
We can’t always see that ultimate end, but right here and now, as we allow God to comfort us in the middle of our sadness, we find that he brings to us others who also need to be comforted. Paul begins his second letter to the Corinthians with these words: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” The ministry of comfort is one that we can best extend only after we ourselves have suffered and found comfort in God. Infertile couples know a particular kind of sadness; they are then gifted to comfort others who find themselves in similar circumstances.
Another temptation is to think that infertility is the hardest child-related trial to bear, particularly if your church community is full of families with lots of small children. But a moment’s consideration will open your eyes to other adults who may also find it hard at times to sit in a sea of happy families: single people who long to be married, those who are divorced or widowed, parents whose children have renounced the faith or have simply drifted away from the gospel—not to mention the weary mother who has averaged four hours of sleep a night for the last two weeks. Recognizing our own sadness, loneliness, and need for comfort can make us more attentive to those around us who also need encouragement.
A third temptation is to permit the desire for a child to become idolatrous. Children are a blessing from the Lord; they are part of the “good” of this world, of creation. But they are not the ultimate good. Having a child will not fulfill your deepest longings. Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, Augustine said many years ago. And human hearts have not changed in the subsequent centuries. When any of the good things that God has made assume an ultimate status in our lives, they become idols. This is a temptation we must avoid. Please do not misunderstand. We raise this issue with great tenderness. It is not wrong to deeply desire to have a child, to pray for a child, and to take earnest steps to conceive or adopt a child. But we must never let our desires become a demand that God answer our prayers according to our own plans and desires. To move from desire to demand will only increase the sorrow of infertility, rather than relieve it.
A fourth temptation is to covet other people’s good providence in this area. It may be hard at times to feel happy when you hear of yet another friend who has become pregnant. But the command not to covet is, positively, the command to love. God gives us the grace to love him enough to be content with our circumstances and to love our neighbors enough not to covet their good providence, but instead to rejoice in it.
Infertility, however, does not just bring temptations; it also brings opportunities and joys. Whether you decide to commit yourself permanently to other people’s children or whether you are temporarily infertile as you wait to conceive, adopt, or even marry, you can use your childless state for God’s glory and the good of his people. God’s promise that he will make the barren woman to be a joyful mother of children (Ps. 113:9) is not just a nice rhetorical statement. Rather, it has a number of concrete applications.
Consider the opportunities of being childless. We’ve already mentioned that you are now in a position to comfort those who are experiencing sorrows of their own. There are others. You may have resources to invest in time-consuming or even difficult ministries, without worrying that such ministries may jeopardize your own children. You can travel to, or live in, countries where Christians are persecuted; you can be the nonparental presence in the lives of restless teenagers; you can spend hours preparing lessons and teaching classes in your local church; you can open your home to troubled people; you can provide adult conversation for the harried mothers of toddlers. For many years, for instance, Susan taught a graduate-level Bible study for young mothers, complete with free childcare; it was her contribution to the task of good parenting. The point is that we have love to give, and we ought to give it. This is true, not only for those who are unable to have children, but also for those who find themselves single or alone against their will.
Infertility also provides an opportunity for mothers and fathers in the church to become more sensitive to those who are not parents. Church members who are around those who are childless might share their children with them (although this is not meant to manipulate them, even gently, into providing free babysitting!). Just as married families with children ought to be hospitable to those who are single, so they should also take steps to include childless couples in their family outings.
There are other ways to be sensitive. Baby showers can sometimes be difficult events for an infertile woman, since the conversation often focuses on the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Making an effort to introduce other topics of conversation, understanding when someone chooses not to attend a shower, or even acknowledging their awkwardness with a smile or a hug are simple ways to show love. Pastors can be careful to include applications in their sermons that are not predicated on family life or simply to acknowledge from the pulpit the blessing of having congregants from all walks of life. Fellowship committees can make sure that not every event is family- or couple-oriented. Invitations to dinner should regularly include singles, couples without children, the widowed, and the divorced.
If these suggestions sound a bit mundane, that is okay. Infertility is not a crisis event that one deals with and then “gets over.” Rather, it is one of the persistent sadnesses and disappointments that we face in this life, but which we learn to bear, and indeed to rejoice in, as we live day by day in the company of God’s people. It is in this daily exercise of love for one another that we grow in grace and that we learn together that we are all, indeed, barren mothers whom only God can make to be the joyful mothers of children.
Doug Felch, an OP minister, is a professor at Kuyper College; Susan, his wife, is a professor at Calvin College. They quote the NIV. New Horizons, March 2013.