When God Doesn’t Give Children – 1

A quick Google search will tell you that more than 1 in 10 couples of child-bearing age will experience fertility problems. Some of these, with or without medical intervention, will receive children. Some will not.

You need to trust these statistics because many infertile couples struggle in silence. The reality is that in our churches there are people sitting in the pews who are struggling with the pain of infertility. In a church culture where marriage and children are expectations, most people fit in with that culture, and those who don’t – well, many of us do not know how to deal with that. Most of us don’t know if we should raise the subject, or what to say if we do. For those who do not receive children, suffering then comes with the added burden of silence and shame. For those who have not experienced infertility, I want to give some idea of what it is like.

Wanting to have children is a good desire. We know children are a great blessing. The Bible teaches that children are gifts from God. Births and baptisms are celebrated. But for those who long for children, and to whom God does not give children, dreams are dashed, hope is constantly deferred. It’s not for nothing that Proverbs tells us: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”. Infertility is a brutal cycle that steps on hands gripping hope, a never-ending cycle of hope and disappointment. It goes something like this: [1]

Hope

Disappointment

Hope

False Alarm

Hope

Discouragement

Hope

Frustration

Hope

Despair

Those who expected children instead fell into an unexpected life of pain: suffering, unrelieved hope, envy, anger, resentment, isolation, loneliness, grief.

What Makes Infertility So Painful

1.  Women were created to bear children and each month again there is a constant reminder of that. The Bible calls a childless woman ‘barren,’ an ugly word. Barren is a word used to describe a desert – dry, devoid of any life, a place of despair. You do not want to go there. A woman who desires children, and who lives with infertility, experiences this desert.

2.  We live in a church culture that is built on families. The couple without children feels left behind by the constant stream of pregnancy and birth announcements in the church. Seeing young families receive yet another child reminds infertile couples of their infertility with painful regularity and can leave them feeling isolated and alone, out of step with everyone else their age,[2] and struggling with discontentment and envy.

3.  Infertility is a long walk of unresolved sorrow. Even for those who receive one or two children, there are years of hoping, wondering and longing. Instead of dealing with the grief and moving forward, the grief can grow and intensify over the years. Infertility remains something that is fresh and very painful. Unresolved grief can lead to anger, discouragement and depression.

 4.  It is not easy to talk about infertility. We are talking here about something so bound up with issues of intimacy and sex that people are reluctant to bring up the subject. In addition, infertile couples can often wish to seek medical treatment of some kind and to avoid the possibility of being judged, or to avoid the possibility of embarrassing questions, may prefer not to share this information. Infertility becomes isolating.

5.  The grief of infertility is not like other griefs. What do you grieve when you have not actually lost anything? It is a grief that is unaccepted, unobvious, silent, a grief that feels wrong to mourn, because the loss isn’t clear or understood. Yet the grief is real. Hannah, Rachel and others in the Bible testify to the heartache and anguish that is felt. But the grief is misunderstood, minimised, or even dismissed. Then the life of the infertile couple is filled with times of agonising internal tears covered by a smiling face, as pain is hidden from those who don’t seem to care or understand.

6.  It is easier to celebrate joys than walk with someone in sorrow. People will congratulate parents with the birth of a child, but ignore the one watching from the sidelines who is grieving childlessness. That causes pain and isolation.

7.  Friends and loved ones do not understand the pain of infertility, and can often seem thoughtless, not realising that things they say cause more pain. Thoughtless comments or platitudes are deeply hurtful and indicate to the infertile couple that their pain is not noticed.

8.  Infertility often involves invasive medical tests and procedures that can put strain on the marital relationship. The beautiful gift of intimacy between husband and wife becomes focused on timing, and can be reduced to a chore to be produced on demand. A wife may wonder if her husband wishes he married someone who could give him children. A husband may wonder if his wife is disappointed with him. Husbands feel the call to support their wives, but are silently grieving their own pain.

9.  Where is God in all of this? Perhaps this is the greatest challenge in infertility, the questions and doubts that arise about God’s goodness and his love, leading to spiritual struggles.

10.  Closely connected to this spiritual struggle is the shame of not wanting to make children the focus of life, yet having the mind dominated by it. Knowing and believing that God is in control, yet having medical tests and tracking cycles to optimise the chances of conceiving.  Knowing that children are a blessing, but not an idol. Trying to work out how to live with active trust in God while doing all that is possible to have children. 

This is a bleak picture of infertility, but there is no way to ignore how painful it is. Infertility is so much more than childlessness. It affects nearly every aspect of someone’s life, from health, marriage and self-image to finances, view of the future and relationship with God.[3]

But this trial, like many others that we face, is an opportunity for all of us to demonstrate the love of God to those who suffer, to live out our calling to show comfort and compassion to those who mourn. 

How Can You Help?

I want to include some general points for those wishing to support those who struggle with infertility. Remember that everyone is unique, experiencing various emotions, responding in different ways. And so I emphasise the importance of not making assumptions, but asking questions in a spirit of love and gentleness.

1.  Infertility or childlessness is isolating and ignoring the issue makes things worse. Reach out to your loved one. Be willing to sit through confronting silences, stilted conversations, the weeping of a heart that is suffering. Do not feel you need to give all the right answers or provide solutions. Often there are no answers or solutions. God calls us to walk alongside each other in the valley of darkness. He does not expect us to fix things. Even God does not come to us to fix our problems. He comes to us and gives us Himself.

3.  Often we are afraid to enter into a difficult conversation because we think we will not know what to say. Don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from reaching out. Before a conversation, pray to God for an understanding, sympathetic heart. Remember that it is far more hurtful to a suffering person if you ignore their pain than to say the wrong thing with a loving heart. Listen without feeling the burden to give advice.

3.  Be aware that certain events and situations (such as baptisms, baby showers, child’s birthday parties) can be difficult. Gently ask how someone is feeling and give them the opportunity to have their pain acknowledged. Ask, rather than assume. Continue to invite them to special events and be understanding if they choose to stay away. Don’t leave them out in an effort to spare their feelings.

4.  If someone does you the honour of being open and honest about struggles, please don’t judge or condemn. Listen. Ask questions. Listen. Ask more questions. For some people, it is an enormous step to open up. Asking questions will help them to keep sharing. It shows you really care about how they feel.

5.  Don’t take offence if the person does not want to share. That does not mean you can’t try again another time. Don’t underestimate the gift of what you do when you care enough to ask the question. You may think it went nowhere, but that person will remember you cared enough to ask.

6.  Do not give examples of other couples who struggled and then received children. Or those who adopted, and then miraculously became pregnant. Just because it happened to others does not mean it will happen to them. It is more likely to compound sorrow when hearing this.

7.  Remember the male partner in all this. They suffer in different ways, and in unique ways.  Often they struggle with both the burden of infertility, and the need to support their wife as well, leaving them less room to grieve themselves.

8. Remember the person or the couple who has experienced infertility for many years and continue to reach out to them. Infertility is an ongoing struggle, one that can gradually wear away a person’s confidence and hope.

9.  Ask if you can pray for them, and how they would like you to pray for them. They may not ask for prayer that God grants a child. They may ask you to pray for wisdom in making decisions, or for strength to accept God’s will or that they can experience God’s peace.

No matter how compassionate or caring you may be, you will never fully understand what it is like to experience infertility unless you have experienced it yourself.[4]  But that’s ok. You are not expected to know exactly what someone is thinking or feeling. People struggling to conceive just want you to love and care for them.

The most difficult questions in fertility struggles are not about medical issues. At the core, often what is most difficult are the questions about who we are, who God is and what our relationship with Him is based on. Physical and mental suffering and unfulfilled desires test our fundamental beliefs about God. In part 2, I would like to address the spiritual challenges of a child of God experiencing infertility.

Christine Schoof

FRC Albany


[1] Natepyle.com, The disgrace of infertility, January 2014

[2] Jeff Cavanaugh, How the church makes the trial of infertility better (or worse), December 2013

[3] Lois Flowers, Infertility, finding God’s peace in the journey, Harvest House, 2003

[4] Lois Flowers, Infertility, finding God’s peace in the journey, Harvest House, 2003

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