“When [Christ] suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23b).
The truth is that God does not promise in His Word to make everyone parents in this life, and that truth hurts.
I know, for I am barren. In my 20-plus years of marriage to Michael Schuermann, God in His wisdom has withheld the gift of children from us. Plainly put, I have never been pregnant to the best of our knowledge, and no mother, judge, or government to date has signed over to us the parental rights of any child.
This is a painful, chastening reality in our daily lives. It is a public reality, one that accompanies us into every room, every church, every baptism, every wedding, every funeral, every birthday party, every dinner party, and every bedtime prayer. We would despair, but for the fact that the truth which pains us is also that which comforts us.
Allow me to unpack this divine paradox.
The psalmist confesses, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord” (Psalm 127:3), and Job avows of his own deceased children, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). We learn from scripture that God is the giver of the gift of children. And while His act of withholding — even taking away! — the gift of children certainly chafes me, the beseeching, barren believer whose quiver remains empty, the revelation of His being the One who bestows the gift of children lifts the burden of creation from my shoulders. If heritages are of His making, then my own, childless family of two is also of His making.
Put another way, God has not given me control over the making of my own family, and so I am relieved of the responsibility of succeeding or failing at such an endeavor. It is a great comfort in my suffering, not to threaten God’s giving and not giving, but to entrust myself to Him “who judges justly,” to rest in God’s wise will for me, my husband, and everyone else. Though the world, the devil, and my sinful flesh tempt me to despair at what appears to be the failed work of my own womb, God invites me to rest in His assurance that, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
Assisted Reproductive Technology
I am not suggesting that seeking medical attention where there is infirmity in barrenness is “laboring in vain.” It is good, right, and salutary to seek healing medicine when ill to try to make the body whole. By definition, healing medicine is restorative.
One example of healing medicine in barrenness is surgically removing a blockage in a fallopian tube to make clear the path for fertilization between an egg and sperm, and for an embryo to move into the womb. Other examples of healing medicine are modifying exercise routines and diet to increase sperm motility and receiving progesterone shots to support the life and growth of a baby in utero.
However, not all assisted reproductive technology (ART) is healing medicine, as some procedures and medicines made available to the barren seek to transcend humanity, to elevate men and women from the role of creature to that of Creator. Rather than restoring the body to health, some ART corrupt, even usurp, God’s procreative design for husband and wife and attempt reproduction in ways that can harm our conscience, our spouse, and even the children we wish to bear.
When trying to discern if a doctor-recommended ART is harmful instead of healing, it can be helpful to run the procedure through the litmus test of God’s Ten Commandments.
For example, does the recommended medical procedure hurt or harm our neighbor, including the very embryonic children we wish to parent? If so, then utilizing such a procedure works against God’s command, “You shall not murder.” Does a recommended medical practice separate what God has joined together in marriage, requiring a husband or a wife to act apart from their one-flesh union to produce gametes for fertilization or even to gestate a child? Then doing so goes against God’s command, “You shall not commit adultery.”
When we approach ART with God’s commands in mind and consider what is best for our neighbor rather than just what is best for ourselves, we quickly see that manufacturing children in a petri dish and cryopreserving them in liquid nitrogen is risking their lives for the purpose of fulfilling our own desires. We disrespect, even mistreat, these children when we grade them by appearance for their viability, and we murder them when we discard them for a perceived flaw or selectively end their lives in a multiple pregnancy to protect the vitality of a perceived stronger brother or sister in the womb.
Long have I realized that, as a barren woman, one of the most loving things I can do for the children I beg of God is to suffer the absence of them rather than manufacture them into existence to be used, abused, and killed.
It is when I meditate on God’s First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” that my greatest temptation in barrenness is clarified: making an idol of the gift of children. I believe that we are wise to be wary of any ART that promises reproduction apart from God’s good, ordered design of procreation and tempts us to put our trust in a doctor or in a medical procedure rather than in the Lord of all creation. It is dangerous for any of us to demand a gift from God rather than to receive one, lest we defy our creatureliness and bind our hearts to things temporal rather than to things eternal.
Thankfully, we do not live life alone in the church, even in barrenness. Pastors, deaconesses, and faithful friends are eager to pray with us and for us, and they delight in listening to our concerns and applying God’s Word to our questions and fears regarding family life. In my own church body, organizations such as Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Life Ministries exist to provide helpful resources to assist us in navigating the ethical implications of utilizing various ART.
Infertility Has a Purpose in the Church
It often appears as if the church’s single goal when confronted with barrenness is to make it obsolete through the production — even adoption — of children, no matter what God’s hidden will for any one family may be. But if God proclaims Himself to be the giver of the gift of children, then is it not up to Him to determine every family’s size, even purpose?
For example, barren marriages give ongoing testimony to adults and children alike regarding the true source of life. Matthew Lee Anderson explains it this way in his article “Why the Church Needs the Infertile Couple” in Christianity Today:
One aspect of the vocation of the infertile is that the frustrated willingness to bear children reminds the church that our children are gifts from Providence. The glad assumption of sorrow and laments — a paradoxical, but necessary form of life — by those who are barren testifies within the church (and beyond) that the power to make new life comes from God and not from ourselves. Children are not made; they are given. … The emergence of new human life is a miracle, as the infertile well know.
Similarly, while my own marriage is barren, it is not fruitless. How can it be, when I am daily called upon by friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, and church workers to assist in the life-giving work of parenting their children? This is mothering, but of a different kind. As Anderson continues:
Maternal and paternal love are not given only to mothers and fathers, biological or otherwise. They are the mature form of married love, and thus are available to any couple, fertile or not. The glory of the union of man and woman can be given to others through non-biological, non-procreative means.
As a woman in the church, I am called and blessed to participate in the upbringing of the young. Every time I stand and say “amen” at a baptism, I am promising to help raise the baptized in the one, true faith. Whether teaching Sunday school, directing the youth choir, listening to a godchild recite memory work, or helping form the pious habits of children sitting next to me in the pew, I am acting within my station of spiritual mother in the church.
The Apostle Paul affirms this vocation of spiritual parenting by calling Timothy his “true child in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2). My husband and I, also, can attest to the abundant work of serving as spiritual parents in the church — our arms, dinner table, front porch, vehicles, pews, couches, back patio, guest bedroom, and even nursery are regularly filled with nieces, nephews, godchildren, students, church youth, choir members, elders, sojourners, neighbors, and various other people given to us by God to serve, love, and, yes, even parent.
I must confess, one of the particular blessings of being given children in the faith as opposed to children from my womb is that these precious people come to us unsolicited and from varied walks of life, and their unique needs appear to be divinely paired with our own unique gifts and talents. Daily, we witness God keeping His promise to prepare good works for us to do (Ephesians 2:10), and He brings delight to our hearts as we encounter works so different from what we ever expected.
But let me be clear. Barrenness is painful, and it always will be. The discipline of the Lord remains in our lives as the sun sets and rises on our family of two. But in learning to be content with what God has not given us, we are now in a position to be overjoyed by what He does give us.
And being mindful of God, we cling to the promise that to endure sorrow while suffering loss “is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:19-21). This is no small comfort.