Every newly married couple looks forward to the joy of becoming parents. Their desire is in perfect harmony with God's plan from the beginning of creation when He said to Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful, and multiply" (Gen 1.28).
As time passes without the wife conceiving, many couples will eventually seek medical help. Usually the husband and wife visit a specialist doctor, and, following the consultation, a number of investigations are arranged. These can be stressful for both partners, as those of us who specialised in this particular field of medicine are well aware. Sometimes, but not always, a specific problem is identified which can be treated. Anxieties remain, especially if treatment measures do not result in conception and childbirth.
A couple may have to begin accepting that they might be childless: they often feel as if their hopes have been shattered. Adjusting to the reality of not having a family of their own takes a long time and much grace. Thankfully, Christian couples can go on to prove that, even without children, their lives can be fulfilling and their marriage can be a great blessing to others.
A Biblical Perspective
For our help and encouragement, there are passages of Scripture relevant to this matter. From these we can extract key principles. Of the women mentioned below, only one remained childless until the day of her death.
Sarah was the elderly and childless wife of an even older husband. God had made a covenant with Abraham concerning his family and descendants: they would become a great nation (Gen 12.2) and be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen 13.16), the stars in the sky, and the sand upon the shore (Gen 22.17). Only a miracle could bring such a promise to pass, but that is exactly what happened when Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac. As we know, the test of Abraham's faith became even greater when God told him to offer up his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice upon Mount Moriah. On that memorable day, Abraham showed that he was prepared to trust God, whatever the outcome. His willing obedience brought much honour to God (Gen 22.12).
Rebekah (Gen 25.21). This woman had a praying husband, Isaac, who entreated the Lord for his wife. The Lord heard his prayers and Rebekah conceived and bore twins. Subsequently their collective family life was marred by favouritism on the part of the parents and strife between the offspring. Deception also figured in their dealings with one another. This story holds many cautionary lessons for parents today.
Rachel (Gen 29.31; 30.22). The animosity between the fertile Leah and the barren Rachel is almost palpable. Their complex relationship in a polygamous union with Jacob makes painful reading, but it is said of Leah that "the Lord…opened her womb" (29.31), and of Rachel that God also remembered her so that eventually she was able to conceive. God was good to both of these women; however, having children did not bring Leah the love and affection she craved. As for Rachel, being able to conceive brought her life to a premature end when she died giving birth to Benjamin, her second son. These stories from the first book in the Bible remind us that family life often comes with its own disappointments and sorrows.
Manoah's wife (Judg 13.2). It seems strange that we do not know her name, but Manoah's wife was well known to God. She had a personal visit from the angel of the Lord who revealed to her that she would bear a son who was to be a Nazarite, separated unto God for the duration of his whole life. Her son, Samson, turned out to be physically strong but temperamentally wilful and wayward. His biggest victory against the Philistines was on the day of his death.
Hannah (1 Sam 1.5-6). Her story is a fine example of the power of a praying wife. We read that "the Lord had shut up her womb". Why was this? It was not because of any personal failure on her part, but so that ultimately God would manifest His goodness and mercy to her, and fulfil His plan for the nation through her son, Samuel.
In answer to Hannah's fervent prayers, "the Lord remembered her" and granted her heart's desire. She honoured her solemn vow of giving the young boy back to the Lord. Throughout her period of barrenness she had been cruelly taunted by her rival, just as Rachel was, but she harboured no lingering ill feeling - her focus was upon the Lord whom she praised and exalted with a heart overflowing in thankfulness.
Michal (2 Sam 6.23). This brave woman, one of King Saul's daughters, was initially given to David and she helped to save his life from assassins sent by a jealous Saul. She was then married to Phalti for a time, before being restored to David (1 Sam 25.44; 2 Sam 3.15). Unfortunately, she made a serious mistake when one day she publicly berated her husband for his display of joyful exuberance as the ark was being returned to Jerusalem. David felt belittled and misunderstood, and as a result he had no further marital relations with his wife: "Therefore Michal…had no child unto the day of her death". This surely is one of the saddest cases of barrenness, being the result of a total breakdown in marital love and intimacy.
Elisabeth (Lk 1.7). Like Sarah, Elisabeth was well beyond childbearing age. We are left in no doubt that she and her husband, Zacharias, were a godly couple. The angel, Gabriel, announced that Elisabeth would bear a son. Zacharias wanted further confirmation of this divine revelation, but Gabriel told him that because of his unbelief he would be stricken with dumbness until the day the child would be born. When that day dawned the proud parents called their infant son John; we know him better as John the Baptist, the faithful forerunner and witness to the Messiah.
How might we sum up these Bible lessons? The main points are these:
1. God is all-powerful and can intervene according to His will.
2. Prayer honours Him and He always hears the sincere pleas of His people.
3. Raising children is a heavy responsibility and presents many challenges.
That is not to say that God will always grant us what we desire. Sometimes, for reasons that we may not yet understand, His answer to our prayers and requests is "No". The same principle also applies to our prayers for many other situations in life, such as interceding for individuals to be saved or others to be cured of serious illness. There remains a mystery to "unanswered" prayers that we shall only comprehend fully in heaven.
Those couples who remain childless eventually have to adapt to this reality, but their lives can develop fully in other directions as suggested above. There remains open to them the path to spiritual fruitfulness which is perhaps the greatest challenge of all.
Practical advice for the childless couple
Difficulties of this nature are a severe test of faith and confidence in God. As a priority, the husband and wife should be encouraged to bring the matter often before the Lord, and to keep unburdening their hearts before Him. He will understand the feelings of disappointment, frustration or even anger. It is best to be frank and open with God, and not pretend.
Second, as regards the married relationship, the husband and wife must avoid blaming one another and causing further emotional pain. In the Scriptures most cases of barrenness are defined as being a female problem but, according to our present state of medical knowledge, the male component is also important and can be a significant factor in the failure to have children. (This is anticipated in Deuteronomy 7.14, where male barrenness is alluded to.) Childlessness is a joint problem – not "his fault" or "her fault".
Third, one should never give up hope. Medical science is incomplete and, despite a pessimistic diagnosis, some couples have gone on to surprise everyone by becoming parents, even after many years, when the initial tensions and anxieties have long since faded.
Another thing that will help the couple remain balanced is for them to develop and maintain an interest in other children. With God's help, some have become wonderful honorary "aunts and uncles" to many little ones, showering them with love and care.
To be continued.