Despite changing attitudes in the Western world toward children and childbearing and childrearing, my experience has been that barrenness is still, for those who suffer from it, a source of deep disappointment and heartache. That book of ancient wisdom, the Book of Proverbs of the Old Testament, includes the barren womb among those things never satisfied:
“The leech has two daughters.
‘Give! Give!’ they cry.
“There are three things that are never satisfied,
four that never say, ‘Enough!’:
the grave, the barren womb,
land, which is never satisfied with water,
and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’ (Prov. 30:15-16).
Here, strikingly, barrenness is numbered alongside that other primordial affliction upon humanity: the grave, death itself. Because of this, it is perhaps not surprising that barrenness serves as an important symbol and theme in the Bible. In fact, in a number of the stories in the Old and New Testaments barrenness is as a key feature of the development of the plot, and, more importantly, a key obstacle to be overcome by the grace and power of God. So we read that all three of the wives of the patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were barren for a season (11:30; 25:21; 29:31). We read that Hannah, the mother of Samuel, the last great Judge of Israel, was barren (1 Sam. 1:1-20). And we read that righteous Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the herald of the Lord Jesus himself, was barren (Luke 1:7).
However, I believe there is something particularly bitter about barrenness, which is why barrenness and bitterness often go hand-in-hand in the heart of those afflicted and affected. There is, understandably, of course, something deeply vexing about wanting to bring forth life, and yet not being able to do so. This is because there is nothing closer to the core of our common humanity than the impulse to bring forth life. Fertility, or, to use the biblical idiom, “fruitfulness,” is one of the reasons why we were created in the first place: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” God said to Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 1:28). Hence, I believe, the deep bitterness of barrenness, because the barren woman is not able to do, in a very real sense, one of the very things she was created to do.
Yet while the bitterness of barrenness is understandable, it can also be toxic. In fact, bitterness is often poisonous. It is corrosive. It is debilitating and distracting. Indeed, bitterness about this one thing, barrenness, has the ability to sour everything, the whole of life. Ironically, as in the case of the bitterness of barrenness, it can in the end be life-taking, not life-giving. What, then, should I do if I am wrestling with the bitterness of barrenness?
- First of all, don’t be bashful about bringing your bitterness before the Lord. God is big, and big enough to handle your bitterness. He might not be pleased with how bitterness has worked its way into your heart – bitterness is, after all, a sign of unbelief – but He is certainly big enough to hear what’s on your heart: your disappointments, your frustrations, your anger, your heartache. Don’t hesitate to express this to Him. If you have a lament or grievance, set it down in front of the Lord. Stop carrying it on your back. There are myriads of examples throughout the Bible of disappointed saints, who do just this sort of thing. In fact, the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, knew first-hand the anguish of disappointment as he hung from cross for the sake of our sins and cried out in a loud voice: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
- Second, we must remember, as much as we might like to choose to forget, that barrenness is part of our fallenness. We live in a world wrecked by sin, and one of the consequences of sin is barrenness, a failure to conceive. In fact, barrenness, as with the grave, is one of those painful yet profound reminders to us all that all is not well with the world. What was intended to bring forth life, the womb, does not and indeed sometimes cannot. This is the byproduct of sin; the barren womb is one of the casualties of the Fall.
- Third, as hard as it is to embrace, we must affirm that God is sovereign over the womb, whether in birth or barrenness. It is He who closes wombs in barrenness, and it is He who opens wombs in birth. As was the case with Hannah, the Bible says the Lord “closed her womb” (1 Sam. 1:5). And as was the case with Rachel, the Bible says the Lord “opened her womb” (Gen. 29:31).
- Fourth, we must use the bitterness of barrenness, as with all disappointment, as an occasion to turn to the Lord in repentance and faith - not unbelief. “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High,” says the writer of Lamentations, “that good and bad come? Why,” he goes on to say, “should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?” (3:38-39). Instead, he instructs us, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” (3:40).
- Fifth, we need to remember the steadfast love of the Lord amidst hardship and disappointment and embrace the fact that His mercies, though not always obvious, “never cease” and are “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
- Finally, we need to look to that brighter Day, when all, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, will at last be made right. Then God Himself will “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Barrenness, as with death itself, will be one day be swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)!