Pip and I married in 2009. We discussed trying for children after one year of marriage. We saw children as a blessing from God (Ps 127:5), and we wanted to have them while we were relatively young and bring them up knowing Jesus—a testimony to the goodness of God’s purpose for children. With great excitement and anticipation, Pip wrote her first letter to our future baby on our honeymoon, and we began to compile a small collection of tiny baby clothes, thinking that—being young and seeing children as one of God’s purposes for marriage—there was no reason why we wouldn’t fall pregnant quickly. However, after a year of trying, we began to ask whether there was a problem. We went through all the tests, and were diagnosed with ‘unknown infertility’. This diagnosis only added to the deep sense of grief that we had already begun to feel in being unable to conceive.
Such barrenness is hard to explain. It’s grieving the loss of a person you have never known and yet have prayed for every single night. The loss of a person who seems very real in your imagination—someone you have pictured when observing the joy of other parents playing with their children and teaching them to trust the Lord Jesus Christ.
We questioned why God would withhold children from us when we were committed to raising them to love Jesus, while at the same time give children to parents who did not know Christ and had no intention of teaching their children to know him. Whilst we were able to rejoice with our married friends as they began having children, such rejoicing was mixed with an abiding sense of grief. Even those we knew who struggled with infertility eventually fell pregnant—all while we waited and longed for this answer to prayer. It felt like everyone was on a highway, but our car had run out of gas and veered off the side of the road as our married friends zoomed past us.
We soon discovered a gaping hole in the churches that we went to. With the exception of a few supportive Christians, people generally didn’t talk about this problem unless we initiated it. There didn’t seem to be many younger Christians who had thought about how to minister to people with infertility, and there didn’t seem to be many older Christians who talked about their experience with it. The result was that people often didn’t know what to say to us. In fact, sometimes people were just plain insensitive. Once I was chatting to a minister who asked me whether we were trying to have children. I said that we were trusting God with it. This man then asked, “You’re a Calvinist, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes I am”. He replied, “Well, maybe if you were more Arminian you would do something about it!”
On another occasion, after a really helpful lecture on infertility, IVF and adoption, a friend (who knew my wife and I were undergoing IVF), rather than asking how I found the lecture and whether it was hard to sit through, said “I really think you should be adopting instead; it’s much more ethical.” Thankfully they realized they had been insensitive and came and apologized to me the next day.
I don’t share these examples to make anyone feel guilty. I’m sure these people meant well. I put my foot in my mouth with the best of intentions as much as anyone else. But what such comments reflect is a general lack of understanding of how God’s word teaches us to view suffering and how it therefore teaches us to minister to those who are suffering in this way.
It’s not just the fertile that are unhelpful in how they talk. Over the past six years, we have met some who have been so overwhelmed by the grief of long-term infertility that they fail to recognize and reflect on how God may, in his sovereign control over all things, be purposing their infertility for their good and his glory. Their grief shortens their gaze away from the great need of those around them who are going to hell without the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, preventing their vision from lifting any higher than their own personal loss. Don’t get me wrong. There is a time when grieving is appropriate and inevitable, especially considering that we live in a fallen world. But if we fail to place our trust in God and his sovereign goodness then we miss out on using our suffering for the purposes God intended it for, and we fail to use this opportunity to build up other Christians.
While there are people who have asked after and prayed for us, the general silence around the topic highlights the fact that, for most, infertility is a silent struggle. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to share some lessons Pip and I have learnt from the school of suffering, so that those who struggle might glorify God with their infertility, and those who don’t might have confidence to minister to those who do.
The first and possibly most important lesson we learnt in our struggle with infertility is how critical it is to have a robust understanding of the providence of God before encountering suffering, so that we might believe and trust that, whatever suffering we undergo, God has purposed it for his glory and our good. Following a number of years of testing and various infertility treatments, Pip and I had made six embryos through IVF, thinking that we would be happy to have six children. However, one after another, our embryo transfers came back negative. I remember my response to a negative blood test after our fifth embryo. I was filled with anger. I refused to entertain the possibility of giving up on IVF. Why would God fail to answer our prayers in this way when my desire for children was a good desire? In my heart of hearts, I wasn’t willing to submit myself to God’s good and perfect will (Rom 12:2).
My wife and I read a book on Job by Christopher Ash called Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the book of Job, and found Job’s struggle with his suffering very helpful as it reminded us that we are in a spiritual battle.1 Satan’s words in 1:9, “Does Job fear God for no reason?”, issue a challenge to God, but also recalls the Bible’s characterization of the truly wise man as one who fears the Lord. In one sense the whole book is a vindication of God through the faithfulness of his servant Job. In the end we find that Satan is proved wrong because Job holds onto his integrity and never curses God.
That being said, Job does question God. At many points Job is angry with God. In fact, a key question in the book of Job is “Are God’s ways always just?” (Job 9:22). Although Job questioned God, he always suffered in conversation with God. He took his questions, his anger and his doubts to God. And he sought deliverance from God alone. This gave us a helpful example of how our suffering should lead us to petitioning God rather than turning away from him.
We found that what enabled Job to hold fast his integrity and direct his anger to God is his unwavering conviction that God is absolutely sovereign. For Job acknowledges that it is the same God who had once hedged Job in with protective blessing who now surrounds him with trouble from which there is no apparent escape (Job 1:10, 3:23). This is reflected in Job’s statement of humble submission:
“Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”(Job 2:10)
It is Job’s certainty of God’s sovereign providence over the calamities that have befallen him that enables him to hold fast his integrity amidst such horrific suffering.
The temptation is to think God isn’t good, or doesn’t care, or isn’t listening. Amidst such temptation it is easy to try and take matters into our own hands by placing our hope in IVF rather than God. As a result, some have rushed into making decisions that compromised their integrity and left them with a guilty conscience. But God has made his goodness known to us, so that we might trust him. While God revealed his greatness to Job through the incomparability of his works of creation and sustaining, God has provided a fuller revelation for us in working our salvation through the darkest moment in history, the cross of Christ (Acts 2:23). In the middle of our feelings of anger and disappointment, Job’s response should be our response. Looking to the cross, we are assured that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28, cf. Ps 57:1-2). As Arthur Pink says, “If I really believe that 'all things' are for God’s glory and by His invincible and perfect will, then I shall receive submissively, yea, thankfully, whatsoever He ordains and sends me.”2
In The God I Don’t Understand, Christopher Wright explains:
Faith seeks understanding, and faith builds on understanding where it is granted, but faith does not finally depend on understanding. This is not to say, of course, that faith is intrinsically irrational (quite the contrary), but that faith takes us into realms where explanation fails us—for the present.3
Job was never enlightened about why such terrible tragedy befell him. But the primary aim is not to supply us with all the answers, but to encourage us to trust in God even when we cannot comprehend his purpose for our suffering. This is the wisdom Job wants us to embrace. As John Walton says in his commentary on Job, “This wisdom does not ease our suffering, but it will help us to avoid the foolish thinking that might lead us to reject God when we need him most”.4
One of Pip’s favourite verses in our struggle with infertility was 1 Timothy 6:6-7, which echoes Job 1:21: “Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world”. We both found that a firm conviction of God’s good providence gave us a sense of contentment and peace throughout our struggle—at the deepest level we knew that our lives were safe in the hands of the one who made us and who had redeemed us. Arthur Pink reflects that “Faith… endures the disappointments, the hardships, and the heart-aches of life, by recognizing that all comes from the hand of Him who is too wise to err and too loving to be unkind."5
Such was the response of John Brown of Haddington, and his wife, Janet:
… who knew well the grief attending the death of a child. “Often had the angel of death visited their roof, and had borne away six of their children in infancy.” Only two of their children survived to adulthood. Despite these unpleasant providences, Brown was able to write:
Let us keep waiting on God in the way of His judgments; in patience possessing our souls; seeing the Lord’s hand in all that we meet with; humbling ourselves under humbling providences; mourning, but never murmuring under His hand; and ever remarking how the minutest circumstances of our lives are directed by the overruling providence of God.6
No one possesses this unwavering trust in God’s sovereign purpose more than Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. He didn’t turn away from God but directed his fears directly to him. Though he pleaded with his father to take away the cup of wrath that he was about to have poured out onto him on the cross, he nevertheless resigned himself in humble submission to God, saying “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). He could say this because he firmly believed what Samuel Rodigast’s hymn says so beautifully:
Whate’er my God ordains is right:
Here shall my stand be taken;
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
Yet I am not forsaken.
My Father’s care is round me there;
He holds me that I shall not fall:
And so to Him I leave it all.
Because of God’s faithfulness we are not forsaken by God. In fact, in Christ God has suffered with us and for us. This enables Samuel Rutherford, the Scottish pastor and theologian to say in a letter to a grieving mother:
I was indeed sorrowful when I left you, especially since you were in such heaviness after your daughter’s death; yet I am sure you know that the weightiest end of the cross of Christ that is laid upon you, lies on your strong Savior… Take courage. When you tire, he will bear both you and your burden (Ps 55:22). In a little while you shall see the salvation of God.7
As we look to the cross, we are reminded of the cross-shaped way God is at work in the world. That God is often most near when he seems most absent. That God reveals himself most fully in suffering. And that God disguises his victories in defeat. So we can say with Paul “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10), and we can take hold of Jesus’ promise: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4). I remember Pip once saying to me jokingly, “There’s a thorn in my uterus and I’ve asked God to take it away three times.” And while God choose not to remove our thorn right away, we have certainly come to find God’s strength to be sufficient for us in our weakness.
A transformation occurred in our marriage as the truth of this cross-shaped reality sunk further into our hearts. One day Pip came home from a night course at Moore College challenged by 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which says that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”. She said, “I don’t think we have been thanking God for infertility. Why don’t we start thanking him for this gift and all God has done for us through it?” I was so encouraged—there was much to thank God for. For example, I remember we were asked by someone how infertility had impacted on our marriage. To my delight, Pip said she thought it had brought us closer together.
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan is the tale of a man named Christian and his long spiritual journey to the Celestial City of God. At the end of the story, Christian and Hopeful come within view of the gates of heaven, but there is a deep river with no bridge. The two try to walk through the waters, but Christian begins to sink:
Christian: “The sorrows of death have compassed me about.” …
Hopeful: “These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but they are sent to try you whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of His goodness recall that goodness, and live upon Him in your distresses... Be of good cheer; Jesus Christ maketh thee whole.”
With that Christian break out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see Him again! And He tells me, “When thou passeth through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee” (Isaiah 43:2).
Then they both took courage, and the enemy was after that as still as a stone, until they were gone over.8
Tied to the question about God’s seeming absence in our distress is a question about the goodness of God. This is important because we will not submit to the providence of God, ascribing to him the glory he is due in such times, if we are not thoroughly convinced that—no matter what hardships may come our way—God is good; and as such, always intends our good.
It is easy to doubt God’s goodness when the very thing you desire most is withheld from you even though you pray most earnestly for it. Pip and I read a John Piper devotion on Psalm 84:11, which says “No good thing does [God] withhold from those who walk uprightly”. It was easy for us to think that children were a good thing that he had been withholding. But Piper went on to reflect on Psalm 73, which says “it is good to be near to God” (v. 28). What a great reminder this was that God had not withheld any good thing from us since he had drawn near to us through his Son. God is the source of life and joy and our salvation. Through taking away the gift of children for a time, he had given us a greater appreciation of his sufficiency. As such, our suffering shifted our gaze away from worldly things and fixed our hope upward to heaven where God dwells (Ps 27:13-4; Rom 8:18; Heb 6:19; 1 Pet 1:3-5) knowing that “earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal”.9 We learnt to pray with the Psalmist that, though he may choose to withhold children from us, “the Lord is my chosen portion and my cup” (Ps 16:5) and he has not withheld himself. With this in mind we may glorify God with our infertility, knowing that for those who trust in Christ, whatever God may take away, God—the source of all that is good—will never leave us or forsake us (Rom 8:31-39; Heb 13:5).
In coming to trust that God is good, and is working all things for his glory and our good, we can then begin to think about how we might use our suffering as an opportunity to glorify God by encouraging others with what God has taught us through our infertility. Richard Baxter once said “Suffering so unbolts the door of the heart, that the Word hath easier entrance”.10 I have seen this in action as God has removed all worldly props and thrown us back on his Word and his promises. It has been from this humbled vantage point that Pip and I have been able to more easily view the vast mountains of God’s grace and provision for us in Jesus Christ. And it is from such a view that God has comforted us. Paul says “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4). As God taught us these precious truths, we were excited to tell others. He also gave us compassion and empathy for others who struggle with infertility. This is one of the great blessings of the Christian family that God has saved us into. In many ways, the Christian community is a reservoir of God’s comfort to and through his people. The English Reformer Hugh Latimer knew this truth well:
Shortly before being martyred for his faith in 1555, he sent a farewell letter to fellow sufferers in which he wrote, “Set before you that though the weather is stormy and foul, yet you do not go alone; many others pass by the same path; their company might cause you to be the more courageous and cheerful.”11
We hosted an infertility support night, and were very encouraged by a couple who had struggled even longer than we had. They had applied for adoption—and had been denied because they didn’t exhibit the usual desperation like most other adoption candidates. Such news would have been crushing, however the couple told us this with a smile as they reflected on how this rejection testified to the contentment they had in their relationship with Christ: a peace the world does not know or understand. They went on to say how such hardships refined their faith, a truth reflected in their plans to do mission work and the fact that they had sold their house in another country to pay for their theological studies. To see such rejoicing throughout trial, and such gospel priorities, was a real comfort to us as we considered the prospect of life without children. We glorify God when we comfort others with the comfort we have received from God, that they might trust God’s word in the darkest moments of their struggle with infertility.
The fourth lesson we learnt was that we must not let our weeping prevent us glorifying God through the proclamation of his gospel. I remember that after one of our IVF transfers Pip organized a meal at a nice restaurant to celebrate what we had hoped would become our first child. We then received the news that the embryo didn’t take, and she had to ring the restaurant to cancel. What had promised so much left us with a deep sense of loss. I shared my sadness over this with one of my lecturers, and couldn’t help bursting into tears of utter sorrow. One of the temptations when our souls are downcast is to lose sight of our place in God’s purpose and neglect our greatest responsibility: loving our neighbours by proclaiming the gospel.
I remember hearing a Mother’s Day sermon a few years ago on a biblical theology of children and motherhood. It really helped bring our childlessness into perspective. The creation mandate in Genesis involved Adam and Eve multiplying through childbirth in order to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28), that all might be placed under God’s rule. In the Old Testament, children were evidence of God’s blessing, and barrenness was evidence of God’s curse (Deut 28:4; Ps 127:3-5). This was partially due to the fact that God’s covenant purposes were tied to the physical nation of Israel, so that as Israel multiplied God’s covenant purposes were evidenced and his renown went out to the nations.
However, in the New Testament, physical blessings no longer represent true blessedness. This is because Jesus became a curse for us on the cross, so that through faith in him we now become the true spiritual children of Abraham and inherit the blessing of Abraham promised to the nations (Gal 3:13-14; cf. Eph 1:3). While children are still a physical blessing, they are no longer a sign of covenant blessing and inclusion; now those outside Christ are cursed, rather than the barren.
This is why the language of multiplying is transformed in the book of Acts to describe the gospel going out (Acts 6:7, 12:24); as people trust in the gospel they become the true offspring of Abraham. When we go out and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28), God’s creation mandate is fulfilled as people from throughout the world are placed under the headship of Christ (Ps 8; 1 Cor 15:28; Heb 2:6-9).
This conviction has helped Pip and I see our childless state in light of God’s gospel purpose for us, which caused us to view our infertility as an opportunity for a greater amount of gospel proclamation than if we did have kids. Such an outlook also transforms the way we view having children. No longer is child-bearing a sign of covenant blessedness but an opportunity for gospel ministry, as we raise our children in the instruction of the Lord. Becoming thankful for our place in God’s mission should counter-act the silence so often associated with infertility, as we declare God’s salvation in Christ. As the Psalmist says “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds” (Ps 9:1). So whatever you do, please don’t let your struggle with infertility prevent you from taking part in God’s ultimate plan of glorifying himself through the proclamation of the gospel! As Matthew Henry once said, “weeping must not hinder sowing”.12
The fifth lesson we learnt is that every Christian is equipped through God’s word to minister to those who struggle, that they might glorify God with their infertility. There is a tendency to become resistant to the encouragement and support of those who don’t struggle with infertility because we think to ourselves “They don’t understand what it’s like”. I remember reading an article by Marshall Segal, where he wrote:
Pain becomes proud because it believes no one else understands. No one feels what I feel. And so pain distances itself from anyone who might try and speak into its suffering. 13
However, Segal rightly goes on to say that such an attitude succumbs to Satan’s ploy, that we build a wall that cuts ourselves off from God’s word ministered by others. Of course, others most often don’t know what it’s like to be in our shoes, just as we don’t know what it’s like to be in theirs. We can’t walk in everyone’s shoes, so we should stop playing the “you don’t know what it’s like” game, which is fueled by pride and circumstantial arrogance. Such a way of thinking is deeply unchristian, and is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s providence. The Holy Scriptures are breathed out by our Creator God, who is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, and who not only authored every moment of our lives—including our suffering—but who entered into this world and suffered in our place. His word can be trusted to minister to us in our pain. For this reason we can joyfully receive the encouragement of God’s word from others, as through his Word “the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”(2 Tim 3:16-17). In this sense, God can minister to us through both the sympathetic Christian friend and the empathetic Christian friend alike. No matter what your situation is in life, be confident that as you speak the gospel to your grieving friend, God will “supply every need of [theirs] according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).
After six years of battling with infertility, and on our final IVF embryo, we are praising God that Pip has fallen pregnant! As we reflected on our time struggling with barrenness, Pip pointed something out that she had come to cherish: the infertility club is the club that no one wants to join, but is producing some of the most godly people in the world. The lessons they have learnt from the school of suffering, having humbly submitted themselves to God’s good hand of providence, have produced in those we’ve met a faith, refined by fire, that is more precious than gold (1 Pet 1:6-7).
At the beginning of this article I discussed a problem we witnessed in the church: the silence of those who struggle with infertility. Pip and I believe that as people come to see even infertility as a cross-shaped gift from their loving heavenly Father, they will view their lot as a refining work that leads them to break the silence, to start supporting others who struggle, and to proclaim the sufficiency of Christ. And as Christians come to see the sufficiency of the word of God, they will be given the confidence to minister the gospel of the suffering Messiah to those to whom he was sent to comfort and save, and all this to the glory of God.
I will now close with a letter from a friend to a grieving Dr Robert Dabney, who had lost two sons in less than a month, that reminds us that as we hear and trust in the gospel, no matter how hard we are struggling, God will work in us what is pleasing to him:
No doubt affliction now seems to you a far more intense and real thing than it ever did before; the griefs of human life are far more awful and terrific to you now than they ever before seemed. But the power of grace is the master of them… I do hope and pray that God may give you grace to exercise a faith which will humble, comfort and cheer your inmost soul.14
1. I am indebted to Paul Williamson's fantastic Moore College lectures for my understanding of God’s providence in the book of Job.↩
2. A Pink, Exposition of Hebrews, vol. 1, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, 2003, p. 112.↩
3. CJH Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2009,p. 22.↩
4. JH Walton, Job, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2012, p. 437.↩
5. AW Pink, The Sovereignty of God, Wilder Publications, Blacksburg, 2009, p. 10.↩
6. JW Bruce III & EJ Alexander, From Grief to Glory: Spiritual Journeys of Mourning Parents, Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2002, p. 123.↩
7. Ibid., p. 92.↩
8. J Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (ed. Rosalie De Rosset), Moody Publishers, Chicago, 2007, pp. 209-211.↩
9. ‘Come, Ye Disconsolate’ by Thomas Moore, found in Christian Reformed Church, The Psalter Hymnal Worship Edition, Faith Alive Christian Resources, Grand Rapids, 1987.↩
10. Quoted in DA Carson, How Long O Lord, Inter-varsity Press, Leicester, 1991, p. 107.↩
11. From Grief to Glory, p. 15.↩
12. Ibid., p. 77.↩
13. M Segal, ‘Pain: A secret garden of pride’, DesiringGod.org, 19 August 2015 (accessed 25 June 2016): www.desiringgod.org/articles/pain-a-secret-garden-of-pride↩
1. From Grief to Glory, p. 61.↩