Author’s Note: (Before beginning this topic, I want to clarify my thoughts on two areas. First, I can only experience barrenness as a single woman. I don’t know what it is like to long for a child as a married woman. I don’t know how it feels to try to conceive, have my hopes raised, and then have them crushed as I am faced once again with the realization that my husband and I cannot have children. Second, I have never known the life-altering pain of the loss of a child, whether through miscarriage or otherwise. I grieve with those couples who must walk through the valley of the shadow of death with their children. I am thankful for the grace God has given to the mothers and fathers who have been called to those trials. Through them I learn more of God’s sustaining mercy and love for his children. What I desire is to share how God works in the barrenness of an unmarried woman to testify to God’s sustaining mercy and love through a different kind of childlessness.)
Meet the dreamer
“How many kids do you want?” my friends and I often asked each other. Raised as a conservative, home-schooled girl, I was not shocked by large families or the idea of having a lot of kids. My family was average-sized, but some of our best friends came from a family of twelve. As I grew up, I never really wondered if I would have children. I started dreaming of my marriage while playing with my plastic bride happy meal toys at the age of 5. Then there came the legions of dolls to name, clothe, feed, educate, and mother. “I don’t know… maybe somewhere between 4 and 6,” was my usual answer. “Less than 13,” was my joking answer. “As many as God wants to give me,” was my more ‘spiritual’ answer. I had unspoken conditions to that last answer, though. I would accept whatever number God gave me as long as I got married by 23 and started having kids by 26. What my 20-year-old self didn’t stop to consider is that God may choose to give me none and he would still be good and loving to me.
What’s a (single) girl to do?
I noticed my childlessness more and more as I grew older. I started doing mental math and comparing. The girl I sat next to at graduation already has four kids. So-and-so is only two years older and she has five. I bet people are wondering if I realize I’m running out of time. If I get married in the next couple years, maybe I can have a couple before menopause sets in. The pain also grew as the years passed. More than once I have run my hand over the couple boxes of favorite childhood toys I have saved to share with my daughters. Was I foolish to save them? Will I get to share them with my children even still? When should I give up hope?
If I felt left out because my friends were getting married, I felt almost unwomanly because I had not given birth. I felt guilty for not giving my parents grandchildren. I felt only partially sanctified because I did not know the sacrifices of motherhood. I felt incomplete because I did not know the love and joy of motherhood. Motherhood seemed the best, most wonderful station in life. And I had been excluded.
“You will make such a good mom.” “You’d be a great mom.” “You’ll feel differently when you’re a mother.” I was thankful for the heart behind those comments, but I still felt that I was missing something. I felt that the person behind the comment thought so, too. Conversations with other older single girl friends revealed that I was not alone in this feeling.
I might be able to have kids; I might not. For my good, God has commanded that I remain sexually pure until marriage, which means no kids. So, I’m barren because I don’t have kids, and I can’t.
The Scripture and Barrenness
On the surface level, it even seems hard to find the comfort for my barrenness in Scripture:
And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God… Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb. Deuteronomy 28:2-4
And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you. And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. Deuteronomy 28:10-11
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. Psalm 127:3-5
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel! Psalm 128:3-6
Throughout the Old Testament, God blesses Israel’s obedience with offspring (Psalm 113:9, Proverbs 17:6, Isaiah 65:23). Death of children and barrenness are a sign of judgement (Gen. 20:3-18, Deuteronomy 28:18, Hosea 9:14, Psalm 109:13, Isaiah 49:20). Scripture also makes it clear that the Lord gives children and the Lord closes the womb (Genesis 49:25, 30:22).
What am I missing? Am I less blessed because I don’t have children? Am I under judgment? Is God not pleased with me?
God used a Bible study through Isaiah to help me understand the role of barrenness and blessing. More understanding came again in my pastor’s exposition of barrenness in the lineage of Christ. In these I began to realize the key for my hope and learned more of God’s nature.
Barren Women of the Bible
Sarah was barren, yet God made a covenant with her husband that in him all the families of the Earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12). “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him” (Genesis 17:19). At ninety years of age, the barren woman gave birth to Isaac.
Isaac’s wife could not have children, but Isaac prayed and “God opened her womb” (Genesis 25: 21). She gave birth to twins, one of whom was Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. God continued his covenant with Jacob.
One of Jacob’s wives, Rachel, was barren, but Jacob prayed and Rachel gave birth to Joseph (Genesis 29:31). Joseph later saved his family of promise from famine. And the family grew to become the nation of Israel.
Later, when the nation of Israel was oppressed by an enemy, God gave a barren woman a son, Samson, to deliver his people.
God raised up another leader for Israel – Samuel – from a heartbroken, barren Hannah.
From the Biblical account, it seems that Ruth lived sometime with her husband without having any children before he died. She moved to Israel, a childless foreigner with her widowed, childless, mother-in-law. God gave Boaz as the kinsman redeemer to keep the line from ending. Through them came David. God made a covenant that through David’s descendants would come a King who would reign forever.
God used broken, barren women to continue his covenant to Abraham and David. To an aged, barren Elizabeth was born the last prophet to tell of the coming Messiah. The Messiah, Christ, came through a woman who was an unwed, childless, virgin. Christ was the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham. Through Christ comes forgiveness of sins and salvation from God’s wrath. Through Him are all the families of the earth blessed.
Through these stories, God shows that he is a God who listens. Jacob prayed, Isaac prayed, Hannah prayed… and God opened the womb. That brings me comfort. God did not reprimand the men and women who prayed for children. They knew God had closed the womb and they knew he had the power to open it. The God of the Bible is a God who listens to the ones outcast or mocked by society. And in their cases, he granted their prayers. This means that nothing can thwart God’s plans and promises, not even barrenness. Not even my barrenness. If God wills that I have children, at some point he will give them to me.
However, I would be selling myself – and God – short if my take-away was “Keep praying and God will give you kids, cue happy ending, and roll credits.” In the Bible stories, prayers were not answered and then all things were fine. Samson was seduced by a Philistine woman and died as a blind, shamed captive. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Hannah’s grandsons through Samuel were killed by God because of their sins. Elizabeth’s son was beheaded for his testimony. Christ’s mother watched her first-born die on a cross. The point is not that these women were made complete by becoming mothers. The point is that God came with a promise of salvation to Abraham. The theme of barrenness makes clear that it was the will and power of God bringing about His plan, there is no other explanation. The Messiah was born from a virgin to show that he is the promised One of God. The point is Christ Jesus, the son of a woman who was beyond barren.
“I and the children God has given me.”
Of Christ, the prophet Isaiah wrote that he was “cut off from the land of the living” without descendants. An Old Testament hearer would have understood that being ‘cut off’ was a sign of being cursed by God because of faithlessness.
How could the promised One of God be cursed by God? Because “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” and “the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5, 6). He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people… although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:8, 9). The Messiah took the condemnation, so the sinner could have peace. Through him are all the families of the earth blessed.
The same prophet, Isaiah, also writes that the Messiah will see his offspring. But Christ had no children. The New Testament writer of Hebrews references Christ with another verse from Isaiah “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” This is a sign of blessing. The children are children of promise through faith. The Old Testament family-nation of Israel was a representation of the true family of God: a family comprised of believers from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. Ephesians 2: 19-20
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, than an heir through God. Galatians 4:4-7
The Creation Mandate and the Single Woman
When Christ came, he echoed the language of the Genesis 1:28. Instead of telling the man and woman to be fruitful and multiply, Christ told his followers to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. He told many parables about trees producing good fruit and those producing bad fruit. The former were pruned to bear more, the latter were cut down and destroyed in judgement. In Galatians, Paul writes that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In Colossians, Paul urges his readers to walk as ones fully pleasing to God, bearing fruit.
I may be childless, but I am by no means cursed by barrenness. Rather, I am the barren woman singing aloud in Isaiah 54 because my shame – not my shame of childlessness, but my shame of my own sin – was taken away. Christ did not give me a command to be fruitful and then withhold from me the ability to walk in obedience.
Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15: 5
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. John 15:9-11
A single, childless woman abiding in Christ’s love with fullness of joy is a far cry from one who needs to hide her face in shame. Married or unmarried, childless women are called to participate in the kingdom of God, to share in his sufferings, to bear fruit of repentance, to abide in him, to have fullness of joy.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide… John 15:16
The dreamer lives on
At one point in my late twenties, I began to be desperate that my parents become grandparents. It didn’t have to be me… it could be my brother or sister. I’d settle for being aunt if mom and dad could be grandma and grandpa. I usually got desperate like this around mother’s day, father’s day, and my parents’ birthdays (and Christmas, but who’s counting?). One particular time I remember was before my dad’s birthday. At that time, I had a close friendship with a couple from church with four young boys. I felt almost like an adopted aunt and visited their house weekly. One visit I told the boys I had to leave early because it was my dad’s birthday. The boys quickly got to work making cards for my dad – one with an airplane and air traffic control tower and one with a Robin Hood book decorating the cover. I was overcome with happiness at the little construction paper cards made perfectly for my dad. The boys hadn’t known that my dad had worked in an air traffic control tower most his life or that Robin Hood was his favorite book as a kid. But still, they just “happened” to make them. God used these providentially coincidental cards to whisper reminders to my heart that he sees my desires. Even if my way seems unanswered, it is not unnoticed and it is going perfectly according to God’s plan. The next year, one of my 5th graders made a card that read “From Ms. Watson’s kid, Luis.” I am blessed with children. I am not their mother, but I am their teacher. I cannot raise them, but I can love them and help train them. This is God’s good plan, not second best. And with his good, pleasing, and perfect will, all will go as it should.
Are baby showers still going to be painful? Sure. Will my desire for children ever cease? Probably not. Will there still be awkward moments and comments because “my biological clock” is ticking away with no children on the horizon? I count on it and embrace it.
Life comes with thorns. For many good and different reasons, God can choose not to take all our thorns away, at least not right away. They teach us to hope and to be patient in prayer. They teach a watching world that the hope and joy found in Christ is greater than the hope and joy found in earthly blessings – even husbands and children. Even while I may sometimes grieve the thorn of childlessness and pray for God to take it away, my faith is not grounded in that he will, but that his grace is sufficient and that his power is shown to be perfect in my weakness.
Even more than praying for biological children, my hope is that I – and other single women – will pray for spiritual children. Pray for the opportunities to witness, for God to bring salvation, for other young women and children to encourage and help train in truth. I pray that I and other childless women – married or single – will not abide in the shame of barrenness, because it has been taken away. I pray we will abide in the love of Christ. We are not barren; in him our fruit will abide.
Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. Psalm 34:5