Maternity and the Gospel Part 1: Where is God in Infertility?

Few things are as difficult and mystifying for the Christian as the unpredictable, sorrowful and sometimes joy-filled pursuit of becoming a parent. One does not have to travel far to encounter a couple who has been paralyzed by an empty or failing womb.

Didn’t God say to be fruitful and multiply? Do the Psalms teach that “children are a blessing and inheritance from the Lord” and “happy is the man whose quiver is full of them?” Why are we infertile? Why do pagans rattle off one healthy, unwanted pregnancy after another? Where is the love and justice from a God who delights in new life?

Understandably, many struggle to understand a God Who loves and also allows infertility. There is a silent and expanding fellowship of scarred couples who mourn the loss or possibility of conceiving a baby. Those without Christ have no reference point to make sense of the pain; others know Jesus and love His gospel, yet soldier on in confusion. In this, one of the darkest corners of pursuing parenthood, God is alive, aware and at work.

Some of the worst obstacles in these painful roads are misconceptions. Even if not articulated, three in particular surface in the infertility discussion. The first: I’ve done something wrong and God is withholding a baby from me. The second: I’ve been good…doesn’t God owe me a baby? The third: This has been a struggle for many women in the Bible who eventually bore children; God will grant me this good desire if I pray enough. These ideas simultaneously give false hope and implant bitterness. Why? None are biblical. Peace and understanding through infertility come as they do in every other unsettling experience: filtering life through God’s character and truth. As the One who fully understands the depths of barrenness and the intense desire for children, only He can supply the kind and amount of peace needed.

The first idea (God is punishing me) is a common assumption when it appears God is withholding something good. Because many Christians believe that God’s favor and blessing are gained with good deeds, they also believe sins earn punishment. This is the Christianized version of Karma or “what goes around comes around.” Scripture assures Christians this is not true. It is written in Psalms 103:10, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” The sins of the redeemed were paid for on the cross; for God to require further payment means Jesus’ death was not enough. Sometimes sinful choices have consequences: you indulge in too much alcohol, drive and wreck your vehicle, leaving you paralyzed. Did God do that? No, you did. You experienced sin’s consequences, but not every hardship can be traced to your sin. Tsunamis claim whole communities because creation is under sin’s curse; children get cancer and die because disease is part of a fallen world. God does not wield infertility as chastisement.

Just as sins do not earn the Christian punishment, good deeds do not earn blessings (like babies). Blessings are gifts, not payments. Many believe they can develop a formula for retrieving good things from God. This message comes from pulpits, books and trusted friends. Our culture rewards good work with a promotion, good behavior with candy…why would God be different? Our high, entitled view of ourselves and salvation encourages this. A raw and difficult truth: if God never granted another good thing in our favor, He’s done more than enough for us on the cross. He owes us nothing yet freely offers salvation to all and graciously gives additional gifts. Truly, none of us deserves the blessing of a baby.

Faulty Bible reading and experience fuel the third misconception (the Bible teaches that God blesses barren women who pray). Stories of God relieving a biblical figure of her infertility are not the promised pattern for Christians. The Bible reveals truths about God, not recipes for living. Too often, we choose passages that outline God blessing individuals and emulate them but overlook figures who suffered greatly for His sake with no earthly reward. The record of barren women conceiving teaches of a loving and generous Creator, fully in charge of the whole world and every womb, but whose generosity is His business. These passages are not a contract, binding Him to grant children.

The pain of infertility is great, but more is at stake in life than our pain. Perhaps God is more glorified in the life of a childless couple who choose to serve Him in ways parents cannot. Maybe the lost need to see a reaction to infertility that sings of the gospel rather than of personal pity. If we live only with this life in view, barrenness will surely destroy us. If we live for God’s kingdom work, knowing it’s about Him and not our happiness, infertility hasn’t the power to destroy anything.

After such tough truth, we certainly hunger for great hope and compassion. Proverbs 13:12 teaches: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” This text beautifully displays God’s identification with us. He knows the pain of unfulfilled hopes. He is not removed from the hurt of His children as they pursue parenthood to no avail…He hurts with them. He hears and desires their prayers. He remains the inexhaustible source of wisdom, comfort and provision, worthy of our trust and able to deliver.

Do we pray for children? Yes. Do we allow it to consume our lives, resting not until we hold a baby? No. Are we okay if God does not grant it? If not, we are worshiping children and not the King.

-Emily

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Why Cohabitation Distorts the Gospel and Fails to Deliver

Cohabitation – defined as people who live with a sexual partner of the opposite sex – has exploded in the United States. While thirty years ago the number of cohabitating couples was less than a million, census data in 2007 reported the number had reached 6.4 million. USA Today published in 2005 that two-thirds of married couples claimed to have lived together before getting married. Cohabitation is rapidly becoming not an exception, but the norm for American romantic relationships. The story of boy meets girl, boy dates girl, boy marries girl, boy and girl live together and have children is being replaced. The new story is boy meets girl, boy hooks up with girl, boy and girl live together, boy and girl get married and have pets (maybe children after career goals are achieved).

This presents a challenge for the church which is called to a biblical standard that seems just plain weird to the culture. The Bible lays the foundation for marriage in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The marital commitment precedes the physical and spiritual union of the man and the woman; not the reverse. Both Jesus and Paul quote this verse in the New Testament. Jesus also warns in Matthew 6:28, “…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” and should be willing to tear out their eye rather than continue in sinful lust. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:18 to “flee from sexual immorality” and in Ephesians 5:3 that it “must not even be named among you.” Hebrews 13:4 tells Christians to “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.” Cohabitation breaks the biblical pattern for marriage, encourages sexual sin, and dishonors marriage.

What are churches to do? Do they embrace cohabitating couples with no questions asked or do they stand by biblical marriage and sexuality? The answer for many pastors and churches is to embrace it as normative. Others, while they may not agree with it, feel they cannot fight the cultural tide and simply give in. Still others downplay or ignore the biblical teaching so no one is offended. Complicating matters are the many Christians who are living with opposite-sex partners. Their lifestyles preach that they believe there is no contradiction between cohabitation and Christianity.

These cannot be the only options. Cohabitation is more than another lifestyle choice for Christians. It has a profound impact on the future marriages of those who do it and on the church’s ability to proclaim the gospel.

The logic for cohabitation usually sounds like this: marriage is a big commitment and trying it out first would be best to avoid a mistake. Cohabitation is a means of discovering lifestyle, economic, personal, and sexual compatibility. This seems reasonable at first; but of what other life commitments do we demand this? Do we get to attend college for a semester before paying tuition and receiving grades? Do we get to try out a new job for six months before joining and relocating? Do we get to live in a new home for a year before signing the mortgage? And with no-fault divorce laws getting out of marriage can be easier than getting out of a mortgage! Why do we demand to “fully try-out” marriage?

Not surprisingly, cohabitation fails to deliver on the promise of better marriages. The New York Times reported last year on a study by the National Center for Health Statistics. The opening line of the article says it all – “Couples who live together before they get married are less likely to stay married, a new study has found.” This is astounding. Whatever the underlying cause is, one thing is clear – against the cultural logic cohabitation does not improve one’s chances at a successful marriage and may actually hurt them. Why? Because cohabitation assumes a posture toward the other person that says in effect, “my happiness is more important than you.” Many people throw out marriage completely in favor of perpetual cohabitation so they can freely pursue many paths to personal happiness. Those cohabitating who plan on someday getting married are only a shade better. The relationship still must serve their happiness and fulfillment before they commit to the other person. If they get married and the marriage ceases to bring happiness then divorce is logical. The ultimate goal is personal happiness – not the good of my spouse or any child.

Christian cohabitation is doubly devastating because it distorts the gospel. Ephesians 5:32 says that marriage “refers to Christ and the church.” Marriage depicts Christ’s sacrificial love for His church and the church’s loving response to Christ and when Christians cohabitate they preach a false gospel to the culture. Can we imagine Christ saying to us, “I like you, but I’m not sure I want to commit to saving you just yet. How about we take a year and you come to church, serve me, and we’ll see if it works out?” Never! Christ commits to us despite our sins, failures, and foolishness, loving us sacrificially at great personal cost. We were utterly incompatible with Him yet He has chosen to love us and commit to us for eternity. That is completely lost when Christians cohabitate; each willing participant declaring to the other “you’re simply not worth the sacrifice.”

For Christians who have cohabitation in their past, repent and embrace the complete forgiveness God offers. Don’t carry guilt and shame for past decisions but experience freedom in the cross of Christ. For Christians currently cohabitating, have the courage to man up (or woman up) and commit to one another to proclaim the gospel in marriage. If economic reasons led to your cohabiting, is it really worth dishonoring Christ to save on rent? For pastors and churches, have the courage to offend some people by honoring what God has said in His Word. The beauty of Christian marriage and the glorious grace of the gospel can reach the lost. We must stand here. Nothing less than our gospel and our marriages are at stake.

-Brian

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The Trouble of Teaching the Bible in Public Schools

The Arkansas House passed a bill last week allowing public schools to offer an elective Bible course. While the Senate voted it down the issue will return as Bible courses are increasingly offered in public schools. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools produces curriculum which has been used for Bible courses in 563 school districts in 38 states with over 360,000 students participating. Not surprisingly the bill has met with opposition from atheists and freethinkers who see this as a façade for state-endorsed religion and an attempt to brainwash students.

Teaching the Bible in class is not forbidden in the Constitution or in a law and it hardly brainwashes students. Besides, everyone from MTV, Axe Body Spray, Apple, environmentalists, evolutionists, Republicans, Democrats, atheists, and Baptists attempt to “brainwash” the next generation into their cause. We only tend to be angry when someone else is doing it. Setting their silly objections aside, I actually kind of agree with them on this one – teaching the Bible in public schools could be a bad idea for three reasons: the nature of the Bible, who is teaching it, and the goals of the class.

What is the Bible? The sponsor of the bill in Arkansas, Denny Altes, is quoted saying it is “the world’s most popular history book.” But the Bible is not a history book. A history book typically reports events in a chronological and objective fashion and offers analysis on the causes, effects, and significance of those events. The Bible reports on historical events to further the theological message of the author. This is why much of the Bible is not in chronological order, nor does it attempt to be. It is also why the Bible chooses to share and emphasize some events while de-emphasizing and leaving out others. For example, the book of Judges spends five verses on Tola and Jair who judged Israel a combined 45 years but spends 98 verses on Gideon who judged for 40. This is because Gideon’s unique spiritual leadership of the people contributed to the author’s message on the need for godly leadership in Israel (Judges 21:25). The Bible is not an ancient history book on par with Herodotus. To rip people and events from their theological context is to profoundly misunderstand the Scriptures. You cannot study the content of the Bible without dealing with its message.

Who is teaching this course? The law states:

An academic study of the Bible course offered by a public school district shall: be taught in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of the biblical materials or texts from other religious or cultural traditions; … not disparage or encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs.

Teaching the Bible objectively has been attempted with disastrous results in universities for decades. Mainstream “objective” biblical scholarship crafted a historical Jesus in their own image, explained away the supernatural, subjected the Bible to their own reason, and then sold a lobotomized version of Christianity to impressionable students. Will the results be different here? Will a Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Mormon, Muslim, agnostic teacher be able to objectively teach the Bible without indoctrinating students to a bias or two? What prevents a teacher from using the course to undermine students’ faith? While as a pastor I am not threatened by rival understandings of the Scriptures, I now have to answer to what students are learning about the Bible in school. This makes the already hard task of discipling teenagers even more difficult.

What is the goal? Is it to prop up falling biblical knowledge among Americans? Is it to Christianize youth who don’t attend church? Is it to instill moral values? Is it to celebrate the influence the Bible has had on western culture? If they would feel differently about legislating a course on the Koran their intent is not purely academic. The Arkansas House didn’t state a goal but the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools believes these classes will help the nation’s moral crisis and reclaim children. We need to be very careful when using the state as a means to achieve Christian ends and think through possible unintended consequences. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as something that grows in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, not something imposed by them.

I’m sure those who want the Bible taught in public schools are well-intentioned, but we should call a time out to think. Can we really reduce the Bible to literature or history without betraying its life-changing message? The Bible needs to be studied academically, but in light of what it claims to be – the self-revelation of God – not as a history book without colorful pictures.

Do we trust those who will be teaching the Bible? Every teacher (Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, or Atheist with an axe to grind) will have an opinion as to the truth or falsity of the biblical material regardless of what the law states and they will pass it on to their students.

What is the goal? Basic knowledge of the Bible apart from the power of the gospel will never achieve the desired ends of those who support these classes. Passing this bill won’t change the culture or make disciples – so what unforeseen effects will result from having the state do the church’s job?

The church can do better. Ironically, as we focus on public schools, the lack of Bible knowledge in the American church is embarrassing. Our efforts may be more fruitful if spent on those freely attending our churches. The Bible is our book. Teaching it in a way that unleashes its power to change lives is our job. Will we step up or vote for the government to do it?

-Brian

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