Barrenness in the Bible

by Laura Christianson

In this post, we’ll examine several oft-quoted Bible passages that compound feelings of guilt, inadequacy and disillusionment in infertile people.

You have a Christian friend who’s infertile. You want to encourage her, so you pull out your Bible. You vaguely recall that several people in the Bible were “barren,” and they all ended up being blessed with children. You decide to quote these passages to your friend.

Stop!

Before you say anything, become familiar with the following “Biblical” advice that is often given to infertile people by their well-meaning friends:

If you have enough faith, God will grant you a child.

This not-so-helpful suggestion is rooted in God’s promise in Genesis 12 that Abraham and Sarah – even though they were 100 and 91 years old, would give birth to a son. Romans 4:20 tells us that Abraham “did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God,” but was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”

When Christians are unable to “be fruitful and multiply,” does that mean their faith is weak? Has God chosen not to bless them for some reason?

God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah was not intended to apply to every married couple thoughout history. In Genesis, God makes a specific promise to one couple, telling Abraham that all people on earth will be blessed through him. Nowhere does the text state or imply that all infertile people will be rewarded with children, just because their faith is strong.

You must have some unconfessed sin in your life. OR God must be punishing you for the sins of your youth.

Arrrrgggh! Do I speak for all infertile people here? If God was punishing us for our sins, would anyone have children?

When we want to encourage our infertile friends, why not choose a more appropriate passage, such as Hebrews 4:16, where the writer tells us: “Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

I will pray that God will open your womb.

In Genesis, Jacob is tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah, but he does not love Leah as much as he loves Rachel. Genesis 29:31 says, “When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.”

Rachel, intensely jealous of her sister, begs Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” (Most infertile women can relate to her statement).

Jacob becomes angry with her and says, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”

Later in the passage, “God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb.”

This is where the comment about God opening the womb originates, and also, the belief that opening the womb must be tied to confessed sin, forgiveness, and a close walk with God. Often, there is a big difference between what the Bible teaches and what it reports. The writer of Genesis reports that God opened Rachel’s womb; the writer does not teach that God will open the womb of every infertile woman. The Bible presents a much bigger picture in this story – one that includes the whole future of the nation of Israel and their migration to Egypt through the leadership of Rachel’s son, Joseph.

Instead of telling an infertile friend that God can open her womb, just pray with her instead. Walk alongside your friend and together, lay your heartache before the Lord and allow Him to work in His mysterious way.

Try not to wield Scripture as a magic wand that will make problems disappear. Use it with care and you’ll discover that it will equip you with the encouragement you need to face those problems.

Next: How you can help people connect with others who are experiencing fertility challenges or who are considering adoption.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Ms. Meehan September 2, 2011 at 3:29 PM

My pastor preached this past Sunday that barren women are barren because of their attitude. That bad attitudes cause a chemical imbalance that is keeping us from reproducing (as far as I know, I am the only barren woman in our small congregation). Your article was a comfort to me. I’ve been depressed since last Sunday, not because I thought my pastor was right, but because it hurt to hear such ignorance from the pulpit. Thanks for your wonderful articles.

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Missy October 24, 2011 at 6:50 AM

What an awful thing for a pastor to suggest. Perhaps he should go to medical school before presuming to understand infertility. All of us are born onto this earth with purpose. I knew from an early age that adoption was in my cards and I couldn’t love my children more had I given birth to them myself. The fact is, having children is not God favoring anyone over another or someone being more worthy than another. If it were, biological parents wouldn’t be abusing and murdering their babies on a daily basis–or giving them up for adoption or losing them to foster care due to drug/alcohol or just plain greedy/selfserving attitudes. Pregnancy, in my opinion, is a miracle each and every time; however, parenting is a grace and a calling. If I could do it all over again, I’d choose to adopt my children again in a heartbeat. God reveals Himself to each of us in a different way. Shame on your pastor.

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Laura Christianson October 24, 2011 at 10:56 AM

Lovely, thoughtful comment, Missy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Nulliparous September 10, 2011 at 8:53 PM

When a barren woman (me) googles infertility or barren & Bible or God, we get the run-down on the seven miraculous conceptions. I’m so glad that is not on the face of your site. It makes me crazy. None of those women were barren after all: they all have happy endings (babies all around). These women (or their husbands) were subfertile, not barren. Subfertility isn’t barreness. That isn’t the same situation as the 20-year-old woman who underwent a full hysterectomy last week. Those stories mean nothing to her, except that God is cruel and Christians either don’t understnad or the whole thing is a fairy tale. And twenty-five years later when she is still barren and her peers are grieving their emptying nests, she is still just as barren. How does she interpret 1 Timothy 2:15 for example? If her hope is in child birth, where does that leave her?

Also, if we (as a church) continue to lift up Moses’ biological mother as his “true” mother (over Pharoah’s daughter) and defind Joesph as something less than Jesus’ “real” father, where does that leave barren women who go on to adopt. Are they non-moms? Babysitters? Does their motherhood not count to the church? Should they just count their blessings that they watch out for someone else’s child and raise them in the church and faith that denies them the dignity of maotherhood-status? Has God cursed them to be barren in this life, plus called them to devote their lives raising other people’s children but never achieving “real” motherhood status in the eyes of the church, plus took away their hope for “preservation”?

I wish that the church and these websites would get real.

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kate November 20, 2011 at 12:43 PM

I am amazed anyone would return to that church witha apstor so biblically illiterate.
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Eve Teke June 14, 2012 at 11:19 AM

Sometimes i wish ppl who are not in the same boat as some of us are shud reserve their comments. I have been barren for the past 17 years. Got divorced from my first husband 12 years ago, and remarried 5 years ago. My husband has two kids from previous relations but its not the same. I am 44 , God has blessed the labour of my hands but i have no heir to leave the inheritance for. Before ppl who have kids can start pointing fingers , they shud try and put themselves in our shoes. What would they have done were they given a choice between Ivf and adoption? I still cry about it bcos like the previous speaker ppl in the bible all ended up with children. What about Exodus 23 verse 25 and 26. Is it not applicable to the Christians today?

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Tracy July 12, 2012 at 10:45 AM

Thank you for this post. I am approaching 35 and have no biological children. My husband has two children. We are trying to have another child. If one more doctor, friend, family member, magazine article, news broadcaster, etc tells me that I’m too old to have children. I will scream….loudly! It appears that I may be having early onset menopause, so my chances of getting pregnant are lower. And I miscarried in the past. Needless to say, I’ve been really depressed about it. My husband thinks that I’m consumed with the idea of having children and that if I can’t get pregnant we can just adopt…so I shouldn’t get too worked up about it. I wonder if he would be so nonchalant about it if he were the one having the difficulty. And let’s not forget my pastor who believes that I’m not pregnant because I haven’t devoted my life to working in the Church. If only I would spend every free moment I have either in church or working in the church office or dping something related to church, then God would give me a baby. And my favorite….maybe God isn’t giving you a baby because He knows you won’t be a good mother or because you’re not ready. Really? So the 14 year old who just gave birth to her second child was ready? And only women who are destined to be good mothers have babies? Really

Yes, I’m a little angry today….

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K December 23, 2012 at 12:43 AM

I get it. I seem to have fertility issues too (almost 4 years now, aged 30 now) and know the unbelievable anger and pain associated with it. I would say this is the hardest thing, by far, I have had to face in my relationship with God. He is the giver of life, I am His devoted child – so where’s the disconnect? I used to be immune to people’s ignorant comments and suggestions until I actually fell pregnant this year. Finally! I was a “woman” in every sense, I belonged to the club and could talk baby and pregnancy with every one else…. Only to discover the pregnancy was only a blighted ovum… no baby. Now my heart is raw and my emotions make no sense to me. The depth of pain a barren person feels must be one of the biggies in the human experience. We have always wanted to adopt, so that is the plan. Adoption won’t be “second prize”, it was just going to be Phase 2 in growing our family. They say that this heartache is only really healed when you become a parent (whether through adoption or other wise). I would imagine so.

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Willard Williams June 1, 2013 at 7:31 PM

Thank you for this post
I heard once that in folklore Jewish (Hebrew) tradition the word “barren” for women meant that a woman did not have any “male” children. That makes a lot sense to me, and it follows along the biblical theme. Women were not really brought to the forefront of scriptural significance unless they were either having male children, or washing feet, or being stoned for accusations of prostitution. The Bible for me is a total masculine peace of work. I am convinced that God is much bigger than any gender label we place on it. The bible in all of its greatness of spiritual insight is still a collection of stories by a society which was male dominate (in my opinion). I don’t discount it’s effectiveness in my spiritual journey, but I also know for myself it is not ultimate authority. For me the bible is one of the many texts books we encounter in the college of life. So much for my opinion and belief. I really just wanted to know if you had any insight on that barren thing referring to women not having any male children.

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