Overflowing with warmth and sensitivity, this book explores what the Bible says about infertility, helping the church walk alongside couples struggling with infertility and assessing the ethical issues surrounding common fertility treatments and reproductive technologies.
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About the Author
Matthew Arbo (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is assistant professor of theological studies and director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Oklahoma Baptist University. He and his family are members of Frontline Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Read an Excerpt
Stories of Infertility and God's Abiding Promise
John and Lizzy's frustrations were not restricted to each other, to their marriage, or to their infertility. The few people they let in on their secret often said things that tended to do more harm than good. They were well-meaning, of course. Touched by John or Lizzy's vulnerability, they felt impressed to "speak into their lives," only it scarcely felt to John or Lizzy like words of consolation or counsel, but rather of denial or naiveté. It struck them not as wisdom, but platitudes. "It will happen!" friends would say. "The moment you stop trying so hard, you're sure to get pregnant." Or, "You know, adopting is one of the best fertility treatments, because the pressure of having a child is alleviated and then just like that — a bun in the oven!"
The fact is most people want to help by talking first and talking often. Simply being there for others is much harder. Christians are often no better at "weeping with those who weep" than they are of "rejoicing with those who rejoice" (Rom.12:15). When John and Lizzy disclosed their experience to others, they were given all varieties of advice — all of it more or less reducible to "cheer up, it'll happen in time." After a few years of this dismissive reassurance, John and Lizzy couldn't help but feel this sort of response was really just an indelicate way of avoiding the real hardship of bearing with someone through the pain of infertility and childlessness.
Throughout their infertility, but especially early on, the ribbing provocation of friends and family discouraged them most. "So, when are you two going to have a baby?" "What are you waiting on?" "Your parents really deserve a grandbaby." "Better while you're young!" Even less empathetic remarks were offered on a semiregular basis. On every occasion they felt an implicit judgment: they do not have children, and should. How were they supposed to respond to such thoughtlessness? They defaulted to their usual politeness, absorbing the rebuke. People just didn't understand what they were saying. Better to keep peace.
John and Lizzy wanted children but could not conceive. That was the problem, not preference or expectation management. They learned gradually the importance of discretion. Not everyone was trustworthy. Not everyone sincerely cared about their experience. They also learned over time how to rest in the peace of Christ. They could do only their part, after all; that which was beyond their power they left to Jesus. They asked him for the virtues and affections needed to persevere. When the words of others were hollow or hurtful, they cleaved to the words of their Savior. He alone was their hope and consolation. In him was life.
Where We're Going
Every experience of infertility is a storied experience. Each story has its own characters, setting, and plot. We need stories. Through story we situate ourselves and others to help make sense of where we are and how we got here. It is crucial to our self- understanding that we encounter the stories of others. Hearing others' stories reminds us we are not alone. This is particularly important when it comes to the experience of infertility, as it so naturally fosters a kind of solipsism, where couples feel they are the only ones who struggle with it.
The purpose of this chapter is to explore the reproductive obligations the Bible may, on some readings, impose on couples, and then to explore several of the more prominent infertility narratives in Scripture. It will become clear as we proceed that the gospel speaks to the experience of infertility and childlessness. God's Word is life-giving. His gospel is restorative and liberating, incorporating and commissioning. Jesus is the desire of the nations, the Creator and ruler of all. In him is life.
The Propagation Mandate
"Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. 1:28). So goes God's command to our first parents, Adam and Eve. The earth needed more human inhabitants. God repeats this imperative to Noah and his family following the flood, telling them to go and repopulate the earth (Gen. 9:7). A human presence on the earth matters to God. He made man with breath and dust, and he directs man to procreate in turn. As issued in Genesis, there isn't an option as to whether the command should be obeyed. The command was normative. It was also expedient. In the ancient world, having children was often a matter of life and death, of producing enough food or defending the tribe from aggressors. Failure to procreate was essentially a neglect of duty.
This particular scriptural command is sometimes referred to as a propagation mandate. Having children is something a wedded couple must do. The fact that it is an obligation means that a couple either upholds or does not uphold their procreative responsibility. Responsibility just works that way — we do it or we don't. Recognizing this is crucial, because what happens next is sometimes less than obvious to us. We associate upholding or not upholding our obligation as either a success or failure. And when we fail at doing what God commands us to do, we naturally begin to assume that we have displeased God and fallen under his judgment. If it cannot be God's fault, we say to ourselves, then it must be mine (or ours).
Let me offer an important point of clarification here. Couples who are open to having children and who do what they can to conceive but who have not (yet) succeeded in conceiving are not violating God's command. Conceiving is not a condition for upholding the command. It is a matter of the heart. The couple intends to have children, wants children, and so also wants to keep the command, but for whatever reason children have not yet come. It isn't that the couple tries to have children in order to keep the command either — let us not forget our freedom in Christ under the new covenant — but that in attempting to have children it also happens that they're tracking with the heart of God for humanity.
As people of the new covenant, united this side of Christ's death and resurrection, the duty to procreate has a slightly different purpose and rationale. It has moral and theological force, not legal. Here's what I mean. The Christian couple does not procreate simply to comply with God's requirement, but to bring into the world another recipient of grace, a servant to Christ's body, a worshiper of the Lord Most High. Christian parents bring children into the world so that they, too, might receive and enjoy God's grace. The gift of life is, theologically speaking, also a gift to the child. Having children just to comply with an obligation is an example of the legalism Paul warns against throughout his letters.
Procreation is a good and beautiful thing to do, but it is not the only purpose of Christian marriage. Debate over the ends of Christian marriage, how to enumerate and rank them, are perennial for the church, particularly between Catholics and Protestants. According to Catholic social teaching, the principal purpose of marriage is procreation. The natural law written into creation itself establishes a definite, inarguable purpose for marriage; indeed, it is the only holy purpose in sexual intercourse. To elevate any other purpose above it violates God's law. This is why, for example, artificial contraception is impermissible for Catholic couples.
Protestants have tended to understand the purposes of marriage a bit differently. Procreation is a good purpose for sex within Christian marriage, but so too is pleasure, intimacy, and friendship. Sex is instrumentalized only if pleasure is made the highest or exclusive purpose in sex, and that is the Catholic worry. But Protestants have understood sex as being for the higher purpose of intimacy and fidelity, and for which pleasure plays only a part.
The Protestant view was not an invention of the Reformation. As Oliver O'Donovan has argued, Christians of the earliest centuries understood friendship to be the highest purpose in marriage. Marital sex may strengthen the bonds of intimacy, loyalty, and friendship, or it may not. The temptation to misuse or exaggerate the capacity of sex to bridge every gap of intimacy is in our time everywhere on display.
Taking the stress point off of procreation in marital sex and subordinating it to the higher good of friendship has tremendous implications for how we think about infertility. If the purpose of marriage is procreation, then it follows that infertile couples cannot satisfy their highest conjugal purpose. Whether simply intending to procreate satisfies their purpose is of little consequence, for if they cannot satisfy their purpose materially by having children, then lesser purposes aspired to will always seem to infertile couples, and to others, as inferior, resulting in moral stratification.
If, on the other hand, procreation is subordinated to the higher good of friendship in Christian marriage, then infertility isn't a failure, but merely a factor of their relationship. Marriage is about more than having children. Indeed, it is about much more than friendship, too. The purpose of Christian marriage, as Paul understood, is mission. Christian marriage bears witness to the good news in Jesus Christ, to the love he extends to his bride, the church. Any children or friendship in marriage are understood in light of that purpose, and in turn receive their real meaning.
While on the subject, can't we also identify good and faithful Christian reasons for a couple to delay or refrain (for a time) from having children? It isn't difficult to imagine circumstances arising that might make the sudden arrival of children a physical, financial, or even spiritual hardship. Conception cannot always be perfectly timed or managed, of course, but if it is within a couple's faithful, prudent discretion to postpone having children, then there cannot also be an opposite obligation to have children whenever or however possible.
The exact reasons for delay are crucial. It is one thing, for example, to delay until a couple has saved enough money to pay for a hospital delivery and associated expenses, say, or to work through some sort of personal crisis. But it is quite another thing to delay having children until financial success is achieved, or because children are inconvenient, or some other unconvincing reason. A couple should therefore seek to discern the just, charitable, and prudent conditions for having children. Not, I should stress, the ideal conditions. Ideal conditions for having children do not exist! That's a destructive myth. Ignore ideals, and focus instead on God's gracious leading.
It's better to think of having children as a good thing to do, rather than an obligatory thing to do. No one is displeasing God by being unable to conceive. Humans can't be held responsible for not doing what isn't even possible for them to do. All any Christian couple can do is put themselves at God's disposal: to live as disciples, together, receptive to his Word and open to his grace.
With all that said, however, and speaking for a moment to infertile readers, my guess is that infertility isn't hard for you because of some unfulfilled obligation you might feel toward God or society or family or spouse. It is hard because you long so deeply for a child of your own. It is hard because you long to bring a new one into the world you can parent and befriend. It is hard because you imagine a story for yourself — and your family — that includes more characters than you and your spouse. It is hard because becoming a parent seems as though it will redefine your place in the world. It is hard because you want to love a child through to adulthood. It is hard because you want to be a mom or dad. It is hard because the absence of a child means you may miss out on profound and enriching experiences reserved only for parent and child. It is hard because you want to hear children laughing, to console their sobs, to share meals with them, to tell them stories. It is hard because you want to fit in, and because you despair at being seen as deficient or less than human. It is hard because you love your spouse and want this for him or her, too. Even if some of these don't quite correspond to your own hopes and disappointments, you can undoubtedly supply your own that do.
It is hard, you realize, both for good and bad reasons. Sometimes you feel rage, and sometimes you feel hopeless. At your lowest, perhaps, you feel alone and confused and forsaken. But may I offer you some reassurance? You are not alone. You are not alone in your experience, nor are you alone when you feel alone. A great many other couples have experienced infertility. Infertility is a recurring theme in the book of Genesis, actually. In examining a few of the narratives I want you to keep the following truth in mind: because God is our Father we can be assured that he cares for his children and cares in turn for the childless.
Now that we've given some contours to God's creation and to the command "be fruitful," let's turn our attention to a few biblical narratives that capture the experience of infertility and God's response to that experience. The stories are unique but share some discreet similarities, one of which will prove striking: God cares for the childless.
Abram and Sarai (Genesis 15–21). Years have passed since the Lord first covenanted with Abram, promising to bless him and to bless all the families of the earth through him. The boundless hope provoked by Abram's first encounter with the Lord hardens into frustration over time. From Abram's viewpoint, God has been too slow in fulfilling the promise. So, he lodges a complaint with God: "Behold, you have given me no offspring" (15:3). God hears Abram, and promises him innumerable offspring, as many as the stars in the sky. The covenant is reaffirmed.
Time passes, however, and Abram and Sarai still have no children. Sarai proposes an alternate way of securing a family heir. Sleep with her servant, Hagar, she suggests to Abram, and perhaps that will resolve the dilemma. Abram doesn't put up much of a fight to the proposal, and later Hagar does indeed bear him a son, Ishmael. But the plan Sarai hatched wasn't quite in keeping with the terms of the promise the Lord had made with Abram. It was an unfaithful circumvention. The urgency of having an heir seemed to justify disregard of the promise.
And as it happens, circumventing the terms of the promise carries troubling consequences. Hagar looks on Sarai with contempt, and when Sarai identifies the new scorn from her servant, she (with Abram's permission) deals harshly with her. The whole surrogacy idea was a huge mistake. God shows mercy to Hagar and Ishmael, but the child God promised through Sarai would not come for another thirteen years, by which point Abram and Sarai are so old that God's gentle reminder of his covenant, especially the promise of a child, is met with laughter. Always ready to relish good irony, God notifies them of the child's name: Isaac. Their promised son would forever bear the name of their response — laughter.
God delivers on his promise in his own time, not Abraham and Sarah's. Elaborate attempts to adjust the terms of God's promise were futile. In fact, their strategies were evidence of infidelity and hopelessness. Laughter was proof that they had given up hope in the promise of a child long ago. Realities of their situation were far, far too contravening. When a child finally is conceived, however, there is no question why and how it has happened: God has done it. Isaac is God's gift, the longed-for and long- awaited child of the covenant. God redeems the error of using Hagar as a surrogate, but the promise of a child was clear and his faithfulness to it was sure.
Jacob, Leah, and Rachel (Genesis 28–30). Jacob worked twice as many years as he thought he'd have to in order to wed Rachel. Laban got the best of him. Jacob thought he slept with Rachel, the one he'd worked seven years for, when really it was Leah. The trickster got tricked! He deceived his father to steal the blessing meant for his older brother, Esau, and, now on the run and under very different circumstances, he himself is deceived into marrying the wrong woman. Eventually Jacob and Laban reach an agreement and Jacob will also wed Rachel — for real this time — in return for another seven years' labor.
Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah, and because Leah is unpreferred, God "opens her womb," while Rachel remains barren (Gen. 29:31). Leah conceives many sons. Rachel none. Rachel envies her sister and dismays. She blames her plight initially on Jacob: "Give me children, or I shall die!" (Gen. 30:1). She's promptly rebuked for it. "Am I in the place of God," asks Jacob, "who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" (30:2). Rachel improvises. She adopts the Sarah strategy and offers Jacob her servant, who, over ensuing years, bears him two children. Meanwhile Leah, who thought her childbearing years were behind her, suddenly conceives yet another child, followed again by two more. She has seven children in all.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Walking through Infertility"
Copyright © 2018 Matthew Arbo.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Karen Swallow Prior 11
Introduction: A Modern Story of Infertility 15
1 Stories of Infertility and God's Abiding Promise 23
2 Christian Discipleship and Human Affection 43
3 The Vitality and Consolation of the Church 61
4 A Moral Appraisal of Infertility Treatment 75
Appendix: Interview with Patrick and Jennifer Arbo 97
General Index 113
Scripture Index 115
What People are Saying About This
“Infertility is painful. In these pages, Matthew Arbo gives biblical insight and wise counsel, offering both comfort and hope for those on this difficult journey. Walking through Infertility goes deeper than the superficial clichés couples often hear, which, though intended to comfort, can hurt. Arbo frames infertility within the biblical narrative, where it is actually quite common and significantwe find we are not alone. Additionally, he helps those navigating some of the complex ethical decisions made possible by modern technology for dealing with infertilitywe are not without guidance. Ultimately, he points to our comfort in the community of the church and our hope in the God of life.”
Joshua Ryan Butler, Pastor, Imago Dei Community, Portland, Oregon; author, The Skeletons in God’s Closet and The Pursuing God
“I am glad to commend Matthew Arbo’s Walking through Infertility both to couples going down this road and to the friends, family members, and professionals who walk this road with them. It is sensitively done, and full of wisdom and insight about what these couples are facing. It’s a worthwhile resource, which I will often consult.”
Scott B. Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University
“Walking through Infertility is a resource I wish had been available when we walked through our own struggles with infertility. In an age of increasing medical advancement, the options for couples are numerous and often overwhelming. Matthew Arbo has provided a helpful resource for couples as they consider what the Bible has to say about infertility and how God’s Word speaks to the various treatments out there. But Arbo also speaks to church leaders, who are often left wondering how to counsel those under their care. This is a needed book and I’m glad it’s finally here.”
Courtney Reissig, author, Teach Me to Feel and Glory in the Ordinary
“The challenges of infertility raise serious and substantive pastoral and ethical questions, yet few accessiblemuch less biblicalvolumes exist to address them. Matthew Arbo’s sensitive and careful discussion is alive to the struggles such couples face, yet concerned about the ethical temptations that arise within them. This is a helpful volume, with theologically grounded counsel that lay leaders and pastors should weigh carefully.”
Matthew Lee Anderson, Founder, Mere Orthodoxy; author, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith
“Couples who have suffered from this deeply personal pain will find comfort, understanding, hope, and clear direction in this helpful book. Highly recommended.”
Rick Warren, Pastor, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California