What is the Biblical Perspective on Childlessness?
I would suggest that God’s design and intention for most married couples is the blessing of children. So first, it starts with the foundational premise that children are a blessing from God.
The Old Testament and New Testament both indicate that there was shame connected to not being able to bear children. This is not necessarily God-given shame, but the natural outflow of knowing that usually, children are produced at some point(s) in a marriage. Shame is about sensing something is wrong about ourselves. But now that we know more about conception, we can know that sometimes things just don’t go right for a variety of reasons on a purely biological level, such as a wife whose body is allergic to her husband’s sperm, or hormone levels not conducive to maintaining a pregnancy. In that case, it’s helpful to recall the biblical concepts of:
• Stewardship of the earth, which leads to medical science. There are procedures and medications that may assist in reproduction.
• The sovereignty of God. No one can conceive unless He calls that child into being.
• Trust in the goodness of God.
With the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases that result in the infertility of one or both partners, the consequences of premarital or extramarital sexual sin may include childlessness. In this case, a biblical perspective sadly includes the principle of sowing and reaping, where infertility is the result of sinful choice.
When couples try to have children and cannot, then the biblical call to trust God means following His leading. It may mean pursuing medical treatment. Or building your family through adoption. Or choosing to live without children to free up energies for Kingdom work. (I am thinking of several couples I know who now recognize that their childlessness was the doorway to great spiritual fruitfulness of a different kind.)
A childless couple may not experience shame over their childlessness, but it would be important to give voice (and tears) to the grief, disappointment and deep sense of loss over it. David wrote in Psalm 51, “I know that You desire truth in my inmost parts,” and we know that mental and spiritual health means being honest about what’s going on in our hearts.
It is my privilege to share with you the deep wisdom of my friend Sandra Glahn, author of When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden and The Infertility Companion:
What the Bible says directly about infertility:
If you read the Bible cover-to-cover, you will find lots of stories about infertile couples from Abraham and Sarah to Samson’s parents to Hannah and Elkanah in the Old Testament and Elisabeth and Zechariah in the New. In each of these stories the couple goes on to conceive. That’s because the Bible is not a textbook on infertility. The stories are select histories included as part of a bigger story, the story of God’s redemption of humankind. And infertility is often the way God uses to demonstrate His ability to do the impossible.
In the Old Testament we also find promises that God will curse his people with infertility if, as a nation, they do not obey him. A problem arises when we read these sections and wrongly conclude that infertility is a curse from God.
The curses God outlined involved entire populations, including humans and livestock all infertile at once. He was not talking about individual infertility. Michal, David’s wife who laughed at him for dancing before the Lord, is said to have never had children, but that does not necessarily mean she was “struck” with infertility. It may be that David just never “summoned” her again.
In one other instance in the Law we see that an adulterous woman was cursed with infertility. But overall, infertility is more an affliction of the righteous than the unrighteous. And the infertility as a curse is at a national not a personal level. In the New Testament when Elisabeth conceives, she rejoices that God has removed her shame in the eyes of the people.
How to think biblically about infertility:
Reproducing. The first commands given to humans were to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the plant and animal kingdoms and the earth itself. The last command is to make disciples. So while reproducing physically is a wonderful part of being human, it is not the only way God has ordained and blessed for leaving a lasting legacy.
Longing. In Proverbs 30 we read that when we look around and observe the natural world as God made it, we see that it’s normal for an infertile person to have deep, unfulfilled longing. Infertility can cause a lot of grief, and it is not “unspiritual” to feel a profound sense of loss.
Gifted living. The apostle Paul called celibacy a gift (1 Cor 7). And in one translation of the Psalms (NASB), children are called “a gift.” (Though in the context, Psalm 127, the actual phrase is “sons are an inheritance/heritage”; at that time children were the means to economic success and many sons assured military protection). A wife is called a gift. So one way to think biblically about infertility is to recognize that while the gift of children has been withheld, children are only one of many gifts through which God gives his blessing. If Aquilla and Priscilla ever had children, they are not mentioned.
Limits on dominion. If you read Genesis 1-2, you will notice that while God gave humans dominion, he put limits on what they were to manage/subdue. They were given stewardship if the earth and its animal and flying creatures. But notice that they were not given dominion over each other. Humans were made in the image of God, so all humanity, even at the one-cell stage, is precious to Him. One of the ways of thinking biblically about infertility is to recognize this and to tread carefully when considering advanced reproductive technologies (ARTs). There are ways to use ARTs that honor human life at the one-cell stage and there are ways that do not. We are also called to be good stewards of our bodies and our resources. That being said, infertility is only a symptom of a problem such as a malfunctioning thyroid or hormone imbalance. Many couples pursue treatment both to have a child and also to find out the source of what is wrong.
I hope you find this helpful.
© 2006 Probe Ministries
Dear Sue , i would like to than you for your post
You are so welcome, Jimmy. I was blessed to re-read what I wrote a number of years ago, especially quoting the wisdom of Dr. Sandra Glahn.
Hi Sue, thank you for the wonderful post! I would just like to add some clarification to something you mentioned in the last paragraph! You wrote “infertility is only a symptom of a problem” however, this is untrue in many infertile women. Many types of infertility, one of which is premature ovarian failure where infertility is a direct results of not having eggs/ follicles in the woman’s ovary. In this case, stimulating or creating more eggs or therapy to harvest eggs does not work. Just wanted to clarify that sometimes figuring out ” what’s wrong” leads doctors to find that there is nothing there i.e. no “raw material” to create a child from. Hope this could help you understand the fertility problems that some women face.
Thank you for this comment, Jenna. In the big picture, though, I would still say that infertility means something has gone wrong in God’s design and plan for reproduction. Infertility may BE the problem, but there seem to be many ways in which our world manifests its fallenness. There is SO much pain connected with the heartache of infertility. Bless you.