Her words were a sledge hammer to my future.
“It is unlikely that you will ever conceive.”
The doctor patted me on the shoulder awkwardly. Just like that, the future I had assumed and imagined ended in an explosion of grief.
Raining down on me for the next decade were shards of dreams, double-edged fissures of hope that sliced deep when they collided with my barrenness.
I prayed to conceive anyway. The Bible was full of stories of barren women who miraculously had children. I cried out to be one of them.
After a few years, bitterness trumped hope and those stories served as a reminder that God had stubbornly refused to include me in the group of the blessed, formerly-barren. No matter how I tried to trust Him, He refused to heal the brokenness of my body. In fact, my womb continued to fill with disease rather than a child—the most contrary answer to my prayer that I could imagine.
I recently began an in-depth study of 1 Samuel as it is the book our church will be working through for the next several months.
The book opens with Hannah’s story. Poor, barren Hannah.
Ridiculed by her fertile, sister-wife (why the Israelites thought polygamy was a good idea, I’ll never understand), Hannah was marked by her grief.
She goes to the tabernacle where she prays so feverishly that Eli the priest rebukes her for entering God’s dwelling place three sheets to the wind. She wasn’t drunk, of course. Only desperate and, in her words, “praying from the depth of [her] anguish and resentment.” (1 Sam. 1:16)
That part I get. And I am deeply grateful that her anguish is mentioned.
But Hannah prays, leaves the temple, is remembered by God, conceives, and gives birth to Samuel, the future-prophet. It’s the glowy, happy ending every barren woman longs for. But some of us never get that kind of ending.
In the early years of my entanglement with infertility I bristled at Hannah’s story. I remember someone gave me a book titled Hannah’s Prayer, or something like that, and I skimmed it with a mouth full of metallic-tasting resentment. There was no guarantee that I could have Hannah’s outcome. When well-intentioned people reminded me of her or Sarah or Elizabeth, I only withdrew further into my bitterness.
Those stories didn’t help me then.
But they should have.
Those stories should have encouraged me because the child each woman eventually gave birth to, though full of purpose and an integral part of God’s plan for His people, was not the point of the story.
The point was that God was sovereign in both His closing and opening of each woman’s womb. And though contrary to all we see and hear about blessing, there is a kindness in God’s refusals. It is difficult to grasp that it is kindness in the midst of loss and grief, but it is not untrue.
More than thirteen years after my initial introduction to barrenness, I can see the goodness of God in a closed womb. And it’s not simply because I have adopted two boys who are the children I was always longing for. They are, of course, the children I yearned for but didn’t know. Calling them “sons” is all the purpose I need in God’s refusal to open my womb, and on this side of it I can willfully submit to His “no” so that I could take part in His “yes.” But that’s not the full breadth of God’s goodness in closing my womb.
In 1 Samuel 1:5 and again in 1:6, the Scriptures read “the Lord had kept [Hannah] from conceiving.” (HSCB) In the ESV, it’s worded “the Lord had closed her womb.” While I bucked against the Lord’s intentional closing of my womb for many years, this morning when I read these words, I was comforted by the very same sentiment: God was intentional in closing my womb. Yes, I now find comfort in His refusal to open my womb.
Here’s why: I used to read these passages looking for hope for me. I looked for some scrap of promise I could hold on to that might shed light on a future change of circumstances regarding my barrenness. In so doing, I missed the main focal point of the passage: the Lord. Looking for me, I missed Him. Whenever I go to the Word looking for myself, I miss the wide arc of God’s faithful character. It took many years to unlearn this approach to the Word, but the Lord has faithfully wrung out my self-searching tendencies. Now, when I read this passage, I see the Lord’s faithful character, even and especially in His refusal to open Hannah’s womb until He gave her Samuel.Whenever I go to the Word looking for myself, I miss the wide arc of God's faithful character. Click To Tweet
What I now see is a God with intent.
He is no arbitrary God, randomly closing one womb and opening another. If He intended to close a womb, it is because He had purposed that it would be more glorifying to Him in its closure. If He deemed it best to open a long-sealed womb, then it is because He showed more goodness in opening it than closing it. If barrenness was a life-long malady, then it must be because God would be high and lifted up in the longevity of such a refusal. The mainstay is God’s goodness in His decisions for His people.
For Hannah, the arrival of Samuel when he came was important for the future of Israel. In the broad scheme of things, we can trace the path toward the anointing of king David and his future descendent, Christ, who will reign forever. The timing of God’s work is utterly significant.
But, it was also important for Hannah to lament her grief before the Lord and to be noticed by Him. To have the inner workings of her grief written down for us is no small thing when we consider that Hannah lived in a culture that undervalued women. The pains taken to convey her grief and then her trust to leave her petition to the Lord’s sovereign hand should not be lost on us.
I can know that the Lord who saw Hannah’s grief also sees mine. And if He thought it best to keep my womb forever closed, then it must be because He has great purpose in His refusals.
God never withholds from his child that which his love and mercy call good…God’s refusals are always merciful—’severe mercies,’ but mercies all the same. -Elisabeth Elliot
In preparing to teach this text on Sunday, my husband asked me this morning, “What would you say about 1 Samuel 1 to a barren woman?” I’d been sitting on the couch in the quiet early morning hour meditating on just this very thing, so the words came tumbling out:
“The Lord sees you. He is not arbitrarily withholding something good from you. He is sovereign over your barren womb, and that is actually a good thing. There is kindness in a God who does things with purpose, though we may never understand the purpose on this side of heaven. Sometimes you know the purpose. Sometimes, you’re Job, and you never know. But He always sees you, and you can trust Him with your future.”
Though it isn’t the message I wanted to hear thirteen years ago, it is the message I needed. More than I needed a child, I needed the truth of a wise, always-working, faithful God who heard my grief and was present even—and especially—in His refusal to answer my prayer the way I wanted. Living for years upon years with His specific closure of my womb has taught me that the thing I most needed—more than motherhood—was to understand that He is good in His severe mercies.
God’s goodness is wildly obvious in an open, fruitful womb.
But is also devastatingly present in a closed, barren womb.
I would not know the sweetness of a desperate dependency on Him if not for my barrenness. I would not have learned to release the prideful assumption of the master plan I’d mapped for my life. I would not have found breath in the One who gives life when grief closes in tightly. I would not have learned to cling to Scriptures that speak what is true—that God is faithful, near, just. I would not know the dear faces of two children entrusted to me. I would not be the still-barren but joyful mother, a title that makes great sense in the redemptive economy of God. If not for my closed womb, I would not know the joy of God’s refusals.
And so I say with Hannah:
There is no one holy like the Lord. There is no one besides You. And there is no rock like our God. Do not boast so proudly, or let arrogant words come out of your mouth, for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and actions are weighed by Him. (1 Samuel 2:2-3)
Here is a song I wrote many years ago on this topic: