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Two years ago, my husband gave me this icon for my birthday. At the time, I thought it a sweet gift but highly unseasonal. I’m a summer baby, after all, and it would be a full four months before Christmas came around again.
Still, I displayed the gift on our dining room buffet all through autumn, and I am so glad I did. Because one blustery day, I glanced up from my supper plate and saw the icon with eyes afresh. I looked past the star of wonder and the Christmas red and the Marian blue and saw only the words,
Unto Us a Child Is Born.
I couldn’t swallow my food for the lump in my throat.
I have read those words a hundred times and not just on the icon. All my Baptized life, I have known Isaiah‘s prophecy, and I am blessed to believe it. But not always have I known the prophecy as a barren woman.
Not just unto Mary and Joseph and Bethlehem and Israel, but unto us — me and my husband. A Child is born unto us, the barren couple.
The thing we’ve never known — the happy news we’ve never been able to trumpet to our family and friends — has been ours to share all along: Unto us a child is born! It’s a boy, and His name is Jesus. And He is born unto you, as well.
I now proudly display our happy birth announcement all year round.
“Does God answer prayers? Does He really? I’ve been praying for many years for a child, and it’s taking FOREVER. I’m trusting you, God, and I’m ready for children. Please, Lord, if it be Your will.”
Dear sister in Christ, I’ve been there. For many-a-year I prayed and prayed that God would give children to my husband and me. In my sin-sick mind, I just knew that His answer would be YES…immediately. That was not to be the case. With the help of some medication to boost the proper hormones, our daughter was born. Thanks be to God! He had given a YES to our prayers.
A couple of years later we hoped to add to our little family again. This was not to be the case, though. After multiple appointments, my doctor suggested IVF. I was firmly against the procedure. That seemed like a strong NO to our prayer. It took some time for my husband and me to pursue adoption. There was so much to consider: change in family structure, the wait-time, the finances for adoption, the mental adjustments for everybody. After much prayer, we decided to try the adoption process, even though there were no guarantees.
The paperwork was huge, but we pressed on. We were told that the entire process for adopting a child from China would last 13-14 months. Hooray! We could wait that amount of time. Perhaps this was another YES to prayers. The process would take much longer than 14 months. The months stretched to years, many years. Could this be a WAIT from God? During the interim, we were given permission to try a domestic adoption as well. This seemed agreeable to us. After completing even more paperwork, our profile was circulated among pregnant moms. Nobody seemed interested in us. Was this to be another NO to our prayers? Our two-year commitment to that program expired, and we did not renew our file. Still we waited.
After seven long years of praying and mourning, God answered our prayers with a YES. On this day, five years ago, we received our referral for our second daughter! Prayers of thanksgiving and tears abounded!
We were informed that we would be traveling a few short months later. Due to several hiccups, our trip to receive our little girl occurred more like five months later. It turned out to be a time of more waiting. God used this time to prepare ourselves, our families, and our church family for the joys that were to come.
Dear sister, I share these things with you, not to teach you that God will answer your prayers in the way that you want. Rather, I want you to know that God answers your prayers in the way that He deems best. Our desires do not always line up with God’s plans for us, and we desperately would like to be the ones who run the show. Not so. God knows our needs and provides in the best ways possible. He really does.
During our family prayer time this morning, we sang the hymn “What God Ordains Is Always Good.” The words are comforting and encouraging. I commend them to you this day.
What God ordains is always good:
His will is just and holy.
As He directs my life for me,
I follow meek and lowly.
My God indeed In every need
Knows well how He will shield me;
To Him, then, I will yield me.
Lutheran Service Book 760:1
Have you had a chance to read He Remembers the Barren, yet?
If not, catch up on what’s new in the revised and extended second edition by listening to these recent interviews on Worldwide KFUO’s Faith ‘n’ Family show:
Whenever discussing points of ethical contention surrounding the complex subject of assisted reproductive technology, there is usually one fundamental question in need of answering in the church: What exactly is the one flesh union of marriage?
Thank you to Dr. Gifford A. Grobien, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the D. Min. Program at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN, for graciously thinking through this question and composing an answer for the benefit of our ongoing discussion of infertility medicine:
The instituting text for marriage is 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 English “flesh” translates well the Hebrew bāśār, meaning the material tissue of a creature. It is the organic, biological elements of a person. The Hebrew něp̄ěš refers to a complete creature, not just its flesh, but its flesh and life. For animals (e.g. Genesis 1:20) this includes its breath; for human persons this includes the soul or self. Něp̄ěš is not used in Genesis 2:23-25.
Thus marriage is characterized fundamentally not as a personal union, but as a fleshly union. This union is an organic, biological union of bodies. Marriage is, firstly, the becoming “one flesh,” not becoming one creature or person. Marriage is a union of flesh or bodies. Marriage is not identical to coitus, but coitus is constitutive of marriage.* When Jesus is questioned about divorce, he reminds his questioners about the nature of marriage as union of flesh, quoting Genesis 2:24 (Matthew 19:3-6; Mark 10:2-12). What, then, is this becoming one flesh? How is it different from becoming united in other ways?
Girgis, George, and Anderson (2010) explain that the union of flesh is not just bodily intimacy, in which body parts of one person surround or intermingle with the body parts of another person. Rather, a body serves natural life. The parts of a body coordinate to achieve biological purpose. For two people to have fleshly, or biological, union, “their bodies must be coordinated for some biological purpose of the whole” (p. 254). Nearly all biological, or fleshly, acts can be accomplished by one independent body—for example respiration, circulation, and digestion. Indeed, fleshly union with respect to any of these bodily acts is impossible. Only in coitus do two bodies act for one biological function.
Coitus enacts a unique fleshly existence and accompanying purpose of procreation. Alone, the reproductive system of one person cannot reproduce. Coitus brings together two bodies in a fleshly union to make possible the singular biological act of procreation.
Any bodily touching that is not coitus—even other touching of a sexual nature—is not true bodily union but only juxtaposition or contiguousness, even if this juxtaposition happens to occur inside a person’s body. One might argue that non-coital sexual relations nourish and expresses intimacy and emotional union. Yet such a union would be just that: one of emotion, the will, or the mind. It is still not a union of the flesh, by which two bodies act together as one body or one flesh, seeking a fleshly—that is, organic or biological—purpose.
The union of flesh in marriage, then, consists of coitus. To emphasize this does not, on the other hand, deny that marriage is also a union of minds, wills, and passions. Marriage by design includes all of these. Coitus is not the only element of marriage. Rather, coitus is one of the fundamental, unique elements of marriage.
Nor is emphasizing coitus to reduce marriage to mating, as though human persons were mere animals. Although, on the above criteria, many animals also engage in a union of flesh when they mate, this does not exclude other characteristics from the fleshly union of man and woman: characteristics which qualify human marriage differently from the mating of animals.
The fleshly union of man and woman is fundamentally a bodily union, but it also includes the union of other human qualities such as the will, the emotions, and the mind. Taking the above understanding of union in general to mean the coordination of two or more elements for a common purpose, in sexual relations a man and woman would also properly coordinate their wills, emotions, and minds. Indeed, their souls are coordinated and caught up with one another in the purposes of deepening and nourishing their relationship, of enjoying one another, and of conceiving, bearing, and raising a child. The relational bond is as much a part of the fleshly union as the biological union. To insist upon the biological or organic union as fundamental to marriage does not in any way marginalize the other ways that a husband and wife are united in marriage.
St. Paul explains this in Ephesians 5: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body” (28-30). For human beings, fleshly union is more than mating; is it to treat one’s spouse with love, nourishment, and warmth or comfort. These are the human qualities that go along with fleshly union.
Nor does the fundamental character of fleshly union in marriage in any way diminish or annul the marriages of infertile couples. The union of flesh refers to the act of coitus. In coitus, man and woman come together as one organically. Should this act not later result in conception says nothing about the act of union itself. “[W]hether a couple achieves bodily union depends on facts about what is happening between their bodies,” not other factors regarding the effectiveness of the reproductive system (Girgis, George, and Anderson, 266).
Finally, it is, in fact, only through fleshly union that two people can be completely united. People of all sorts may be united emotionally, according to their wills, or according to their minds. Coworkers united to find the solution to a research question or to a mechanical problem in an automobile have a kind of union in intellect. Friends are united in common activities according to their wills and often according to their emotions. Bodily union, however, occurs only between two who engage in a union of the flesh. Thus, the only relationship that allows the full union of persons—bodily, emotionally, according to the will, and according to the mind—is the relationship which includes fleshly union, that is, marriage. Thus, again, St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 express the character of this union: a union of flesh, of love, of care, of growth and nourishment (28-30).
Marriage may be instituted as a union of flesh, a union of bāśār. As a union of human flesh, however, it rightly becomes a union of něp̄ěš, of life. The union of flesh, the ground of marriage, properly stimulates true love for one another, leading to a true union of lives, of both bodies and souls.
*In this essay, coitus means specifically male-female genital sexual relations, not any other kind of use of sexual organs, even that which may occur between a man and a woman.
Girgis, S., R.P. George, and R.T. Anderson. 2010. “What is Marriage?” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. 34 (1): 245-288.
One of the aspects of barrenness that is so awkward is the fact that the “success” of your marital relations (more modernly called your “sex life”) with your spouse is often scrutinized by those around you, either privately in their own minds, or quite publicly to your face. The joining of two fleshes into one in the bonds of holy matrimony used to be treated with such modesty and respect. No one would dare ask you whether you’re “doing it” right or if you’ve tried such-and-such a method. But the sexual revolution changed all that, and in numerous Christian publications we read that the act is a beautiful, natural part of marriage and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. We should celebrate our gift of sexuality and teach the children in our Church all they need to know to be prepared for utilizing this gift. But is this what the Bible says? When we blush at the questions about what’s wrong with our reproductive organs, is that for a good reason, or are we just prudes?
Linda Bartlett, former national president of Lutherans for Life, has just published The Failure of Sex Education in the Church: Mistaken Identity, Compromised Purity, which exposes the myths that our generation, as well as our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, have been taught to believe about what children should know to be prepared for marriage, the marital act, and procreation.
Bartlett begins by giving the necessary history of how the Church, during the mid-20th century, put too much trust in “experts” instead of the inspired Word of God and willingly traded in our biblical understanding of manhood, womanhood, procreation, parenting, and purity for a more “scientific” approach to teaching children about the intimacies of marriage. Falsified, inaccurate, and even perverted studies on the “sexuality” of the human male and female conducted by Alfred Kinsey were presented to universities, medical associations, and church bodies as facts which could not be ignored by enlightened academics. Christianized versions of the sexual revolution’s message were then (and still are) passed down to schools and parents to share with children.
Are just what are some of these myths?
The Church was naive in its promotion of sex education in the parochial schools, Bartlett points out, but not malicious. We were deceived into believing that we are “sexual from birth,” and this brainwashing had the complete opposite effect on our Church members as what was intended. It cleared the way for the acceptance of fornication, homosexuality, birth control, and even abortion as a normal part of life for those who are simply expressing their sexuality – being who they thought they were created to be.
But that’s not how we were created, Bartlett reminds us. The solution to the mess we are in now is our Baptism. This is where we received our true identities as children of the Heavenly Father, not sexual beings created to express our sexuality, but holy beings, created to live holy (not sexual) lives. “It is important,” Bartlett says, “for the Body of Christ to see each member as fully human as opposed to sexual and, therefore, an instrument for God’s purpose and glory whether a child or adult, single or married, in this circumstance or that,” (pg. 108).
Because Bartlett presents such shocking evidence of our deception, she presents her case in the form of a patient dialogue between herself and her readers, including over 100 questions and then answering almost every objection one could think of to the notion that there is anything wrong with the way the Church has been educating her children. Her love and concern for her Church family flow through each section as she gently reminds us all that, “Even well-intentioned sex education in the Church leans the wrong way if built on the wrong foundation,” (pg. 129).
If you have children, if you teach children, if you are related to children, or if you once were a child, this book is for you.
I was sitting in the hot seat at KFUO, listening to my husband respond to the radio show host’s question of what it means to deal with barrenness as a man, when I heard him say this:
“This cross [of barrenness] is one of the ways the Lord is teaching us to trust more fully in Him and in His will. He wants us to trust Him on this even when we have not received this particular gift that He gives.”
The wrestling angel released his death grip on my conscience, my hip went back into its socket, and I saw again the Lord’s blessing on my childless marriage. We get to trust in the Lord. Our barrenness is a gift, an opportunity to trust in God further, to trust in Him still, to trust in Him regardless, for He promises to work all things for our good. A wave of comfort washed over me like an anointing, its soothing rivulets of warm, sweet-smelling oil streaming down my neck and my spine.
It is not a new concept, this trusting in the Lord, but I still need to hear it over and over again that my baptized heart might believe and be comforted.
Luther writes about it this way in his Large Catechism (I:2-3):
“A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”
Lord, help me ever to set my heart on and put my trust in You, not in motherhood. For Jesus’ sake, amen.