Prayers of the Infertile: Longing, Hope, and Solidarity

Posted 09/24/2018

Department:
Author: Cory B Willson

For nearly two years now, my wife and I have been praying for God to give us a child. Every month we go through the repeated cycle of hope, then fear and disappointment. Two years of numerous medical appointments and tests; hope deferred 24 times. The question we dread facing is this: At what point do we give up this hope—and grieve the loss of our hope—for a biological child? At times it seems easier to stop hoping than to live with the heartache of repeated disappointment. But it’s hard to know how to mourn when you don’t have definitive answers.

Some months are more painful than others. With every doctor appointment, blood test, cycle chart, and medical procedure we expose ourselves to risk—each step an act of hope creating further vulnerability to disappointment.

One dark morning on our drive to work, my wife said, “Cory, I’m over a week late. That is very unusual for me.” I held my breath, afraid to speak for fear of jinxing anything—superstition comes naturally in moments of desperation and helplessness. We drove on in silence.

My hopes proved to be short-lived. When she pulled up to my workplace at the end of the day, I could read on her face the news I dreaded.

Years ago, Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities for people with intellectual disabilities, visited a psychiatric hospital filled with orphans. Once inside, he was confronted by the eerie silence of hundreds of children lying neglected on their cots. There was no crying or commotion. “When they realize that nobody cares, that nobody will answer them,” wrote Vanier in Becoming Human (Paulist Press, 1998), “children no longer cry. It takes too much energy. We cry out only when there is hope that someone will hear us.”

Dare We Speak of Hope?

How does our Christian faith enable us to carry on when hope seems lost? How do we encourage one another in the context of Christian community? My answer is simple: We dare not speak of hope if we do not practice solidarity and lament.

The problem in many North American churches is that we largely speak in words of pithy optimism with theology about as deep as a Hallmark sympathy card. We cannot stomach the fragility of the hope we encounter in the face of people’s ongoing suffering, preferring to fortify ourselves against their pain with theological platitudes that keep us at arms’ length. Something about a suffering person unsettles the “safe” world of would-be comforters.

Consider a sampling of responses I have heard from fellow Christians: “At least your wife is young; you still have time.” “Have you looked into adoption?” Or “My wife and I struggled for a few months, but then we gave it over to God and we got pregnant.” Responses like these reveal an unwillingness to sit in ashes with us. This incapacity for solidarity is painfully sad and incredibly isolating for those suffering. Is it any wonder more people don’t speak up about infertility in our churches?

Someone will inevitably ask, “Aren’t you forgetting about the gospel and its offer of hope?” Eschatologically, our hope is secure—the risen Christ will return; sin, Satan, and death will be no more (Rev. 20:7-21:4). But hope—biblical hope—should lead us to be more attentive to present suffering, not less. Hope is not an opiate; rather, it keeps us crying out to God. Hope should lead us to groan laments because things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be (Rom. 8:18-27), such as the continuing mutilation of black bodies, the usury of Latino labor without providing legalized status, and, yes, even the silent suffering of infertility.

Hope is fragile, sometimes even dangerous. And yet we cannot live long without hope.

So how are we to speak of hope when there seems to be no clear path forward, when God is silent? Where can we find strength to hope when the future is uncertain and we have no promise that our desires will be fulfilled in this life? I have found guidance in the stories of two people who suffered immensely and lived in an extended state of deferred hope.

Hope Deferred and Communal Solidarity

Hope in God is a communal endeavor, not a solitary one. Harriet Jacobs was an African American slave whose material conditions gave her no reason to hope. And no one could have any reason to speak optimistic words of hope over her dark situation. However, a community of people came around her to enact hope throughout her journey.

Jacobs was barely an adolescent when her “Christian” slave master tried for several years to force her into a sexual relationship. Before her master’s perverse plans could develop further, Jacobs chose to give herself to a white lawyer in town. In her memoir, she said it seemed less degrading to bear children with an unmarried man who treated her kindly than to submit to the control of her master’s adulterous compulsions (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself).

But Jacobs’ troubles were not over. As her children grew, her master used them as pawns to coerce her to submit to his will. Forced to act, Harriet feigned an escape to the North and hid in the attic of her grandmother’s home. Nearly seven years of her life were spent lying in that narrow crawl space.

What kept Jacobs’ hope alive during those years is a powerful description of sacrificial community. Countless friends and family risked prison and death to transfer her between hiding places and to arrange her passage North. Some came under cover of night to bring her news of danger or updates about her children. Most did not leave before mingling their tears with hers. Tender moments of affection from these visitors brought compassion amid her lonely agony. After Jacobs learned that her children had been thrown in jail, her friend Betty slept beside her as she wept through the night.

What kept Jacobs’ hope alive? Not a naive optimism that material conditions will inevitably improve over time. As we look back from two centuries later, we know that freedom from slavery did not give way to equality, but rather to lynchings, Jim Crow, and segregation. Harriet’s hope instead came from the costly solidarity within the African American community as together they took steps toward life and freedom in the face of injustice and despair.

Breaking the Silence: Lament as a Form of Hope

Every year during Lent I read Elie Wiesel’s book Night to help me inhabit Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This year I read it looking for hope that would keep me struggling on the path of life and away from the deadening of silence Vanier warned about.

Night is an extended autobiographical treatment on the fragility of hope amid the horrors of genocide. It tells of Wiesel’s experience of the Holocaust and the murder of his parents and siblings in Nazi concentration camps. Early on, Wiesel gives repeated examples of Jews who held out false hope that “things will get better” or that “circumstances are not as bad as they seem.” Such optimism blinded them to the real intent of the Nazis. “The Germans were already in the town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict had already been pronounced,” wrote Wiesel, “yet the Jews of Sighet continued to smile.” In contrast to false optimism, Wiesel describes the quick demise of those who lost hope for someone or something in life beyond the concentration camp. Optimism and despair ultimately led to the same end.

A turning point in Wiesel’s struggle with faith comes after he witnesses the execution of a young boy alongside two adults. Horrified, the prisoners watched the hanging and were then made to march past the bodies. The hanged adults died immediately, but because the child was so light, he straddled life and death for more than half an hour. He was still living when Wiesel passed by.

This experience forever altered Wiesel’s faith in God. As he went through the celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that year, he could no longer remain silent. “Why should I bless Him?” he wrote. “In every fiber I rebelled. Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days?”

The liturgies of the high holidays became for Wiesel occasions of protest and lament. Such prayers may seem brazen to many Christians. Isn’t it presumptuous of a mere mortal to speak this way to the one sovereign and omnipotent God? For Wiesel, such prayers were a way of breaking his silence with God and preserving his faith.

Not long after the young boy’s hanging, a rabbi in the camp lost his faith. “It’s the end,” said the rabbi. “God is no longer with us.” And then he recanted: “I know. One has no right to say things like that. I know. Man is too small, too humble and inconsiderable to seek to understand the mysterious ways of God.” The rabbi could not reconcile the horrors around him with his belief in a merciful God. The death knell for his faith rang the moment his theology kept him silent in the face of genocide. He stopped believing that God would answer, so he stopped crying out.

Wiesel’s commentary drives home this point: “Poor [Rabbi]. . . . As soon as he felt the first cracks forming in his faith, he had lost his reason for struggling and had begun to die.”

To question God as Wiesel does is a birthright passed down from Jacob (“Israel” means “he struggles with God” (Gen. 32:28)) and vocalized in the psalms. To lament is to keep alive the hope that God is listening even in the face of death. Wiesel shows us how lament, not silence, is the proper response of faith amid suffering and injustice. Lament breaks the silence and struggles to hold on to God and to life.

Suffering and Empathy

I realize I expose myself to criticism by placing our unfolding story of infertility alongside the experiences of slavery and the Holocaust. Our suffering seems pitifully small compared to the long histories of suffering and injustice against African Americans and Jews.

In his 2017 Netflix special The Age of Spin, comedian Dave Chappelle warns against the fruitlessness of comparing our suffering to that of others. (He jokes about getting into a “who suffered more” debate with a Jewish friend. He thought he was doing well until his friend reminded him of Egypt.) A better path forward, says Chapelle, is to own our pain as way of expanding our capacity to empathize with the suffering of others—“I suffer, you suffer. You suffer, I suffer.” We should not disqualify our pain because it does not compare to that of others. Our pain can be an entry point for empathy and connecting with the suffering of others. We can take our place among the community of suffering people, or we can turn inward to isolation and despair.

Suffering, Solidarity, and Hope

Years ago I was a 34-year-old bachelor who had experienced several painful relationships and feared I was headed for a lifetime of singleness. Over dinner with a couple experiencing infertility, the woman asked me if I still prayed for a wife. I sighed and said, “Honestly, it depends on the day.” After some silence she responded, “I still pray for a wife for you.” Because she had entered into suffering with me, her words had power. After wiping away my tears, I asked her if she still prayed for a child. She said, “It depends on the day.” I told her that I held out hope and committed to asking God to give them a child. It’s with the solidarity of friends willing to put skin in the game that we dare to speak of hope.

My wife and I have experienced beautiful expressions of solidarity in recent months. Solidarity has come in the form of a friend’s words. Having lost his son and then struggling with infertility, this friend is intimately acquainted with the monthly toll of hoping and disappointment. “The loss of our son was so sudden,” he told me. “We were thrown into a place where all we could do was grieve and lament. But with infertility it was different. The struggle was learning how to live with ongoing disappointment in God.” His words pierced my loneliness.

Solidarity has also come in the tears and anger of our friends Andrew and Steven, who have taken our fears and hurts to heart. Their presence has been a salve on our wounds. And solidarity has come to us in the faithful prayers of close friends who offer their tears to us and commit to interceding before the Father when we are too weak to do so ourselves.

Like many others, my wife and I do not have definitive answers from the doctors or from God. We do not know if the Father will let this cup pass from us or if we must drink it. But we do know that it is only in the community of the suffering that we can stand in solidarity, crying out in lament to God for ourselves and for others, asking that God will not be silent.



For Further Reading



Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think Christians are prone to rely on “pithy optimism” and “theological platitudes” in the face of suffering?
  2. Recall a time when you sat in solidarity with someone in their suffering. How was that experience? What was the outcome?
  3. What has kept your hopes alive during your darkest times? Were lament and communal solidarity part of what sustained your hopes?
  4. How well does your local church community help its members nurture each other’s hope in God in the face of suffering? How might it do better at this?
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