A Biblical Reflection on “The Disgrace of Infertility”

Larry shared an article with me recently about a man’s perspective on infertility. I encourage its reading and reflection: The Disgrace of Infertility | From One Degree to Another | Nate Pyle

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the word disgrace and how infertility remains a place of reproach for couples today.

Fast forward to today— I was preparing to teach on Luke, chapter 1. So naturally, with this article in mind, I lingered on Luke 1:25. Zechariah and Elizabeth have just been described in Luke 1:6-7.

(I spent a good chunk of the evening convincing the class that “context is King,” so indulge me as I launch into teaching again.)

So they are described: “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. BUT they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.”

So let’s get this straight, says Luke. First off, Zach and Liz are upright Jews who have done everything “right.” So yes, they’re infertile and old, sure to remain infertile. BUT, they’re not the sinners that you suppose they are. It’s not that they just didn’t try the right thing yet. It’s not that Liz is too stressed out at her job and screwed it up by sinfully pursuing a life she has no business pursuing. It’s not that Zach has sinned and isn’t loving his wife well. They’re old. It’s not like “oh, well, you’re still young.” It’s not that “they just need to wait until they’re settled.” It’s certainly not something they’ve chosen for the convenience of having careers or having a few years together without children.

Their story is something God is up to.
Their infertility is not their own doing. But it is their story.

Then Zach gets his chance— and a very rare chance indeed— to serve as a priest in the Holy Place of God one night. His job is simple. Keep the light burning on the lampstand. Refresh the bread on the table. Light the incense. And pray for the deliverance of Israel. This is the prayer that needs to be offered. Pray for God to deliver his people.

But don’t you think Zach’s going to take a minute to pause as he lights the incense for the one chance in his life to be this close to the presence of God and go ahead and pray for that beloved, old wife of his? I imagine something along the lines of, “God, deliver your people. And, I still just want to ask, while I’m so close to your dwelling place here, would you be willing to bless us with a child?”

We know he prayed that. We know that was the desperate, unrelenting prayer of an old man who had lived the silent, helpless disgrace of the barrenness of his wife. Because listen to the angel, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard…

Your prayer has been heard.

…your wife Elizabeth (that old, barren, righteous woman) will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you (I BET!!), and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”

(Oh, and your other prayer was answered, too. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah… to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”)

Deliverance is coming to God’s people. He sees them and hears them and knows them and has heard their groaning (Exodus 2:25).
But don’t think for a second, Zach, that God doesn’t also see you, hear you, know you, has heard your groaning, and is going to deliver you and Liz from your disgrace.

Just look at what Elizabeth says in Luke 1:25.

“The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

I couldn’t help but pause at that phrase, he has shown his favor. In the ESV, looked upon me. Let me tell you what I found out about this word. It’s a compound word in the Greek. Its “upon” + “to see.” Hence, “looked upon.” It’s used in a handful of other places to describe the action of God. He looks upon Hagar in the desert and has mercy on her, delivering her from death and disgrace. That’s when Hagar bestows upon God the name, El Roi, “the God who sees.” It’s the word in Exodus 2:25, quoted above, when God looks upon his groaning people. He sees them, hears them, knows them, and then moves to action in a powerful action of deliverance. The Psalmist knows that God looks upon us. He says tenderly in prayer in Psalm 31:7, “I will be glad and rejoice in [God’s] love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul.”

Yes, he is the God who delivers. Who sees the affliction of infertility, and who knows the anguish of the soul. He looked upon Elizabeth in her disgrace, and he delivered her from the reproach of the people. How many years did she wait? How many years did Hannah await God’s deliverance from the reproach of her barrenness, described the same way in 1 Samuel 1:6? We don’t know. Enough to drive her to the point of seeming drunkenness in her distress. How many years did Rachel cry out for her reproach to be taken away before Joseph was finally born in Genesis 30:23?

Their barrenness, their disgrace, was not the result of a condition of their lifestyle: physical, spiritual, or emotional.
Their barrenness, their disgrace, was something God was up to.
Their redemption by God from their disgrace became their story.

And so, whatever “the affliction and the anguish of the soul” that is your story, using the words of the Psalmist, remember, think upon, meditate in, dwell in, the truth and the redemption of the stories God has written.

“He has looked upon me.” – Elizabeth.
“God has taken away my disgrace” – Rachel.
“I delight in your deliverance.” – Hannah.

Amen, may it be.

Elizabeth

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