He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children (Psalm 113:9).
I remember my father, a plastic surgeon, speaking of a woman who came to him to see if he could remove the tattoos on her hands. She no longer wanted them, and their presence had become an impediment to her finding a job. Sometimes the choices we make in the moment aren’t the choices we wish we had made in the end.
I wonder how Psalm 113 falls on the ears of our culture. The psalm is one of praise, grounded in who the Lord is. The question raised in the psalm is rhetorical: Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” (113:5-6). The answer is, of course, no one. But then the psalmist goes on to describe how the Lord is different: He raises the poor and the needy, and gives the barren woman a home and children. The first gift is one to which our culture would give a hearty “Amen,” for many people understand the importance of lifting the needy. The second gift? Well, that’s another matter. We are not entirely convinced that children are a blessing. Rather, we are convinced that children are a choice.
Ignatius Press published a social history of Planned Parenthood in 1991 titled Blessed Are the Barren. The title alone is worthy of sober reflection, for it exposes a perspective that our culture, collectively, has largely come to embrace, that is, that children are a choice. And therefore so is barrenness. In fact, culturally speaking barrenness is a laudable choice, and worthy of not only protection, but promotion. We live in a time when our government actively encourages it. For example, our health-care law subsidizes varied forms of contraception, including sterilization surgery (for women, but not for men). The implication is inescapable—barrenness is not only a choice, but a choice so fundamental and therefore so worth supporting that we will require other people to pay for it. Perhaps barrenness is even the better choice, for the health-care law does not similarly require treatment for infertility (not so subtly suggesting that fertility is the disease, and barrenness the state of health). Blessed are the barren, indeed.
Then why does the psalmist exalt the Lord as the one who gives the barren mother a home and family? Why would the Scriptures assume that a woman would even want a home and children? The idea that children are a choice is alien to the Scriptures, where children are seen as a blessing, and women (and men, for that matter) are assumed to be the better for them. One searches in vain for a single instance in the Scriptures where barrenness is celebrated. Rather, it is everywhere lamented. What might we be missing?
Perhaps the most offensive claim in the Bible is found on page one: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The implication of that statement is vast. It not only asserts God as the creator, but goes on to demonstrate that he created the heavens and earth in a particular way, and for certain purposes. Likewise with people. Man and woman are created in a particular way, and for particular purposes, and by a God who knows us and wants the best for us. Note the language of blessing given in the first commandment God gave to mankind: “And God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. . . .’” Blessing doesn’t imply easiness. Childbearing and childrearing can be very trying and difficult. But the Lord knows our good. The question is, do we?
In the end, despite persistent cultural voices to the contrary, God created women with a longing for marriage and children. Recognizing such does not belittle the great effort, sacrifice, anxiety, and pain which are often the stuff of parenthood. Nor does it suggest that every woman is able, or even called, to be married and have children. Yet, while shouted loudly in our world, “Blessed are the barren” is an empty pronouncement. Despite what we might hear or think or feel in the moment, barrenness is no blessing. Yes, children will change your life. So will barrenness. Unfortunately, many discover the hole that barrenness creates after it is too late. For some choices have irreversible consequences. They can’t be taken back, no matter how much we wish they could.