I have asked others, and myself, how often are we angry at God, not for what HE has said, but for what others tell us He says. How often do we lay the blame at HIS feet for what imperfect people have done and claimed, the lies they filled our head with? Too often, I think, is the answer and though there were certainly dark moments of pain and doubt and anger, I can say now with absolution that I am in a place where my faith in God is not shaken.
But in my many years of running and frequenting support groups and discussion pages for the childless not by choice, I am saddened, but not at all surprised, at how many people who were once Christians have become atheists. It might make you feel pious, church going parents, it might make you seem very theological to declare "oh, well, they are just bitter and angry at God!" or "I guess their faith wasn't real!" (and I have seen these and more said to the childless) when in all actuality, it is because of the church, the people in it and the things they've experienced that make them second guess their Christianity. They hear about how important fellowship is, and read all the passages about encouraging one another and building each other up, and how important it is to be around other believers for strengthening their faith, and how we should minister to the disheartened, and they compare it to how they actually feel; Isolated. Judged. Alone. Dismissed. "If god were real," they think, "and if these were truly his people, they would not treat me this way"
I say this to you, not as someone who has never had encouragement from another person but as a person who has seen too often the childless left to endure their pain alone. Though they are few, I've met some wonderfully kind and supportive people but there is a problem when these people are the exception to a much more pronounced rule of "we don't talk about that here". There is this glaring, gaping hole in the church, a need in the body not being filled. We seem to have no trouble understanding that if there is a need the church isn't filling, a vacuum is created and something else, likely not of God, will fill it. Childless Christians are stuck in a vortex of isolation and pain and no one even sees it.
You might be wondering, "Well what's the big deal? It’s just XYZ" but what is often lost in this conversation is that there is nowhere to escape to. It’s not a matter of just dealing with "just this one little thing" because that does not exist. Do you really think the childless go through their day without being constantly reminded of the little person who should be there but isn't, the miscarried babies, their failed adoptions, or that they are not somehow aware that they have no children, will never hear "I love you mommy" or "play with me daddy"? Do you really think they walk into your church and think "oh that's right. I don't have kids. Oh well it’s just one baby dedication" and then they go home and go back to being unaware that all they had hoped and dreamed for the future will never be? It is a grief that keeps giving, with a fresh loss every day, a new reminder around every corner. Every friend who grows their family, every community day, every family dinner and holiday gathering, every commercial on TV, and every trip to the grocery store. The wounds re-open, salt is poured in, and the pain takes a new turn.
It goes something like this: They endure all this, and then after an already long week they walk into your church. Everyone else is coming to be refreshed. The childless are just swapping out their armor and entering a new battleground. There are more programs and groups and events for families and parents and children at your church than you know what to do with. Plenty for youths and teens, and usually young adults in the college or workforce scene. (Maybe there will be a singles event but only if you're VERY lucky.)
Baby dedications, birth announcements, pregnancy announcements, the elevation to near sainthood of pregnant women and mothers is all compounded by the constant focus on children and families. Kids sermons, Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, the children's music ministry, mom's bible studies, empty nester bible studies, parenting support groups, help for single parents, teen mothers, youth fellowships, trunk or treat, endless countless ministries and events for children you could fill an encyclopedia with. Then there's Family events... You're technically invited. Everyone is. But who wants to be the only single person or the only couple sitting on their blanket at the indoor picnic while all the real families are interacting with their gaggle of children and isn't it just so much fun watching the kids play?
Mother's and Father's day is a living nightmare where parents are asked to stand for their honors and applause, as if every other day parents and children ARENT the focus. So we don't go on those days. It hurts too much. Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, other religious observances that are supposed to be God focused and Christ centered are made about children, and the childless are run out of there too... Eventually you start to feel very alone. You try and get involved in other things, but there is nowhere left because its all connected. When every sermon is given through the view of parenthood, the childless begins to think, "He’s not talking to me. Why am I here?" Every devotional talks about kids, every bible study video references moms and families. (REAL families. Not you. You're not a family, remember? You're a "couple" and if you're not married, you aren't even a blip on that radar.)
Even study groups that ARENT directly related to children and parents often become focused on these topics because everyone in them is a parent. Activities for married couples are often still child centric because the assumption is married people have children. And why go to the women's events? You just talk about your kids the whole time. You ask the woman at your table if she has kids and she says no, you say "Oh" and you have nothing more to say to her. You turn back to the other moms to talk more about potty training and soccer practice. Introductions of "tell us a little bit about yourself" becomes nothing more than "Hi, I'm so-and-so, and I work here and I have this many children" because that's all anyone's interested in. So we stop going to those things too.
You might say "oh that's not true" except it probably is, you just don't realize it. You don't realize it because it’s all relevant to you, just a normal part of your everyday life. When it’s not relevant to you? You take note, because it reinforces the feeling that you don't have a place there. Parents seek out other parents for friendship and fellowship and playmates for their children. Even if you do find a small group of people who supportive, or there is a faint glimmer of understanding from a pastor or other members, its small comfort when on the whole, you feel like an outcast. So slowly, that feeling of isolation begins to grow. You stop going to all these things. You just go on Sunday, but even that, on your lonely island, becomes too much to bear. Even a sermon that brings up infertility will end up being about parents. Sarah's story becomes all about how she just need to be patient for her blessing. Rebecca's and Hannah's plight becomes all about how God keeps his promises. No one talks about their pain or agony or how they endured and how they might be a comfort to those living it right now... We just skip to the happy ending. One of the few times I went to church on Mother’s Day, of all topics to use for the occasion, infertility was made a prop in the sermon to set up Hagar as the "moms don't you just feel INVISIBLE sometimes? Don't worry, God sees you!" topic. Mull that over for a minute. You just used your one mention of infertility in 6 years as a set up for mothers, and you want to talk about being invisible?
So when all this builds up and finally spills over, where does the single man go? Where does the widowed or never married woman go? Where does the young or seasoned married couple that can't have and never will have children go? Out the door. They've already stopped going to everything else. They soon start skipping Sundays, and more and more, until finally they stop going altogether. Because you’re not talking to them. You're talking to the rest of the mom and dad club.
We get it. There's people who are kids and there's people who are parents of kids, and there are a lot of them in your churches and so you have to reach out to them and make them want to come and stay. They are a large demographic. But they are not the ONLY demographic.
I won't bore you with a lot of statistics, but according to most sources, 1 in 8 couples will suffer from infertility. That is not a small number and that is JUST in the United States and that is JUST couples with infertility. Think of the rest of the world, think of all the people that never married, the people who lost spouses early and never married again, the woman (or man) whose spouse left because they couldn't have children, and now they have neither child or partner. Think of all the people who would have had children but made the painful decision not to due to disease or physical problems. Think of the people, singles and couples, who never caught a break in life, and didn't have children because they couldn't afford to raise one. Reach out to everyone, you say. It seems there's a mission for everything, and that’s how it should be. Reach out to the families and parents, the single moms, the LGBT, the homeless, the imprisoned and on and on it goes. But the childless? That’s a large section of the population you're not even ATTEMPTING to reach or minister to.
How many childless Christians have faded into nothingness in your church, given up, stopped going because they feel there is no place for them? How many childless non-believers don't even attempt, and would never accept an invitation to begin with because the child centric, parent worshipping energy radiates off of you like nuclear fallout? You don't know, because you don't talk to them. They're beneath your notice. The childless Christian who stopped coming, didn't stop coming because the preaching was too on point or because they are "lazy Christians" who would rather watch the football game on Sunday. They stopped coming because they don't feel welcome, safe or valued. The childless nonbeliever who scowls at you and hurries away, didn't reject your outreach because they hate the bible and like their sin. They rejected you because all you talked about for the past ten minutes was all the great family initiatives and children's ministries you have, and you never once made them feel like a place was there for THEM, as they are, without children. You never once even told them about Jesus and the price he paid for them and how much He loves them.
You are treating people like parents and future parents, and everyone who isn't in either category falls by the wayside. Do you see individuals? Children of God made in His image, loved and valued not for whether they are married and if they reproduced, but for their individual selves bought with the precious blood of Christ?
When you put so much focus on parents and children, that the childless cannot figure out if there is a place for them as a human being, there is a fundamental lack of connection that is happening. Church no longer feels safe, and it is the last place on earth you feel close to God. When there is so much emphasis on parenting and families, you are inadvertently telling the childless that it is the only thing of value, and since it is a plane of existence they will never reach, they are inherently "lesser than". That no matter what you do in life, you will never matter as much as someone who reproduced.
Are you shaking your head in confusion? You don't know where this idea has come from? Why should it be a surprise? Children are spoken of as the only way to make a "real" family. Its spoken of as the highest calling of a woman. They are a gift and blessing from God after all, and no one talks about any OTHER gifts or blessings so naturally that means they must be the only and best gift and blessing, right? Children ARE a gift. Not the only gift, but they are one. Jesus has a special love for the innocence of children and wants them to come to Him. But nowhere is it said that having children is the most important work, instead singleness (and thereby childlessness) is highlighted because the most important work is preaching the gospel of which every other thing is a distraction from. (Matthew 19:10,11; 1 Corinthians 7) Nowhere does Jesus elevate motherhood. He elevates hearing and believing the Word of God. (Luke 11:27,28) Nowhere does he link a person's value to their reproductive status. Their value is in what HE has done on the cross. (1 Peter 1:18,19) Nowhere does he call parenting the ultimate form of love. The ultimate love is the love of God, and the greatest love humans can show is sacrificing for others. (Isaiah 49:15; Luke 12:6-7; John 15:13)
Is preaching the gospel part of parenting? Absolutely. Is it vitally important to make sure children are raised strongly in the faith? Naturally. Is there value and importance in motherhood? Who would say otherwise? Is the love of a parent a unique and strong love? Of course! Wouldn't most sacrifice themselves for a child, even one not theirs? Without hesitation. It is not the saying of "these things matter, these things are important, these things have value" that is the problem. The problem lies when you say "these things are the most important, these are the only things of value and nothing really matters without children." And that is the basic point. You can “reach out” to one group without excluding and shunning the other.
It is not as if we are making this up, or inventing these ideas out of low self esteem or insecurity. These things are said, clearly and without thought. Presented as undeniable fact. The sun rises in the east and life is meaningless without children. Far from just an untenable measure of value, the childless are subjected to incredible cruelty.
It lies in the malice and the thoughtlessness in the idea that barrenness is punishment from God for sin. "Well I guess God knew you'd be a terrible mother, so he gave you miscarriages. Your babies are better off dead than with you." "You're infertile because your faith isn't strong enough." "You just need to pray more, God will bless you, and if not oh well, God's plan and all that." Its 2017, we have access to all of human knowledge, including records of all the terrible things parents do to their children... and we're still treating babies and motherhood like a door prize that gets handed out at the party. A reward you get if you do all the right things.
Its in the constant inferences that children are somehow the purest and ultimate form of love and without them you can't possibly understand the love of God and any other love between humans is substandard. Its the subtle suggestions and outright declarations that without children you're less than in every conceivable way. "Well, SHE doesn't have kids. So SHE doesn't know anything about this." "Oh people with children are naturally more selfless, intelligent and mature, because babies."
Somehow we can make a connection to a minimum baseline of logic to say "nonsense" in connection to almost every other situation, illness or tragedy. You wouldn't condescendingly pat a woman’s hand and say "Oh well. You never married, so, really what do you know about life?" You wouldn't go up to a father and say "son's in the hospital after a car wreck huh? Wow. You know, he should have levitated, then that truck wouldn't have hit him! Actions and consequences, amirite?" You wouldn't go up to a widow and say "Ugh, its been a whole year since your husband died, why are you still missing him? Just get over it!" You wouldn't go up to someone who was paralyzed and say "Just accept that you're never going to walk and learn to get your wheelchair up the stairs. By the way, we're all going dancing, can you come and watch our purses. I mean, you can’t walk so what else are you good for?" You wouldn't say to the person who just told you they were diagnosed with cancer or diabetes or ANYTHING else "Wow. You must have really done something to displease God!"
All of these things would be ludicrous. Rude. Cruel. The person you are speaking to would be offended and rightly so. Those within hearing distance might gasp and look at you askance. Someone might go up to them and quietly assure them that not everyone believes that and ask them not to judge their whole congregation by your thoughtless words. And yet these are exactly the kinds of comments and accusations loudly hurled at the childless with frequency and gusto, to the nods, cheers and shouts of agreement from bystanders or even the pulpit. And not only is it an accepted view, but it is blasted across the marquis in bright flashing lights every time they walk through the door.
Or maybe obvious cruelty isn't your style. Maybe it’s just a sincerely clueless apathy, the bliss of ignorance able to be enjoyed by those who don't know the pain. Its such an integral part of your life, you can't imagine it any other way. The joy and happiness you can't comprehend a life without, is exactly what the childless have had to live... "How sweet to hold a newborn baby and feel the pride and joy he gives!" You sail through the hymn at Easter, thinking of the beautiful dress your daughter picked out, and the Easter egg hunt they'll have later, and how happy all your babies and grandbabies and great grandbabies make you... but two rows behind you, the childless couple just choked on it and they just want to crawl under the pew and disappear.
For everyone else these things are a source of happiness. Children sing alongs, unwrapping gifts, their chubby cheeks, their sweet way of looking at the world, how they just do absolutely everything in the cutest of ways and "Don't you just LOVE the sound of the children playing?!" Maybe we say nothing to these things. Maybe we mutter a non-committal word of agreement to feign interest and move on in the rest of the child-centered conversation and sit quietly praying for it to be over, or a way to change the subject so we don't have to listen to you ohhh and ahhhh and sigh over all the children. What would we say anyway? How might we respond if we were feeling brave?
"No. I don't love it. It’s NOT a happy thing. Not when you've wanted a child for decades and the only one you managed to conceive is dead and you know you will never have another. Its like a knife through the heart, a crushing weight holding you down. The sight of a baby brings me to tears, the sound of children's laughter is like nails on a chalkboard and I really don't want to be here anymore."
But we don't say that, because we have learned to hide our pain in a way few others have to, rather than open ourselves up to the cruel comments or apathetic dismissal. You wouldn't understand anyway. You genuinely don't realize how much pain the person next to you is in. That is not altogether an abnormal thing. Naturally, people don't always think of the plight of others especially when its not something immediately obvious, something they've never had to deal with themselves. You don't see it.
Your child was born when theirs was supposed to be. You had your second kid when they first got married, ten years ago. The passage of time and the reminder of loss is in their face, every week. They listen to all the ridiculous things God "answered" and grow colder and their grief reaches deeper, cold fingers gripping their heart to death. "Yeah. My baby is nonexistent or dead, my husband left me for a younger woman, my life is falling apart, but I'm really glad God helped you find your keys..."
Maybe they ARE honest. Maybe they DO tell you the truth about their struggles. Maybe they DO tell you, "we can't have children". Or maybe they even tell you of the grief they are navigating, how much pain they are in, how hard it is to endure this pain in this church, and how hard they are trying to be a part of a community that hurts them. And what do you do? What do you say?
"Oh that's too bad." (Maybe)
More likely, a few moments of awkward silence pass and then you are back to cheerfully discussing kids and parenting, extolling the martyrdom of motherhood, and next week at the next baby dedication you will once again declare that you just don't know what love is until you have a child. You won't be quiet about it, and she'll hear you. And her husband will squeeze her hand, she'll paste on a stoic face like always to get through the rest of the service with as little awkwardness and attention drawn as possible, and when its over they will rush out so that she can finally let her guard down. But you won't see their pain. No, you'll just think, "Wow. How unsociable! I guess they don't believe in fellowship with believers!" right before you turn back to the happy new parents and finish your conversation about all the ways children make you a better person. Not like those childless people who don't have to think about anyone but themselves, right?
Or maybe you'll just throw out some disposable advice. Things will improve for you. You'll get your miracle. God's timing is perfect. If its meant to be it will. Etcetera. Even if you do, truly, deep in your heart MEAN these things... they sound hollow to your audience when tossed out like a cheap fortune cookie saying as they stand, summarily dismissed, bloodied and bruised, the daily emotional and spiritual war they fight weighing heavy on their soul. The bible is full of genuine and accurate calls to draw close to the Lord in times of distress and grief, promises of His sustainment in times of trouble, the assurance that even when things in this fallen world don't go well for us, the God of the universe will be there to comfort. But these powerful passages and verses often become whittled down to become little more than throw away comments, devoid of any theological context or situational awareness that church-goers dismissively throw the way of the childless, the infertile, the bereaved non-parents of children that were never born. The comments are wrapped up in tidy little verbal packages, completed with a smart little ribbon and bow. It all sounds great on a greeting card, but words are just words. What do you do when the actions of your churches hollow out the lip service? What do you when instead of a place of safety and encouragement and worship, church becomes a minefield of cruelty, judgment and painful reminders to navigate?
Not only are you making the childless feel alone, and devoid of value, but you are practically gift wrapping them for Satan. Serving them up on a pretty platter of discouragement, isolation and doubt, ripe for the plucking by the Father of Lies who is already telling them they are worthless, only to have it confirmed by you...
If you are reading this and feel defensive, I hope you think about why that is. If you are reading this and you can think, unequivocally, "that's not my church". Great. Get out there and be the hands and feet of Jesus because there is an entire segment of the population who needs to know this is not the way Christ wanted his Church to function. This is not meant to shame you, or to accuse you. This is not a call for pity, or a demand to ban children from your service, or stop talking about parenthood. This is my best effort to give a voice to a pain that can't be described. This is a cry of a bone weariness and discouragement so deep, words fail. This is a cry of pain and grief out from the midst of chaos and emptiness from millions of people who feel invisible.
Tell them you see them.