My friends would have been excellent parents. They’re a happy, stable couple with good values and good jobs. They adore children. They’d planned from the beginning of their marriage to have at least four.
Except nature interfered. Between the two of them (I never asked which of the two had fertility issues, it being none of my business), they couldn’t produce a pregnancy.
There are millions of people who produce babies they didn’t intend to have—for whom infants appear, seemingly at a whim, unwanted. There are others who choose not to have children at all. But for this couple, having a family was more than a preference, more than a mere desire. It was what they felt put on this earth to do. And they would have done it well.
We live in an age of medical miracles, and my friends went in search of them. Billions of dollars are spent on fertility treatments every year, and this couple told me that they invested well into five figures themselves—yet without the desired result.
They were deeply spiritual, and prayer accompanied all their efforts. They often wondered why God hadn’t intervened, hadn’t performed a miracle to give them what they so desperately desired. I remember the day they told me they’d given up. Because of age, there was no longer any chance that they could have a child. Whenever I saw them after that, there always seemed to be a sadness about them, a palpable emptiness, as though they lived with a missing part, an unfilled space, where children should have been.
Having offspring is one of the expectations of the human species. But is it entirely necessary?
Scholars estimate that 2016 years ago the entire world population would have been only about 300 million, which is about the population of the United States today.
And to that number was added one more—One who made a big difference.
The pregnancy was regarded with suspicion, for Mary hadn’t yet slept with her intended husband. The Child was, she claimed, conceived by the Holy Spirit—something no-one at the time believed—least of all the man to whom she was engaged to be married. But after an angel appeared to him in a dream and confirmed his fiancée’s claim, he agreed to go through with the marriage.
The Son she bore may have appeared to be merely another impoverished Child born to another impoverished family. However, those who knew of God’s plan for His life realised that He was far more than that. Shortly after His birth, rumours that were started by well-intentioned Babylonian scholars looking for the Jewish Messiah sparked a brief and tragic population adjustment. The apostle Matthew says that King Herod felt so threatened that some people might think this Child was a replacement King that he ordered the murder of a large number of infants in the region in an effort to eliminate just that One.
There’s a certain irony in His birth happening in conjunction with a census. The Roman government wanted to know the number and identity of their Palestinian subjects, so in the first Christmas vignette this Child was curled within a very pregnant Mary as she journeyed to Bethlehem with Joseph to be formally counted by the Roman government.
The Infant was named Jesus—which in the Aramaic of the time meant “Joshua.” Later, a significant title was added: “Christ,” which is the Greek word christos, meaning “the anointed One.” More than that, when He began to speak for Himself, Jesus claimed that He was the Messiah of the Hebrew prophecies. However, He was rejected by the Jewish leaders because He wasn’t the religious strongman they thought the Messiah would be. Even more startling, He claimed to be the Son of God, which had to mean that He was, in fact, God. And for this the Jewish leaders despised Him, even hated Him.
His claim to divinity was confirmed by His death and resurrection. And He promised the same miracle for the rest of us, which is why we love Him.
Yet at Christmas time, we aren’t concerned primarily with what He became, but how He came. God could have placed among us a fully formed Saviour, a mighty deity, a shining angel, One who still breathed the air of heaven.
Instead, He sent us a Baby.
Jesus was born from Mary’s womb, and Joseph took over the role of father. But the Bible makes Jesus, not their Child, but ours: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” wrote the prophet Isaiah (9:6, KJV). The apostle Luke quotes an angel saying, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you” (2:11, italics added). This Baby, whom we know as “Jesus,” was the world’s Child. He belonged to those who had their own biological children, and to those who didn’t.
In the beginning, when the population of the earth numbered just two, God tells these two to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). By means of the urges and affections that God created in them, God predisposed them to honour this request.
It is no accident that the Bible goes on to recount recurring crises of childlessness: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Samuel’s mother Hannah, the unnamed mother of Samson, and the godly Zechariah and Elizabeth. What God had asked them to do, these couples could not. In each of these stories shame and blame accompanied barrenness. And in each case it was assumed—by the woman, by her husband and by society at large—to be her fault.
To those who long to hold their own baby in their arms, words are no substitute. But there is at least this: Jesus came as everyone’s child.
Imagine a young woman burdened with such a responsibility in a world in which having children was the essence of one’s gender identity! Even today, when we understand that the inability to give birth may not be her responsibility at all, there are women who carry not just disappointment, but guilt and shame for not becoming pregnant.
It would be unkind to give simple answers to those who are involuntarily childless. To those who long to hold their own baby in their arms, words are no substitute. But there is at least this: Jesus came as everyone’s Child. As with all the results of sin, so with barrenness: the birth of that one Divine Baby “unto us” forgives everything, even our biological insufficiencies.
A young female friend of mine tells of casually mentioning in conversation that she and her husband didn’t want to have children. Her friend looked horrified and quickly pushed her own child behind her, as though my friend hated children and might attack! The woman then berated her, insisting that having children was her purpose in life, a purpose she dared not fail.
Some people say that Genesis 1:28 is a command. Others insist that sex is only for the purpose of creating children, and enjoying it without at least the possibility of pregnancy is abusing a privilege.
And yet there are good reasons not to have children. It has been more than two centuries since population-studies pioneer Thomas Malthus wrote, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Our numbers are reaching a critical point—around 7.4 billion souls, with little sign of slowing down. The more crowded we get, the more in danger we are of massive numbers of deaths from natural and environmental catastrophes, diseases and war. Meanwhile, more little human beings continue to emerge into the world.
There are also couples who, for reasons physical or psychological, know they’d be incapable of taking care of children or (thanks to genetic science) know they carry genes that might be dangerous to their potential offspring.
The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth argued that the birth of Jesus “unto us” made childbearing optional. “It is one of the consolations of the coming kingdom and expiring time that this anxiety about posterity . . . is removed from us all by the fact that the Son on whose birth alone everything seriously and ultimately depended has now been born.”
All children are God’s
That Jesus was born “unto us” can only mean there’s no contempt attached to childlessness, no matter the reason. Faith in Christ frees couples from the necessity to have children—but not from the necessity of loving them. You don’t need to have a child of your own in order to love those borne by others, which sometimes includes bringing the fruit of someone else’s union into your home through foster care or adoption.
Could it be that that’s why God sent Christ as a Baby in the first place—to teach us that to a Christian, all children are God’s, and so all deserve our love and care?