Infertility has presented me with plenty of occasion to pray and to consider the topic of prayer, especially unanswered prayer. What does it mean that all my prayers for children have gone unanswered for so long? Am I praying wrongly? How do I continue to pray - just repeat the prayers I have been offering up for years, or look for new ways to ask, or give up asking? I know I am not the first to ask these questions, and nor will I be the last.
In all my petitions for a child, I identify myself with the persistent widow of Luke 18. The widow faces a wicked judge who will not give her justice. Yet she returns to him again and again, repeatedly asking for justice until he finally gives in. Jesus says that he tells this story so that we will always pray and not lose heart; if a reluctant, hardened man will answer such faithful requests, how much more will our faithful God give justice without delay?
So, like that widow, I ask again and again. And yet - is my desire for a child really a yearning for justice? It is not unjust that I am childless. It certainly feels like it at times, when I want to whine, "God, it's not fair! Why does so and so have a child, and I don't? Don't I deserve it? Haven't I pleaded long enough? What am I doing wrong, that you will not bless me?" But the Lord does not give to or withhold from me based on my merits; he relates to me on the basis of Christ's merits, so I receive much better than I deserve. So when prayer goes unanswered, I must examine what I am really asking. James 4:2-3 says, "You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." I've certainly begged for children, so my lack of children is not due to lack of asking. So then am I asking wrongly, selfishly? Is it possible that I could only want a child to "spend on my passions"? Well, yes, sometimes. Sometimes, if I am honest, I want a baby for base, earthly reasons - so I can buy cute baby things, so I won't be left out of conversations with friends who are moms, so I can impress people with my parenting skills. I want to want children for holy, eternal reasons - for the sake of the gospel - but my motives are often mixed. So is that why my prayers linger unanswered?
A few months ago, in the midst of evaluating whether or not to pursue IVF, I read the account of Paul's "thorn" in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul says he pleaded three times with the Lord about this, and then received the answer that power is perfected in weakness. Paul's thorn - whatever it was - was there to stay, and he would be content with that. Umm, three times, Paul? You asked three times, you didn't get what you asked, and that was that? I've asked for children a few more times than three. About, oh, 80,000 times more than three. So as I read that account, I wondered - have I been asking too long? Had I already received my answer? Have I been carrying on in denial? Would trying IVF merely be an attempt to manipulate around God's negative reply? These questions weighed on me as we considered our options - IVF, adoption, or remain childless. Still, I did not feel like my prayers had received an answer one way or the other. The Lord spoke directly to Paul, saying he would not remove Paul's thorn and wanted Paul to rest in his sufficient grace. I don't think I've gotten that kind of specific answer yet. It seems that God wants me to keep praying, keep waiting.
As I have sought to understand how to pray and how to respond when my prayers go unanswered, I try to take the whole body of Scripture into account. There are examples like Paul, who learns to be content when he is told no. Then there are examples like Zechariah, who in his old age was visited by an angel who said, "Your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son...And you shall have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth." How long must Zechariah and Elizabeth have prayed for that baby! How disheartened they must have gotten! Yet here, at long last, comes joy and gladness when prayer is heard.
I don't know yet how my prayers for children will be answered. I pray daily for God to sustain both of the embryos that are in my womb right now. Perhaps these will be the prayers that are finally answered with a triumphant, resounding, "Yes!" But perhaps not. Will I be like Paul, or will I be like Zechariah? Am I to persist in asking, or am I to recognize that my prayers are too selfish, not in line with God's will? I do not know. But until I do, I keep knocking, seeking, asking. I seek to live by the following words from 1 Thessalonians 5: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."