57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. (luke 1:57)
According to the Mayo Clinic, between ten and fifteen percent of couples in the United States struggle with infertility. That means that statistically one out of every ten couples have at some point found themselves in the same boat as Zechariah and Elizabeth. Let’s break this down into raw numbers. According to the 2020 US census, there were just over 62 million married couples in the United States. This means that 12.4 million individuals in the United States alone are personally touched by the disappointment and pain of being unable to conceive and bear children.
Think about this way: if this number of struggling people constituted a city, that city would be the 26th most populous in the world—just behind Moscow, Russia, and just ahead of Chennai, India; Bogota, Columbia; and Paris, France. It would the largest city in North America—outpacing New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto.
Twelve and a half million image bearers of God who feel the crushing grief of being unable to carry out a key aspect of the first human mandate, “Be fruitful and multiply” (genesis 1:28). This is to say nothing of the many who wish to find a suitable mate but never do. So many people who suffer in silence and isolation.
Women especially endure endless questions that cut at their very souls. Elizabeth knew this grief all too well. She lived in a culture where the primary job of a woman was to become a wife who provided her husband with children: daughters who would care for them in their old age and sons who would take over the family business and carry on the family name.
As Torah says, “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him” (psalm 127:3).
Not to have children in this context was not only shameful, but it was considered a spiritual deficiency. Children meant God’s blessing. A lack of children was assumed to be God withholding blessing. Furthermore, in this culture, it was automatically assumed that the fault was on the part of the woman—that she had done something wrong and was experiencing God’s judgment.
Elizabeth was intimately acquainted with disappointment. She endured the sidelong glances month after month, year after year, until sorrow became a constant companion. She finally, through necessity, came to grips with the fact that she had to develop a theology of the empty. Despite her obedience to God and faithfulness to his law, Elizabeth had to come to grips with the fact that a part of her life would—apart from divine intervention—remain empty.
The empty womb.
The empty nursery.
The empty house.
The empty hopes.
How do we find encouragement in midst of disappointment? It only happens when we, like Elizabeth, allow God to fill the empty spaces of our lives in his time and in his way. It only happens as we learn to embrace God’s presence amidst the absence of our desires.
In our own church, the Alles family had to learn this the hard way last Christmas. Three days before the first Sunday of Advent, Judy—beloved mother, sister, and aunt—went to be with the Lord. My family also had to learn this lesson almost a quarter century ago when we lost Grandpa Crawford just a few days before Christmas.
Pain and loss show up in all kinds of ways. The empty seat around the Thanksgiving table. The leftover packages under the tree because the one to whom they are addressed is no longer with us. The empty nursery. The cold and vacant side of the bed. The shame of the unemployment line. The fear associated with the empty checking account. Sooner or later, we all face with the reality of “the empty” and the disappointment that comes from unmet expectation and unfulfilled hopes.
How we face the emptiness says a great deal about our faith and our character. This passage shows that even in the midst of Elizabeth’s disappointment she still pursued faithfulness. She still loved her husband. She still served God. Her faithfulness was not contingent upon getting what she wanted or what she thought she deserved.
I think the long years of disappointment, longing, and resignation taught Elizabeth something that we learn only through struggle, pain, and disappointment. Gifts are not earned. I wonder how Elizabeth’s response would have been different if she expected God to give her a child in her old age? Joy comes from a heart that is broken and tender. When someone thinks they deserve or have earned grace it produces resentment not joy.
I deserved an A on that paper. How dare the professor give me a B!
I deserve to have more money in my bank account. After all, I need that vacation, and I could really use a better vehicle. How dare my boss not give me that promotion!
I deserve to be happy. How dare you tell me it is sinful to pursue a relationship outside of my marriage!
Like Elizabeth, your disappointment may be completely understandable. You might feel that God has forgotten you, abandoned you, betrayed you, or been cruel to you. And the truth of the matter is that you may have experienced abandonment, betrayal, and cruelty. Your feelings may be legitimate. The question at hand, however, is not the legitimacy of my feelings or your feelings. The question is whether we can find joy in the midst of our disappointment.
Elizabeth’s story reminds us that even though God seems distant, he is in fact always near. The story of Christmas—the story Elizabeth was invited to participate in after long years of discouragement—is that God is coming near. Her baby would be the one to announce the Messiah. God’s timing did not fit with Elizabeth’s, but his timing was perfect.
When we trust God—even when we don’t understand—he will fill the cracks of our broken hearts. He can turn our mourning to dancing. When we realize that gifts are given to show us the love of the Giver, we stop feeling like we have earned something that we have not.
As the psalmist said, “His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (psalm 30:5).
Be encouraged. Sorrow endures for a season. Joy is coming soon.