Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive. //
Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.
-Genesis 11:30, 21:2
But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. //
After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said.
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”--
the things God has prepared for those who love him--
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
-1 Corinthians 2:9-10
The scriptural stories— both the Old Testament narrative of Israel and the New Testament narrative of Jesus— are founded on people unable to conceive. They are also founded on God giving them conception.* What seems impossible becomes the backdrop for God’s extraordinary hope.
The word “conceive” has multiple meanings. It speaks not simply of pregnancy, but of possibility. And so it is with God’s story.
The significance of these starting points— both Sarah (mother of Isaac) and Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptizer) being unable to to conceive— form the contrast to God’s ongoing message of hope. People can’t conceive, but God brings surprising life. People can’t imagine another way, but God reveals what’s possible for the future. People think that the world consists of only dualities, but Jesus brings a third way that fits no earthly category except love.
We’re in a barren time. People are unable to conceive much of anything, it seems. Sometimes we sit in despair, like Sarah. Sometimes we laugh at the thought of a better world, because it seems so unlikely (also like Sarah). And sometimes we are slow to believe that another world is possible, like Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah.
But eventually, consistently, the storyline is one of hope at what God can do. It’s one of surprise at incorrect assumptions about the future. It brings a clear message: you cannot conceive of what’s possible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.
I don’t know where you’re at. I find it hard to conceive a world where people are no longer divided about anything and everything. I find it hard to conceive a reality where all people are treated with dignity and equity. I find it hard to conceive a future where care for others is more important than political allegiance. I find myself unable to conceive a time when thoughtful dialogue, humble national leadership, and shared values are the norm.
And it gets more personal.
Some of us are unable to conceive how our children can grow up well in such a world. Some of us are unable to conceive a situation where we’re not heartbroken, depressed and lifeless. Some of us are unable to conceive how anything will ever be easy or simple once again. Some of us are unable to conceive how we get through this season financially, emotionally, or spiritually.
But then again, it’s hard to wrap our minds around a 90 year old woman giving birth for the first time.
It’s hard to conceive that God entered humanity in order to change the direction of human history.
It’s hard to conceive that a horrible bloody death could reveal the incredible, nonviolent, forgiving love of God.
It was hard for Peter to conceive that the good news of Jesus was truly available for everyone, not just his tribe.
It’s hard to conceive that God will make right one day all the things that are wrong.
It’s hard to conceive that in all of our imperfection, God never grows tired of hanging in there with us.
Paul riffs on this in Corinthians. He paraphrases Isaiah and says that people are unable to conceive of the goodness that God will bring, but the Holy Spirit keeps the spark of imagination alive in us, if we allow it.
Our inability to conceive does not make a hopeful future impossible. But the story of God reminds us not to lose hope, and it teaches us to keep our imagination alive for now and the future, because God’s kingdom inhabits both.
It’s really ok if you’re not able to conceive. Sometimes that’s just where we’re at in this life.
But if you’ve got it in you, pray for God to give you faith. Pray for God to keep the imagination vibrant within you. Pray for the strength to live God’s hopeful future in your daily life, rather than just talking about it wishfully. Love people the way you know God loves you. Listen to people the way you want to be listened to. Join with Jesus in helping a despairing world conceive something they can’t yet imagine. If you can’t conceive right now, I’m praying that God does something miraculous.
Let’s join in the storyline of our spiritual ancestors. They could not conceive, but they did, by God’s grace. This time, though, let’s learn from those stories and not lose hope. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus together, again, for we’ve been given the gift of life.
Jesus, I may not be able to conceive it, but I am trusting you today for hope.
*This Biblical metaphor is in no way meant to trivialize the deep pain of infertility.