The Golden Box: On God’s will and NFP

Sometimes, it’s easy to discern God’s will.

If we’re faced with the choice of, say, robbing a bank or not robbing a bank, we all know what God wants us to do. The only exception is if we’re in an action movie, where the villain has a bomb strapped to our hero and a school bus full of innocent children will die amid flames and wreckage if we don’t rob the bank (then the answer is: yes, rob the bank, preferably while shirtless and bleeding).

Most of the time, though, there’s no dilemma: follow the law,
and you’ll be following God’s will, QED. The same is true for the most specific, basic laws of the Church: go to Mass on Sundays, and you’re following God’s will. Confess all mortal sins, and you’re following God’s will. Don’t use contraception in your marriage, and you’re following God’s will, QED.

But when we’ve already rejected contraception and are trying to figure out whether or not to take the plunge and possibly conceive a child, things get muddier. After all, how could it be God’s will that we not have a child? When you phrase it that way, it seems absurd: what, is God going to be mad about hav ing to go to the trouble of making another soul? What, are we going to spend the rest of our lives saying, “Damn, I wish I’d spent those nine months taking classes on making flowers out of gum paste, instead of being pregnant with you, my child?” No, probably not.

All right, so if it’s not against God’s will for us to have a child, then it must be God’s will for us to have a child if we possibly can, right? That seems logical. Here’s an argument you often hear from fertility-nudgers: “What if you and your husband use NFP to avoid pregnancy one month, and that child you didn’t conceive is the child who would have cured cancer (or would have grown up to be the pope who reforms the Church, or the president who puts America back on track, or whatever)?”

Yes, what if? It’s not easy to refute this view. If we think hard about what we are turning down when we say, “No baby this month!” it’s kind of terrifying. When a hamster has a baby hamster, the most it can grow up to be is an adult hamster; so if the parents don’t breed, then it’s no big deal. But when a human couple conceives a child, that is something unutterably magnificent and irreplaceable (albeit common!). You don’t even have to mean it; you don’t have to understand it, but you’ve just made something with a soul that is destined for eternity. This… is a big deal.

How can you possibly say no to this? How could it possibly not be God’s will to conceive?

I’m going to answer your question in the most annoying way possible: by suggesting that it’s a stupid question.

Most of my life, I’ve been halfway imagining that my life is a maze, and at the center of that maze is a pedestal. On the pedestal is a golden box marked (perhaps in Latin) “GOD’S WILL.” At the end of my life, I will reach the center of the maze, and I will open up the box and read what’s written on a piece of paper inside, and it will say either “Good job!” or “Nope.”

And then, presumably, I will spend the rest of eternity either
patting myself on the back or weeping and gnashing my teeth. Oh, the suspense!

When I describe the process of following God’s will this way, it’s pretty easy to see that this is silly: God didn’t give us free will as some kind of elaborate game of “gotcha,” where we stumble around in the dark while He kicks back and giggles at how silly we all look, bumping into walls. If you think God is like that, then you haven’t talked to Him lately. Or looked at a crucifix.

So how does God’s will work in conjunction with our free will? I don’t actually know. But I do know this: it’s rare for there to be one single thing which God Wants Us to Do, to the exclusion of all other things.

It’s more like when a patient mother, tired of her toddler’s in- decision, picks out three shirts which she thinks are acceptable, and says, “Okay, it’s up to you—which one do you want to wear?” If he stamps his feet and insists on going to the grocery store wearing a torn pillow case, then clearly that’s not what his mom wants; but if he chooses the truck shirt, or the bear one, or the one with green stripes, then she will work with him, and find some pants that match. She will let him suffer the tolerable consequences if the bear one is a little too warm for today, because maybe he’ll know better next time, and that means his choice was still a valuable one. The truck one and the stripy one also each have their benefits and drawbacks. She will be happy if he chooses either one.

The truth is that there are many different things—even mutually exclusive things—that can be God’s will. To switch analogies: When getting to your destination, you might take the scenic route, or the route that gets you the best gas mileage, or the route that takes you through your old hometown, or the shortcut you accidentally discover because the kids were screaming in the back seat and you didn’t realize you missed your turn.

Is there such a thing as a wrong road? Yes, of course. Are any of the four I described above wrong roads? No. Are there benefits from taking one that you wouldn’t get from taking the others? Yes. But they will all get you there.

So, when we ask ourselves if it’s God’s will that we have another baby right now, it isn’t simply a matter of figuring out whether God (a) wants you to have a baby, or (b) wants you not to have a baby.

Yes, your choices about fertility heavily involve God’s will about bringing new life into the world (and sadly, they sometimes involve realizing that the road you’re on is a dark and lonely one, which will lead you to God’s will, but without the baby you longed for). But your choices also involve discerning God’s will about a number of other things—and that’s where the “scenic route vs.best mileage vs. sentimental value vs. blundering around” part comes in.

What are the other things we have to discern, besides “having a baby vs. not having a baby”?

We should try to discern if God wants us to learn self-control, or learn trust; if God wants us to focus more on the things around us, or focus more on the longterm view of our life; if God wants us to shower our spouse with extra care and attention for a time, or to stretch our concept of what our marriage is for; if God wants us to have a better understanding of generosity, or a better understanding of prudence; if He wants for us a better acceptance of our own limits, or more sympathy for the struggles of others. And so on.

These are all things which may well be within that golden box marked “God’s Will.”

One of the dreary misfortunes of living as a lonely Catholic in a world so hostile to babies is that, in our loneliness, we sometimes try to drag God down into our limited view of life: black-and-white, Lord. Just tell me what to do! But He’s probably not going to do that.

It’s not that God doesn’t care about what we do. It’s not that the little decisions (and the big ones) of our lives don’t matter to Him. They do. After all, He’s the one who made our lives this way, full of big and little pleasures and pains.

It’s just that what He wants for us is not necessarily tied, ahead of time, to one particular decision—even a decision as large as whether or not to have another child. What He wants, above all, is for us to grow closer to Him. He gives us space (and that’s what free will is: working space) to decide what makes sense, and then He says, “All right, kiddo. Let’s see what we can
do with that.”

So, we have our choices within a Catholic understanding of sexuality: we can throw caution to the wind and know as little as possible about when we are likely to conceive; we can chart somewhat, and be willing to take a chance; we can chart strictly, and understand that Sometimes Things Happen, and maybe we’ll conceive when we don’t especially want to; or we can abstain altogether. We can do any of these things, and conceive when we expect to, or when we don’t expect to. We can conceive and then lose a child. We can not conceive, and receive a child through adoption. We can do any of these things and move away from God; or we can do any of these things and grow closer to God.

That’s what’s at the heart of it: whether or not we grow closer to God.

So yes, of course there are bad choices. But there are also many, many, many good ones. Free will means having control over our own lives; it doesn’t mean having control over God. His will is not tethered to our decisions: He isn’t either gleefully or grudgingly willing to follow through with His part of the bargain. His will is larger than that, and we are smaller. And at the same time, we are more precious, much, much more precious to Him: His covenant has less “Okay, fine, be that way” and more “Go ahead, and let’s see what we can do!”

God’s will is not a checklist of do’s and don’ts, but a living, fluid, powerful force that somehow, inconceivably, finds its way into our puny seedling lives, nourishing us like the rain and making us grow and bear fruit.

So, if you insist on seeing life as a maze with a secret answer at the end, I’m going to spoil the surprise for you I already know what’s inside that golden box that says “God’s will.” There’s a little piece of paper, and on it is written your name.

That’s what He wants: you. How you give yourself to Him is a much, much longer story.

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This essay is chapter 27 from my book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. It is from the section called “NFP and Your Spiritual Life.” The other two sections are “NFP and the Rest of the World” and “NFP in the Trenches.” You can buy the paperback here, the ebook here, and the audiobook here

The Federalist God is a psychopath

Yesterday, after the mass shooting at baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene wrote: When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.

I gave Fiene the benefit of the doubt. Authors often don’t choose their titles, and editors are always looking for clicks, so maybe he didn’t really mean what the title said.

I read it. He meant it. I’m not familiar enough with Lutheran theology to say whether he’s describing it accurately, but it sure isn’t Catholic theology, and he makes God sound like a psychopath.

First, let’s discuss what Fiene probably meant to say. He meant to say that God can bring good out of any evil; that good will always triumph over evil; that evildoers can kill the body, but not the soul; and that this world is fleeting, but salvation is eternal. He perhaps meant to say that suffering can be salvific, and that physical suffering is not the greatest evil that can be. All true, if perhaps not as comforting to the grieving as he seems to believe.

And he was responding to some awfully cruel and boneheaded comments from the Twitterverse. Snarky atheists are saying things like, “If prayers did anything, [the murdered victims] would still be alive.” They seem to believe that people of faith expect God to leap in like a Jedi and mow down evildoers on behalf of anyone who prays. They betray a complete failure to understand the much-abused divine gift of free will.

Unfortunately, so does Pastor Fiene. Let’s look at what he actually says, what it implies, and how wrong he is.

ERROR #1: The world is evil

When those saints of First Baptist Church were murdered yesterday, God wasn’t ignoring their prayers. He was answering them.

“Deliver us from evil.” Millions of Christians throughout the world pray these words every Sunday morning . . . we are asking God to deliver us out of this evil world and into his heavenly glory, where no violence, persecution, cruelty, or hatred will ever afflict us again.

This is gnosticism. In Genesis, it says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Although creation has been tarnished by original sin, the world is still good, and goodness and holiness can be achieved in this world, in this life. When we pray “deliver us from evil,” we are not asking God to hasten our deaths. We are asking Him to draw us closer to Him in this world so we can be with Him forever in the next.

If death were an answer to prayer, then murder, including abortion and euthanasia, would be the greatest act of charity.

 

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ERROR #2: Everyone who calls himself “Christian” goes straight to Heaven

So the enemies of the gospel can pour out their murderous rage upon Christians, but all they can truly accomplish is placing us into the arms of our savior.

We certainly pray and hope that this is what happened. But we cannot assume that every human who finds himself inside a church is automatically heaven bound. The victims may very well all be saints and martyrs; but the murderer may also very well have shot someone mired in mortal sin. When we sentimentally and carelessly declare all dead people “saints,” we deprive them of what all the dead deserve from us: prayers for their souls.

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ERROR #3, and the worst: Evil has a place in God’s will

Sometimes, God’s will is done by allowing temporal evil to be the means through which he delivers us from eternal evil.

and

We also pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God’s will be done. Sometimes, his will is done by allowing temporal evil to be the means through which he delivers us from eternal evil. Despite the best (or, more accurately, the worst) intentions of the wicked against his children, God hoists them on their own petard by using their wickedness to give those children his victory, even as the wicked often mock the prayers of their prey.

Pastor Fiene comes very close to saying that God wills evil. This idea is so outrageously false, even coming close to saying it is nearly blasphemy.

If God wills evil, He is not God. 

God can bring good out of evil, and He does. God can use suffering to save us, and He does (if we let Him). But listen to me now.

When a man mows down a pregnant woman and her children, this is not God’s will. Not even sorta kinda God’s will, not even God’s-will-by-way-of-man’s-screw-ups, not even a little ugly streak hidden inside the much nicer and larger kind of God’s will that we like better.

God does not and cannot will evil to happen, not even so that good may come of it. God allows evil to happen, because He has given us actual free will. He accepts that evil is in the world because of original sin. But He is the only source of good, and He is the source of nothing but good. Evil cannot come from Him, and He cannot will evil to come about. This is who God is.

When horrible things happen, there is always a contingent of Christians — sometimes even of Catholics — who insist we must breathe shallowly, stretch our eyes open very wide, stare fixedly into the shiny distance, and declare all things good-fine-happy-triumphant-wonderful-terrific and joy-joy-joy-now-now-now. There is always a contingent who will say these things even to the faces of people who have just suffered immense, incomprehensible grief.

It is blasphemy. Christ wept when Lazarus died. Christ begged for his suffering to pass in Gethsemane. Christ cried out in agony and desolation on the Cross. Why? Because suffering is real. Death is horrible. It is not from God. He accepted and allowed and used all the evil and suffering that came into the world through sin, but it was not His will that there should be evil and suffering. He wept.

This is why we hoist a crucifix front and center in our churches, and not a risen Christ: Because this good, great, beautiful, lovable world is soaked with real suffering and real grief. The Christian thing to do is to weep with the ones who mourn, just as Christ did. Not to tell them that a tricksy, winking God somehow wills it, somehow doesn’t mind our blood being spilled, and it’s really all right their babies are riddled with bullet holes, because God, that bastard, willed it to happen.

The crucifix means salvation. The crucifix also means that an immortal God knows what it means to suffer, bleed, and die. It means that God, the source of all that is good, has been pierced for our sins, and that salvation flows from his hands, feet, and side to wash away sin. Only goodness flows from Him. He pours out Himself. He does not, cannot, pour out death.

If you think there’s no difference between what I said and what Pastor Fiene said, then the God you worship does not know pain and is not truly human. He is not, in short, Jesus.

Does God get off on seeing us suffer?

A Facebook friend posted this status:

Rule of thumb: Use NFP as often as you must forgo Sunday Mass.

His point was this: Just as we have to have serious reasons to miss Sunday Mass without sinning, we should have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy.

First, the obligatory clarification: When he said “use NFP,” he meant “use NFP to avoid pregnancy.” In fact, infertile couples trying to get pregnant may also “use NFP,” and even abstinent women use may “use NFP” to diagnose and treat a whole host of health issues.

That being said, the statement he made is technically true, but disastrously misleading. Here’s what I mean:

We have an obligation to go to Mass on Sundays unless there’s a serious reason not to do so. The catechism says:

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

We go because we are obligated to go; and we are obligated to go because it’s good for us to be there. Okay.

But some people believe that you must be at death’s door before you’d even consider foregoing Mass, and it never occurs to them that it’s selfish and wrong to drag your germy, spluttering, sneezing, infectious self into a building full of babies and old people. You shouldn’t skip Mass because you have a slight headache or you’re not in the mood; but you shouldn’t force yourself to go to Mass if your physical presence would be bad for other people. Some of your fellow parishioners are medically fragile, but, unlike you with your flu, they won’t be stronger next week. For their sake, out of respect for their desire to be at Mass, you need to consider staying home for now. If you make a decision in good faith to stay home, then you are not sinning by skipping Mass, even if you could physically survive the hour.

In the same way, choosing to forgo conception is not just about your personal willingness to suffer. You have to take other people’s legitimate needs into account. You may be willing to have another baby now, but is it just and fair to the rest of the people you’re responsible for? If one of your other kids in in crisis and needs attention badly, is there anything holy about deliberately becoming barely functional for several months? Can you ask your already-overburdened husband to unwillingly take up even more slack, and call that “being one flesh?” Or can you ask your already-exhausted wife to unwillingly do even more than she’s already doing, but somehow call it “generosity?”

Sometimes selfishness masquerades as piety. I’m not afraid to suffer! Well, that’s nice for you, but what about the suffering you’re causing to other people as you pat yourself on the back for your selfless heroism?  You don’t live alone in a hermit’s cell. Your choices affect other people, and you’re not allowed to ignore them because it strokes your spiritual pride. You’re not entitled to be generous with other people’s lives. You can ask them to be adaptable (and oftentimes, that’s all that another baby requires: adaptability); but their lives are not yours to sacrifice.

So that’s the first complication to what seems like a tidy little aphorism. It’s true that we need a serious or just reason to postpone pregnancy or to skip Mass, but those reasons are not all about us.

The second problem is that the “Try harder! Suffer more! Lemme see you sweat!” approach has to do with how we perceive God, and goes beyond NFP. The “agony = holiness” approach assumes that God is only truly pleased when we’re in horrible pain all the time, and the only way to tell if we’re following God is if we’re falling apart. If life is tolerable, we must be doing something wrong.

This is, if anything, worse than the first problem. The first problem shows that we don’t have sufficient love for other people. The second problem shows we don’t have sufficient love for God.

The second problem, the “agony = holiness” approach, portrays God as barking, sadistic drill sergeant of a deity, hellbent on whipping us into shape by smacking us down the minute we blink like the sniveling, puling weaklings we are.

God.
Is.
Not.
Like.
That.

He doesn’t despise us. He’s not out to get us. He’s not itching to see us squirm between the screws of the torture device He calls “morality.” I understand that the 21st century is not chock full of Catholics who are too strict with themselves, but neither is it chock full of Catholics who truly look to Christ as the source of love and solace in our sorrow.

God is not a sadist. God doesn’t relish watching us torment ourselves. He sometimes lets us fall into suffering — and make no mistake, pregnancy, or going to Mass, can be a form of suffering!  But when we do fall into dark times, He jumps down into that pit with us, to help us dig our way out, to help us become stronger, and to keep us company while we’re there. He doesn’t stand at the edge looking down, jeering and cheering as we writhe in pain below. He is the Lamb who was slain, not the drill sergeant who gets off on pain.

We must be willing to suffer, but we’re not required to seek suffering out. We’re not required to constantly ratchet up our own pain. 

We are required to seek love out. We are required to constantly ratchet up our desire to see God in everyone and everything.

And guess what? Sometimes God looks like joy. Sometimes God looks like peace. Sometimes God looks like prudence. Sometimes God even looks like contentment.

So be obedient, pray often, and seek God and His love in obedience, rather than focusing on the rules themselves. If God is giving you a way to take care of yourself and take care of others, whether that’s making a spiritual communion while drinking tea at home, or whether that’s looking prayerfully at your family and thanking God for the size it is right now, then you are pleasing the Father who loves you.

Reassess your decisions as necessary. But don’t assume that the thing that appeals to you must automatically disappoint God. Obedience doesn’t always bring agony. Sometimes it brings relief. Be content to be loved.

Gender Reveal Parties and the Discernment of Amoral Issues

Baby_boy,_one_month_old

A reader writes:

I cannot understand why some practicing Catholics that I know do not agree that referring to a child by his/her gender and name before birth (as soon as it can be known) is MORE life-affirming than not doing so, and is clearly a moral issue because of the inherent dignity of the unborn.

Read my response at the Register.

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