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

Sponsor Marquette NFP supplies for couples in need!

Okay, I forgot it was NFP Awareness Week. Just one of the many things about which I am sub-aware.

I usually host a ClearBlue fertility monitor giveaway, but here’s something even simpler: You can donate to a fund that helps couples buy monitors and test strips to use with Marquette model NFP. Marquette uses the ClearBlue Fertility Monitor to measure hormone levels in urine, to help you achieve or avoid pregnancy.  Basically, you pee in a cup once a day, dip a test strip in, stick the strip in the machine, and then it tells you what’s going on.

The fund was organized by Mikayla and Stephen Dalton. To contact them for more information about this fund, you can use this form:

or email them at NFPmission at gmail dot com.  Feel free to contact me if you have questions: simchafisher at gmail dot com.  

Right now they are not accepting new applications for assistance. There is a backlog of people they haven’t been able to help yet (they got 37 applications and could only fund 12); so any moneys collected will go toward helping those who have already applied. 

Mikayla is a Boston Cross Check instructor, and she’s the one who taught me how to use the monitor to track my cycles. She is an eminently forthright, practical, and generous person, and I trust this couple to do exactly what they say they will do with any funds donated.

I not only personally vouch for the Daltons, I can vouch for Marquette [gestures meaningfully and non-pregnantly toward our youngest child who four-and-a-half]. It has taken so much of the stress and subjectivity out of using NFP. For us, it’s been far easier to use, easier to understand, and more reliable than other methods we’ve used. I’m not bashing other methods. If your other method works well for you, wonderful! Enjoy! But some people only really find NFP manageable once they start using Marquette.  

It is more expensive than other systems, though. The monitor costs between $100 and $200, and a box of test strips costs about $35 (a box lasts me about 4 months, but this varies). It wasn’t long ago that this was completely out of our budget, and there are plenty of couples in the same boat. They really want to use NFP, but the odds are against them. 

So if you’re looking for a simple way to directly help another couple, please consider contacting the Daltons. Thanks! 

 

 

NFP Awareness Week: Clearblue Fertility Monitor Giveaway #1 and #2

Here we are again! NFP Awareness Week. Here’s the deal: We love the Marquette method of NFP. It’s made NFP so much easier and has given us so much more confidence. And, like, Corrie is almost three-and-a-half and she is still the youngest, so.

But the monitor costs more than $100, and you have to buy a box of test strips every few months, too. For many years, we just couldn’t afford it, and I know plenty of people are in the same boat.

Happily, I have many generous friends, and ten of them have offered to sponsor a total of eleven monitors to give away, plus several boxes of test strips, plus instruction with one or possibly two instructors!

 

Today, we have two sponsors, each sponsoring a monitor and box of test strips to give away. One is my friend Tanya Cleary, and the other is an anonymous donor. Thanks so very much to them!

For my part, I will try to post a new, terrible graphic each day this week. It’s not easy, but I’m willing.

Today’s raffle is open only to US residents. There will be one prize for UK residents and one for Australia residents in the coming days.

The raffle details:

How do I enter? Use the Rafflecopter form below. It gives you several ways to enter. If the form doesn’t show up, click on the link that says “a Rafflecopter giveaway” at the bottom of the post. Only one prize per household.

How often can I enter? You may enter once per day, using as many ways of entering as you like (see form below for details). Two winners will be chosen per day. Each day is a separate raffle. Each raffle runs from midnight to midnight, eastern time.

Can I win if I live outside the US? Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are open only to US residents. On Thursday, there will be one prize for a US resident and one for a UK resident; and on Friday, there will be one prize for a US resident and one for an Australia resident.

When will winners be announced? I’ll choose two winners each day on Monday through Friday. I’ll announce all the winners on Friday, or possibly on Saturday if I am a terrible person.
If you are a winner, I will notify you using the address you provided to Rafflecopter.

Do I have to provide my actual email address, even though I worry that you will use it to steal my soul and then go on a shopping spree at Forever 21? Yes, please use an actual email address. I don’t even want your soul. Your valid email is the only way I have of getting in touch with you if you win, so please make sure that when you sign up for Rafflecopter, you use an active address! If I can’t get in touch with you, I’ll pick a different winner.

 

If the Rafflecopter form doesn’t show up below, here’s the link to enter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunshine, buttercups, and rainbow flags

I understand the idea of incrementalism. I understand accepting people where they are, accompanying them, and praying with them as they gradually become more open to the fullness of the truth, whether they’re deeply invested in a homosexual relationship or deeply invested in a contraceptive relationship. You can’t accompany someone unless they decide walk through the door, so you want that door to look as welcoming as possible. Plant flowers. Put a fresh coat of paint. Hang a rainbow flag. It is our job to be loving first, so as to make it possible for people to receive the law and then identify it as the same thing as love. I understand this.

But where do we draw the line between accompaniment and bait and switch?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by BookMama via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Seeking sponsors for Clearblue fertility monitor giveaway!

NFP Awareness Week is coming up, tra la la. Here on my blog, I like to go beyond awareness to doingsomethingaboutitness when possible. I don’t have money, but I do have this platform, and I know I have some very generous readers. And I love Marquette NFP.

So, who’s in to sponsor a Clearblue Fertility Monitor to be given away, preferably to couples who can’t afford to buy one?

Monitors are currently about $110 on Amazon. If you or your organization would like to sponsor a monitor to give away, I’ll give you a day of space here on my blog to promote your organization, company, charity, or to honor someone, or whatever you like, with text and two images during the week starting July 22.

I’ll share the post with your content twice on my personal Facebook page and twice on my professional Facebook page, twice on Twitter and once on Google+ and once on Tumblr; and I’ll give extra raffle entries to readers who share on social media.

I reserve the right to refuse any sponsor who wants to promote something I consider inappropriate!

Getting a monitor made a huge difference in our experience of NFP. HUGE. (Exhibit A: Corrie is almost three-and-a-half, and she is still our youngest.) We found the method easier (after a rather steep learning curve), more objective, less labor intensive, and it gave us more predictable results and more available days; and, for whatever reason, the culture around Marquette seems less cluttered with weird attitudes toward women and sex. I wish we had started on Marquette years ago, but we simply didn’t have the money.

If you want to be a superstar, you could sponsor a monitor and a box of 30 test strips, which can last a woman in regular cycles three months or more.

Interested? I love you! Contact me at simchafisher at gmail dot com with “I’d like to sponsor a monitor” in the subject heading, and we’ll get started.

 

Protected: Podcast 28: The beast with one back

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On complaining honestly about NFP (and other crosses)

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Want to complain about NFP? Far be it from me to stop you! You could even go ahead and write a whole book about how hard NFP can be, and see where that gets you. (Psst, it’s still on sale! $5 paperback, $2.99 eb0ok)
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Couples who are struggling are very grateful to hear that they’re not the only ones who hate NFP. There’s nothing worse than feeling like, not only are you having a miserable time, but you’re the only ones who aren’t lovin’ every minute of it.
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Happily, the conversation about NFP has been slowly, steadily becoming more realistic, and fewer NFP promoters are resorting to sunshine-’n’-buttercups tactics as they sell NFP. Instead, we’re seeing more frank and honest discussions of the what NFP can (but won’t necessarily automatically) do for your marriage. (See a great reading list at the end of this post.) Honesty may  not be the most immediately attractive approach, but in the long run, it’s more helpful.
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However! There’s such a thing as too much honesty — or, rather, there’s such a thing as misleading honesty, honesty that is one-sided, incomplete, or even dishonest.
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Here are a few of the things I try to achieve when I talk about NFP, along with just being honest:
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1. NO CROSS-COMPARING.
I try not to make it seem like only couples who struggle are couples who are doing it right. I used to do this, and I’m sorry about that!  It’s kind of like the “real women have curves” sloganeering. Well, I’m a real woman, and I have curves; but I have skinny friends, and they are real women, too. Let’s not overcompensate and end up insulting people who simply have a different cross from our own.
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If those of us who really struggle with NFP are going to plead for or demand more sympathy and understanding from people who find it a light cross at worst, we should extend the same courtesy to people who are bearing up well under the cross of NFP. We shouldn’t imply, even jokingly, that couples who like NFP are probably just some kind of low-drive tea bags in the bedroom. Comparing crosses, and taking jabs at people with other crosses than your own, is a shitty game. Talk about missing the point.
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2. NO FALSE HOPES
I try to make it clear that, while Catholics can certainly improve the way they deliverthe Church’s teaching about sexuality, the Church is not going to change her teaching about sexualityIt’s one thing to say, “I feel comforted when someone in the Church recognizes that this is a hard teaching.” It’s quite another to say, “I feel comforted to think that the Church is getting closer to fixing this unreasonable demand she makes on us.” Certain things are simply not in flux.
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If we’d like an acknowledgement from the bishops or from the local marriage prep teacher that NFP is sometimes nothing but a cross for couples, then I agree with you. NFP is “challenging” in the same way that unmedicated childbirth gives you “discomfort.”  But let’s not encourage people to hope for some kind of change in the Church’s teaching. I know that as long as I was hoping for that, I was unable to look suffering in the face. Which is a bad thing.
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Which brings me to my third point:
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3. NO INSISTING ON HUMAN STANDARDS 
When we are avoiding or postponing pregnancy, we don’t use NFP primarily because of its magical marriage-building properties! We use NFP because it allows us to have sex sometimes instead of never. We’d be smart to pursue any benefits that we can, but they are not why we reject contraception. We reject contraception primarily because it is immoral, and we can thank the Holy Spirit if rejecting contraception also brings us various goods, like better physical health or better relationships with our spouses and with God.
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NFP is not necessarily going to “hurt so good,” with measurable payoffs for the ordeal. It might just plain hurt, without any discernible benefits or rewards, because of original sin. When we preach solely about the rewards of NFP — even hard-to-achieve spiritual rewards — and never talk about our duty to reject sin, we imply that suffering is only worthwhile when it has some immediate and obvious purpose, goal, or benefit, such as “marriage building,” or making couples happy or fulfilled, or giving life, or making our spiritual life more fulfilling. Is this what suffering is really like, though?
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Not that I’ve noticed. When Jesus was on the cross, I’m pretty sure that everyone around Him experienced His sacrifice as nothing but a cruel, senseless, loss. He had only been in public ministry for a few years, and now it was ending already, and they were all losing a teacher, a savior, a friend, a son — not to mention that they were seeing Him in pain and disgrace, and were all in danger of being arrested just for knowing Him. Plenty of people saw what was happening and ran away and lost their faith. There was nothing happy or fulfilling life-giving in sight with that sacrifice. I am quite sure it seemed senseless and intolerable — probably, if we listen to His words, even to Christ Himself.
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Oh my gosh, what a downer, right? But really, it’s a trap to use human standards (“Is this making me happy? Is this making life better? Does everyone around me agree that this makes sense? Does it seem like I’m making progress?”) to make judgments about what kind of suffering is tolerable. When we do this, then really serious suffering, the kind that doesn’t make sense, will seem like a sign that something is wrong — that something has to change, that we deserve a pass of some kind (see point #2).
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If we look at a crucifix, suffering may or may not make sense, but at least we can’t claim that God couldn’t possibly expect us to choose that path just because of religion.  Look to Him. Look at Him. See Him hanging there, abandoned. Sometimes there is no answer — not for you, not right now. That’s not a good reason to stop.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe in redemptive suffering. It’s just that I no longer expect it to feel redemptive.
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***
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For further reading, do yourself a favor and check out the invaluable Jen Fitz’s series:
What Is the Point of Pointless Suffering?
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I want to be Jen Fitz when I grow up!
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And also don’t miss Greg Popcak’s helpful advice specifically about NFP in his series from this year:
and a good reminder to those of us with big families that hyperfertility is a cross, but it’s not the only cross, so watch your words.

The Sinner’s Guide to NFP is on sale for NFP Awareness Week!

sinners guide to nfp cover

In honor of nobody’s favorite week of the year, my book’s on sale all week!

The paperback version, (usually $9-10) is now $5 (only when you order direct from OSV).

The Kindle version (which you can read on any computer — you just need to download the Kindle app), which is usually $4.99, is now $2.99.

These prices will hold until  July 27th, so step lively!