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.
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.