How Natural Family Planning Shaped My View of Sex
If I had found out I was pregnant within the first year or so of my marriage, I probably would have cried unhappy tears and grimly braced myself for the end of life as I knew it. I was fresh out of college, ready to change the world, and not prepared to have kids.
During that year, my husband and I were using natural family planning (NFP), a method of tracking a woman’s fertility signs and abstaining from sex during fertile phases to avoid pregnancy. NFP is commonly considered a traditional Catholic practice, although today a growing number of evangelicals, leadership and lay, are leaning towards it as they rethink contraception. I had suggested we do NFP simply because none of the other contraceptive methods felt right to me. In the process of taking a class and doing NFP, however, the practice took on deeper significance as a type of spiritual discipline.
I think of a spiritual discipline as an intentional way of creating space for God. Different people may find that different spiritual disciplines work for them, and different seasons of life may call for different spiritual disciplines. In that newlywed season when I was wrestling with what it meant to join my life and calling to that of another person, practicing NFP became a way for me to give God the permission to rattle up my life.
I knew what I wanted – to go to graduate school, travel the world, and eventually write books. Having a baby didn’t seem to further any of those goals. It would have been easy enough to reach out my hand and close the door on that seeming intrusion by using some other, surer form of contraception, but I felt it would be good for my soul to leave the door open – just a crack.
It’s not that NFP isn’t as effective as other forms of birth control. According to our NFP textbook, it is over 99 percent effective if done correctly. But I wasn’t completely sure of my own reading of fertility signs, or of our ability to always abstain during the fertile stretch. And in an age where medicine offers us a myriad of pills, patches, shots, and instruments to keep us from becoming pregnant, NFP isn’t always brought up as an option or trusted by young couples. After all, it is not the convenient, quick fix we so often look for. Instead, we must think about it and do a bit of work. In Christian lingo, NFP is “intentional.”
Just a few years (and one baby) later, we are no longer using NFP, but our experience with this method continues to shape how I approach sex and reproduction. NFP brought an increased awareness that having sex could lead to children. It forced me to wrestle with this reality more on a regular basis, rather than opt out of that consequence more easily. NFP also taught me to relinquish control (or better said, recognize I didn’t have it to begin with) through honoring the mystery of the human body. Based on the Theology of the Body teachings by Pope John Paul II, NFP advocates a profound respect for the human body as the outward manifestation of the human person. I think in some cases Theology of the Body can be taken too far, equating biological function with role and identity. But I agree with the core premise that there is something sacred about our bodies’ design and function, not to be meddled with lightly.
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