Settling for Less
Years ago my wife and I decided to build an addition on our house for the purpose of having a main-level bedroom for our special needs daughter, who is unable to walk. My initial idea was to add a bedroom off the back of the kitchen. The contractor asked my wife, “What’s your dream?” I began to internally combust as I saw dollar bills flying out the window. She said that she wanted to have an extended kitchen with a dining area, an additional bathroom and some extra closet space. I couldn’t endure my wife’s dreaming any longer and interrupted, saying that we could not afford these things. To which the contractor responded, “It’s economy of scale—a little more labor, a little more lumber, and a little more time and sacrifice—but not a lot more money.” I was settling for less—but God, through this contractor—wanted to give us more. Regarding our sexual life, we often settle for less. We fail to realize that a little more labor, a little more sacrifice can make sexual intimacy so much more than what the world offers. God creates man and woman to need each other, to desire each other, to embrace each other, and to give themselves to one another by exchanging their bodies, which should ultimately become an exchange of their persons—thus reflecting the exchange of Persons in the Trinity. One of the purposes of the marital act is for the couple to become one as God is one, and in their union they experience a glimmer of the joy, ecstasy, and glory of the heavenly exchange of the Trinity. Sex is a sign of God’s love. In addition to this, man and woman become cocreators with God, the Lord the Giver of Life. This ability to cocreate with God is astonishingly sacred. Woman’s fertility is sacred. Her inner chamber is likened to the sanctuary, the inner chamber of the Church, where Christ, in His eucharistic presence dwells. Within woman’s inner chamber, life is formed, and from her inner chamber life comes forth—much like Christ, Who being made present on the altar, comes forth from the chamber of the sanctuary to us.
Two Types of Pain
Our wives’ sexuality, femininity, and fertility are sacred and demand to be protected. God has called each of us to be that guardian and protector of woman’s deepest mystery. The Church teaches that the ends of marriage are procreative and unitive, or as Jason Evert says, babies and bonding. I believe that the ends of marriage are not only procreative and unitive, but also redemptive, that is, capable of redeeming us, making us whole, reintegrating our souls and bodies. In other words, the one-flesh union and our striving to uphold the sacredness of this union by engaging it without lust, and by abstaining from it without lust, is intended to purify us, redeem us, and make us whole—make us real men in Christ. Today, I would like to discuss one of the greatest enemies of intimacy, an enemy that sets itself against redemption, against the purification of the man, against true sexual intimacy with our wives: contraception. Before I proceed, I want to be very clear: This is a very difficult topic to discuss. This topic causes much tension and internal aversion to the Church’s teaching. My purpose is not to judge or condemn anyone. I personally understand and have experienced how challenging the Church’s teaching on this topic can be. However, I also believe that I will be judged by God if I don’t share this beautiful truth with you. I am compelled to share the truth of authentic love and the truths of contraception because you are my dear brothers and I desire to spare you the pain, heartache, and division caused by contraception. There are two types of pain: one that makes you stronger and another that makes you weaker. Often after exercising, a person may feel pain. Usually, this pain is the tearing down, rebuilding, and thickening of the body’s muscle fibers, which makes you stronger. Such strength allows you to compete and perform well. When a person doesn’t exercise or train they experience the pain of never playing, or if they play, they often experience the debilitating pain of injuring themselves. Today, it is my hope that we will understand the difference between good pain, which causes sexual strength, and bad pain, which causes sexual weakness.
There exists true mercy and false mercy. False mercy avoids the good pain up front but ends with bad pain. False mercy is akin to the Brits assuring the Scots to surrender before battle, by offering them lower taxes and allowing them to keep their plots of land—only for the purpose of raping their wives and pillaging their fields. False mercy masks itself as safe, not risky, secure, and pain free. But false mercy eventually enslaves us in our fears and keeps us from becoming a threat to the evil one. False mercy keeps us manageable. The last thing the evil one wants is a man who risks his life to love in a radical way. Such a man is like William Wallace, who tells the Brits to take their false mercy and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine, then proceeds to conquer them and obtain true freedom. Contraception is a form of false mercy. Contraception convinces us to play it safe, to avoid the risk of loving radically and sacrificially. Contraception offers the idea of “spontaneous sex,” “sex on demand,” “sex without consequences.” However, it’s a diabolical trap, much like the Brits’ offer to the Scots. It appears good on the surface, but below, it is an empty promise. The stats testify to this truth: 1) Birth control pills can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer significantly and can permanently decrease her sex drive. 2) Depo-Provera thins a woman’s bones. As a result, the makers of the drug are being sued for over $700 million. The drug is so effective in decreasing libido that some states prescribe it as a punishment to be given to rapists and child molesters. 3) The birth control patch has become so dangerous that its makers are facing four thousand lawsuits related to numerous injuries and deaths. 4) Implanon warns women using the device that they should call their doctor immediately if they begin coughing up blood or experience blindness or unconsciousness. 5) Even nonchemical forms of birth control have negative consequences. For example, women who use barrier methods of contraception such as the condom are deprived of the beneficial effects of over two dozen biological ingredients in semen. These have been shown to elevate a woman’s mood and decrease the likelihood that she will experience preeclampsia during childbirth. 6) Paul VI, in Humane Vitae, predicted that the consequence of using contraception would increase divorces, martial infidelity, abortions, and a disregard for the sacred dignity of woman. He was a prophet. Since the 1960s the divorce rate has skyrocketed, abortions have tripled annually, and infidelity in marriage has become a cultural norm. 7) From 1960 to 2000, the proportion of children in single-parent families headed by females has more than tripled in Europe and North America, and many studies have shown that coming from a single-parent family plays a major role in the persistence of poverty. 8) Contraception has been proven to consistently reduce sexual intimacy. The point is that often in our effort to achieve true intimacy we compromise, we settle for less and accept Satan’s bribe—his false mercy.
Our Lord offers real mercy, liberty from sexual captivity, a way to experience the fullness of joy in the one-flesh union in an ongoing consistent manner. God’s plan is not contraceptive. It doesn’t involve barriers, but desires rather to replicate the pattern of His divine love in our marriages. This is one of the reasons He created the one-flesh union: to draw men and women together to reflect the three attributes of the Trinity: distinction, unity, and fruitfulness. NFP—natural family planning—is a way to replicate this pattern of divine love in our marriages. As Mother Teresa said, “NFP is nothing more that self-control out of love for each other.” NFP if used correctly is 99 percent effective in planning pregnancies and spacing children. Couples who use NFP have an astonishingly low divorce rate of under 3 percent. NFP is not easy. It is challenging, but rewarding. It is challenging because it demands that a man pay close attention to his wife’s cycles, hormones, her body, and her person. Women are like the moon, waxing and waning—a moving target that demands our attention to understand where she is at any point during her cycle. Men are like the sun—we are always on, ready to go. God created men and women in this way to learn how to communicate and develop a tender respect for the other. It demands determination to love at all times, especially during times of abstinence. Rather than taking the easy way out and using contraceptives to avoid pregnancy during a woman’s fertile period, a man chooses to master himself and his desires, to conquer his lusts and love her properly—regardless of what he receives or doesn’t receive from her. NFP demands communication between the couple. All of this develops a deep appreciation of the other, a natural tenderness and respect that makes future acts of sexual intercourse alive, vibrant, intimate, beautiful, and God-filled. Of course, this type of love is demanding, but also worthy of every man. It is worth fighting for. If we cut corners, in the end, our marriages lose. If we cannot say no to sex, our yes means nothing. For example, if an Olympic athlete skips training, he will ultimately fail in his performance and competitions. If a person who is training to be a lifeguard neglects to learn how to swim against the current while saving another person, the possibility of such a person surviving in those circumstances is minimal. Would any of us hire an architectural engineer to build a bridge if we knew that they consistently cheated in college and never truly learned architectural engineering? It is like this in marriage. If we desire to be victorious and have true sexual intimacy, save our wives’ and children’s souls, it is imperative that we learn how to build something great.
Protecting the Sister, the Bride
You and I, we men, we are called to be guardians of this sacred mystery of the one-flesh union. To become such a protector it is imperative that we have three things: self-knowledge, self-mastery, and self-giving. Self-knowledge leads to self-mastery and self-mastery leads to self-giving. When we know our weaknesses and yet desire to overcome them, we strive, by God’s grace, to become masters of ourselves. When we begin to experience self-mastery, we actually begin to possess ourselves and become capable of giving ourselves away. For we cannot give what we do not have, but we can give what we possess. To properly give ourselves to our wives and experience incredible intimacy that images the Trinity, we must master ourselves—particularly our sexual desires. As Gaudium et Spes states: man can only discover himself by becoming a sincere gift. When we truly give ourselves to another and the other affirms this gift of self, we are confirmed further in our real identity, which begins the cycle all over, enabling us to have a deeper self-knowledge, which leads to better self mastery, which leads to more profound self-giving.
In the erotic love poetry contained in the divinely inspired Scripture of the Song of Songs, the lover says to the beloved, “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes . . . How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!” (Song 4:9-10). By referring to her as sister before calling her bride, the lover demonstrates that he is her guardian first and her lover second, that his desire is not of lust but of authentic disinterested love. As John Paul II says, “The groom’s words, through the name ‘sister,’ tend to reproduce . . . the history of femininity of the person loved. They see her still in the image of girlhood and they embrace her entire ‘I,’ soul and body, with a disinterested tenderness” (TOB 371). We care called to rise to the challenge of protecting our wives as sister first and loving her as bride second. In addition to this, the lover in Songs says, “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed” (Song 4:12). In other words, the lover can only enter her garden when she unlocks the door. “He must entrust himself to her freedom; she may refuse. This puts the man at risk” (Christopher West). As John Paul II says, “The metaphors ‘garden enclosed,’ ‘fountain sealed’ reveal that woman is master of her own mystery.” In other words, we must become a protector of our sister, defeat lust in our hearts, uphold her dignity, and love her despite what we get or don’t get from her.
Sign or Anti-Sign
In the book of Tobit, Tobiah is called by Raphael the archangel to marry Tobit’s daughter Sarah. Sarah had previously been married to six different men and each of them on the wedding night—before consummating the marriage—died. On the eve of Tobiah and Sarah’s wedding, Sarah’s father was digging a grave for Tobiah. However, Tobiah, before going to bed with Sarah, prayed the prayer, “You made Adam and gave him Eve his wife . . . And now O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and grow old together with her. And Sarah said with him, ‘Amen.’” (Tob. 8:6-8). Tobiah called out for God’s mercy, strove to protect Sarah—and because of this, Tobiah received God’s mercy, they consummated their marriage, and Tobiah lived. As John Paul II said regarding this text, “Spouses becoming one as husband and wife, find themselves in the situation in which the powers of good and evil fight and compete against each other . . . The choices and actions of men and women take on all the weight of human existence in the union of the two” (TOB 376). Tobiah’s love is victorious because he prayed and overcame the temptation to use his wife. If authentic sexual intercourse is intended to be a sign of God’s triune self-giving love, then lust-filled contraceptive intercourse becomes an anti-sign, and anti-sacrament, and rather than revealing and reliving God’s love, it refuses and rejects grace, which puts the marriage at risk.
When we proclaimed our vows on the day of our wedding, we were asked, Do you come freely? That is, without coercion. Do you come without reservation? That is, are you giving yourself entirely, totally, without holding anything back? Will you be faithful to death? Will you lovingly embrace children from God? That is, will you be fruitful and open to life? Every time we have intercourse with our wives we renew these vows to be free, total, faithful, and fruitful. However, if we insert contraception, we betray our vows by not being free from sexual slavery; we are not giving ourselves totally—for we are holding back our fertility, nor are we open to the possibility of life. God is not concerned with us having an abundant amount of children—but rather is concerned with our redemption. When we use NFP instead of contraception we open ourselves to the procreative, unitive, and redemptive goals of marriage. Self-mastery redeems us and our marriages, and affords true sexual intimacy. John Paul II reminds us men, “Man is precisely a person because he is master of himself and has self-control. Indeed, insofar as he is master of himself he can ‘give himself’ to the other” (TOB 398).
Real Pain—Real Intimacy
However, many men settle for less and neglect to rise to the challenge of practicing such self-mastery in hopes of experiencing authentic self-giving love in their marital embrace. If we strive to master ourselves for the purpose of giving ourselves away properly, we will experience incredible intimacy in our marriages. Time and time again, men have shared with me their heroic accounts of having their vasectomies reversed, or of ceasing to use contraception, and because of this their marriages experience greater communication and sexual intimacy. Several close friends have said that by using NFP their sexual intimacy is off the charts. Why? Because the God who created sex is there, present, animating the act with the fullness of His love. Such devotion to self-mastery and the upholding of our wives’ dignity is challenging but worth it. When we are determined to pay attention to her, and refuse to accept the false mercy of contraception, our wives will experience the love for which they long; and we will love her for who she is, not for what she can give.