I used to hate NFP.
I hated waking up to take my temperature every morning. Later, the rainbow of special stickers to keep track of, and having to fold the toilet paper every single time into those neat, flat layers of tissue. The charts that became such a heavy weight on my shoulders. Feeling like a gatekeeper for intimacy. The fact that “green light” days were the very days I felt least like being close to my husband. The arguing and resentment and hurting one another over and over. The feeling that I had to be doing something wrong if it was this hard.
I hated the nagging disenchantment.
It has taken me years to see some of those much-heralded fruits of NFP in my marriage.
It has taken me years to realize that NFP is not the cross.
When I have been half-drowning in real crosses in my life that made us discern the need to use NFP for a while, and when personal weaknesses and external difficulties in our lives made using NFP a struggle, I listed NFP as a great cross in my life. But NFP was not the cross.
Our crosses are the reasons why we have to use NFP, and the reasons why the practice of it can be so complicated and difficult sometimes. And all of our crosses come from the fact that we live in a fallen world and have a fallen human nature.
Our fallen world is ripe with the influences of sin pervading our human society and culture. Our fallen human nature consists of our own internal lack of virtue, our sinfulness, and our fears and insecurities. Our fallen world is one where there is sometimes sickness in our bodies or minds, and where there are incredibly complicated life situations, relationships and events we have no control over.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need NFP. It helps to call our crosses by their right names. It helps to avoid making more crosses for ourselves than we really have. In the end, NFP is a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for either good or selfish purposes. When using it gets tough, we have to remember what our real crosses are.
Fear is the cross.
Severe financial stress is the cross.
A selfish, stubborn or unsupportive spouse is the cross.
Selfishness to overcome in ourselves is the cross.
Miscommunication is the cross.
A medical condition is the cross.
Postpartum depression is the cross.
Infertility is the cross.
A strained marriage is the cross.
Past sexual woundedness is the cross.
Having the nearest family live 1,000 miles away is the cross.
An uncertain job situation is the cross.
If you have a spouse whose faults, failures, or hard-heartedness mean that you have to do NFP for the foreseeable future, I am so sorry. If you have a medical condition that means that both you and your baby’s lives would be greatly at risk with each future pregnancy–the case for two dear friends of mine–I am so sorry. With all of my heart I am sorry for you. Those are great crosses to have to bear, and your faithful use of NFP will rain down God’s grace and mercy on you.
God doesn’t give us a definitive list of reasons when it is appropriate to use NFP. The Church doesn’t give us a list because a list would take out a very, very necessary thing: communication as a couple with God about the situation.
What does God want us to do? What does our God-given human reason tell us is prudent? I was talking to a priest friend recently about this topic, and I told him that all I wanted was for God to tell me what His will was, and I would happily do it. Father corrected me gently, though, and reminded me that God gave us our capacity to reason for a reason. Two reasons, in fact.
1. God sometimes wants us to figure it out. He wants us to talk to our spouse and to talk to Him. He wants us to grow in our ability to make good choices in complicated situations.
2. God wants us to grow in relationship with Him. What kind of relationship would we have with God if all we did was say, “Jump? Now? How high?” and all He did was say, “Yes. Now. 7 inches off the ground, please.”
Perhaps there are young couples out there who feel those much-heralded fruits of NFP early on in marriage. Perhaps it has taken 5 or 10 or 20 years for you to be able to say, “NFP has blessed our marriage.” I’m somewhere in the latter. The graces we receive from faithfulness to God’s plan for marriage so often cannot be felt in the moment. When there we are, smack dab in the middle of the tears and hurt feelings and disenchantment and miscommunication–it can seem all but impossible to cling to hope at all.
With some kinds of grace, though, it takes years before our human understanding can see what has been happening in our hearts all along: a sharpening of our faith, a solidifying of our hope, and a deeper relationship with Christ. We gain a supernatural perseverance in times of struggle which we may not have otherwise had.
It’s the same thing with taking my three children to mass every Sunday. Through all of the embarrassment, and annoyance at the children’s behavior, tension with Michael sometimes, and frustration that I usually can’t remember hearing any of the readings or even half of the homily, the grace is there if I have the disposition of will in place to receive it.
My priest friend told me that there are two kinds of dispositions to receiving the grace of a sacrament: disposition of the mind and disposition of the will. Sometimes we can’t help the disposition of our mind if we are distracted by children, or if we are dealing with feelings of frustration, fear, or discouragement. But the disposition of our will is the more important of the two.
The act of going to mass anyway, the act of doing NFP anyway, the act of offering up our struggles, through our tears and discouragement and tiredness from carrying this complicated burden of disenchantment and emotions–is what cooperates with grace.
St. Paul says that we are constantly working out our salvation. For many of us who discern the need to use it, NFP is an integral part of working out our salvation. It makes us stretch our souls to grow in generosity, patience, understanding, thankfulness, self-control, and love.
So often growing in the ways that NFP challenges you to grow feels like it will break you. And it does break you sometimes, if we’re being honest. We all need to be broken at some point, though, in order to become who we were created to be. The strongest marriages, it has always seemed to me, are ones where spouses have been broken together.
Together we are in love with God. God has for His purposes drawn us together so that we might find our salvation in each other’s presence, and that together we might fulfill a common mission.” -Fr. Robert Barron
I’ve been in deep, dark valleys when it comes to marital intimacy and NFP. The thing is, those ugly valleys, hills and plateaus in between make the mountaintops infinitely more joyful, restful, and hands-down heavenly.
Courage, hope, peace and the abiding joy of Christ to each of you!