In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus encounters a rich young man who is curious about what it takes to attain eternal life. Having kept the commandments from youth, the young man wants to know what more is being asked of him. Jesus instructs the man to sell his possessions and follow him. The story ends with the man walking away sad for “he had many possessions.”
Through this story, we learn that the essence of discipleship is not believing the right things or keeping the most basic of commandments. Discipleship involves three things:
- Forming a relationship with the Lord;
- Surrendering to the will of God who we can trust;
- Opening our hearts to potentially let go of something.
You may not have thought of the practice of natural family planning (NFP) as a form of discipleship, but the couple who commits to this practice experiences each of these elements.
Firstly, what is natural family planning? NFP methods use the natural signs of a woman’s body to assess the fertile status of the woman at a given time. A couple can use this knowledge to achieve or postpone pregnancy naturally and in accord with church teaching. Because NFP involves abstaining from physical intimacy during the short fertile period, practicing it requires open, honest communication between the spouses and the exercising of trust.
The first disciples may have had conversion experiences upon meeting the Lord, but they were not disciples until they had spent time building their relationship with him. How can you learn how someone loves without spending time building a relationship with them? God designed spousal love to mirror something of his own love.
In marriage, we have an ordinary, enfleshed way to experience the mystery of God. Married persons will find that NFP practice helps them grow as disciples because NFP practice helps foster trust, intimacy and communication between them. As the couple learns to communicate better, trust each other more and self-sacrifice, they are able to communicate this divine love first to each other, then to their families and communities.
Surrendering to the will of Christ is part of discipleship. As Christians, Christ is certainly the one to whom we should surrender our will, but we are also called to sacrifice ourselves for our spouse following the example of Christ. An NFP-practicing couple becomes adept at surrendering to each other’s will. A husband may be called to surrender to the fact that his wife had a rough day or called to set the stage for intimacy by spending some quality time with her. A wife may be called to listen intently as her husband describes his desire for intimacy. “I feel the lack of intimacy lately, too,” she might say. “It’s hard to feel in the mood, though, when I am the only one picking up the house.” We surrender to each other’s will at times, but, like the second wife models, we accompany each other as well.
Often, the call to discipleship asks us to leave something behind. For the rich young man it was his possessions; for the apostle Matthew, it was a tax collector’s salary. The apostles Simon and Andrew left behind their nets and boats. Often the commitment to practice NFP in marriage comes with demands to leave something behind as well — maybe a prescription or perhaps the illusion of sexual intimacy as merely a physical act.
One thing’s for sure: when we commit to completely rethinking how we live our sexuality, our lives look different — and people notice. The Lord tells us we can know true Christian disciples by their fruits. Some of the fruits of NFP practice include a single digit-divorce rate, a greater spousal bond and an improvement in intimacy.
July 19-25 is National Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. Consider visiting ournaturalfamily.com to learn more about NFP or to find a local class or instructor. In learning NFP and building the muscles of patience, self-denial and good communication, you are becoming as a couple the types of disciples others will know by their fruits.
Phillips is former natural family planning coordinator for the Diocese of Green Bay.