Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.

***Working to be a safe place for all sides to share.***


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Revisiting My Personal Spaghetti Jar Incident

Earlier this year, I wrote about a time in my marriage when I chose to set aside my personal convictions and sense of God's will for the sake of my wife's needs. The point of that post was that while some might see my "submitting" or "yielding" to my wife in this way as an abdication of my "headship", I see it as an example of headship done right.

Unfortunately, this post has become a sticking point for some here, so I feel the need to clarify a few things. Like the spaghetti jar incident, there is a world of context which I could not include in that previous post. Without that context, some people saw in my descriptions evidence of an abusive form of control, and it has skewed their understanding of much that I have written since.

The conviction in question is our decision not to use contraception. In my previous post, I talked briefly about the history of how I came to this conviction long before I met Lisa. I did this primarily to emphasize that this belief was not the result of some patriarchal teaching I had received, but was something I came to through a long process of prayer, reflection, and counting the potential costs of such a conviction. It would seem, however, that the emphasis on how I came to my conviction gave some the impression that I had unilaterally imposed this conviction on my wife, taking away her "reproductive freedom" and forcing her to have children she didn't want.

That's simply not the case. The conviction not to use birth control did originate with me, but I did not impose it on Lisa. I told her early on in our courtship about my conviction so that she could run for the exit if she wanted to. She didn't. Instead she asked questions and we examined the issue of contraception together, counting the potential costs, considering arguments for and against, etc. After much prayer on her part, Lisa came to share my conviction about the use of contraception. This was long before we got married.

So it was our conviction not to use birth-control which led to our having three children within the first four years of our marriage. Lisa and I were both delighted about each pregnancy, and while we began to hope that our rate of conception would slow down, Lisa was never "forced" to have a child she didn't want. We actually had a miscarriage between our second and third children, and we were both heartbroken over it. When Lisa became pregnant with our third child not long afterward, she was thrilled.

Having three children under three is stressful enough by itself, but when Bethany was born that stress was compounded by other stresses. We moved into our first house a month before Bethany was born, so we were faced with the stress of getting settled, taking on the responsibilities of home ownership, and bearing the financial burden of a mortgage. At the same time, our nine-year-old nephew was dying of leukemia, and that tragedy naturally cast a shadow over everything else in our lives. This was the unwritten context of my statement in the previous post that Lisa was "physically exhausted, stressed out, worried about the future, and probably more than a little Post-Partum." In the face of all this, Lisa began asking about the possibility of using birth control. It was not that she had wanted to use contraception the whole time and that she had to get "exhausted" and "stressed out" before I would even consider it. Rather, it was the stress which led her to begin questioning whether our conviction really made sense.

Much has been made of what I described as my initial response to Lisa's questioning: "At first, I tried to give her perspective and reassure her, I made it clear that I still believed this was God's will for our family, I pointed out the need to follow God's will even when it proves personally costly, and I generally tried to get her to see things my way." To those who assumed I had unilaterally decided we would not use contraception and had forced Lisa to have children she didn't want, I can see how this sounds callous, patronizing, and paternalistic. It wasn't. This was not some sermon I preached to Lisa to get her to buck up and pay the costs of "my" convictions; this was a series of discussions in which we tried to reestablish unity. Since Lisa was questioning a belief she had previously held, my first inclination was to try and shore up her confidence in that conviction. And while I continued to believe it was God's will for us not to try to control the planning of our family, I began praying that God would either change her heart or change mine. This is something I do every time Lisa and I are not in agreement.

As we continued to discuss the question of contraception, it became clear to me that Lisa was feeling "desperate," "trapped," and "frustrated." Again, some have read my description of Lisa's feelings at that point as a sign of my callousness, as if my wife has to become "desperate" before I will really listen to her. On the contrary, I was trying to listen to her and see her perspective throughout our discussions, but it is often the case that I just don't "get" how deeply she is feeling something until her pain becomes painfully clear. I'm afraid that despite my best intentions, I can be as clueless as the next guy.

It was at this point that I realized that I needed to put my wife's needs before my convictions, no matter how long I had held them or how firmly I still believed in them. So as I wrote in that previous post, I went for a walk and prayed, "Lord, I can cling to my convictions and destroy my wife, or I can show her that she means more to me than my convictions."

While I remember this process taking a long time, as Lisa and I reconstructed the timeline of events the other night it became clear that we couldn't have been discussing this issue for more than a few weeks. We used birth control for the next nine months, at which time Lisa concluded on her own that it was indeed God's will that we not use contraception.

My point in giving this very personal story was to offer a positive example of how to work through times when husband and wife do not see eye to eye. Though convinced of what I believed was God's will for us, I took my wife's perspective as an indication that I might have gotten that wrong. When it became clear that she needed to see that I cared more for her than for any conviction, I yielded and trusted God to work things out. Thankfully, he did.

This is the key lesson. I believe God is ultimately the head of my family. He is the one with absolute authority. It is his will, not mine, which is paramount. If I believe all that, then I can trust him to make sure that his will is followed.

Another key lesson is that neither Lisa nor I acted unilaterally. Extreme complementarians might say that I was wrong not to stand firm on an issue I believed to be God's will, that I should have just drawn a line in the sand and demanded submission. I know, however, that it would have been foolish to do that. First, it would have shown my wife that I think I am infallible when it comes to discerning God's will. Second, it would have undermined her trust in my leadership and her security in my love. How many complementarian men damage their marriages for the sake of not appearing weak?

Extreme egalitarians might say that Lisa should have just gone out and gotten on the pill whether I liked it or not. After all, who am I to make decisions involving her body? But this, likewise, would have undermined trust and damaged our relationship. How many egalitarian marriages die because someone chooses independence over "mutuality"?

Lisa and I have not used contraception since that time, and by God's grace, we did not continue to have babies every sixteen months. Alexa, our youngest, was born three years after Bethany, and she is now seven years old. Far from being pressured to have babies she didn't want, Lisa has largely been the one longing for more, and we've been praying for years that God would bless us with a fifth child. I am happy to report that we are finally expecting again, and we couldn't be more delighted.

When I first told this story, I didn't intend to write this much about our reproductive decisions. I'm grateful that Lisa is willing to let me share such personal details on such a public forum. I hope that by doing so, and giving a little more context, I've cleared up at least some of the misunderstandings of that previous post.