I’m not a fan of PMS. Who is? As a precursor to the terrible cramps I get once a month, it sure feels like hell.
A recent article published at The Gospel Coalition also drew comparisons between PMS and the spiritual realm. Author Rachel Jones urged readers to fight sin at the battleground of hormonal mood swings. While I appreciate the heart behind the message – Christian women do need admonishment to die to sin and grow in Christ-likeness – I don’t think the article spent enough time addressing the physiological side of the equation.
Rather than fire off a Twitter thread, I want to pose a few questions to help move the conversation toward a better understanding of PMS. When we take an embodied approach to complex issues, we can find an instructive and edifying way to discuss these struggles. Because we don’t do female image bearers any favors by making implications that might lead them to hate their bodies more than they already do.
What’s the flesh?
In the article, Jones posits that hormones show how our sinful nature is part of us, but in Christ, doesn’t define us. She highlights Galatians 5:16-23, where Paul teaches Christ followers to walk by the Spirit instead of gratifying the flesh.
This begs a question: What does Paul mean by “flesh” in this passage? Consider John Piper’s definition:
The basic mark of the flesh is that it is unsubmissive. It does not want to submit to God’s absolute authority or rely on God’s absolute mercy. Flesh says, like the old TV commercial, ‘I’d rather do it myself.’
Based on Piper’s interpretation, “flesh” involves the body, but doesn’t implicate the body as evil in itself. Comparing the flesh to hormones makes the distinction fuzzy. If God tells us to fight the flesh, does that mean we must fight our hormones? If we can overcome the flesh by choosing obedience, does that mean we can overcome hormones? And what would that look like practically? Never feeling sad or cranky?
Making statements that pit hormones against the Spirit makes it sound as though biological processes that normally occur within a woman’s body are sinful in and of themselves. This casts confusion on what God declared to be “very good.” “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
God designed the female body to conceive and carry a baby. In this way, hormonal fluctuations should be seen as good and life-giving, not something to eschew as evil.
What’s the battle?
Of course, we know God’s good design was marred by the fall. We see and carry its effects, including the curse upon childbearing. Consider the physiological impact of PMS and related problems:
- PMS (premenstrual syndrome) affects 3 out of 4 menstruating women, causing physical and emotional symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, bloating, gut problems, insomnia, brain fog, and crying spells.
- About one half of women who seek treatment for PMS also have depression or anxiety disorders.
- PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) is a severe form of PMS that can cause serotonin deficiency, leading to extreme mood shifts that can disrupt daily activities.
In lieu of this medical data, is PMS really a battle between flesh and Spirit? If we feel our moods swing wildly, does that mean we’re letting sin win?
Maybe, maybe not. It’s not cut and dry. A woman who feels negative emotions as part of PMS isn’t automatically disobeying God. She’s undergoing a biological process that can be disrupted or exacerbated by disease. While dealing with these hormonal fluctuations, she might feel greater temptation toward certain sins, such as exploding in anger. The question of whether or not she’s sinning comes down to her response to that temptation, if she refuses to take out her frustration on other people, or if she lets that frustration “give birth to sin” (James 1:15).
While PMS doesn’t give us a free pass to snap at our kids or coworkers, it can make it harder not to sin by weakening us. As our bodies wear thin under physical, mental, and emotional burdens, we might face temptations not only to indulge anger and self-pity, but also pride and self-sufficiency. We can try to white-knuckle our way through debilitating symptoms on our own, or admit we need physical relief outside ourselves. This gives us an opportunity to honor God by taking care of our bodies and boasting in his power made perfect in our weakness.
Why do I care?
I take anti-anxiety medication for PMDD. It took me many painful months to realize I needed it. I still cringe using the term “need.” Yet that realization was God’s grace to me.
That’s not why I’m writing this, though. My interest in the interplay of physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles extends beyond one article on PMS. I’m interested because I work closely with hurting women, and I know how disheartening it is for them to hear messages that equate physical issues with sin.
Women who have lost babies to miscarriage and/or suffer a gamut of hormonal problems causing infertility feel like their bodies are failing them. They wonder what sin they committed that brought this punishment upon them. As they cry out to the Lord and pray for healing or relief and it doesn’t come, they conclude that they’re at fault, that God is at fault, or both.
I know, this isn’t correct theology. God causes or allows suffering for his glory and our good. Many women know this truth too. It’s much harder to believe it when you keep losing babies or when the pregnancy tests keep turning up negative.
Despite good intentions, we do women (and men) a disservice when we reduce complex mind/body/spirit issues to sin struggles that can be overcome by prayer and determination. When talking with women who are facing these problems, it helps to approach the conversation fully exploring the both/and of our humanity and lives as Christians. We’re guilty of sin and damaged by sin. We’re called to fight the flesh and steward our bodies. We can admonish and encourage a woman experiencing PMS with all gentleness and patience, reminding her of the gospel that redeems her whole person.
Answering the question
So, does PMS make us sin? No. But it can make us suffer. In the midst of that suffering, the line where physical pain ends and sin begins isn’t easy to distinguish. Only the Lord knows the true condition of our hearts, whether we’re succumbing to selfish impulses, languishing under hormone-induced affliction, or both.
The good news for every woman is that Christ’s death and resurrection ensures an end to PMS on the other side of eternity. In the meantime, we can turn to him for new mercies every menstrual cycle. Through his grace, we can fight temptation any time of the month and rest assured that it is his righteousness that saves us, not our own acts of spiritual devotion. We can use the gifts of common grace he makes available to us through the body of Christ, counseling, support systems, and, if advised by a physician, appropriate medication.
Jesus is our hope amid hormonal changes and challenges. Let’s strive to present a clear image of him and the abundant grace he offers to women whom he has saved by his own issue of blood.