Did PMS Make Me Do It (Sin)?

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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:

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.

Photo courtesy engin akyurt on Unsplash

The Beauty of Hidden Ministry

I count the signs in my folder: two, four, six, eight. Good. That’s all of them. Eight signs with little arrows pointing left, right, left.

I whip out the Scotch tape and stick them on the white-walled hallways of the warehouse-sized church. If I don’t put these up, people will get lost trying to find the room at the far end of the building where the support group meets.

The ministry I lead for women facing infertility and infant loss is hidden in more ways than one. While my church has been kind and supportive, many people in the community don’t know what we do, let alone that our group exists.

Like the room where we gather to talk, cry, and pray, our small assembly is tucked away in the back corner of Church. While I trust the Lord is working in the lives of the women who attend, sharing space with dust bunnies can make it hard to believe our ministry matters.

Read full article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

3 Ways the Church Can Advocate for Birthmothers

Cowritten with Brittany Salmon

The Church is no stranger to adoption. Many congregations in the United States observe Orphan Care Sunday, host fundraisers for prospective adoptive parents, and sponsor adoption charities and scholarships.

As we celebrate two adoption awareness events in November, National Adoption Month and National Adoption Day, we might feel confident advocating for adoption. Being well-versed in James 1:27, we understand the call to help children in need and have programs in place to assist adoptive parents with costs and logistics. But when discussing domestic infant adoption, we don’t often highlight the concerns of adoptees and their birthmothers.

Amid our efforts to be doers of the Word and support adoption in our communities, we need to extend our advocacy to birthmothers who choose adoption out of love for their children. Though adoption doesn’t always involve a rosy biological family backstory, we can still respect birthmothers’ inherent dignity, love them as our neighbors, and appreciate how they can illustrate the redemptive beauty of the gospel.

Read full article at ERLC.

Ordinary Influence: Advancing the Kingdom Without Being an Evangelical Celebrity

Blank stares. A cleared throat. Some “hmmming” and legs being crossed, then uncrossed. You can always tell when women feel uncomfortable answering a question in a group discussion. In this case, the group was discussing the speeches we’d just heard during a conference video streamed at our church women’s retreat. The conversation had been moving steadily until we reached a stumper: “Who in your sphere of influence could you disciple to follow Christ?”

It’s an intimidating question to pose to a crowd of teachers, office professionals, and stay-at-home moms and grandmas right after listening to powerhouse Christian speakers deliver rousing messages.

Many of us who occupy “ordinary” roles find it difficult to acknowledge our impact on other people. We underestimate the effect we have on others, not necessarily because we’re humble, but because we doubt the actual merit of our oftentimes mundane work.

This is an easy lie to believe, especially in today’s culture. It takes a quick scroll through Instagram and some simple math to compare our number of followers to a peer’s and conclude we’re not as popular, and thus, not all that influential.

Read full post at Morning by Morning.

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God Remembers the Barren, and So Should the Church

I walked in the door to a foyer teeming with children. My husband and I entered the sanctuary and sat down in the back, where I began counting the number of pregnant women in the pews around us.

We had just moved to a new town and were trying out a church. My husband had to drag me there, because I didn’t want to go. I thought it would be painful to be surrounded by what I wanted desperately, but God had not yet given.

My assumptions proved correct. As I flipped through the bulletin, I saw listed several ministries the church offered various adults: singles, newly marrieds, families with kids, empty nesters. Nothing for childless, not-wedded-yesterday couples.

I was already feeling rejected by God. Now, I felt left out of His church.

The truth of His promise

Though I was impatient with His timing, God was patient with me during my years of infertility. Even before He brought us our two sons, He granted abundant grace and revealed more of His character to me in a personal way.

During and after this season, God grew my compassion for others facing these trials and my desire to search His Word for true comfort, discovering how God interacted with women in the Bible who struggled to bear children.

One of the most prominent examples is Hannah, who is so distraught over her childlessness that she pours out her soul to the Lord in the temple and is mistaken by the priest as a drunk. She leaves with “her face no longer downcast,” and once she returns home, God answers her cry.

“And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her.” (1 Samuel 1:19)

The word “remembered,” when used with God as the subject doing the “remembering,” appears elsewhere in Scripture when He delivers His people: Noah from the flood (Genesis 8:1), Abraham and Lot from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:29), the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 2:24), and the Israelites from the desert (Psalm 105:42).

In all these examples, God doesn’t forget His people as if they slipped His mind. That would be impossible – it would go against His omniscient character.

Instead, God “remembers” His children by bringing His promises to pass.

He saved Noah, like He said He would. He saved Abraham and the people of Israel, like He said He would.

He enabled women like Hannah to miraculously conceive because He made a covenant (promise) to provide a lineage that would eventually produce a miraculously conceived Savior.

The Bible doesn’t guarantee that every couple will bear children. But it does confirm a powerful promise that God is committed to redeem the sorrows in our lives through the death and resurrection of His Son.

Left out of the club

Even with this biblical comfort, couples that struggle with infertility can feel forgotten and isolated – especially in environments like church that emphasize families and childrearing.

As the leader of an infertility support ministry, I’ve heard from women describing upsetting circumstances when someone at church made a comment implying that their infertility was caused by sin. This assumption adds to the shame those dealing with infertility already face, making them feel excluded from fellowship in the body of Christ.

One woman in an online support group describes her loneliness:

“I find church the hardest place to be at the moment. The lack of understanding has floored me. I can’t bear more hurt by other believers.”

In my experience, it seems most insensitive comments about infertility stem from ignorance about the subject. It’s hard to understand what you haven’t personally suffered.

As with other rarely discussed health issues, many people aren’t aware of the ramifications of infertility.

They don’t know that it’s a disease affecting one in eight couples. They haven’t felt the embarrassment of being the only couple in church without kids to send to Sunday school. They aren’t experiencing the month-to-month roller coaster of emotional and sometimes physical pain, only to be told by someone in Bible study the well-meaning but hurtful advice: “You just need to trust God and relax.”

Instead of perpetuating unwitting insensitivity, the church can seek better understanding about infertility to build one another up in unity of faith.

Bearing one another’s burdens

Armed with greater knowledge and empathy, those of us who lead or even just attend church can, by God’s grace, help carry the burdens of those who are suffering this type of disappointment. Working together, we can create an environment of compassion, rather than exclusion from the baby club.

Teaching

We know from Scripture that children are a blessing (Psalm 127:3-5), and are familiar with the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” though some miss the Old Covenant context within which God delivered this mandate and construe it as an assurance of reproductive ability. But how many churches have spent time expounding upon the many accounts of delayed fertility recorded in the Bible?

In miraculous displays backing up His declaration in Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”, God enables seven women whom the Bible describes as “barren” to conceive for His divine purposes: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings, and Elizabeth.

If you’re a pastor or other ministry leader, you can preach sermons and offer Bible studies examining these stories, not as a prescription for fertility success, but rather to demonstrate God’s attentiveness to His children who are longing for a blessing, corresponding to the gospel truth of our longing for a Savior.

Recognition

Mother’s Day is difficult to endure for women experiencing infertility and miscarriage. Having to stay seated while most every other woman in the congregation stands for applause or receives a rose shoots like a dagger to the heart of a woman who desires but hasn’t yet been given children.

While it’s appropriate for pastors and churches to honor moms on that Sunday, you can also acknowledge the sorrow this day stirs for those who’ve lost a baby or haven’t been able to conceive. Rather than making an ostentatious display showing the haves and have-nots, make it a point from the pulpit to commend all women who do important work “mothering” others in practical and spiritual ways and affirm the value of every believing woman as a daughter of Christ.

Apart from Mother’s Day, consider planning an annual service honoring the losses associated with miscarriage and infertility, such as the Service of Memorial and Lament priest and author Tish Warren offered at her church this January. Similarly, just as churches hold infant dedications or baptism services, provide prayer times for couples waiting for children, petitioning the Lord for healing, peace, and wisdom on behalf of those undergoing medical tests and treatments or who are pursuing adoption.

Focus adjustment

Churches have traditionally emphasized marriage and motherhood as worthy aspirations, and for good reasons. Yet somewhere along the way, the role of mother got propped up as the ultimate calling for all women, to the point that some women’s ministries are structured solely around mom life activities and events.

Though well-intended, this emphasis can become so overblown that it devalues women who don’t have the label of “mother,” and dismisses the vital role all women play in the church.

To better serve and utilize the giftings of women, those who are in church leadership can broaden its focus on the Kingdom callings of women to include motherhood AND other areas of service, such as administration, outreach, teaching, organization, communication, and many other facets that are all needed to keep a church alive and thriving as one body growing up in Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16).

Support

Infertility is a life crisis that entails a grieving process. To help people in the congregation as well as reach out to your community, you can host and/or help individuals start support groups, providing safe places for people to share their struggles and comfort one another with the comfort God supplies (2 Corinthians 1:4). If you offer a resource library, keep on hand books specifically written for those facing infertility, infant loss, and childlessness. Thanks to increasing awareness, we have more faith-based resources addressing these issues at our disposal today than we did 10 years ago, and we need more still.

God “remembers” couples experiencing infertility by keeping His promise to work for the good of all His children. Everyone in the church, from pastor to parishioner, can love those who are suffering in our midst by encouraging those who are aching for a child and pointing to Christ as our ultimate hope for a fulfilling life.

[Featured image: Ben White on Unsplash]