We are expecting our fifth child. That’s not an apology. Almost every time someone hears that I have more than two children, eyes widen, jaw drops, and questions are raised about my sanity. At the very least a suggestion is offered that my wife and I find a new hobby.
And, more often than not, men have recommended a vasectomy.
A vasectomy is a lightly invasive surgical procedure that makes men infertile. The man can do everything he could do before the surgery except (in a few rare cases) get a woman pregnant. At the end, couples can enjoy sex without the expectation that they’ll get pregnant. As such, there have been reports (surveys and some anecdotal—offered to me in sage counsel) of greater sexual enjoyment.
In this post, I want to offer my personal struggle with vasectomies, tubal ligations and any other forms of self-imposed permanent contraception. This is not a defense of the Quiverfull movement. It is a man wrestling with a specific issue.
Two up-front warnings: (1) although this post will not be needlessly graphic it is necessarily sensitive; (2) this post is long.
The Biblical Joys of Sex
Folks, the Bible talks about sex being enjoyable. There’s an entire book of the Old Testament, Song of Solomon, which is actually a steamy (often erotic) poem about a bride and her groom. Yes the poem can be read as an intimate description of Christ and the Church but on a straight reading you get straight up heat.
Song of Solomon 1:2, shows the bride thinking about her groom kissing her on the mouth with kisses that bring more enjoyment, satisfaction, and bliss than wine. And that’s only the second verse. The rest of the book has the woman openly and happily pursuing her groom, welcoming him in, asking him to stay, seeking his embrace, and fully expecting their union.
Proverbs 5:15-19, a book about advice and wisdom under God, encourages men to drink water from their own cistern—a poetic image for enjoying their wives. The passage can make you blush with its graphic description of how men are to enjoy their spouse.
So from both sexes, we see that the Biblical picture of sex includes pleasure and enjoyment.
And yet that’s not listed as the purpose of sex. It is a corollary but not the end goal.
The Bible also depicts sex as being used to comfort someone who has experienced loss 2 Samuel 2:24; something done out of a sense of companionship (Song 3:1); and even something done out of obligation (1 Cor 7:4). What’s important about that last passage is that not only is the wife obligated towards her husband but also the husband is obligated towards his wife. So Paul can tell both the husband and wife not to deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement and then only for a short time (1 Cor 7:5).
Sex creates oneness between husband and wife (Genesis 2:24), biologically used to properly fill the earth (Genesis 1:28—before the fall, Genesis 9:1,7—after the fall), but it is designed, says Paul, to depict the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Paul looks at sex and marriage and says that the passage in Genesis 2:24—the two shall become one flesh—actually shows that the whole thing was a mystery that was explained when Christ joined himself to the Church.
This makes sex and marriage a full-orbed picture.
Sex and Children: God’s Perfect Gifts
This picture is God given. The Bible opens up with God’s creation and summarizes the whole thing—even the bit where God makes male and female in his image—as a very good thing (Gen 1:31). Then, to be explicit, sex is listed as a gift from God on par with food, wine and work (Eccl 9:7-9). James would later explain that every gift of God is good and perfect (James 5:17) which just makes the list of Ecclesiastes and the goodness of God’s creation all that much more meaningful.
Indeed, children are also listed as a gift from God. They are repeatedly listed as a blessing from God (Genesis 16:7; Leviticus 26:9; Deuteronomy 7:13; Deuteronomy 28:11; Nehemiah 9:23; Psalm 107:38; Psalm 127:3-5; Psalm 128:3). And although the fact that the closed womb finds its origin with God (Genesis 29:31; Genesis 30:2,22; 1 Samuel 1:5) it is not listed as the best state of affairs for the man or his bride. Repeatedly the picture is that the God-given sexual relationship between man and woman is blessed by God often in the form of children and that this is all good.
These good and perfect gifts (of sex and children) have a good and proper use so that the full-orbed picture continues to do what it is supposed to do. Sex is reserved for, and only within, the boundaries of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:2; Heb 13:4). Sex outside of marriage is repeatedly rejected (2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Jude 7; Rev 21:8). Fornication is explicitly condemned as is adultery and every other form of sexual twisting like being unchaste (Acts 15:20,29), licentiousness (Jude 4), being perverse (1 Cor 5:1, 6:16-18), and others (1 Cor. 6:9,10). Some acts are explicitly condemned not only as being against nature but being an act that depicts the open rebellion of mankind against God (Rom 1:18 – 32).
God doesn’t take Onan’s life for merely spilling his seed or refusing to have children. He takes his life because he acts in rebellion to his familial duties. The man enjoyed the pleasure of sex but in open rebellion acted out his refusal to get Tamar pregnant so that his brother’s line wouldn’t continue. (Gen 38:10-11). His actions said something against his brother, family, and God.
Elsewhere God can depict the relationship between him and Israel as a marriage where his bride repeatedly cheats on him. In one graphic passage, he says that Israel is worse than a prostitute who takes money for sex (Eze 16:34). Israel actually went about paying people to join with her in her spiritual adultery and the Bible graphically depicts Israel spreading her legs for everyone who passes by. The graphic imagery is used to depict the deep betrayal against God when his covenant people joined themselves to idols. Israel is so bad that God depicts Israel taking her many children and offering them to the fire. (Ezekiel 16)
We’re supposed to read the passage and be offended. Israel, the wife and mother of God’s children, isn’t supposed to act this way. Her actions say something about her relationship.
In Hosea, God expands on this picture of adulterous Israel. She is to put away her adultery or God will shame her (Hosea 2:1-13) before he then turns to her and proves himself as the faithful one. He will allure her, speak kindly to her, and he will betroth Israel to himself forever in loving, kind, covenant faithfulness and compassion (Hosea 2:14-23). The picture of God as a faithful husband in light of Israel’s unfaithfulness says something.
Jesus deepens the breach on how we twist the sexual picture. The picture should be a man and his wife, but we twisted it with divorce, which Jesus says Moses allowed because of the hardness of people’s hearts (Matt 19:8). The picture should be one man and one wife until death (as it was in the beginning) but people have twisted the picture by putting a man or woman in the position of being once-married-and-now-separated.
The end-actions aren’t the fundamental problem; it’s actually the heart. This is why, at one point, he condemns looking at a woman lustfully by equating it with adultery (Matt 5:27-28). The fact that we perform the acts isn’t the problem as much as the fact that the acts bubble up from within, twisting every good thing that belong s to God. We might have different reasons for the twisting, but they all bubble up from the same source.
This is why the sexual acts in Romans 1 are listed as a package of open rebellion of mankind. This perfect gift from God is being twisted in such a way to that it now gives a new message: people doing unnatural things reflects our unnatural rebellion.
Pictures in the Bible
The Bible is full of pictures with intent. Pictures that depict a point. And sometimes, the point is so complex that no man-made editions are allowed.
God tells Abraham about a picture. He says that Abraham’s family is different from others. They’ve been taken apart from the nations and now they belong to God. They’re to take their most intimate member and cut off what makes them like other men. As a picture. That action is now a picture that shows that Abraham’s family is different (Genesis 17).
But how would people know? It’s not like Abraham and boys would walk around with their shorts around their ankles. And yet, it was so important that years later God would attack Moses for not doing it to his own children. (Exodus 4:24-26).
In the first commandment, God rejects some pictures. They’re not supposed to come up with is a picture of Himself. They can’t properly represent Him in wood or gold. He’d give them instructions on how to create a place for him and that points to him but depicting him wasn’t their job. He’d do that himself when he sends his son. (Exodus 20).
His son gave pictures that were to be repeated. One picture he gave was baptism: to do towards all of his disciples (Matthew 28:19). The other picture he gave was the bread and the cup. Do this—the breaking of the bread, the taking of the cup—he commanded, in remembrance of me. (Luke 22:19)
And yet, when Paul finds out that a local assembly is messing with the picture, he tells people to stop the picture. The Corinthians come together to “Do this in remembrance of me” and they’re getting full and drunk. Paul tells them that what they’re doing is so bad that it would be better if they just didn’t show up at all. Don’t enact the picture. Do not do this in remembrance of Him. The picture is too important for the Corinthians to be treating it this way. Indeed, he goes on to say that the very reason some of them were sick and dead was because the assembly had so improperly behaved with these pictures. (1 Corinthians 11)
There are some pictures that we just shouldn’t mess with. Ephesians 5 seems to indicate that marriage is one of those pictures.
The Telos of Sex and Marriage
Designed things have a purpose. You might enjoy your iPhone and might only use it to play video games but that is in spite of (not because of) the purpose of the iPhone. One of the benefits of the iPhone includes entertainment, but the purpose lies closer to its mobility, portability, and power. There’s a reason why it’s lighter, more durable, faster processor, and packed with a bigger battery life while integrating into your computing needs. Because it was designed with a purpose.
The biological purpose behind sexual union is multifaceted. It is definitely tied to the reproduction of a species but it might also be tied to generate the endorphins that emphasize the pack mentality.
But humans are more than biology. And Scripture shows that sex is part of marriage.
Here’s the main point that I get from Scripture: sex and marriage are designed.
This design that depicts the relationship of God with people is a full package that contains oneness, enjoyment, pleasure, desire, passion, work, self-giving, the other person’s enjoyment and reproduction. Those things aren’t strings that hold back the enjoyment of sex or life: they’re all part of the picture.
This applies to Christians and Non-Christians—even if they don’t know it. It’s why it’s so messed up when anyone misuses sex or marriage. The picture that is supposed to be saying one thing now says something drastically different.
A husband abuses his wife—the picture says the wrong thing. A wife cheats on her husband—the picture says the wrong thing. A man refuses to marry but has plenty of kids—the picture says the wrong thing. A woman rejects every man to follow her own ambitions—the picture says the wrong thing. A couple cohabitates without public confirmation of their commitment—the picture says the wrong thing.
Temporary contraceptive methods like condoms, non-abortive chemical contraception, timing, diaphragms, cervical caps, and coitus interruptus seem fine to me (and others, obviously). They can be easily reversed without redefining the picture.
Permanent contraception, on the other hand, does something different. It permanently removes an element from the sexual union of man and wife. In so doing, it changes the picture of marriage. It makes the picture say the wrong thing.
Marriage is good, sex in marriage is better, but sex without the possibility of children is greatest yet.
Here the response might be “Rey, you’re reading a lot into that picture. Can’t it just be ‘we don’t want to have anymore kids and enjoy sex’?” and I’d respond that that is exactly my point. It’s taking the enjoyment of sex as the chief end when all of it, children included, is part of the picture.
This is why the error can go the other way. Let’s say that we thought sex was only for reproduction and we removed any elements that made it enjoyable. Temporarily it might be for a good reason (maybe the man gets too excited) but let’s say there was a permanent surgery that removed all pleasure from sex so that we could focus on having kids—wouldn’t that say the wrong thing about sex in marriage? In that same way, I think permanent contraception twists the picture.
Sex and Infertility
So what is the difference between a couple who have chosen permanent contraception and the couple who are infertile? In a word: choice.
The infertile couple didn’t choose to be in a state of infertility. This was God acting upon them in some way—be it by “closing the womb” or by circumstance (like a hysterectomy, age, or some other issue). The Bible and biology both show that infertility is not the way things should be even if God chooses that this is the way it would be.
This infertile couple should be having sex. They should be enjoying it. They should be actively participating in it and they should continue in the activity trusting God as the one in control.
But the couple that has opted for permanent contraception has chosen the situation of the infertile as the best option.
In saying this, I don’t think that permanent contraception is a sin in itself. I think that there are cases where one must choose in favor of it. For example, the woman that is warned that if she gets pregnant one more time, she will die. Or the couple that knows that at this advanced age, a pregnancy, even though a gift could actually be life threatening. In these cases (and some other complex ones) I think it’s possible (and right) to get permanent contraception and willingly embrace infertility as an unwanted, but necessary, option.
An Issue of Conscience
Folk sometimes try to search the Scriptures for explicit verses that either excuse or condemn X before, noting that the Scriptures are silent on specifically X, they decide that X is a matter of freedom. But that completely misses the point of being adult in our thinking and convictions. If X is a corollary of Q then you need to figure out if the Bible deals with Q.
You’re not going to find permanent contraception in Scripture. Closed wombs and eunuchs (born, man-made or self-made) are completely off the mark.
The Bible clearly teaches that marriage is a picture. The Bible clearly teaches that people have messed up the picture in different ways. What the Bible doesn’t outright teach is if this new thing messes with the picture of marriage. I, and I’m sure the reader, has to struggle with that.
I am not embarrassed by the amount of children I have. I don’t regret a single one. Indeed, although I wish I had personally known them, there are several other children I will see in glory one day. This current picture, with my wife and I clinging to each other, and tightening the budget for the sake of supporting the kids is one I can live with. The picture of me rejecting any of my children so that I could have more stuff is one that would speak more of my selfishness than anything else.
But, the picture that I think is dangerous is when I start depicting a different emphasis altogether for marriage. That it’s all about the enjoyment of the union without including what it can produce.
I know there are many others who have made the decision for permanent contraception. Some haven’t given it a second thought and others might have gone through this same struggle and come up with a different conclusion and yet others might be reading this now and noting that they didn’t think things through—I don’t know. The fact remains that I have thought this through and find myself in a state of personal concern. My conscience is (with a chuckle at this point) pricked.
What, after all, differentiates the picture I’m depicting from the picture of Romans 1? Is my hypothetical post-vasectomy sexual union any different from that which is unnatural simply on the basis that these parts fit together?
Mind you, there are other things that really get me about how I treat marriage. Maybe I shouldn’t look at that movie because of those scenes. Or maybe I shouldn’t have taken that second look at that gal who just walked by. And I should treat my wife better—I’m an obnoxious jerk. Surely these are things that mess with the picture of marriage.
But are these things permanent changes to the marriage picture? Can I change these things by going back to the cross and asking forgiveness and for more grace then repenting before my wife? Can I do the same thing with a permanent surgical solution? Yeah, there are reversal surgeries—I get that—but do I really want to be at the point where I’m deciding on a costly surgery because I didn’t wrestle with this matter up front?
I do see a possible, even if hypocritical, way out for myself. Maybe if I got the surgery and didn’t tell anyone—not even my wife. But in this case am I not personally sinning before my Lord? Wouldn’t I be sinning, at the very least, against my wife?
But maybe this is simply a weakness. Something I need to get the proper knowledge and perspective on. What should I read that I haven’t read? What passage of Scripture have I glossed over? Which church father have I ignored? What counsel should I receive that I haven’t received? After all, I stand in a culture that sees no issue with permanent contraception and in this matter I (and the Roman Catholic church) am the oddball out.
So do you now understand my struggle?
Here are some questions that I can see being raised.
Wouldn’t a permanent use of temporary contraception be equally wrong?
I think so, yes.
So doesn’t that make temporary contraception just as equally picture-twisting?
Potentially yes, but not until it is employed in such a way.
Why isn’t every act of sexual union therefore a picture? I mean, how can you get away with any use of contraception if it’s supposed to be a full-orbed picture?
I think because the union isn’t the end in itself. It’s the whole package. What permanent contraception does is draw a line that defines the fertile state as a state of adversity or risk or danger. It isn’t.
Why worry about this when you should be worrying about more pervasive things like pornography, the sexualization of children, the objectification of women, and so on?
I worry about those too. One wrong doesn’t negate the wrong in another area.
My conscience isn’t bothered by this. Therefore I’m not wrong to get the surgery., Consciences can be dulled, calloused, confused or uninformed. Better to find out if this thing is wrong or not before deciding that you’re lack of conviction towards it justifies the action.
I already got a vasectomy and I think I’ve done wrong. What should I do now?
This is another post that I have been working on, but in short, God’s grace is effective.
Couldn’t being a good steward of our finances be a wise reason that justifies permanent contraception?
I think it depends on what we mean by our finances. An American definition of fiscal necessity differs drastically from many parts of the world. Sometimes I think we justify a lot of our actions as good stewardship when they might actually just be upright manifestations of the old man.
Rey, you’re a hypocrite. You admitted that you do other things that mess with the picture and yet you’re harping on this thing.
As above, one wrong doesn’t justify the other. Also, I think this wrong might have more volume.
Is this a gospel issue?
I’m sure someone can make it a gospel issue. I don’t think it is.
You disprove yourself: is it not true that we are to accept a full quiver from God?
If he so deems it, but it seems to me that the mandate to fill the earth is not a mandate for each individual couple to do their bestest.
I personally have not heard of this argument from design-and-depiction before. Even the articles you linked to seemed to speak only about being concerned for the life of the unborn and nothing really about the picture being painted. Why would you even argue this way?
Probably because I am an artist by trade.