As Christians, we are all called to live lives obedient to God, to worship him and to tell others about him. We all have different ways of doing this. God has built his Church out of many parts, all making up the one body, but all being different.
This is a blessing that makes the Church much stronger than if all people were alike. There are many varying ways of being different: no two people are alike. One major category difference, though, is men and women.
The lived-out experience of being a disciple of Jesus will be different for all people, but I wanted to focus on one of the ways that living as a Christian in a female body is different to doing so in a male body.
The ‘h’ word
I think we can underestimate the effect hormones have on us. Hormones affect every single person: man, woman, and child. But they naturally have a very specific role in the life of a woman. Women spend around 40 years in the endlessly turning menstrual cycle. And this ebbing and flowing group of hormones has the propensity to impact the daily life of a female believer more than, I think, we give it credit for. A lot of what I’m about to discuss I only found out about this year… and I’ve been a menstruating woman for 20ish years!
We are probably all the most familiar with the idea of PMS – premenstrual stress (or syndrome), which affects many women by making us especially tearful, irritable, and even depressed at a certain time of the month. This can bring with it huge feelings of guilt that we find it harder to be obedient to God during this brief time, and powerlessness that these emotions seem to crop up without any rhyme or reason. From the moment we enter puberty we learn to fight against our bodies in an effort to ‘be normal’ throughout the month, and often it’s exhausting, with the focus of menstrual education being on how to mop up the blood, and how not to get pregnant.
Biologically, there are four stages to the menstrual cycle (you can read about that here, if you’d like to) and some have compared these stages to the seasons. I’ve found it really helpful to learn about this, to assess where these seasons match my own experience, and to reflect on how this might affect my spiritual life. I want to argue that as Christians we can both listen to our bodies AND fight our sinful desires. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There are blessings that go with each phase of our cycle, as well as the, at times, much-evident challenges.
Below are the suggested different ‘seasons’ of a woman’s cycle. Of course, these are generalisations, and every woman is different. Every woman has different lengths of time in different seasons, and every woman experiences each season differently too. Some women will feel the hormonal changes keenly, while others will hardly notice them (though I’m yet to come across a woman who doesn’t struggle with them in some way!). And of course, there does come a day when the cycle stops. That, too, comes with a whole host of challenges. But while the cyclical aspect does change or stop (for instance, during and after the menopause, during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding), many of the challenges and blessings, and how to respond to them, remain the same.
I do realise that taken to the extreme this model of seasons might lead to despair that we are completely at the mercy of our hormones. But this is only one aspect of the influences on our behaviour and thinking, and we remember that we are always children of God, with the Holy Spirit at work within us and guiding us.
Each season comes with both blessings and challenges, so with each one I’ve included a short ‘double-sided coin’ section, highlighting both of these. This way of thinking has been the game-changer for me, allowing me to better appreciate the body God has given me, rather than thinking of it as an enemy for half of the month! These are the things that can arm us well for obedience: forewarned is forearmed! May we use these to better inform our own prayer lives for ourselves and others, and to be free from burdens of unnecessary guilt.
This is approximately days 1 – 7 in the menstrual cycle, the phase when the blood happens. The hormones mean that a woman’s energy levels will likely be at their lowest, and she’ll often experience a tendency to be inward-looking and to want to be alone.
A double-edged coin: Tearfulness and feeling down may lead to an unhelpful introspection, and unwarranted feelings of guilt. It’s at this time a woman might feel far away from God, or like her sin is weighing her down. She might feel alienated from other believers and frustrated with herself.
Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of this time, this could be a good time for detail-oriented tasks, deep one-to-one conversations and for being honest about your own sin patterns (with yourself, God, and maybe others). This is a good time for journaling, slowing down for alone time with God, and talking with non-Christian friends one-to-one, at a relaxed pace, about those big questions they have. It may be helpful to remind yourself (or the women in your life) that the trough of this season tends only to last for a day or two, and those lowest feelings will likely be fleeting.
Approximately days 7 – 13 in the menstrual cycle, the phase when the bleeding stops, and the body gears towards releasing an egg. A woman’s energy levels gradually begin to rise and she’ll likely start to feel more upbeat and full of new ideas and growing enthusiasm.
A double-edged coin: Creativity and problem-solving skills are flowing in this phase, so it’s a good time to work on preparing teaching/Bible studies, organising events/activities and worshipping/serving in any other creative ways. Of course, lots of the time we simply have to do things when they need to be done, but if you can plan ahead, having an awareness that this is likely the most creative time of the month may be helpful.
However, Some women may bite off more than they can chew during this phase, and may feel frustration towards others who aren’t thinking/acting as quickly as she is. She may overcommit herself and regret that at a later date. An awareness of these challenges might bring practical help.
Roughly days 14 – 20, though peaking at about day 14-16, when the body releases an egg, this is likely when a woman’s energy levels are highest, she feels most confident and most social.
A double-edged coin: A great time for group work, socialising, fellowship, and anything requiring people and energy. This is also a really good time to focus on teaching and evangelism, as people skills are also likely to be at their highest. A woman will tend to bounce back best from constructive criticism or a conversation about her own sin, without feeling devastated by it, so if practical, this is a helpful time for those talks.
The flip side of all the blessings of this season, though, is that the confidence and sociability might lead a woman to attention seeking, gossiping, or speaking rashly. It is also the time when a woman may be more likely to struggle with lust issues. Having an awareness of these potential challenges may help a woman as she seeks to be obedient to God during this season.
About days 21 – 28. This is the premenstrual phase, the days leading up to the woman’s next menstrual bleed. It can be a particularly challenging time as hormone levels mean that energy levels are dropping quickly, and many women experience mood swings (meaning that their mood changes rapidly with no apparent cause. It often feels uncontrollable, and even like it controls them!) and heightened anxiety.
A double-edged coin: Mood swings, lack of energy, anxiety and irritability make interacting with other people particularly difficult at this time. Many women also feel like they don’t want to be physically touched, which can lead to challenges for those who are married and/or care for young children.
But despite these challenges, there are blessings of this season too. A woman is usually keenly aware of her inability to obey perfectly during this phase, giving lots of opportunities for the blessing of repentance. Her irritability gives her a heightened sense of her dislikes, which can be a helpful tool in understanding her strengths and weaknesses. There is also much opportunity for her to demonstrate patience ‘against the odds’ during this phase. Often only herself and God will know how hard-won obedience in this area is.
Where do we go from here?
I think that arming ourselves with this information is very freeing to women. I often find myself feeling guilty, or like I’ve failed, that some days I have less energy than others, that I’m more irritable. But knowing that this is normal, yet without using it as an excuse to let ourselves sin, can free us from unnecessary guilt and burdens. A growing awareness of how a woman’s changing hormone levels affect her emotions and energy is helpful all the time she does so through the lens of seeking to obey God.
It’s not always practical and possible to arrange our lifestyles in a way that allows us to do certain things only at the time of the month it is easier for us to do them. In fact, most of the time, we can’t live that way, but we are still called to serve and obey. I think that an awareness of hormonal seasons is helpful in understanding why sometimes a particular activity is easier or harder for a woman, but not an excuse not to obey. It’s hard, but the Bible is full of God calling people to do hard things. It’s also an opportunity to be real with those around us. We don’t have to bare all, but acknowledging to others that we’re not confident, social, and glittering 100% of the time can only be a good thing – for us, and them.
I think that all of the above is a testament to the strength of women, that we have this to contend with (for some this is all much harder than for others), and yet most female Christians are still functional members of society, holding down all sorts of responsibilities, and seeking to obey God in many areas. And during the autumns and winters when everything may frankly just feel harder, this is an opportunity for women to lean harder on God, a blessing that we can know that his strength is made perfect in our weakness – something we may not necessarily feel so much during the springs and summers.
If you’d like to learn more about the menstrual cycle likened to the seasons, you can Google ‘menstrual cycle seasons’ to find many articles on the subject – some more helpful than others. If you are a woman who experiences your hormones in a way that is presenting a huge challenge to your daily life, do speak with your GP. You might be surprised that even something as low-key as taking certain vitamin supplements might help, and there are other options that they can discuss with you, too.
Not an accident
Reading the above may make you sigh and wonder why God didn’t come up with a better design for women. But it was not an accident that he created us this way! Men and women were different before the fall, so many aspects of the menstrual cycle were always meant to be there. Man and woman together reflect God’s image – without women (hormones and all!) we would not get a full picture of what God is like.
But the flip side of that is that after the fall, the whole of creation was fallen, including menstruation; bringing PMS, pain, infertility, miscarriage, and more. These things all remind us that we were created for something more, and one day God will come and make all things new. On that day there will be no more crying or pain or death.
If this is the first time you’ve thought about periods theologically (or at all!) I recommend Rachel Jones’ A Brief Theology of Periods.
For a further look into why women are essential as part of the church, Worthy by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher is helpful.