Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”Genesis 1:26-28 (NRSV)
At what point is one qualified to speak on relationships and sexuality?
When I started doing this job, single and in my mid-20’s, I was amazed that anyone would come sit in my office and ask me about anything. I spent those first couple of years just working on my poker face. (It did improve with every visit.) But 13 years later, I’ve yet to acquire the overwhelming confidence or accompanying facial expression that says, “Oh yeah, definitely tell me about your relationship stuff. I’ve got that down.”
I’ll tell you who I would trust when it comes to relationships:
These 15 human beings are my Uncle Robert and Aunt Margie and their ten kids, two daughters-in-law, and Robert’s 92-year-old mother. Margie is my mom’s youngest sister—the last of eight children in their household. In my life, she’s also the first person I knew who really took their faith seriously.
Growing up, my mom took my sisters and I to church more often than not, but Margie’s family was different. They talked about their faith with openness and ease—like it was a part of their real lives. They prayed before meals, sent notes of encouragement, and used the word “Christlike”. One of her kids even broke up a poker game between us cousins once, not because we were playing for money (we were all too young to have jobs at the time), but because he genuinely thought it was sinful.
A few years later that same kid challenged me in Mario Kart. I remember thinking, “There’s no way someone who believes poker is a sin can be anything but terrible at video games.” And I got destroyed.
Margie had four kids in her 20s, four in her 30s, and two in her 40s. I once asked her about the intersection of her large family and abundant faith. She told me a great story I’d never heard about stealing candy from a 7/11 when she was in elementary school, being invited to church, and hearing a convicting message on the forgiveness she already knew she needed.
“When you become a Christian at nine years old,” she wrote, “you grow to recognize God’s voice. And I knew He was calling us to a large family as sure as I knew my name.”
In many ways, their family lives out the truth from Genesis 1: “Be fruitful and multiply.”
The First Thing God Says to Us
How do we hear it?
“Be fruitful and multiply.”
It can read as equal parts command and invitation.
Either way, I think this has to be the starting point for both the relationship between us and the divine and the entire conversation on human sexuality.
How do we understand the theological connection between having sex and having children? Is sex only (or primarily) for procreation? Or is it meant to be something more? Is our first job as human beings to take the command literally? To be fruitful and multiply? Or is there more to what God first says to us than just a call to procreate?
In the United Methodist Church, our social principle on human sexuality opens with this statement: “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift.” And, in a separate principle on rights to health care, it reads: “We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services that will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions, and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
In short, the United Methodist Church affirms a theological distinction between having sex and having children. One doesn’t have to inherently lead to the possibility of the other. In other words, there can be, in a sense, a distinction between “be fruitful” and “multiply”.
And I believe that’s a good distinction because for some, the “multiply” portion is a far more difficult journey.
It took my wife Alex and I more than two years to conceive. And it wasn’t just two years of not using birth control and hoping for the best; it was two years of ovulation tests, and doctors’ appointments, and fertility specialists, and procedures, and all kinds of things that make you question all kinds of other things. And we aren’t alone. Some of our closest friends have walked far more difficult journeys with infertility. One in eight couples of reproductive age will struggle with infertility on some level. For some of us, “multiply” is simply not a viable option.
And because most of us don’t have ten kids like my Aunt Margie, the truth is we’re already comfortable not interpreting “be fruitful and multiply” as a literal command that can only be followed by having as many children as possible.
For as much as her life has been shaped by believing it was her calling, my aunt doesn’t believe it’s a command either. When sharing her story with other women, she cites two truths. The first is to make sure you and your husband are on the same page. And the second?
“Whether your struggle is to have more children, or you are begging God for just one, the bottom line is surrender of your own will to His.”
Having experienced the relative difficulty of our struggle to conceive, surrender can seem like a lot to ask some days.
But maybe that’s why it’s helpful to remember what kind of God we’re surrendering to.
What if we just started with, “Be fruitful!”
In his commentary on Genesis, Dr. Bill Arnold points out a connection between “be fruitful and multiply,” in verse 28 and the words “formless and void,” which is the first thing we’re told about the earth in verse two of the same chapter. In Hebrew, the two phrases have a rhyming pattern:
- Formless and void: tohu wa bohu
- Be fruitful and multiply: peru u’revu
This verbal play calls us to consider how the one is an answer to the other. We are called not just to multiply and fill the earth, but to give it form and shape. Human beings will put their fingerprints on the earth more than any other creation. And those fingerprints are made in the image of a God who calls us to be fruitful.
So, in the relationship between human and divine, I’d start here: “God wants you to be fruitful.”
What if we believed it was the first truth about the relationship between God and humanity?
What if we believed it’s still true today?
We have to be careful not to confuse “fruitful” with words like “rich”, “prosperous”, or “favored”. The good news is the Bible goes on to spend lots of word count on defining fruitfulness not as material things, but most famously, through love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When you look at it that way, it’s a powerful, affirming, life-giving truth—those first words out of God’s mouth to you and me: “Be fruitful!”
That passage in Galatians ends with Paul saying, “Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:26 NRSV) It calls back to another truth of Genesis 1: It’s a shared calling. In Genesis 1, a calling between people and animals. And from Paul, a calling to all humankind. My fruitfulness doesn’t require another to be fruitless. God creates in such a way to give all of us not just the opportunity to be fruitful, but the call to pursue it.
This is how it starts. For relationships and sexuality, for God and humanity. The beginning of our conversation on both faith and sexuality finds a hopeful foundation in the first words God speaks to us.
And as our church says, sexuality is God’s good gift to all people, and we want to encourage responsible stewardship of that gift. Our churches should be places that explore what that responsible stewardship looks like.
And as we explore, I think we’ll find the oldest invitation is still alive and well: “Be fruitful!”
Photo by Brian Jimenez on Unsplash