Reed, you’ll never believe what happened last Wednesday…I’m walking down State Street, ‘bout six in the evening…I can’t believe it myself. I’m crossing Figueroa and trip on the curb. I land on this woman…Would you believe it? Right then and there we commit adultery…
I’ve been a pastor for a good number of years. I’ve listened to several wives and husbands confess to adulterous affairs. Some offer a self-justifying defense. Others blame themselves with sincere regret. But none of them has ever said, It just happened. The breaking of a marriage vow is never sudden or spontaneous. True, it may take place at the end of a flirtatious, alcohol-saturated evening on a business trip, but sexual infidelity is the last act of a drama, the last step of a journey. By the time of intercourse, a series of decisions have been made, and a thousand temptations have been enjoyed. The sex act merely ratifies all that has come before. Merely? An understatement to be sure. When a husband cheats on his wife or a wife cheats on her husband, the world shifts on its axis. At that moment a covenant has been shattered, hearts have been broken, families have been rent, children have been wounded, and a marriage has quite likely been destroyed.
Last month, the buzz of the nation was the philandering of South Carolina Governor, Mark Sanford. On June 24th, Governor Sanford gave a rambling twenty-minute press conference stating that he had broken the laws of God, wounded his wife and four sons, and violated the trust of the people he governs. He also went out of his way to speak of his Bible study group and his Christian faith. Embarrassing. Especially when his emails to his Argentine lover were circulated on the internet. The world was invited to read of the governor’s admiration of his lover’s tan lines and the curvature of her hips.
The emails, titillating and discomforting as they are, do offer some lessons for those of us intending to be faithful to our marriage vows. One passage, often quoted by the various columnists weighing in on the scandal, finds the governor saying that he has lived by a code of honor and that he has crossed lines I would have never imagined.
Mr. Sanford was right. He didn’t cross a line; he crossed lines. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lines. As Walter Wangerin puts it in his excellent book, The Mystery of Marriage, early on in every marital affair there comes a moment ofmaybe. A moment when a signal is sent: a touch, a hug that lasts a split second longer than usual, a smile, a harmless comment. Then a feeling is enjoyed, and a fantasy is cultivated. Maybe. A line has been crossed, a tingling sensation, a memory of high school. Maybe. Of course nothing will come of this. It’s just harmless fun. Maybe.
But the line has been crossed. And it is not a line in the proverbial sand; it is a line in the soul. The first line is barely discernible, indecipherable, hardly noticeable. Maybe.
This moment of maybe, in its infancy, is easy to ignore and easy to erase. We erase the line by confessing to ourselves and to God that a thought, a lust, has crept in unaware. We confess what fun it was to dwell, even for a nanosecond, in that moment. We ask for both forgiveness and help. In short, we repent of something that seems like trifling silliness. Or, on the other hand, we can ignore the line and draw another. We can give what we think is a fleeting desire the attention it calls for and fan the spark into a flame.
One line crossed begs for another… and another… and another. In time, the world will be reading our emails, and everything will have changed. As Wangerin writes,
We can feed our sexual thoughts with pictures, books, videos, and a wandering eye at work. But if we do…if we give it attention in our souls, soon we will be giving it our souls. We’ve lost free will and the opportunity to choose. The desire itself overpowers us, commanding action, demanding satisfaction.
It is true. Keep crossing lines and you will become a different person. Your soul will be sullied, and your brain will become mush. The latter will tell you that it is worth it. Somehow the thrill of eros is worth telling your four sons and your wife of nearly twenty years that you’ve given your heart and your body to another. You will think foolish thoughts and perhaps put them into writing. At one point Sanford writes to his paramour, I better stop now least (sic) this really sound like The Thornbirds —wherein I was always upset with Richard Chamberlain for not dropping his ambitions and running into Maggie’s arms.
The governor is alluding to a miniseries from the 1980s where the lead, Richard Chamberlain, forgoes an affair with Maggie so as to fulfill the duties of his career. Chamberlain’s character does the right thing and is miserable for the rest of his life. (And who said television doesn’t influence the viewer?) Later in the same email, Sanford writes, The bottom line is twofold. My heart wants me to get on a plane tonight and to be in your loving arms. My head is saying, “How do we put the genie back in the bottle?”
How do we put the genie back in the bottle? How do we cross back over all those lines in our soul? It’s better to not let the genie out at all. As the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church, Flee sexual immorality. The Greek word flee, means Run like hell until you are gasping for breath. Then keep running until your shoes wear out. Then keep running until the soles of your feet are raw and bleeding. Flee. This sin will prove too costly. Oh, how Sanford—and millions of others—wish they had fled at the moment of maybe.
How do we put the genie back into the bottle if we have crossed line after line in our soul? At some point we can’t. Sanford had gone too far. He had become a slave to his choices. He couldn’t simply go back, but he could have repented. He could have used the words of another famous adulterer and said to God himself, Against you, you only have I sinned (Psalm 51:4).
If we are trapped in sexual sin (premarital, extramarital, pornography, etc.), we probably don’t have the strength to simply quit. Sexual passion, as one writer puts it, is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume us in chaos. But once that river has overflowed its banks, well, to borrow Sanford’s metaphor and mix it with another, it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. We can, however, renounce our sin and fall into the arms, not of our lover, but of our loving God who loves us no matter what we’ve done or where we’ve been. Confession and repentance, and nothing else, will put us on the path back across the lines we have crossed.
As John writes, if we say we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves. But if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9). Brothers and sisters, I tell you what you already know. It is possible for any one of us to cross lines we never imagined. It is possible for any one of us, married or unmarried, to find ourselves in a place that today we think unimaginable. Let us, then, guard our hearts, say no to the moment of maybe, and cling to the God who loves us. His will is our delight, and his law is intended for our pleasure.