It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy. G. K. Chesterton
Monogamy, in my opinion, is a failed experiment. Noel Biderman
Twenty-three years ago we in the United States experienced a publishing phenomenon: Robert James Waller’s novel The Bridges of Madison County was published and eventually sold over 50 million copies! Bridges told the story of a lonely housewife in Iowa who has a four-day affair with a man named Robert who visits her town in order to take photographs for National Geographic. Robert leaves Madison County as quickly as he arrived, and for the rest of her life Francesca pines, longing for what might have been. As one review of the book put it, Bridges is an erotic, bittersweet tale of lingering memories and forsaken possibilities. Fifty million copies. A stratospheric number in book sales. Clearly, the author tapped into a longing not at all unique to Francesca!
In July of this year, Madison was again in our national vocabulary, but this time it was the adulterous bridges built by the website Ashleymadison.com. Ashley Madison, you see, bills itself as the world’s leading married dating service for discreet encounters. In other words, this is a website where you can find a partner willing to commit adultery. The motto on the website? Life is short. Have an affair.
Noel Biderman is the visionary behind Ashley Madison. His idea was to create a website that attracted women who wanted an extramarital partner and men who want an extramarital liaison. In other words, Biderman played to the differences between the sexes in order to maximize profits. As one writer explained, The real money flows to the site when men connect online with women and then have to pay rather steep fees for the privilege of continuing the conversation. If all goes according to plan, adultery soon follows. Biderman made millions of dollars with the website he created for those seeking discreet encounters. Married men and women were hooking up, and everything was undercover. So to speak.
But it turns out Jesus was right: everything we say in secret will be shouted from the rooftops (Luke 12:3). In July, Ashleymadison.com was hacked, and the account information of 37 million adulterers or would-be adulterers was exposed for the world to see! Yes, any interested party can scroll through the names and account information of every member of Ashley Madison.
Soon after the Ashley Madison exposé, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by Elizabeth Bernstein entitled, After Ashley Madison: How to Cope with Infidelity. Bernstein’s essay discusses some options for how married men and women who either have had or are currently in an adulterous relationship should handle the situation. Should the guilty party confess or try to keep it a secret? If confession is the chosen path, what is the best way to confess? Does an affair necessarily mean the end of a marriage? Et cetera. Bernstein’s essay gets very complicated. And it should. When a woman or a man cheats on a spouse, the whole world shifts on its axis. As the writer of Proverbs pointed out, He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself (6:32).
What a different bed we believers sleep in. We understand the gift of sex as something to be received from God in the context of marriage, not a lust to pursue with our neighbor’s wife. Or husband. We understand the gift of sex as a good gift but not an ultimate gift. As good as sex is, and as powerful as sex can be, it isn’t essential for a meaningful life. In fact, our faith is all about worshipping a Man who never had sex but had the most meaningful life of any human being in all history. We understand euphemisms such as fling, affair, being together, having a relationship, playing around for what they really are: polite ways of justifying what should never be. And we know this should never be because God told us so.
Recently I read a very short and very profound book by philosopher J. Budziszewski entitled, On the Meaning of Sex. Budziszewski talks about how difficult it is, in our passion-driven era, to preserve common sense about the notion of purity. Every slip from purity, according to the author, seems self-validating. Sex, even sex without marriage, doesn’t just feel good; it feels right! Budziszewski points out that every appetite, every passion, every urge is like that. Eating delicioius food feels right. Socking the person who has wronged you feels right. Budziszewski’s point is that just because something feels right doesn’t make it so. The food that tastes sweet may, in fact, be very bad for you. The person you slug may turn and knock your block off. Budziszewski states what every Christian should know: The passions and appetites cannot make distinctions for themselves; they need the royal rule of wisdom.
We find that wisdom in the Bible. God has spoken in Holy Scripture, and one simple, life-shaping nugget of wisdom is the truth that marital unfaithfulness is a bad idea. Consider the seventh commandment and its startling brevity: Thou shalt not commit adultery. No qualifications, no special circumstances, no proviso. Just don’t do it! Thou shalt not! As Joy Davidman put it, The Christian definition of adultery seems quite clear and hard. While you have a husband or wife still living, taking a new partner is adultery—and a sin.
I have four words of encouragement for those of us living in the world of Ashley Madison, the world that smirks at virtue and encourages vice.
- If you are tempted to commit adultery—don’t.
You may think you can get away with this. You will not. Run for your life. You will save yourself a world of pain and spare those around you a world of hurt.
- If you have the beginnings of a desire for adultery—crush it.
Crush the desire early and crush it with violence. Don’t entertain what one author calls the moment of maybe, that moment when we allow a vague desire to morph into more. If we give this desire the attention in our souls, soon we will be giving it our souls.
- If you have had an affair, if you have committed adultery—recreational sex, premarital sex—call it what it was, repent, and come to Jesus for his forgiveness.
Forgiveness is his specialty, and he is an expert! Regardless of where you have been or what you have done or how many times you have done it, Jesus is the Redeemer who won’t condemn you.
- If you have not committed adultery—at least not with your body—don’t throw stones! Don’t allow yourself to feel in any way superior to those who have failed in these areas. Truth be told, we are all spiritual adulterers. Each of us has cheated on God who is our true Husband. We have played the role of the harlot, yet our Maker says, With everlasting love I will have compassion on you (Isaiah 54:5, 8).
I am glad we have a Savior.