You shall not commit adultery… You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife… Exodus 20:14, 17
He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself. He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away. Proverbs 6:32-33
It is no secret that the leading Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States openly brags about his sexual conquests, and few seem to care. In one of his books, the real estate mogul bragged,
Beautiful, famous, successful, married—I’ve had them all, secretly, the world’s biggest names.
Jesus said that our deeds done in the dark will one day be shouted from the rooftops (Luke 12:3). Our Lord meant that as a warning, but The Donald does his own shouting! He exults in those things of which he should be ashamed, boasting of his powerful libido and his ability to craft a good prenuptial agreement.
There is no question that our culture is, in the words of Robert Bork, slouching toward Gomorrah. We are in the midst of an ongoing moral revolution that has produced a society unimaginable to my grandfather. No longer are we merely slouching toward Gomorrah; we are now sprinting toward Sodom. At the heart of this moral revolution is the demand for unfettered erotic freedom. The right to self-expression and self-gratification trumps (no pun intended) all other obligations.
Eros has been privatized in our time: we have come to believe that sex between consenting adults is their own private business—and their business only. We snicker at chastity and mock the idea of premarital continence. The notion that young people should restrain their erotic desires is unthinkable to our culture’s gatekeepers. The idea that single adults should be celibate outside of marriage seems a quaint notion from the past. But in the proverbial old days it wasn’t like this. Surely there have been sexual shenanigans aplenty throughout history. Nevertheless, marriage was thought to be an honorable state, one to which both men and women aspired, and marriage was to endure for the duration of the partners’ lives for better or for worse. Husbands and wives were stuck together, and they stuck with each other. Divorce was possible but costly both legally and socially.
Then came the 1960s and the sexual revolution that changed all this. With the invention of the pill, the discovery of antibiotics, the legalization of abortion, and the easing of divorce laws, marriage became one option among several. In our brave new world, sexual intimacy has been severed from both marriage and the begetting of children. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that adultery itself has been domesticated. Cheating on one’s spouse in this age of promiscuity has lost its ability to shock. Having an affair is seen to be just another passage in life, almost like going to Europe or buying your first BMW.
Last month Deborah Rhode wrote an editorial for the L.A. Times entitled “Why Is Adultery Still a Crime?” Did you even know that adultery is still a crime? At one time, having sex with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband was illegal in every state in the Union. In fact, there was a time in our country when adulterers were thrown into prison for what was called criminal converse. But even in 2016 it is against the law in twenty-one states to break what is often called the seventh commandment! Rhodes, a law professor at Stanford University, argues in her essay that, in our sexually-charged era, we should face the facts and unilaterally decriminalize and destigmatize adultery. Her argument is not compelling, but along the way she points out some savory ironies. Here’s one.
Rhodes tells the story of David Paterson who in 2008, while governor of New York, confessed to several extramarital affairs. During a press conference Paterson acknowledged his deeds but pointed out that At least I didn’t break the law. A few days later the New York Times pointed out that, in fact, the governor did break the law. Adultery is a misdemeanor in New York and punishable by up to ninety days in jail!
Rhode also quotes the presumptive Republican nominee from his book The Art of the Comeback. There he brags that he has had sex with many seemingly very happily married and important women.
We who love and worship Jesus are called to a different standard, and we are the recipients of a greater joy. We understand love, marriage, and, yes, sex in an entirely different way than our world does. We see eros not at all as the private possession of lovers but as a gift from God that comes with inherent restraints. And we who love Jesus see marriage not at all as merely a contract holding two people together until they grow tired of one another, but as a sign of God’s grace and a lived-out parable showing in a husband and wife the relationship between Christ and his church. Marriage can be a haven of great happiness, the sanctuary where children are conceived and reared, the place where true friendship is enjoyed… and marriage will always be hard work.
At least a part of that hard work will be fulfilling our pledge to forsake all others and cleave only to our covenant partner in the estate of marriage until we are separated by death. In other words, when we marry, we commit ourselves to one person and to that one person only. We will not covet our neighbor’s wife; we will not seduce our neighbor’s husband. When we marry, we say to one person, From this day forward, it is you—and you only.
Adultery is not the unforgivable sin. Clearly, God’s grace and Jesus’ love triumph over the sin of adultery (see John 8). But while adultery is not an unforgivable sin, it is one among many unforgettable sins. The ripple effect of this particular sin is staggering. When a man has his neighbor’s wife, heaven and earth witness an act of betrayal that has profound consequences. This union—designed to produce life—results in all kinds of death, among them, the death of trust, the death of purity, and the death of a covenant.
Tragically, adultery comes in many forms. In Smoke on the Mountain, her book on the Ten Commandments, Joy Davidman outlines three ways we can break the seventh commandment. First, there is the casual tryst that occurs in a moment of lust. This kind of adultery is usually fueled by alcohol and the anonymity of business travel. Second, there is the intense, passionate, long-drawn-out triangle complete with conflict and heartbreak. Finally, there is the legalized form of adultery, that is, the rapid and lighthearted changing of partners in the courts. Davidman concludes, All these, in practice, come to much the same thing: a corruption of the heart, a destruction of the home, an end to love (p. 85).
Thankfully there are exceptions to Davidman’s assessment. Every marriage damaged by adultery need not be dissolved. Actually, there is great hope for such marriages if both husband and wife are willing to extend God’s grace to their partner, seek one another’s forgiveness, and do the hard work of restoring what has been broken. I have seen the beauty of such restoration many times. And I have heard wounded spouses say, years after the adultery itself, Our marriage is better than it ever was before the affair.
But make no mistake. When God forbids adultery, he has our best interests in mind. That’s why, when a Christian man and woman marry, God is always the third party involved. Marriage is between the two partners, indeed, but God hovers in this union. God is approving, sanctifying, encouraging, sealing, and imbuing this marriage with himself. Husband and wife are not alone. They are not left to sort out this thing called marriage by themselves.
The moral of this Community News essay is not to argue for or against Donald Trump’s viability as a candidate for the presidency. As we face an election in November, each one of us believers will have to discern—according to our own conscience—whom to vote for or even whether or not we can in good conscience vote for either likely candidate. No, the point of this essay is but a simple warning: Thinking of committing adultery? Don’t. Don’t do it. Adultery will not ease your pain, solve your problems, or boost your ego. Those who commit adultery open themselves up to a world of pain and hurt, and the perpetrators are not the only casualties.
Proverbs 4:11 should have the last word in this matter. In that chapter the writer warned his son to avoid the forbidden (that is, adulterous) woman. Speaking to this young man with all his life before him, the father said, Keep your way far from her. If you don’t, at the end of your life you will groan when your flesh and body are consumed (5:11). May God help us!