Adultery – physical, mental and marital
"You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). There it is! The article is written – what more needs to be said? I can turn off the computer and get on with visitation. Well, maybe not …
It should be enough for us to have biblical absolutes. God says it, and therefore the matter is settled. It is to our shame that we are not always ready to take God's commands as they stand.
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were dragged before King Nebuchadnezzar and commanded to worship the image he had erected, their response was firm and unqualified:
"O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter." Daniel 3:16
There was no need for them to think about their answer or to consider all the possible justifications for acquiescing to his demand. There was but one issue at stake – obedience. God had declared,
"You shall not make for yourself an idol … You shall not bow down to them or worship them" (Exodus 20:4, 5), and so the matter was settled.
So it should be for us in this matter of adultery. However, sexual sin overcame such men as Judah, Samson, David, and Solomon, not to mention a number of Christian leaders of recent days. We would do well to heed Paul's warning: "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (1 Corinthians 10:12). But remember, the command itself is simple and clear.
It first of all prohibits those who are married from having a physical relationship with anyone other than their spouse. In marriage a man and a woman become one flesh, and that oneness is exclusive in the physical realm. The relationship is so exclusive that God compares marriage with the relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:25-33) and describes the behavior of those who turn away from him as adultery (Jeremiah 3:8).
From the account of the attempt of Potiphar's wife to entice Joseph (Genesis 39), we can learn some practical steps to avoid falling into adultery.
- Be firm in your refusal (v. 8). Christians, we must not play the sexual word games that permeate our society. When confronted with them, we must immediately declare our refusal even to dally with such flirtations.
- Be clear about the nature of our relationships. You are his wife! (v. 9). She belonged to another man. If you are married, you belong to another (1 Corinthians 7:4). Say so! We must not hide our relationships.
- Recognize evil and call it what it is: "sin against God" (v. 9). We live in the age of redefinition. Adultery has become an "affair," pornography has become "adult entertainment," fornication has become "living together," and homosexuality has become an "alternative lifestyle." Our hedonistic society declares, "If it feels so good, it can't be wrong." We must clear away any such cloudy thinking about what is right and what is wrong. We must give sins the names that God gives them.
- Be careful about your company: "He refused to … even be with her" (v. 10). He (or she) is wise who does not leave himself in a position of vulnerability for sexual sin. For example, although it is often inconvenient for me as a pastor, I will not meet with a woman unless another individual is present. (For counseling, the other person may be in an adjoining room with the door slightly ajar.)
- Be extreme in your obedience: "He left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house" (vs. 12). In Joseph's case, it cost him his freedom. In yours, it may cost a job, a friendship, or even a reputation – but honor God with your body.
The thoughts of the heart
While the command not to commit adultery first of all governs physical relationships, it extends beyond that to the thoughts and intents of the heart. Jesus said,
"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Matthew 5:27, 28
Here is where the battle is being waged, and those who are struggling with it understand the strength of its power. How has it happened? It is astounding how many men and women profess faith and yet maintain the philosophy, "It's OK to look, as long as I don't touch."
So what can you do?
- Make a covenant with your eyes (Job 31:1). We must not trifle with sensual sin. Set standards for what you will permit your eyes to see and hold to them rigidly. It is nearly impossible to shield ourselves from everything that might lead us to lust. But as Luther said, "You can't keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair." David did not sin merely because he happened to see Bathsheba bathing. The sin occurred as that look was converted into desire. Job declared, "I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl."
- Do not permit your thought life to have free reign. Determine, in reliance on God's grace, to think biblically. "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things" (Philippians 4:8, 9). Do not allow yourself the careless daydreaming that leads to lust, but rather bring every thought captive to Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
- Do radical surgery on that which leads you into lust (Matthew 5:29, 30). Nothing is to be spared. We are to take drastic measures to get rid of that which tempts us into such sin. One's eyes and hands are indeed precious, but purity is far more precious. This text does not call for physically maiming our body, but it calls for radical removal of that which leads us into sin. Frankly, I am suspicious of those who claim to buy "men's" magazines just to read their articles. Stand firm, walk out of the movie, turn off the television, throw away the novel, get out of the video store, stay off the beach – do whatever it takes.
Finally, in Matthew 5:27-32, after speaking out against physical adultery (v. 27) and adultery of the heart (v. 28), Jesus discusses a third area, which might be called "marital adultery":
"But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery" (v. 32).
John White writes, "We squirm as we read the passage, adding mental footnotes to explain 'what it really means.'"
If anyone is uncertain, let him also consider Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11, 12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:3. These texts teach us that to remarry, except after the death of a spouse or a divorce on biblical grounds (Matthew 19:9; 1 Corinthians 7:12-15), is to commit adultery. Now this is hard teaching, but it speaks of the practical consequences of sin. Consider carefully what you are doing before you rend asunder what God has joined together, as though that would make you free to start over again in a new relationship. Consider carefully what you are doing before you enter into a relationship that God calls adulterous. Think carefully before you ask your pastor to perform a wedding ceremony for an adulterous relationship.
What would you think of a pastor who arranged the details of a secret liaison for a sexual tryst between two people in the congregation? Why then do so many think nothing of asking their pastor to perform a service which brings them into a relationship that Jesus declares to be adulterous?
What if it's too late and you have already sinned? Remember the promise of God.
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1:9
Study Psalm 51 carefully, for here is the prayer of a repentant adulterer.