I have been wanting to write this major essay on adultery for almost four years. It was just never there. Yesterday, for whatever reason, I knew it was ready for “birth,” and so in a few hours this morning, it arrived. It is a plea for men who are somewhere in the vicinity of committing the sin of adultery to stop, return home, and take hold of the wonderful Good News of the Gospel. If I have earned a few more readers this week, I pray this essay would go out to as many as possible, and help those men and those marriages that can be helped before the plague of adultery destroys what is precious. On this weekend of my 50th birthday, thanks to all of my readers, and if this isn’t for you, it is for someone you know.
This is dedicated to Mike M and Michael A, both gone to be with God, both men whom I loved as fathers and brothers, both men who yielded. God’s peace to them.
I spend my days teaching the Bible to high school students. While there are many matters of fact and text that occupy my teaching, the great emphasis of my classes is that this book is about God’s message to “you”, the reader. The human person.
I’m not denying the God-centeredness of the message or the centrality of Jesus Christ. I simply mean that the point of a message is to talk to you in ways you can understand, that you can know the truth about God, about yourself, about why things are the way they are, and what God has done in Jesus to make them right. When you are finished with the text, it is a faith response from you- a “yes” to the message and person presented- that matters. Unlike almost any other kind of literature, the Bible is a personal appeal from its author for you to place your trust, faith and confidence in him, and to live with him as the Lord of your life.
This makes various points, messages and subtexts of the Bible more important than they might seem at first. For example, Solomon pens chapters of wisdom, but his life is not one that honors Wisdom. It is a life that exemplifies foolishness. What does this mean to me? It means that I am a person who can know wisdom, even teach wisdom, but I am a person who may abandon wisdom personally.
I find it fascinating that many Christians will study the Proverbs as a guide to life, and ignore the companion portrait of the idolatrous and insatiably materialistic Solomon who collected those Proverbs. We pretend that we love wisdom, and that our children can be taught to love it as well. Perhaps. But more likely, we are people who throw away wisdom, and take the foolish, destructive path, often in the prime of life.
What has my attention today is a particular scene in the life of David. All of us know it well. Before I reference the text, it’s important to remember that David is, in many ways, the high point of the older covenant. In David, God appears to deliver fulfillment of many of his promises. Land. Kingdom. King. Worship. David is the type of the Messiah, and a reader of his story is meant to be led to that conclusion…and beyond it.
Beyond that conclusion is the truth of human nature, the truth of who we are and what we are like as persons; especially male persons.
2 Samuel. 11:1 In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. 2 It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. 3 And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” 4 So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house. 5 And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Israel’s sorry history. The decline and fall of an entire nation into subjugation, civil conflict, idolatry and defeat. The promises of God, so close to fulfillment in David, go tumbling down the abyss of Israel and Judah’s folly, and come to rest in a stable in Bethlehem, where David’s true son is born.
This probably seems like an unusual way to start out an essay on men and their temptation toward mid-life adultery, but it really isn’t. David was a man. A man after God’s own heart, but a man’s man. He had wives and concubines. He had wealth, power, success and significance. Whatever men are supposed to want in life, David had it in bucketfuls, with plenty left over.
But he’s brought down by adultery with the neighbor’s wife. He’s ruined by the sin of lust that every college student understands. He’s brought down, and his nation brought down, by a sin that stalks the mid-life man relentlessly, and far too often, wins out over good men with David-like success and achievements.
I work with many men younger than me. I believe many of them see me as a mentor, and if so, I want to ask them to please read what I am going to write here with every assurance that yes, I am writing about all of us. I can say this because, as a mid-life man, I now know things I did not know at 30 or 40, and I see things I did not see at 30 or 40. I see the power of adultery as a temptation. I understand why men fall into it, and I believe I understand something of how to resist it.
1. Adultery happens to men who do not have a truthful perspective on their own sexuality.
Sexuality in evangelicalism is largely discussed in feminized, moralistic terms. This isn’t helpful to anyone, male or female. Sexuality is the hard-wiring and software installation of God’s creative design. It is not something we do. It is who we are. Sexuality is as much a part of you as an ignition or fuel system are parts of a car. When the car “runs”, it is because these systems “run”. When you are a man, you are a sexual man.
The separation of male sexuality from Godly identity has been a disaster, and I’ve written about it elsewhere. Castrating men for usefulness in a prissy, feminized evangelicalism is bad. (BTW- the answer to all of this is Jesus, not hairy chested men grunting and making rude noises.)
Fear of sexuality is communicated to men throughout life. Men are rapists. Men are perverts. Men are porn addicts. Teenagers are told that masturbation is evil. Erections are embarrassing and the male sexual response is dirty. Young men are told that sexual thoughts- not wrong sexual fantasies, but sexual thoughts- are evil. The fear that male sexuality will “break out” hangs around any community of men from middle schools to nursing homes. Many Christian homes are in trouble because normal male sexual behavior is treated as disgusting and dirty.
(I am well aware that fear of female sexuality has its own essay that ought to be written, but I am not writing it. I do agree and understand it, however.)
The usual result of this in the mid-life male is a mine field, if not a ticking time bomb, as far as adultery is concerned. As we grow older, we are socially trained to be sexually disciplined and docile, but we are psychologically and emotionally just as vulnerable to the power of our own sexuality as ever. In many men, the repression of their sexuality has made them particularly vulnerable. They have lived for years with their sexuality on a leash with constant feelings of shame. When an adulterous or potentially adulterous relationship unleashes that repressed aspect of the personality, the energy and consequences are large.
David knew his enemies, but I do not think he was going to win any awards in knowing himself. The power of sexuality to cause a man to cross boundaries, justify wrong actions and then lie to himself and others is immense. David defeated Goliath, but he was slain by his own lust for a naked female body, something he had access to in his own house.
What would help? Communities of men that talk to one another honestly about sex, adultery, the “plot line” of sexual transgressions and the consequences of sexual sin. David’s isolation and subsequent cover-up should teach us that we can be better men if we talk to one another, confront one another, and encourage one another in specific, down to earth terms.
I like sermons about Christian guyness, but frankly, having a preacher who can use sexual terms and blunt language is overrated in terms of assisting a man in the middle of the struggle not to commit adultery. Other men, talking to you face to face, are of inestimable value. To be quite honest, if you can’t talk about your specific temptations to specific people in specific terms, you don’t yet have the kind of support that will yield truly helpful self-knowledge.
2. Despite a lot attention to the “seductress” in Proverbs, the problem in adultery is the married man, the condition of his marriage and the lies he tells himself.
One of the marks of male juvenility, and likely eventual downfall, is the tendency to put the emphasis on flirtatious women, scantily clad women, women with cleavage, women who smile at you, women you laugh at your jokes, women who pay attention to you and so forth. I’m not saying this kind of information is all useless, because it’s clearly a kind of common sense warning that anyone ought to heed. It’s just mislocating the problem.
The guy about to commit adultery is a person with a marriage he’s neglected and a wife he’s turning into an excuse to step out on. He is convincing himself he deserves something rather than admitting he is responsible for something. Did I just hurt your feelings? Good.
Let me say it again: The man about to commit adultery is choosing sex with someone other than his beloved because he doesn’t want to own up to his part in the marriage he’s about to violate. It’s that simple. Moving the responsibility elsewhere, or amplifying any other factors to the point of “cause”, isn’t helpful.
Any man about to violate his marriage vows is going to tell himself a story. That story varies greatly from man to man, but there are some predictable commonalities: lack of sexual availability and willingness. Excessive blame and criticism. A lack of “understanding”. Coldness. Rejection. Bitterness. Lack of forgiveness. This story will have the quality of myth, and it will place the man contemplating adultery in the place of someone whose actions may not be excusable or right, but are at least understandable and explainable. The men who destroy marriage vows without reason are few. The men who believe themselves to have suffered enough, and are now deserving of some kindness, are many.
Men: look at yourselves in the mirror. Your marriage is not meant to greet you each day with a package of pleasures, goodies and benefits. Your marriage is an ongoing project. It requires constant reassessment. There are readjustments, repairs, revisions and sacrifices necessary. Like a child that grows in your home, a marriage contains the mutual “DNA” of the marriage partners, but it presents surprises and problems that few of us can anticipate.
As I grow older, I am constantly amazed at the number of men who simply have no coping skills in marriage. They are passive and helpless when they most need to act, and they are afraid- often paralyzingly so- to become vulnerable, to suffer gladly, to admit error or to seek humility. They are, in too many cases, childishly distractible by someone else when they are most called to think about and love their spouse.
I understand the complexities of marriage in a fallen world. I hold God responsible for the outrageous notion that we can successfully remain married after the fall. It seems, frequently impossible. But I also hold God responsible for the grace, mercy, transformation and agape love that flows into our lives via this conduit of marriage.
So I believe the story of the seductress is not the story of David or Solomon. It may be the story of the young simpleton in Proverbs, but few adulterers are young simpletons.
3. The behaviors and emotions that precede adultery are easily discerned, and no man can say he doesn’t know what is happening.
David is looking at Bathsheba, and he is sexually stimulated. He sends messengers to her home. She arrives and he orders those men away. He takes her to his chamber.
At what point is this mysterious? Nathan was right: The rich man took the poor man’s one sheep while awake, sober and rational.
Men, that sexual stirring you feel when engaging a co-worker in intentional conversation? That laughter over the slightly off-color humor? That extra email, voice mail or visit to the cubicle? That unnecessary phone conversation? That intentional proximity to a lunch table? That extra attention to a problem? That intentional “pastoral” call? That willingness to listen? That second glance? That touch on the arm? That nod and smile? Those assurances of friendship? That promise to “pray” and be there?
What in hell are you doing? (And I mean that. Don’t edit for the church ladies, please.)
If the above paragraph seemed a bit obsessive, I’m sorry. By age 50, you should be able to write it yourself. Actually, you should be able to write a much longer one.
There is more that could be said about the later actions and feelings, when the other party is joining in, secrets are shared, plans are made, more lies are told and the whole business takes on a life of its own. But by that time, the mortal damage has often been done. I want to gain your attention now, early on, when there is much more hope for genuine repentance and healing.
You know what is happening, and you know that it is the edge of something completely dangerous. You are taking steps- baby steps, but steps- away from the one-heartedness you promised. You promised to be a one woman man. She is counting on you to keep that promise. She is counting on you to be better than other men; to be devoted to her through everything. And now you are looking, talking, returning, even touching, with another woman in mind. You have put yourself above your marriage. You have put the momentary excitement, the eventual fantasy, the immoral boost to the ego above your love for your wife.
I wish we could see ourselves at these moments. Do you know those MSNBC bits where they trap the child predators by convincing them online to come to a house? Then when they arrive at the house, the journalist confronts them? These men come in, and they are like men possessed. They do and say things that are shocking, perverse and vile, all in anticipation of the sexual thrill of being with a minor.
We are rightly shocked by such men. But if a camera were to follow a man- yes, a Christian man- fantasizing and contemplating adultery, around for a day or week or a month, the camera would capture a fool in his folly; saying and doing things that, if played before that man and his spouse, would bring most men to a place of such grief and regret that they would be weeping like children.
We must see ourselves in the real world. God does not play into these fantasies and thrills. He sees us, and he sees deeper. He who witnessed your covenant vows, and knows your avoidance of the problems in your marriage, sees into your heart. The movie is being made, for the largest audience imaginable.
4. The Gospel is for adulterous men.
I am a great sinner, and I have a great savior. I was loved into existence. I do not have to be, but I am because God calls me into existence. He delights in me and in you; in the possibility of our lives and his glory interacting for all eternity.
My sins separate me from this God. He is holy and my sins are putrid. They have contaminated me, and they separate me from his presence. But they have not separated me from Jesus. My redeemer lives. My sins are laid on him. He is vile when he has done nothing. He became the sins of adultery and lust for us, that we might become purity and righteousness in him. He is the one mediator, and he was made like me for just this purpose.
There is more. All our hurts are there in him as well. The disappointments as children and as adults,. The losses. The grief. The abuse. All are upon him and in him, and in him they are all healed. He is ostracized, shamed, rejected, taking all of these things in every form for us. He becomes the victim of every wrong, and he becomes the scapegoat for every guilt.
And he is for us. For us. We do not need to persuade him to love us, because he already loves us. He is for us and nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
He has special compassion for the hurts of marriage. He knows what it is to have an imperfect spouse and a flawed marriage. He knows the wandering hearts of unfaithful people. He is determined to make the Marriage of the Lamb the very meaning of all eternity. So he looks upon your marriage, whatever its condition, and whatever your part in it, with the compassion that only comes from the great heart of God.
You can rest in him. Whatever the restlessness, go home to him. Stay with him. Tell him- honestly- what you are feeling. Don’t run away from such a God as the God that forgave David. Be his child. Seek what it means to be vulnerable in the treasures of his graciousness. In the heart of the ultimate wounded one, there are your wounds, and the healing of your wounds.
The woman dragged before Jesus found his forgiveness for sexual sin. The man who committed the adultery was nowhere to be found. Like so many men, he hid to avoid the repercussions he feared most at the time: humiliation and embarrassment. But what if he had been with Jesus, too. What would Jesus have said to him? Would his love have been less than what was shown to her? No, where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.
The road to healing in your marriage will not be short, easy or miraculous. I am skeptical of those stories where one trip to the altar takes away all the issues. There are problems with deep roots and histories embedded in our history. Forgiveness takes confession. New life comes from repentance. Grace is the in-breaking of light into darkness, and the darkness seldom loves the light. So it may take a very long time to come to the place where there is, once again, the kind of love and joy in your marriage that you so deeply desire.
You must know that God desires you to drink from the fountains of his joy, and to know satisfaction in the fountains of marital joy. He is not stingy, but we prefer cisterns of our own construction. To admit this, to move beyond this, and to embrace the grace of God available to a broken marriage, are all difficult, but possible and necessary movements forward.
My prayers are with you. As John said, I am your brother in the suffering and testimony of Jesus. Let us be faithful, joyful, useful, hopeful, always abounding in the work of the Lord. Don’t be weary in well doing, for in due time, we will reap a harvest of righteousness.
Look to that marriage of yours with the mind of Christ and the spirit of the prodigal coming home. Call upon the Lord, and he will deliver you. Declare your love for your wife, and let all your actions declare it even louder. Honor your vows, bless your children and do the right thing so that you will have no reason to be ashamed in the day of Jesus Christ.