Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage

by Robert and Mollie Brow

Chapter 6

When Does Lust Become Adultery?

Jesus' hearers all knew the ten commandments, and the seventh was "You shall not commit adultery." [Exodus 20:14] Among the Jews of the Old Testament adultery was made into a crime for which the death penalty was required. So when a woman was caught in adultery her accusers reminded Jesus that "In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women." [Note: John 8:5, based on Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22. The NRSV margin points out that this story is not found in some early manuscripts of John's Gospel. Perhaps it was omitted because it might condone adultery. But it is at least evidence that some early Christians thought this was the way Jesus would deal with the situation. The death penalty for adultery is still demanded among the Muslims of Arabia, but partly as a result of this story criminal law did not assign a death sentence for adultery in western countries. In Appendix A we suggest that in Old Testament patriarchy they defined adultery as any act that could result in the adulteration of a man's genealogy, and that was their reason for punishing it by death.]

 So we can imagine the shock of Jesus' words about lust. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." [Matthew 5:27-28] We assume that Jesus was not suggesting that adulterous heart thoughts should also be investigated and given the death penalty.

 What then could be the meaning of this paradoxical statement? Instead of a crime for which the death penalty could be assigned, Jesus is talking about an adulteration of marriage that begins in the heart, and it deeply affects one's partner. And when the meaning of a word changes so radically we know that a model shift has occurred. Jesus' vision of a loving marriage has set the explanation of what adulterates it into a quite different framework.

 Unfortunately Christian preachers have often missed the point of the model shift, and they use this text to tell men that every time they find a woman attractive they have committed adultery. There was an astonishing example of this interpretation when the United States President Jimmy Carter was interviewed for Playboy magazine. When he was asked if he had ever committed adultery he said "often" based on his church's preaching of this text.

 Telling men that every lustful look is another sin that deserves hell is an easy way to make a congregation feel guilty. Sinners are then assured that, though they have committed adultery by looking every day, they can be forgiven if they will now repent and accept God's forgiveness. One result of such preaching is to drive full blooded males from our churches.

 Equally serious is the fact that those who long to be moral beings find themselves unable to eradicate sexual thoughts from their minds. When they try to avoid "looking and lusting" they become mired in guilt. A continual sequence of confession, accepting forgiveness, trying to keep pure, and then falling again, dashes all hope of moral progress. Eventually doubts about God's love and power eat away at their faith. Since it was the Son of God himself who designed feminine beauty, we cannot imagine that Jesus would fault men for finding women attractive. John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:13-16 both tell us that the Jesus who appeared on earth was the eternal Son of God who designed our world, and that must have included inventing and implanting our sexual instincts. So we cannot believe that Jesus is condemning the appreciation of another's beauty when there is no intention to engage in the physical act of adultery. In Galilee Jesus enjoyed the company of women and men, and loved them intensely without anyone ever suggesting that he sinned in doing so. But if he was fully man, and tempted in all points as we are [Hebrews 4:11], he cannot have escaped sexual temptation. The text "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" [Matthew 5:28] is about adulterating a marriage. And the point is that from God's point of view adultery has already occurred when the decision to be unfaithful has been made.

 Three married men, James, Brian, and Roger go to New York and each of them has a business lunch with an attractive buyer. James thanks God for her charm and the pleasure of meeting her, but he has no intention of being unfaithful to his wife. Brian decides it would be nice to take the woman out for dinner that night, and see if she would come to his hotel room. He then discovers that her husband is on the way home and carries a gun, so discretion is the better part of valor. Roger manages to bed the lady. By law, and in most peoples' minds, only Roger has committed adultery. But Jesus says that Brian also committed adultery the moment he decided to act on the temptation. The only difference was that he did not have the opportunity to complete the act. What the text teaches us is that from God's point of view a failed intention to commit adultery is already an adulteration of a person's marriage. This interpretation is reinforced by what seems to be an allusion to archery in the very next verse. "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away." [Matthew 5:29] As with all powerful metaphors, the words are designed to shock us. Jesus is not telling us to gouge out a physical eye, or cut off a literal hand, to save ourselves from sin. In archery the left eye is kept closed, and the right eye is used for taking aim along the line of the arrow. So this would be a metaphor for taking aim with a view to committing adultery.

 Similarly "If your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away" [Matthew 5:30] could be a metaphor for the hand that pulls back the bowstring. In our case we could think of the right hand reaching out shake on a shady deal. In both cases the wrongness begins as a decision in the heart before it becomes a crime that can be condemned in a court of law. Which means that Jesus has moved the focus of adultery from the sexual act to the heart decision that precedes it.

 In these two texts we should also pick up the metaphor taken from the throwing of the city's garbage over the east wall of Jerusalem. It all landed in the Valley of Hinnom which was called ge hinnom in Hebrew and transliterated gehenna in Greek. When we read "it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into gehenna" [Matthew 5:29-30 NRSV margin] Jesus is not threatening us with eternal hell fire. What he is saying is that even a heart decision to commit adultery if the opportunity should arise is deadly dangerous. In the parallel passage Mark's Gospel refers to the gehenna dump "where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched." Which we might put into modern language as "If you choose to adulterate your marriage you and your family could all end up trashed. It would be like being dumped on the gehenna garbage which crawls with maggots and keeps burning from the cinders which are thrown on to it." [Mark 9:47-48] If we have grasped the meaning of Jesus' metaphorical statements about adultery, we can make an important distinction between enjoyment, temptation, and adultery. Zealous preachers have often confused enjoying the beauty of a person of the opposite sex with lust. But enjoyment is not a fault. As we pass a neighbour's garden we can stop to enjoy the beauty and even smell the fragrance of a carnation without being tempted to cut it and take it home.

 Secondly there is the pull of temptation. It is only when we begin to imagine the possibilities and consequences of adulterating our marriage that temptation comes to mind. Since Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, temptation for him must have included visualizing the possibility of dishonoring his parents, murder, stealing, and various forms of covetousness. And since he was fully man and presumably a normal sexual being, he cannot have been immune to the temptations of the seventh commandment. We assume he must have felt the pull of unacceptable intimacy with the many attractive women who were his disciples. [Luke 8:2-3] But temptation is not sin.

 Beyond enjoying the beauty of another, and the pull of temptation, there is a point of decision when we determine to engage in the adulterous act. As the epistle of James puts it "one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin." [James 1:14,15] Both in celibacy and marriage there are strong feelings of temptation when the adulteration of one's commitment is either pictured and rejected as unacceptable, or pictured and the will engaged to be immoral if the opportunity arises. Heart adultery therefore takes place as soon as the decision is made, quite regardless of whether the person is able to carry out the intention.

 Because they have been made to feel guilty about finding the opposite sex attractive many sincere Christians keep calling upon the help of the Holy Spirit to save them from perfectly natural God-given feelings. They should not be surprised if their prayers are not answered. They are drawing the battle lines in the wrong place. Christian faith is not that good people are never tempted by sexual thoughts.

 We have therefore distinguished three quite different heart attitudes. First there is the God-given appreciation and enjoyment of another person's beauty and personality. Secondly there is the pull of temptation when we consider the possibilities and consequences of adulterating our marriage. Thirdly there is the heart decision to go and be adulterous if we can. Does this distinction help us with the problem of pornography in marriage adulteration?

 There are married men who peek occasionally at a girlie magazine, and some married men buy them. But there are very few women who reciprocate this visual interest. Mothers tend to get very upset when they find such magazines under their son's mattress. And there are innumerable women who feel that their marriage is somehow adulterated if their husband is fascinated by other women's breasts.

 The term pornographic derives from the Greek word porne meaning a prostitute, or porneia which we define as sexual encounters without love or commitment. [See Appendix B] The assumption used to be that the depiction of nudity or sexual intercourse was pornographic because only prostitutes would flaunt their bodies to be seen by strangers. And since prostitution was illegal pornography was also made a criminal offense. That definition of pornography has more and more been abandoned in our law courts. In some countries the depiction of frontal nudity and sexual intercourse is no longer a crime, and girlie magazines and videos of every kind of explicitness are freely sold to adults. The word pornographic in a legal sense now tends to be limited to magazines, films and videos that depict gross sexual brutality, the abuse and humiliation of women, and sexual acts with minors.

 Most women however still tend to find the use of such material by their spouse demeaning, threatening, and an adulteration of their marriage. There is therefore a sharp difference between what is permitted by law and how women feel about the enjoyment of erotic material by their husbands. Some men claim that the pleasure is aesthetic in the same way as artists enjoy the female form without any intention to be unfaithful to their wives. "If you enjoy looking at flowers and birds, what could be wrong with admiring the far greater beauty of the human body?" Others continue looking, but they look in secret behind their partner's back. But we have seen how anything that has to be kept hidden from the other is a breach of the genuine mutuality which we would prefer.

 In films and novels we are faced with a gradation of sexual undertones from what is enjoyable to the unacceptable, and beyond into the grossest of pornography. And nobody can set the boundary for others. In food as in sex there are different tastes. Some like it hot and spicy. Others prefer it bland and predictable. We can see no way to draw a line of right and wrong between them. But if a man and a woman share the same table and share the same bed the difference between a degree of spice and blandness could be a problem. Every couple must learn to be comfortable within a certain range of what is mutually acceptable. It is impossible to make rules as to what would adulterate a marriage in all cases. So again our emphasis must be on the freedom for each couple to share their deepest feelings and work out the moral implications together. That always seems to be creative, safe, and enriching in any marriage.

 Having noted some implications of what Jesus said about lust, or adultery of the mind, we wonder what he would have said about our sexual energies? We all recognize the more visible personality differences in our friends. "He is easy going. She is a live wire." Or "He would prefer to stay at home but she keeps pushing him to go on trips." Some of these differences might result in divorce, but most couples manage them fairly easily with a sense of humour.

 Differences in sexual energy are however frequently mentioned as a cause of adultery. Marcia is highly sexed and feels the need for frequent orgasms. Richard is content with sex occasionally when he is in the mood. And even if a couple have a similar level of sexual energy at some periods in their marriage, the pressure of work, travel, sickness, childbirth, the menopause, alcoholism, and a host of other factors can throw them off balance. It is good to remind ourselves that, although we may be uneasy discussing our sexuality, God is not embarrassed. Even the rawest instincts which bother us were designed for us to learn loving. So we can assume that God longs to help us open up what seems like a very hard conversation with our partner. We outline some of the ordinary physiological facts in Appendix E.

 By all accounts the Holy Spirit is certainly not shocked by personal contact with the dark and devious side of artists who are bold enough to seek his inspiration. Which is why we imagine he is equally glad when we ask him for the creative inspiration that we need for a loving marriage. And that leads us into a final chapter about the resources that the God of Love offers to us freely for our loving.

Chapter 7...