Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage

by Robert and Mollie Brow

Appendix F

When Does Sexual Fantasy Become Adulterous?

In Chapter 7 we focussed on Paul's contrast between two ways of living our life and the model shift needed to make the change from our way to God's way.. "Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit." (Romans 8:5) We noted that we can dream, or daydream, or set our mind in hundreds of different directions. It is by setting our mind on the Spirit that our heart is inspired and empowered for the impossible task of loving.

 Sometimes we let others give us the images that will occupy our minds. We watch sitcoms, sports, the news on television. At their worst we call such watching mindless. But a really good movie or novel enables us to feel the situation depicted with all the attendant emotions as if we ourselves were involved. And the best of creative writing make us look at alternative ways of living as we find ourselves involved in a clash between two models. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings brings us right into the cosmic struggle between good and evil.

 That is why there is no clear dividing line between fantasy and parable. Parables are shorter and have a more obvious twist or punch line to make a point. In both cases a story is imagined by someone to captivate and shock us into seeing life from an unexpected point of view.

 But we can also choose to do our own creative imagination. People often claim that they have no imagination. But all of us can imagine the most complex good and bad situations fast asleep in our dreams. And we certainly began with a powerful gift of imagination as little children. The first fantasies came to us from our parents and grandparents. They took the form of bedtime stories, fairy tales, legends, heroic adventures. When we learned to talk we developed the ability to invent our own fantasies and to act them out in games and mock adventures. We imagined killing dragons, building castles, becoming engine drivers, or football, hockey and movie stars. This ability to imagine ourselves in other situations is a necessary preliminary to engaging in a major model change. We can picture ourselves in a situation, and evaluate what we ought to do without the danger of actually having to participate. In that sense we have already engaged our mind to allow the Spirit to speak to us. And having imagined we can then ask the Spirit to clarify our mind about how to act. Fantasy creation can therefore function as a spiritual laboratory for checking out the nature and implications of all sorts of behavior. Which suggests that we should view fantasy creation as a gift from God to enable us to grow in moral stature.

 Imagining possible alternatives is also essential for any kind of creative work in the arts or sciences. Even more important is the fact that the direction of our imagining and fantasy often suggest a model shift that we wonder about making. And it is at that point that we particularly need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to see clearly what is involved, and then have the courage to move in the right direction. Unfortunately for centuries churches assumed that fantasies belonged to day dreaming, unreality, lack of logical precision, sexual impurity. Christians are still uneasy about sexual fantasies though the Song of Solomon is a beautiful little book right in the middle of the Bible. It no doubt has other meanings, but it reads as the story of a young woman having a fantasy about a relationship with king Solomon. It is typical of the thoughts that occupy teenagers as they first experience sexual feelings.

 Most girls go through a stage of finding themselves inventing fantasies about older women whom they admire, then about their favourite film and rock stars, and finally narrow down to their current choice of eligible men. Boys begin their sexual fantasies during their teens, and these continue often as unwelcome guests throughout life. And it is particularly upsetting for a teenager to discover that the direction of his or her sexual fantasies is different from others, as in the discovery of gay and lesbian feelings.

 Sexual fantasy was until very recently condemned in all churches. The theory was that thinking impure thoughts would inevitably lead to sinful acts. Any kind of sexual fantasizing was therefore sinful. The result is that children picked up the idea that sexual thoughts are dirty, harmful, or downright wicked. A huge amount of guilt has resulted in the lives of young and not so young people. The inability to cope with sexual fantasies without feeling defiled makes it very hard for both men and women to handle the fantasies that intrude in the best of relationships.

 We saw in Chapter 6 that imagining which turns into a decision to commit adultery has already become adulterous even before the act. But there is no need to condemn married and unmarried persons who have fantasies about exotic situations and persons without any intention to translate the fantasy into adultery. If we correctly interpreted Jesus' words about the point when a decision becomes adultery, it seems the same principle could be applied to sexual fantasy. And it makes no difference whether we enjoy a fantasy in a book or we create it ourselves. A fantasy, which if expressed in practice would be morally wrong, is not adulterous unless the will is harnessed to doing that particular act. What is important is that every kind of fantasy, including the sexual ones, should be brought to the Holy Spirit for evaluation.

 "But you forget that sexual fantasy can be indulged in. It is toying with sin. You can't pray 'lead us not into temptation,' and then spend your time imagining how nice it would be. Sexual fantasies should be pushed right out of our minds." That has been the gist of much moralizing counsel. As parents we may not have said so, but it is the impression we convey to our children. This might be an agenda for a Buddhist monastery, but holiness or wholeness is not by eliminating desires but by redirecting their energy. The problem is that the advice to stifle sexual fantasy sounds wise and plausible, but it keeps the Holy Spirit out of the very place where we most need help. An artist brings the ugly deadness of his painting and looks for creative inspiration. A leader recognizes the frustrating inability to bring order out of chaos, and seeks wisdom from the Holy Spirit. A composer struggles with lines of uninspired notes. A person who wants to love another who is upsetting, unattractive, or an enemy, must picture and admit the ugly selfish feelings. The only way to set our mind on the Spirit is to bring the raw materials of our mind for him to work on. And even if our mind should drift into thoughts of sexual manipulation or abuse that is precisely the raw material which the Spirit must be allowed to transmute into genuine love.

 We might compare the modern concern to remove the imprecatory psalms from our worship and devotion. The Book of Psalms has been called God's guide for our emotions. When we feel abandoned and in despair we read what David said to God, and we are healed. But we are embarrassed by the psalms where violent revenge fantasies are expressed. The psalmist would love to see his enemies turned to slime, his opponents' children begging in the streets (Psalms 58:6-8, 9:12-13, 69:22-28, 109:6-12).

 Many commentators have labeled the imprecatory psalms sub-Christian. But we should note that by turning his feelings into a clear fantasy picture, and bringing that boldly to God's light, the psalmist is given a new perspective, and actual revenge is prevented. We forget that most people in our world live under constant threat from powerful oppressors. Christians who have lived sheltered lives imagine they would find it easy to love those who wronged them. That is not so obvious when the secret police take your brothers and sisters and children to disappear without trace.

 The New Testament does not ask us to love enemies without first feeling the need for justice. [Luke 18:7-8, Romans 12:19, 2 Timothy 4:14, Revelation 6:9-10] Christian love by the Spirit does not appear without first feeling the force of anger and hate. So the plausible counsel to avoid fantasies about enemies has the wrong effect, and actually prevents the Holy Spirit creating in our hearts the love that is needed. Similarly the attempt to eradicate all 'unspiritual' fantasies from our minds actually deprives us of the powerful help of the Holy Spirit in transformation. Paul's model of setting the mind on the Spirit requires that any kind of bad, doubtful, or apparently good fantasy should be brought in all its starkness to God for evaluation.

 Which is why we like the prayer at the beginning of the Anglican communion service. "Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord." The advantage of this prayer is that we do not have to decide ahead of time whether a particular emotion or fantasy is good or bad. We bring every thought as is to the Holy Spirit to cleanse it. Some aspects of what we long for may be good and healthy, and the Spirit can reveal that to us. Some longings are just plain wrong, and the Spirit can show us why. And the showing is not by listing rules from our church, but by enabling us to see the outcome of that direction and how it is not really what we long for. The result is that on the one hand we are freed from legalism. And at the same time we have our own inner heart motivation for high endeavour, we can submit to creative inspiration, and we are encouraged to take the tough risks of loving and serving others in our world.

 Setting our mind on the Spirit is particularly important when we are challenged to consider a new model for looking at love and marriage. "Holy Spirit, I do not grasp the implications of this new model. As I try to picture its implications and run it through against the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, and in the light of patriarchal ideas in the Old Testament, clarify my mind to see if it is helpful or confusing. Show me if it brings darkness or illuminates with light. Is this the world's way of looking at things, or does it bring into focus the good news the Son of God came to bring into my life?"