Many newly married couples struggle with guilt over past sins, particularly sexual sins. Thoughts come racing in at the most inappropriate times, forcing us to beat them back or fall into despondency over past failure. Perhaps worse, we can be tempted to cultivate fond memories of sinful experiences — in our dullness remembering only the flower and forgetting the bitter thorn.
But there’s a connection, I think, between sexual guilt (for what lies in one’s past) and possible infidelity (in one’s future). First, being weighed down with past failure can give us a sense that future failure is inevitable. Guilt can precipitate a sense of powerlessness; we feel this sin owns us, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the sin-guilt-sin cycle repeats itself. Alternatively, never truly learning from past failure — what precipitated it, the series of small and large decisions we made which, cumulatively, did us in — can lead to future failure.
Either way, it’s important that we accurately view our self, including our past, in light of the cross and Christ’s power over guilt and sin. So how do we, as married men and women, overcome guilt for past failure and cultivate habits that will guard us from future failure?
Most of us are acquainted with various flavors of sexual temptation: from actual sex (fornication) to imagined sex (fantasizing) to vicarious sex (pornography) to self-sex (masturbation). The pattern in each temptation is similar: The power of some immediate pleasure beckons us, offers a better life (at least for now) and promises that any negative consequences will be minor compared to the satisfaction awaiting us. “Come on,” we say to ourselves. “It’s not a big deal; don’t be so rigid.”
But immediately following a purity failure, an arguably more diabolical temptation is encountered: “You’re a loser. Just give up. This Christian life thing? You can’t do it even if you try.” What happened to “no big deal”? Now it feels as big as a mountain. The subsequent guilt can be paralyzing.
The power of this vicious cycle can be broken as we look to Jesus in humble admiration, recognizing that He fully knows our state and died to secure our salvation. In worship, while focusing on His grace to us not just 2000 years ago, but today, sin loses its allure as we taste the superior pleasure that God alone can give. We come to see sinful pleasures for what they really are: ephemeral and deceitful.
Vulnerability to Infidelity
Maybe God delivered you from a sexual history of fornication. Or maybe you married as a virgin, but in your single years had experienced major or minor battles with impurity. Either way, you have “baggage.” In addition, there are innocent things you did as a single that would be inappropriate as a married man or woman. Some things I might have done before marrying without a second thought in some cases includes driving alone with a woman, sharing a cab with a woman on the way to a conference or having a private meal with a female coworker. But I wouldn’t do any of them as a married guy. I know these aren’t sinful activities, but I see no reason to do something that readily nurtures emotional intimacy. Almost no affair happens overnight; it begins with the bonding of hearts. And if you don’t start it, you certainly can’t finish it. Likewise, if I’m never alone with a woman, I won’t have an affair. It’s that simple.
Let’s suppose you have a history of being flirtatious. You traveled for work and enjoyed random encounters (dinners, shared cabs) with individuals you’d meet. You allowed yourself a certain amount of latitude with the opposite sex because (who knows?) he or she might be a Christian, and either way, you enjoyed the companionship. There’s nothing necessarily sinful about having a friendly personality and liking to meet new people. But years of it can solidify habits not easily broken. You’ll want to be more guarded as a married person, especially when you’re alone on the road or encountering a dry spell in your marriage. In face-to-face encounters, I hope the ring on your finger helps remind you of your commitment. But in our day, don’t assume that will necessarily deter the other person. Many people assume that a degree of secretive relational back-scratching is normal.
And things don’t have to develop face-to-face anymore. Facebook is specifically mentioned in 20 percent of all divorce cases as a means through which a divorce-inducing extramarital affair was developed. Let’s face it: Social networking sites allow you to all but stalk attractive persons of interest with total privacy, perhaps even anonymity. Cell phones, Skype and IM provide immediate access to old flames or attractive acquaintances, allowing opposite-sex relationships to grow in a way that feels safe but isn’t.
If you were molested as a child, if you were heavily involved in pornography prior to puberty or if your parents had an extramarital affair while you were living at home, you probably know that studies indicate you’re susceptible to being unfaithful. But other personality or lifestyle patterns are also known to make folks particularly susceptible. The driven, competitive type-A guys tend to push themselves hard in professional areas but find it less natural to take care of their souls, relax, connect with their wives and form appropriate, transparent relationships with other Christian men. They find it difficult to unplug. Exhaustion can creep up on them, crippling their ability to think and rendering them susceptible to pursuing relaxation illicitly as a means of immediate release. Or the thrill of forbidden fruit, by virtue of it being fresh, new, exciting and secretive, may be what entices them.
If your premarital life was marked by a series of relationships which you ended, if you find it difficult to forgive others, if you tend to “keep score” on wrongs done, you are vulnerable in times when your spouse fails to measure up in your eyes. Even good things like exercise and work can become sources of compulsive, addictive behavior which leave you emotionally dry and at a place of vulnerability. If you have trouble with the concept of delayed gratification, you may not be able to say no to a chance encounter.
Financial problems or a sudden tragedy can leave one or both marital partners vulnerable, as can any perpetual unresolved patterns of conflict. I hope you can see that even if you were blessed with a road to the altar that was completely pure, the frustrations and pressures of work, marriage, kids and various disappointments can result in adultery posing a threat to you, especially if you let down your guard.
Building Protective Hedges
We all know that adultery is far more prevalent in our day than ever before. And we know that we can be susceptible to temptation and that even non-sexual influences can leave us vulnerable. So how do we guard our marriages from infidelity?
Diligently watch your heart: your affections, desires, motives and pursuits. The over-arching issue is “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23, NASV). The trajectory of our life, which way we’ll go, depends on the condition of our heart. But as Charles Bridges said about this verse, we must know our heart in order to effectively watch over it. Be aware of what brings you dissatisfaction in your marriage or what leaves your soul dry. Take time to nurture intimacy with God and with your spouse. A lack of heartfelt delight in either God or spouse can lead to danger.
Set clear barriers. You may not always feel like it, but decide now, in a moment of strength, what you will never do in a moment of weakness. This is not legalism; it’s wisdom. For example, if you’re married, do you need to have a private e-mail, Facebook or Twitter account? Why not tell your spouse your password and invite them to “log in as you” anytime. Don’t have meals alone or drive alone with a member of the opposite sex (attractive or unattractive, older or younger, married or single). And men, don’t initiate a physical display of affection toward a woman over whom you have a degree of positional authority. Coaches, teachers, nurses, doctors and pastors: Beware the tenderness trap. It’s real and often a precursor to emotional if not physical infidelity.
Cultivate the fear of the Lord. We inevitably minimize indiscretions on the path to infidelity. “He just wanted to have a nice conversation, and he says I understand him. He’s going through a really hard time, you know. I told him he could call me again next week. But don’t worry, it’s not like we’re seeing each other or anything.” Jesus took the opposite approach: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell” (Matthew 18:8–9). Where we would allow opportunities for temptation, the biblical writers would have us cut them off (Romans 13:14).
Some of us have probably lost the horror of offending God in his infinite holiness. Without a weighty, life-directing, biblical fear of God (Proverbs 8:13), we’re left with nothing more than situational consequences as a deterrent. And on the path to infidelity, we tell ourselves these can be avoided. And sometimes they are (seemingly) avoided for years until we’re exposed and the edifice of our public lives crumble. We see this happen periodically with political leaders, professional athletes, pastors and other figures in the news.
When Nathan confronted David after his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1–14), he didn’t give him a lecture on violating the sanctity of marriage, though he certainly had. He told David that he had “despised” God (2 Samuel 12:9–10). Likewise, in David’s repentance he notes, “Against You, You only, I have sinned” (Psalm 51:4). Adultery of the heart or of the body is first and foremost an assault on the character of God.
Jesus’ blood covers all of our premarital and post-marital sins. Fornication does not make you unworthy of marriage. Look to Him and walk in newness of life. No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11). The lifelong physical union between a husband and his wife is meant to be a display of the eternal spiritual union between Jesus Christ and His bride (Ephesians 5:22–33). Adultery among Christians makes a mockery of our Savior. With God’s help, we can and must guard our hearts and our marriages for His glory.
Copyright 2011 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.