Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments: 9. No Adultery
Ex 20:14 You shall not commit adultery.
This seventh command is the second of the short and to the point ones that comprise a large part of the second half of the Ten Commandments. It is found here in Ex 20 and in the list in Deut 5:18. As with murder, in this list it is a simple prohibition: you will NOT commit adultery. To be clear, adultery is having sexual relations with a member of another marriage. It is thus having sex with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband. In that marriage is a lifelong covenant – and most couples do make promises to that effect – it is both breaking your own vows and stealing away someone else’s partner and getting them to break their vows.
The severity of this prohibition, in the eyes of God, is seen in the punishments found elsewhere in the Law: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death,” (Lev 20:10) and “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel,” (Deut 22:22) and the reason must surely be that it undermines the family, the basic building block of civilization. It is that simple.
Disregard for this command, as with the others, is a disregard for God. Joseph in the Old Testament makes that point for us when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him: “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Gen 39:6-9)
Solomon in the early chapters of his Proverbs when speaking about wisdom, really lays into adultery: “It will save you also from the adulteress, from the wayward wife with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God. For her house leads down to death and her paths to the spirits of the dead. None who go to her return or attain the paths of life.” (Prov 2:16-19) He spreads out there the folly of it. Speaking to his sons he warns them of “the adulteress…. the wayward wife with her seductive words.” (v.16) She is a wrong woman and she will seek to entice you, he says, Perhaps he has Potiphar’s wife in mind. He identifies her activity as a twofold sin: “who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God.” (v.17) It is a sin against the partner and against God.
But he doesn’t leave it there; he brings a strong warning of the consequences: “For her house leads down to death and her paths to the spirits of the dead. None who go to her return or attain the paths of life.” (v.18,19) It is a downward path and the consequences of it are self-destruction, and that may be spiritual (certainly) and physical.
In the UK an analysis found fewer than one in six marriages now ends with a charge of adultery – half the level of the 1970s. The reason for the fall is that unreasonable behaviour is another and now more favoured ground for divorce because it is easier to prove. It may be that adultery is there in the background but not cited.
The biggest folly of adultery – apart from the fact of it being a sign of rebellion against God – is the deception that always plays a part – you will be all right, this is all right. The devastation that follows proves that it isn’t. Whoever the innocent party is, they will be left with a major sense of rejection. I have counselled those who have been thus abandoned (for that is what it is) and the hurt and anger, the sense of rejection and desire for revenge are sometimes almost out of this world!
Where there are children, they likewise feel a sense of betrayal and abandonment which affects the whole of their lives. It is now commonplace for school teachers to be warned that Jane or John are likely to be showing negative behaviour because their parents are splitting up. Where there has been adultery it is rare for the marriage to continue because, even if the adulterer wants to come back, the sense of betrayal is so great and the breakdown in trust is so great that immense grace is needed to continue, and many simply do not have that grace. Where there is a breakdown because of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ (the most common ground for divorce today) then the relationship will have been breaking up from both sides, but where adultery occurs it is doubly hard because although the relationship may have been getting shallow, the act of adultery is still on one side and is thus devastating for the other partner.
The awful thing about adultery is that it starts with the almost overwhelming thought of a momentary pleasure but can end up in something far deeper, with marriage destruction and long term instability and loneliness. Short-term thinking says the present pleasure is worth the risk. The figures show that those who divorce (and I suspect it is worse where there is adultery) are three times more likely to break up in any subsequent relationship.
Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount could be taken as a warning not to go anywhere near this problem: “You have heard that it was said, `Do not commit adultery.’E But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt 5:27,28) It starts in the mind and through the eyes and so don’t even let your mind think in that direction. This other women is off limits to you because you are a married man. This man is off limits to you because he is already married.
If you venture down this path all I can promise is hurt and pain and anguish and recriminations and an uncertain future. You may think you will be the exception and will weather it and come out of it with a new relationship that lasts, but remember that that is the exception and you still have an issue with God. Beware those – two came to our church once – who are adulterers (call them what they are) and appear to look good. They are living in deception and they have an issue with the holy God who says, “You shall NOT commit adultery”! They will be held accountable in the longer term, if not the shorter.
Yes, there are Christians I know who have sinned, fallen and been restored by the Lord, although the way was still painful and repentance was a part of it, but one thing I notice with sadness is that every person I know who has walked the path of adultery and divorce and has carried blame, still carries something of that stigma in their spirit. Rarely is the repentance of such a depth and the rebuilding of such a depth that a person is truly clear and clean from that past. It is an area in which the modern church is weak and suffers because of it. God’s grace is wonderful and yet still, I see the signs in those who have come via this path.
I believe that the modern church is weak on relationships and so you may not have a close friend who sees the signs and can speak into you life, so may I say it. If you are looking at him or her and wondering, don’t. Step back from that abyss. God has got something better for you than to go through weeks, months, years of alienation from Him, and self-justification in a lost cause. Decide to step back right now. You are worth more than to be branded ‘adulterer’. If you have a shallow marriage seek Him and seek others to remedy that. Don’t look for an answer in someone else’s arms. If they are willing to disregard your vows and their own vows now, why shouldn’t they do that in a year’s time? Step back now, share it with the Lord and get His grace for a new tomorrow.