Adultery: Who Do You Help?

Who do you help once a couple confides in you about an affair? You want to be careful not to “pick sides.” Of course you are concerned about the person who has been betrayed, but do you have any biblical foundation to care for the one who committed adultery? Let’s look at the character of God and see how he responds to both.

God has Been Betrayed and Understands

Isaiah 54:5--Who God Is

For your Maker is your husband. The LORD Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.

Ezekiel 16:32--What Israel, His bride, did

You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband!

For the spouse who has been betrayed, they have experienced the agony of rejection. Rejection is a prominent theme throughout the Bible and it is God who is rejected by his people again and again. No one in the entire universe knows rejection quite like God. Many times God compares his people to wayward prostitutes who give themselves to strange lovers (Ezekiel 16:30-34). Despite their unfaithfulness, God promises “your Maker is your husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; the God of the whole earth he is called.” (Isaiah 54:5)  

Hundreds of years later, Jesus, in the most agonizing moment of his life, cried out as he hung on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Being rejected by the Father and the Spirit was more painful than the confrontations, the beatings, and the actual crucifixion. As he was crucified, Jesus was our representative, taking the brunt of our sin on himself. He was getting what we deserved: condemnation and utter separation from God. His perfect life and sacrificial death paid the penalty for our sins. He suffered rejection, so we might escape the penalty for our sins and be accepted by God.

God Draws Near to the Unfaithful and Brings Hope

Isaiah 49:14-16--Israel’s Cry

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.”

God’s Reply

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.

As you work with the spouse who has committed adultery, remember that Jesus came for unfaithful people, too. He came to serve sinners and sufferers and make them both into saints. For the person who betrayed their spouse, Jesus’ death and resurrection bring hope to them.  Jesus’ death guarantees that forgiveness is available for them when they come to him in genuine sorrow and repentance. Jesus’ resurrection means that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is theirs for the asking.  His resurrection power is able to change them over time into a faithful, loving spouse.

Real Life

I remember a Christian husband meeting with me to tell me he had been having an affair. The first words out of his mouth were, “I don’t know why I came to talk to you, a pastor, about what I have done, but here I am.” He then told me about the affair. I had the privilege to say this to him. “You have come to the right place. This is why Jesus came to live, die and be raised. You and I are both in need of God’s grace. This is exactly why Jesus came to form a people called the church, his bride. You and I both need a family where we can find encouragement and strength to change.”

Nothing is more rewarding that the opportunity to extend grace to both spouses and begin the process of change that will be needed if the marriage survives and grows stronger.

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Adultery: Divorce or Rebuild?

Once the affair has come to light, both spouses have a choice to make. Often, two dead end options are chosen that are unwise and harmful.

  • The couple decides to stay in the marriage but they never discuss what happened.
  • The couple chooses to stay in the marriage while the infidelity continues.

Be careful to avoid harsh judgment of the spouse who has been betrayed and wants to stay in the marriage. There may be a number of understandable reasons. Some good, some bad and some purely pragmatic. The reasons may include financial security, concern for the children, avoidance of shame, or a genuine love for their spouse. 

What are two biblical options?

  • End the Marriage. Yes, this is a godly, biblical option but is not to be taken lightly. Scripture clearly teaches that adultery is valid grounds for the betrayed spouse to pursue divorce (Matthew 19:8-9).
  • Stay and Work on the Marriage. This option is advocated by both Christian and non-Christian therapists. This is a completely valid option and one that ought to be considered.

Don’t Make a Decision too Quickly in a Volatile Emotional Moment.

Remember, both options are going to require work. Rebuilding a relationship after infidelity is not easy, but neither is dissolving one, particularly if there are children involved. Regardless of the choice to leave or stay, it is wise to discourage a quick decision when emotions are running high. You have the opportunity to remain the trusted advisor who walks through both the initial shock and wise next steps. 

Why Bother Rebuilding?

When a couple faces the serious consequences of an affair, it is tempting to think that ending quickly is the best solution. It’s understandable for them to feel this way, but before they take decisive action, help them consider why they might want to work at rebuilding.

First, throughout the Bible, God models moving toward and not away from those who have acted as his enemies. The Apostle Paul explains it this way, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  This theme of reconciliation runs through the whole Bible. God sent his Son to die so that our broken relationships could be restored. He wants us to “if possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

Jesus affirms this in his teaching on divorce.  He points out that divorce was never a command, but only a concession due to sin (Matthew 19:1-9). His discussion of divorce shows how seriously God views the commitment a couple makes when they marry. Rebuilding a marriage has the potential to reflect the forgiving and reconciling character of God. 

A second reason to make every effort to help the couple rebuild their marriage has to do with the future quality of the relationship. Even those not writing from a Christian worldview say that while the memory of the unfaithfulness never goes away, it often becomes a catalyst for the marriage to become more honest and loving. It becomes a “wake up call” of sorts. This is not automatic and it will not be easy. Both spouses need a lot of strengthening grace from Christ to move towards one another in this way.

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Typical Responses to an Affair

In her book, After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, Janis Abrahms Spring provides some helpful case wisdom regarding the experience of the betrayed and betraying spouse, as well as the stereotypical differences between men and women (Chapters 1-2). The importance for the care-giver at this point is to incarnate the grace of Christ to both, not just one. Notice, as well, how much work it takes to understand the complexity of each situation where infidelity is present. Abrahms does a good job of detailing responses to an affair by both parties. It is clear that this is the result of many years of experience.

Typical Responses of the Betrayed Spouse: Buried in an Avalanche of Losses.

  • Heightened Sense of Anxiety: significant physiological responses like that of severe trauma.
  • Loss of Identity: the affair forces you to re-define yourself in a fundamental way. Who am I if you and the marriage are not what I thought?
  • Loss of Sense of Specialness: I thought I meant something to you.
  • Shame: an initial response to the affair is to do anything to keep your spouse in order to avoid the embarrassment.
  • Loss of Faith in God: where is God in this? I feel forsaken.
  • Loss of Connection with Others: Who can I confide in?
  • Loss of Sense of Purpose: this can even lead to suicidal thoughts.
  • Shock and Disbelief: “When I first uncovered your secret, I stopped feeling special to you. But on a deeper level, I lost trust in the world and in myself.”

Typical Responses of the Betraying Spouse

  • Relief: It is out in the open. I don’t have to live a lie anymore.
  • Impatience: I have left my lover and told you everything. What else do you want from me?
  • Chronic Anxiety: As long as I keep busy, I’ll be okay.
  • Minimizing Guilt: once revealed, in the early stages, they often tend to justify the affair. The betrayed is made to feel guilty for not being committed to the marriage.
  • Grieving Loss of the Affair: The other person made me feel so special.
  • Guilt over Children: What will the kids think of me?
  • Isolation, Hopelessness, Paralysis: See the marriage as hopeless and just a prison to endure.
  • Shame: I feel like such a sleaze for doing this.

Typical Differences between Men and Women who are Betrayed

  • Women try to preserve, men run
  • Women get depressed, men get angry
  • Women feel inadequate as companions, men as lovers
  • Women Obsess, men distrust themselves

Typical Differences between Men and Women who are Unfaithful

  • Women seek soul mates, men seek playmates
  • Women justify if for love, men if not for love. I loved him. I didn’t love her.
  • Women anguish over affairs (My affair has complicated my life). Men enjoy them (My affair has given me life.)

Of course, while these lists are helpful, you must be careful not to stereo-type men and women or those who betray or are betrayed by their spouse. It is imperative to make every effort to understand the unique nature, dynamic and impact of the affair on the couple and each individual. You are building a bridge that will enable you to cross over into wise ministry.

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Are All Affairs Alike

As you care for couples where infidelity has occurred, it is important to take the first step and encourage them for seeking help. I will develop this more fully in future posts, but this is exactly why the church exists and why Jesus came! It is also important to realize that not all affairs are alike. Taking the time to determine the nature of the affair will inform your ongoing care for the couple.

Here are a few types of affairs likely happening in your congregation as we speak:

  • The one night stand with a stranger: this type of infidelity does not tend to be built on much relational capital. It could be motivated by many things such as pleasure, excitement, or power. Sometimes it is driven by anger and a person will have an affair to hurt their spouse. The obvious concern is how often the person has engaged in this type of infidelity.

  • Multiple one night stands with strangers (philandering): this type of an affair has a habitual, possibly life-dominating nature that will be harder to address than the isolated one night stand.

  • The one night stand with a friend: this type of infidelity tends to develop within the context of a relationship. Even if it was a onetime event, there could be more going on than infidelity with a stranger. Also, if the friend knows both spouses, the relational fall out will be significant. The spouse who has been cheated on will always struggle to trust his or her spouse around that person or other friends.

  • The emotional affair: this type of unfaithfulness stops short of any physical intimacy, but it has all the other aspects of an affair. In essence, the person begins to think about being in this person’s company more than they do their spouse’s. This type of an affair often goes unnoticed because no sexual intimacy exists. This can also occur between people of the same sex.

  • The Cyberspace Affair: this is a relatively new kind of affair. There are two ways this affair can progress. It may start simply as a personal interaction through facebook. It may also start with impersonal online pornography which moves to a more personal interaction. It can ultimately move to an arranged meeting and ultimately physical involvement. This kind of affair is on the rise as internet pornography engulfs the wired world.

  • The long term affair/second spouse: this is an affair where someone stays in their marriage for certain reasons (family, children, reputation), but is more committed to their extra partner who functions more like a lover/companion while the spouse functions more like a father/mother. These kinds of affairs can thrive for a long time and are difficult to end.

If the affair has gone on for a long period of time (several months) and the emotional/relational side has developed, it will be more challenging. It may take much longer to deal with the implications and consequences on the marriage. The longer someone is in an affair, the more deluded they are about needing the other partner in their lives.

You can see that there are many variations on a theme. Each affair has unique nuances that you don’t want to miss. Being a patient, good listener will serve you and the couple well as you embody the grace of Christ in these early stages of care.

 

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.