On this edition of Truth in Love, Dr. Lambert discusses how marriages can survive adultery. Dr. Lambert gives some crucial first steps for a couple to take in the aftermath of adultery. The key in restoring these marriages is to take necessary steps within the context of relationship, within the context of the local church.
Lambert: One of the most painful situations that any person or marriage can experience is the pain that enters into such a relationship in the aftermath of adultery. Some of the most hurting, struggling, and in pain people that I have ever known in my entire life have been people who are wrestling with what to do after such a shocking revelation. Marriage is intended by God to be the closest and most intimate earthly relationship that we have and when our partner in marriage betrays that trust through infidelity it is one of the most shocking, horrifying, and tragic realities that we will ever experience. This is a topic that as painful as it is, is always relevant for us to discuss. And yet the topic of adultery can seem more relevant in the last couple of weeks because of the new revelations of the disclosure of information from the Ashley Madison website, a website that people were able to visit and pay money to have an affair. That has led to numerous public and painful disclosures that are wreaking havoc in the relationships of many marriages all across the country and all across the world. We want to take some time this week on Truth in Love to talk about how a couple would work, by the grace of Christ, to pursue help and restoration in their marriage. Amy Evenson is the producer of Truth in Love and is here this week to help us think through this matter.
Evenson: I think the big question here is what to do. We all know adultery is a huge issue and one of the unclear issues is how to respond to adultery. So, what would you say is the first thing that a couple should do?
Lambert: I think there are all kinds of things a couple should do. I think there are a number of responses that need to be first in our minds when we are trying to consider how to respond to adultery. I believe the most important thing a couple can do as they are trying to respond to this kind of disaster in their marriage is get in relationship with other Christians. I am thinking of a couple things there, the first kind of relationship that I am thinking of is the one in Hebrews 10:24-25 where God says, “…let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Most Christians understand that to be an exhortation to be involved in relationship with other Christians in the context of corporate worship. I think we can helpfully apply this passage to our lives in the aftermath of adultery by not running away from corporate worship with other Christians, but by running to corporate worship and enfolding ourselves into the life of a local, faithful congregation. Another context of relationship that I am thinking of is personal relationship, like what is emphasized in Hebrews chapter 3. Hebrews 3:12-13 says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” God here is urging – actually throughout the whole book of Hebrews – that we not fall away. He says to take care to avoid falling away by being in a context of relationship where we are exhorting one another (Hebrews 3) and encouraging one another (Hebrews 10). Relationship is so important for couples to be involved in because they are tempted to run away and hide. They are tempted to think ‘I can think about this on my own, I am going to figure it out by myself.’ I believe the biblical message is you need to get involved in relationship and that is the most urgent reality that is facing you as an individual and as a couple.
Evenson: This surprises me. Relationships are important but some might think this is an odd first response to such an urgent issue. What about confession? Shouldn’t that fit in as an initial response to this circumstance?
Lambert: Yes, confession is definitely an issue that is on the table and a lot of Christians are advising that in recent weeks for people to be busy doing. I don’t want to take anything away from that; confession is crucial. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” We want people to obtain mercy in the aftermath of the sin of adultery and so we want them to be confessing their sin, but as important as confession is it is also complicated. Here is an element of the complicated nature of confession: how much of the sin do you confess? There are wives that are going to insist that you have to tell them everything that happened. They want to know who, they want to know where, they want to know when, they want to know what. Having these details can seem comforting initially to a women who is trying to regain control after she feels she has been betrayed, but the reality is that kind of information is not helpful for her to have in the long run. And so, how much do you tell in your confession? Who do you tell? If you’ve got kids, are you supposed to tell the kids? If you’ve got best friends, are you supposed to tell your best friends? Are you supposed to tell your friends at work? Are you supposed to tell her parents? Who are you supposed to tell in this confession? You need to do it, but the reality is, you and your spouse are too emotionally embroiled in a difficult situation to be able to figure those complicated things out by yourself. So yes, confession is important but before you start confessing you need to get in the context of relationship to help you figure out how that is going to work.
Evenson: Confession raises the response of forgiveness and there are several people involved in forgiveness. How can the relationships that you spoke of earlier help here?
Lambert: So it is also true, forgiveness is important. If you are going to have a confession of sin, there is going to have to be forgiveness of that sin from whoever was wronged. Forgiveness is absolutely essential in the aftermath of adultery, but it is also complicated. You can’t do this on your own and have as much of an expectation for success as if you do it in the context of other relationships. Forgiveness takes time to bring up. For example, the man who commits adultery and goes and confesses it to his wife, she is suppose to cry and be upset and the first thing he should say is not, “you know honey, you are suppose to forgive me.” But when does a woman’s sorrow or a husband’s sorrow and pain in the aftermath of adultery become problematic? When does that become sinful? Well, the reality is that the couple experiencing the difficulty is not the one who is best equipped to answer that question. Here is another complication; what about consequences? We make a biblical distinction between forgiveness of sin, but what about the consequences of sin? How should we decide what consequences are legitimate overflow of a sin that has been committed and what consequences are illegitimate and a demonstration of a lack of forgiveness? For example, it would be wise for a wife who has discovered that her husband has committed adultery to consider abstaining from sexual relations with him for a period of time until it can be ascertained whether or not he has contracted a sexually transmitted disease. That is a hugely complicated relational decision. It isn’t that forgiveness is unimportant, forgiveness is crucial, but the reality is you need close relationships with other wise Christians to help answer these complicated questions that couples cannot address on their own.
Evenson: How would you say relationships can equip us for marital health in the long term; both in restoring marriages and even helping guard against going down a path that would lead to adultery?
Lambert: The goal of our ministry to a couple in the aftermath of adultery is not ultimately to keep everybody from committing adultery; we have something that is much better and far superior to that. Ultimately, we want, with God’s help, to create a marriage that honors Christ and is full of love for one another. I think the secret weapon for couples that are living lives of joy, purity, and faithfulness are the quality of the relationships that they have outside of their marriage. Couples need to be in close relationship with other godly couples. Wives need to be in close relationship with other godly wives. Men need to be in close relationship with other godly men. It is going to be those relationships in a Hebrews 3 and Hebrews 10 kind of way that are going to exhort us and encourage us. One of the things that Lauren and I do in our marriage and one of the things that we tell other couples to do in their marriage is to be honest early about their struggles. In particular, be honest early about your sexual struggles. By the time somebody has committed adultery, there has been a pattern of deceit, a pattern of lustful desire, a pattern of temptation that has been preceding that physical behavior for months and maybe years. If we are cultivating these kinds of biblical relationships that Hebrews 3 and Hebrews 10 are talking about, you are going to be creating a context where you have close people that you are being honest with everyday about temptations as they happen. That’s ultimately what we want for a couple. We don’t want a couple to think that in the aftermath of adultery they are going to have these intense conversations with another couple who are helping them get through this dark period and then they will be free and able to live apart from that kind of context of relationship. We will be equipping marriages to succeed and to be pure and holy in the long term when we are equipping married couples to exist in close relationship with other couples in the long term and not just in the response to a tragedy.
For more information on how to respond to sin in marriage, you can check out Peacemaking for Families by Ken Sande and Tom Raabe or you can read Pursuing Peace by Robert Jones.