When you are young and in love, you are dating your best friend and could never imagine a major problem coming your way. You have a magical engagement experience, you spend months planning the wedding of your dreams and going through premarital counseling to make sure that you are prepared for this major life change. You take thousands of pictures. You spend every moment together. You say “I do” and then go away on a lavish vacation to spend your first week together as husband and wife. You envision a lifetime of bliss, building a life with your love.
As the newness wears off, you grow comfortable with one another, you develop habits and routines and you settle into life. Some bad habits might form. You get busy with work and children. You have your hobbies, your spouse has hobbies, and time just continues to pass by.
Then the unthinkable happens. You get the news that will forever change the way you view marriage, love and life. Your spouse has been unfaithful to you.
We, as the Church, need to not only talk about this, but be ready and prepared to help people walk through this tragedy because it is happening every day. People are crushed. Lives are shattered. Dreams are lost. It is happening outside of the Church, and it is happening within the Church. It is now almost a daily occurrence to hear about a pastor or a Christian leader confess to infidelity. People who are in the Church will need to be supported and encouraged in the aftermath, and if we learn to love well, people outside of the Church can come to find salvation and healing within our communities as well.
There is no greater breach of trust than infidelity. Even if the marriage relationship is sick or imbalanced, the covenant that was made at the beginning offers a sense of hope and security. But when one partner in a marriage enters into an inappropriate relationship outside of that marriage, the damage caused and the pain inflicted is unthinkable.
And we must be ready to respond.
First and foremost, we must turn to Jesus. I know it sounds cliche, but God is the God of all comforts, He will wipe every tear away, and He can heal the brokenhearted. If your spouse has been unfaithful to you, know that it is good and healthy to respond emotionally and to grieve. You will be angry, you will be hurt, you will be mad, you will cry, you will want to lash out. God hates sin, God punishes all sin, and He does not cover up or make peace with sin. It is not only normal, but it is right for you to hate the sin of infidelity. It would be wise, however, to find a safe place where you can process these early emotions – with trusted friends or family, who will let you process in whatever way you need to process and still point you to God. That way you can be angry, but not sin in your anger:
– Eph 4.26-27
It is important to not make any major-life decisions in the emotional response of the news. Give yourself time to get yourself together, and let those trusted friends and family members support you and hold you accountable.
Once the shock wears off, you then have to decide what to do. If you are a Christian, then the Bible is your authority and you must understand what God has to say about forgiveness, infidelity, divorce and remarriage. Infidelity and divorce are discussed much more clearly than remarriage, but it is extremely important that every decision we make we do so with a clear conscience and direction for the Lord through Scripture.
What does forgiveness mean? Is this something you can move past? Will you remain in the marriage? Are you Biblically allowed to leave the marriage? Will you marry again?
Forgiveness is a difficult topic, especially when discussing a grievance as gross as adultery. Biblical forgiveness is the reconciliation of a relationship that was broken by sin or an offense. You can read more extensively about that here. We see, therefore, that God does not forgive everyone – only those who confess their sins and repent, asking for forgiveness. If this were not the case, then no one would go to Hell.
Does that mean we are justified in refusing to forgive? Unfortunately, no. We are sternly warned that as believers, if we do not forgive one another then God will not forgive us (Mark 11.25-26). Part of the salvation experience is recognizing our guilt before God and experiencing His forgiveness which we do not deserve. When we recognize the gravity of our guilt and the price Jesus paid to buy our pardon, we will respond in forgiving one another. It may take time, and it will not look the same for everyone, but if the cheating spouse asks for forgiveness and repents, then we must forgive the offense. If the cheating spouse never confesses or repents, we still must be ready and willing to forgive.
Does this mean that we have to remain married? Jesus clearly taught that infidelity is grounds for divorce:
– Matt 5.32
Interestingly enough, the word that Jesus uses for “unchastity” is Greek term that means any kind of sexual immorality, such as fornication, prostitution, adultery, incest, etc. Thus we clearly understand that adultery is not limited to an ongoing emotional and sexual relationship. It could be the employment of a prostitute, getting a happy ending at a massage parlor, or a one-time offense with a known person or stranger. Many even argue that it could also include an addiction to pornography and masturbation.
We know that God hates divorce, but God also knows that not only is it a reality, sometimes it is the only way to move forward. I argue here that divorce is not a sin, but a reality for which God gives clear instructions in utilizing. Thus, if you are in a marriage and your spouse is unfaithful to you, it is a Biblical and understandable response to leave the marriage. It is expected by God to forgive – to intentionally and deliberately “release feelings of resentment or vengeance (a psychologistst definition)” towards your spouse, but you are not required to remain in the marriage.
You may, however, choose to forgive and restore the marriage. Some people are able and willing to move beyond sexual infidelity and restore that relationship. Perhaps you have been married for years, you have many children, and the damage caused by breaking everything apart would be too much to bear on top of the infidelity, and the spouse is genuinely repentant and willing to get help! Jesus does not command divorce in the circumstance of infidelity, He merely allows it.
We see, in fact, that God uses the example of a man who forgives his cheating spouse as an example of the love that He has for us: with Hosea and Gomer. You can read more about that here. Restoration of a broken marriage will be a long road. It will require trust to be rebuilt, it will require accountability and vulnerability. The offending spouse will need to be ready and willing to answer questions, find someone to regularly check in and hold him accountable and intentional effort on both sides to move forward in relationship. It will not be easy, but it is possible.
What about remarriage after divorce? This is where Scripture speaks less, and thus there is great controversy. The Old Testament allows for a person to be remarried, but can never return to the original spouse. Jesus obviously assumes remarriage when He discusses divorce:
– Matt 5.32
One would only be committing adultery if she marries after an un-allowed divorce. To remain celibate, obviously would not be adultery. This is also why Paul gives the extra teaching that if a couple separates for reasons other than adultery (or abandonment), that they should only come back to one another when the differences are reconciled (1 Cor 7.10-11). Paul also teaches, however, that if a marriage is lost because of abandonment, then the believing and abandoned spouse is free to remarry:
“Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.”
– 1 Cor 7.15
Thus, it seems clear that in the situations where the covenant has been broken by infidelity or abandonment by a non-believer, one would be free to remarry.
Processing the pain of infidelity and divorce is worse than losing a spouse to death. In death, the remaining spouse is confident of the love that was shared, and is left only to grieve the loss. In infidelity and divorce, the offended spouse has been hurt on the deepest levels of betrayal on top of grieving the loss of the spouse. While there are many helpful books and tools already written, this grieving process will look different for everyone.
We, as the body of Christ, need to be intimately familiar with the Biblical teaching on these difficult topics. Infidelity, sexual promiscuity and divorce are rampant in our culture. We must learn how to respond to both the offender and the offended in these situations out of Biblical truth and love. We are tempted to gossip and to judge the situation, but we must chose to love and encourage instead. The person whose spouse has left will lose many friends because people do not want to take sides, they are uncomfortable hanging out with a single person, or they just don’t know what to say or do.
We, as the Church, must always take sides against sin. This does not mean that we alienate or condemn a repentant believer, but we always fight against sin in our own lives and in other’s lives. Otherwise it will kill us.
So let’s get dirty. We all know the reality of infidelity and divorce. Most of us have witnessed it within our own families. It is going to happen, so let’s be prepared and not shocked when we see it. Let us intentionally offer a place to stay and a place to grieve to those who have been hurt. Let us intentionally offer a place of counseling and healing for those who have fallen and repented. And let us intentionally hold accountable those who have sinned and choose to remain in that sin.
If it happens to you, I pray that you have a healthy Church family who can and will embrace you and support you. Press into God, give yourself time to grieve and process what is going on, know the Biblical truths, prayerfully process the next steps for you and your family, and intentionally fight the overwhelming temptation to sin in response for how you have been sinned against. Find solid, Biblical counseling (I highly recommend the ACBC), and remember that God is in control, He is the God of all healing and comfort, and He will give you peace. You will smile again, I promise.
– Matt 11.28
– Ps 34.18