Adultery and Forgiveness

Dear John and Sally,

I wanted to follow up our session together with a few reminders and some further exhortation. Everything I am going to say revolves around the meaning of forgiveness—what it means and what it does not. We covered much of this in person, but this will (I hope) serve as a helpful reminder. These are truths that all of us need to hear more than once. Our minds and hearts rarely wrap around them the first time.

You are dealing with the fallout, the aftermath, of John’s adultery two years ago. It was a short affair, John was the one who broke it off, and John is the one who busted himself, confessing the whole thing—first to you, Sally, and then to your elders. But the betrayal of trust was profound, the confession only came six months ago, you are both wondering if your marriage can be saved, and with both of you laying odds against it.

The difficulty is not the other woman—she is out of the picture, and you know that. You both know that sexual infidelity in the present is not what you are dealing with. The difficulty is how to navigate your present relationship in light of the past betrayal. Sally, if you forgive John for this, what does that mean? What does that mean on a practical level? What does it entail, and what does it not entail?

Sally, as things stand, you don’t have any doubt that John’s repentance is sincere— you know for a fact that it is. And you also know that for Christians, the extension of forgiveness, when others who have wronged you seek it from you, is mandatory. So you are baffled at the contradictory feelings that explode within you whenever you consider the prospect of forgiving him and taking him back. You know you must forgive him, but something about the whole setup doesn’t seem quite right to you.

Now this is the key to understanding where this confusion comes from. We touched on this in our conversation, but I want to take time here to develop it further. You have to learn to distinguish John’s sin against a person and John’s violation of an office.

You are involved in both situations, but your roles are different. In the first instance, you are the person sinned against and because he has sought your forgiveness, the Lord requires you to extend it (Luke 17:3-4). In the latter instance, he has violated the trust of his office as husband, and you are, in effect, the trustee who must make the decision on whether he needs to be removed from that office.

The thing you must keep clear in your mind is the distinction between those actions—forgiveness of the personal affront is mandatory, while keeping him in office is not mandatory. That is entirely optional, and the right decision would be driven by any number of factors. I always want to work toward the restoration of the marriage, whenever it is biblically possible, but that is not an across-the-board necessity. I have seen situations where forgiveness was mandatory, but where divorce was also mandatory.

Confusion sets in when a wife in your position assumes that because personal forgiveness is mandatory she must automatically take him back, and that seems . . . well, reckless. It also creates a set-up where the church, in pursuit of that forgiveness, can seem like it is ganging up on an already wronged wife, making her go through yet another awful experience.

But distinguishing these two aspects of such a situation is not that hard. Let me take an example from your little yarn shop. Suppose you caught one of your girls skimming money from the till, and you quite naturally fired her. Suppose further that she came back to you later in tears, sought your forgiveness, and gave you a check for the entire amount she stole over a number of months. Should you forgive her? Well, of course. Now does that forgiveness require you to give her back her job? Of course not. Those are two separate questions. It is possible that at some point you might give her the job back, but refusal to do so is not the same thing as not forgiving her.

Of course you forgive her. She repented, made restitution, and you forgave her completely. She goes to your church, and you have no trouble coming to the Lord’s Table together with her. You wish her well. You have no malice in your heart toward her, and no vengeful thoughts. You are able to do this because you have a clear distinction in your mind between your personal relationship to her, and your official relationship to her. She offended you as a person, friend to friend, but she put it right, and you forgave her. She also violated her trust as an employee, employee to employer, and you have the right and the responsibility to make a separate decision about that.

You have another illustration of this same principle with regard to John. When John confessed his adultery to the elders, one of the things he did in that letter was submit his resignation from the church’s deacon board. The elders can forgive him (as they have) without reinstating him to the diaconate. They suspended him from the Lord’s Table for that time, but when they restored him to the Table that was a restoration of fellowship, not a restoration to office.

When King David confessed his sin of adultery and murder to God in Psalm 51, we see the same thing going on there. He was seeking mercy in both areas. First, he wanted God to deal with the mere fact of his sin. “Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities” (Ps. 51:9). But there is another petition in that psalm, asking for something else. “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). David is not here praying that he not lose his personal salvation. Rather, he knows that just as King Saul had sinned against his office, and that Jehovah had removed His Spirit from him (enabling Saul to rule), so also David had sinned against that same office just as grievously. He is praying that God in His mercy would not allow his dynasty to collapse in a heap—which would have been just.

The same thing is seen in the restoration of Peter to the apostleship. When Peter denied the Lord, this was a personal act that had personal ramifications. But it was also dereliction of his apostolic duty, and when Jesus forgives Peter, He also restores him to his office. The repeated charge that He gave to Peter—“feed my lambs” and “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17)—was a restoration to the office of apostolic shepherd. Peter didn’t deserve it, and he knew that he did not. Jesus could have forgiven him personally but not restore him to office. In the event, that is not what happened—but we should still be able to discern both things going on.

So then, forgiving someone an offense and entrusting someone with a responsibility (one where they have already failed) are two very different things. And this is why your decision—already a difficult one—has been rendered impossible through getting muddled up with another, separate issue.

And so here is the difficult issue, without the confusion. You are in a similar position to where you were when John first asked you to marry him. At that moment, he was not your head, and it was your decision that would result in him becoming your head. In this situation, he has been your head, but has forfeited that position through his infidelity. Because of your position as his wife, you are the one who must decide whether or not to divorce him. If you divorce him, that ends the official relationship. Biblically speaking, you have grounds for divorce, which means that you can obtain a divorce, and at some future date, you would be free to marry someone else. A biblical church would not discipline you for either action, either the divorce or the remarriage.

But what would a biblical church encourage you to do? Not require, but encourage? As I mentioned earlier, I always seek to bring about a complete reconciliation (of personal relationship and office) whenever it is biblically possible to do. And in your situation, I believe that it is. I believe that it is possible to do. I do not say that it is easy to do.

If you do not divorce him, you are deciding to accept him back into his former role. Coming back into a restored relationship, he would be responsible before God to function as the spiritual head in your home, and you would need to have a reasonable basis for thinking that this was possible. A reconciliation involves much more than your willingness to still have him around.

So there are two possible barriers to this. One would be his awareness that he does not deserve to hold that position, and consequently there would be a temptation for him to be too sheepish ever to attempt it. He comes back, but is even less of a spiritual leader in the home than he was before.

The second possible barrier could be your resistance to it. Sometimes wronged wives “take their husband back” simply as a way of maintaining continued access to him so that they can “make him pay.” If he learns to wash you with the water of the word, you can’t be thinking to yourself anything like, “Right. Why don’t you quote some more Bible verses at me, Mr. Adultery?” If he is received back, it must not be to a permanent place in the doghouse.

One last bit of advice. This is a complicated and high-stakes decision that you need to make, but it cannot be an open-ended decision. You can’t reconcile, after a fashion, and then haul out the adultery issue ten years from now to justify a divorce. But neither should you make such a complicated decision in the space of a few days or weeks. Your church has a good counseling ministry, and I would encourage you to give yourselves a couple of months to make this decision. I would do it at the conclusion of some intensive marriage counseling—but in that counseling, both of you should make a commitment to put everything out on the table. You should both commit in principle to a willingness to stay together if you can see your way clear to a godly way of doing it.

As you do this, remember that the guilt of the adultery is John’s and John’s alone. But the lousy marriage that existed before the adultery was a joint project. The set-up for a possible calamity like this was a group effort. Getting into the poor dynamics between the two of you should not be taken by you as an attempt on the part of the counselor to somehow blame you for his adultery. When it comes to the adultery proper, you are the wronged spouse, and you are the one who has grounds for divorce. John does not have grounds for divorce.

So in situations like this, if you decide to pursue counseling, you need to remember that betrayed wives will usually have two impulses that need to be resisted. First, they blame themselves excessively, and secondly, to the extent there was something they were doing wrong, they tend to find fault with their own behavior in the wrong areas. They assume too much of the responsibility, and what responsibility they assume is misplaced.

For the first, nothing justifies adultery, and that should be the end of it. Secondly, Sally, to the extent that you had anything to do with setting your husband up, it was almost certainly not because you were “not sexy enough” or you “needed to lose ten pounds,” and more to do with not respecting him enough. Ask the counselor to help you unpack all of that. And John, if you did feel disrespected in your marriage, the last thing you are going to want to do is talk about something like that now—because the adultery makes it seem manifest to you that you deserved all the disrespect you got, and more. But if you are committed to work on your marriage, you have to be honest about everything that was going on. To both of you, it is possible to say hard things constructively if you do it in all humility.

Men who are not respected are as vulnerable as women who are not loved. And I have seen plenty of cases of unloved wives falling into adultery—and we have to make the necessary distinctions there as well. Nothing justifies such adultery, but was there anything going there that helps to account for the adultery?

There are many other things to say, naturally, but I will leave it there. I would recommend that you agree on a short time frame (like a couple of months) within which you will reach a final decision on whether you will stay together. You will spend those months pursuing intensive counseling, counseling that is biblically based. And remember, during the course of that counseling, that you have an ongoing responsibility to love each other in how you speak. Speak what is necessary, say only what is true, and say it kindly.

Cordially in Christ,

Douglas