When sexual sin within marriage is exposed in the local church, often the spouse is lost in the shuffle. This is a grave oversight in light of the pain he or she is bearing. Often no one comes alongside to help them process their pain. David White shares ways the church family can approach and help someone in this situation.
One Sunday all was fine. The next Sunday the pastor suddenly resigned with no explanation. The following Sunday both the pastor and the church organist were gone, and the pastor’s wife sat alone in the second pew. There she sat for months listening to the sermons of fill-in preachers, and then her attendance became sporadic and finally she too was gone. Years later one of the members of the congregation was shocked to look through a denominational directory and see a picture of the former pastor and his new “wife”—the church organist. He and she made a life for themselves, but what happened to the first wife? No one seemed to know what happened to the first wife—her pain had been great and she had kept up a strong, silent front for several months before disappearing. Did anyone in the church help her process her pain? Did anyone help her financially? The answers to those questions go unknown, but it is probably safe to assume that she lived under a veil of secrecy and endured crushing pain.
Understanding the pain
The opening illustration is a true story related by one of the Harvest USA staff. He grew up in the church and saw all this happen, but as a teen did not process it until years later. What could have been done? This article focuses on ministering to spouses whose marriage is impacted by sexual sin. The spouse is grievously impacted, as sexual sin is a desecration of the marriage covenant and strikes at the vitals of marital intimacy.
First, it must be stressed that “spouse” does not mean wife! The church is reluctant to face the reality of sexual sin in her midst and, even when willing, often sees sexual sin as a man’s problem. This could not be further from the truth! A recent statistic suggested that 34% of church-going women have intentionally visited porn websites. Currently, women age 35 and under have the same rate of infidelity in marriage as their male peers. This represents a significant and historic moral shift as men—even cross-culturally—have always had higher rates of infidelity than women. Sadly, the sexual revolution has finally balanced the inconsistencies existing between the outward depravity of the sexes. The church must be intentional about addressing this reality because the default response for couples whose marriages are scarred by sexual sin is silence—this is particularly the case when the wife is the offending party.
When sexual sin within marriage is exposed in the local church, often the spouse is lost in the shuffle. This is a grave oversight in light of the pain he or she is bearing. The spouse has thought he or she was going crazy—sometimes for years. The struggler is committed to keeping the sin hidden and making every excuse for erratic behavior, peevish silence, absent finances, etc. The spouse’s questions are casually dismissed, scorned as paranoia, met with rage, or flatly ignored. The spouse is entirely responsible for keeping the relationship together. Marriages impacted by sexual sin enter into a ‘dance’ —certain topics are off limits, behaviors and responses that would be challenged in a healthy marriage are accepted.
Couples learn to make life “work” around the sin. The spouse learns how to “manage” the struggler, careful not to step on toes and striving to keep the struggler happy. In many relationships this means satisfying the unholy desire for sex on demand—a radical twisting of God’s design of selfless service—and any number of other stipulations, from the mundane to the horrific. Spouses, terrified of losing the relationship, are willing to submit. The spouse is forced to compensate within the family for the struggler’s sin, bearing alone many responsibilities in parenting and household management that should be shared in marriage. Worse, the spouse is blamed for all the problems in the relationship. The struggler argues that the lack of intimacy is the spouse’s fault. All along the spouse knows that something is desperately wrong with the marriage, but the struggler maintains that everything is fine.
In short, the struggler holds all the “power” in the relationship because his or her behavior, mood, etc., sets the tone for the marriage. Conversely, the spouse is left with all the “responsibility” in the relationship; he or she must strive to satisfy the struggler and keep him or her in the home. Neither the spouse nor the struggler is innocent in this dynamic. There is willfulness and fear on both sides that must be wisely addressed.
The challenges of rebuilding the marriage grow in proportion to the duration of the sin. Trust is obliterated. Messages have been sent that the problem would not exist if only the spouse were prettier, in better shape, more exciting, more emotionally engaged, more masculine, more successful, etc. Every spouse dealing with sexual sin in their marriage believes it is his or her fault on some level. The struggler fuels the spouse’s insecurity with sinful accusations and cruel criticism. In one particularly painful situation, a wife shared how her husband referred to her as “plain vanilla.” She obviously needed comfort! Spouses are as desperately in need of the Gospel as the struggler.
Facing the pain to remain
The first decision facing the spouse is the future of the relationship. In the first part of Living in the Light, we discussed the importance of full disclosure within marriage, and another word should be added: The full revelation should be made as quickly as possible. The spouse is not in a position to commit to the marriage until he or she has a complete understanding of the nature of the offenses. Further, once the spouse has committed and begins to work on rebuilding, new revelations of past offenses severely undermine reconciliation. Each new disclosure essentially sends the couple back to the beginning of the process when trust is again obliterated, doubt and fear creep back. “Is this really the end, or am I going to learn something new next week? Is there no end to the deceit?” Dragging out the revelations is essentially a decision to postpone the rebuilding process.
A word of caution: Be wary of the “quick divorce” response. Sexual sin is the ultimate “get out of a bad marriage free” card. Obviously, sexual sin is deeply damaging to marital intimacy as it erodes trust and destroys the ability to be vulnerable and draw near to another. Therefore, the spouse has been living in a bad, possibly miserable, marriage, sometimes for decades. The Bible clearly offers divorce as an option in the face of sexual infidelity, but careful counsel is required. God “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16), and yet the divorce rate among professing evangelicals is actually slightly higher than the general population! By rigidly interpreting Matthew 5:28 that a lustful look is tantamount to adultery, many spouses view pornography use as the “out” they have been waiting for. There are times when repeated, unrepentant use of pornography can clearly be grounds for having abandoned Christ and the marital covenant (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-16). However, even in the face of blatant adultery, our desire should be for healing and reconciliation, seeking divorce only after prolonged separation in which it is clear that the struggler is committed to pursuing sin, not Jesus.
Further, a “quick divorce” decision, without taking time to process the disclosure and the ramifications of divorce often leads to regret. Once the court date has passed, the “what if” questions begin. This is true regardless of the time invested in the decision, but careful deliberation, bathed in prayer and the counsel of others, will provide peace, whereas a “knee jerk” decision may bear fruit of regret for a lifetime.
Entering into the pain
So what does it look like to offer practical ministry to the spouse?
First, spouses need to be assured that they are not crazy! Given the dynamic described above, the worst thing you can do is begin by questioning the spouse’s experience in the marriage. It is crucial to listen carefully to their description of what is happening in the home and affirm that you will be with them through this process. Many spouses do not receive the support they need because church leadership is convinced that the situation is not as bad as they think.
Church leaders need to be especially wary with couples for whom they have a natural affinity. A pastor may be more prone to disbelieve the wife of his church golf buddy than he would a member with whom the relationship is more distant. Assume that the person in the “one-flesh” relationship has some idea about what is going on in the marriage! It is better to err in the direction of supporting the spouse and defending him or her. Spouses desperately need to be heard and have their concerns taken seriously. Remember, the struggler is typically committed to deceit. Do not be surprised if you are pitted between a spouse pleading for you to believe there is a problem, while the struggler insists that the spouse is crazy or inflating the situation. Believe the spouse and hear the serpent’s hiss in the struggler’s casual dismissal!
Second, you need to enter into the spouse’s pain and experience. The disclosure of adultery, in particular, is brutal. In fact, when sexual sin is disclosed, spouses often begin to exhibit symptoms similar to people experiencing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder! The spouse is confronted with the stark reality that his or her perception of the marriage was an illusion. In light of the revelation, life as he or she has known it ceases to exist. The spouse grieves as if experiencing the death of a loved one. The spouse’s sense of identity is deeply shaken. Those ministering to spouses must be compassionate experts in listening and encouraging. They must be ready to deal with the whole mess of emotions that accompany the disclosure of sexual sin in marriage. Emotions swing dramatically. Decisions about the future dart between polar extremes, sometimes within minutes of each other!
The spouse’s faith is often shaken to the core. “Where was God when all this was happening? How can he really be good when the world is so broken?” Ministry people must be ready to handle these tough questions without dismissing them, condemning the wrestling, or compromising the truth.
The Psalms are crammed with similar, gut-level wrestling and provide a treasure trove of hope and peace for people who live in the realness of this fallen world, but cling to the great and precious promises of God. From Genesis to Revelation, the Biblical narrative makes manifest that God orchestrates all of human history to his glory. Mind-bogglingly, this includes even sin. Behind the boasting of Joseph, subsequent betrayal by his brothers, and the injustice with Potiphar’s wife, God’s guiding hand was preserving his seed (Genesis 50:20). Out of David’s lust, adultery, and murder, the promised Deliverer descended through Solomon. Christ’s great work of atonement is the result of human rebellion and yet orchestrated by the Father. Peter makes this explicit at Pentecost, saying, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
The spouse’s pain is real. The wrestling must be allowed, but through it all, we must gently and compassionately point to the Bridegroom whose name is “Faithful and True.” He is even now ruling over the universe for his church (Ephesians 1:22). In his economy, no pain will be wasted. Scripture repeatedly promises that even the trials of this life will result in blessing, but before speaking, you must weep with those who weep!
If your default mode is to immediately proclaim these great theological truths, you will run roughshod over the hurting spouse. Job’s friends are a great example of the danger of spouting off truisms in the face of tragedy. At the end of the story, God’s anger burns against them and sacrifice is necessary (Job 42:7-9). Yet, despite their failures, even they had the compassion to sit with him in the dust for seven days weeping and wailing before they addressed any of the issues in his life (Job 2:11-13). You dare not speak until spouses know that you love them, grieve with them and are prepared to walk through this trial at their side.
Redeeming the pain
After you have listened well and entered into the mess with the couple, it is necessary to begin taking action steps. If the spouse has decided to stay in the marriage, structures must be in place to protect the spouse and help bear his or her burden. Part 1 of this article discussed accountability from the vantage point of ministering to the struggler, but accountability is also necessary for the good of the spouse. Accountability both safeguards the struggler’s behavior, but it also provides the spouse with a safe environment. As described above, the spouse has been suffering alone and “in the dark” for years. Spouses desperately need brothers and sisters from the body of Christ to come alongside and support them.
The spouse should never be the struggler’s primary accountability person. It is hard to imagine a more unbiblical model of marriage than “cop and robber.” A crucial aspect of accountability is that the spouse has the assurance of knowing others are asking the struggler all the hard questions. The accountability plan must include that if any sin is exposed, the spouse will be made aware within 24 hours. This takes pressure off the spouse and the marriage as a whole and begins to balance responsibility and power in the relationship. The couple is able to invest their time together focusing on rebuilding intimacy, rather than reenacting the Inquisition. Further, because a key component of accountability is creating safety for the spouse, he or she needs to have a role in crafting the specific questions that will be asked of the struggler. The spouse must approve the individuals who will be involved in the accountability.
Harvest USA recommends developing an official “accountability agreement” that details specific questions, the participating individuals, the number of contacts the struggler is expected to make each week, the steps to spousal disclosure if the struggler falls, and the responsibility of the struggler to call a meeting of all involved if the plan is not working. The agreement is then signed by all parties. The formality of the agreement underscores the importance of this support and makes the expectations and responsibilities clear to everyone involved.
Formal accountability is only one aspect of the role of the body of Christ in rebuilding a marriage. The couple needs godly brothers and sisters who will be involved in their daily lives. Although couples may appear highly competent from outside observation—successful careers, active in church, etc.—know that sexual sin does not occur in a marriage that is otherwise healthy. It is indicative of deeper, systemic problems that need to be addressed.
Most marriages plagued with sexual sin resembles a business partnership at best—often it looks more like a war zone. It is crucial for godly, mature couples to come alongside in order for the marriage to be rebuilt in a way that will honor Christ. Couples need to learn how to communicate effectively, fight fairly, risk vulnerability, and develop intimacy. The struggler has lived for years satisfying selfish desires—breaking this pattern and learning to consider others is a process that takes great intentionality and increasing dependence on Christ. It is crucial to spend time with the couple together, observing their interactions, attitudes, and family dynamics. No marriage can be transformed without the involvement of the body. This is God’s design for the sanctification of his people. The community of faith is essential for growth in holiness.
Because recovery from sexual sin is an extremely draining and time consuming process, it is wise for the spouse to have a Christian counselor. A counselor will provide the spouse with regularly interaction, helping to process the intensity of his or her emotions without “using up” friends and family who are in the midst of their own struggle to sort out the situation. Further, a counselor is able to be more objective than loved ones who are closer to the pain and may struggle to lead the spouse in wise and godly decision-making.
Finally, the spouse needs to be challenged about who he or she is going to be in the situation. As discussed above, the spouse must be urged to see God’s hand in his or her life and be challenged to make decisions for holiness. This is crucial because, as Paul Tripp has articulated well, “Sinners tend to sin when sinned against!” This is probably true in marriage more than any other relationship. Given the grievousness of the offense, spouses will be angry and struggle to get beyond it, even if the struggler’s repentance is deeply genuine. The spouse must be given time but continually challenged with the exhortation, “Be angry and do not sin,” (Ephesians 4:26).
Spouses need to be encouraged to express the depth of their pain without fearing the struggler’s response—this is an important step in giving “power” back to the spouse—but they need to find holy ways to communicate what they are experiencing. Further, although the call to forgive is certainly not the first topic of conversation, it does need to enter the discourse in time. This is for the spouse’s benefit as much as the struggler. As Anne Lamott poignantly stated, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison, and then waiting for the rat to die!” When there is clear evidence of the struggler’s repentance, demonstrated by concrete steps of obedience away from sin and toward holiness for an extended period of time, the spouse will begin to undermine the healing process if he or she refuses to forgive, constantly holding the struggler’s sin over his or her head. Even in situations where the struggler is unrepentant, the spouse needs to relinquish the demand for justice, being like Jesus, who “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). The spouse needs to be careful that “no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).
Not alone in the pain
The great hope of the Christian faith is “God with us.” By his Spirit, Jesus is united to his people, promising that through his power we will bear fruit (John 15:1-11). Jesus warned of the hard reality of this fallen world saying, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Spouses need the encouragement that God has purposes in their suffering. He identifies with their pain as he deals with his own adulterous Bride. Through this trial, the spouse is entering into the sufferings of Christ in a unique way and has the opportunity to encounter him and the power of his grace afresh. May God give us the grace to serve with compassion, tangibly demonstrating love as members of his body and faithfully pointing to the head, “from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19).
This article originally appeared as “Living in The Light: Part 2 — Redemptive Ministry to Spouses” in the Harvest NEWS in 2006.