21 Jan 2022
It may or may not surprise you that the majority of men seeking help from Harvest USA are married. The majority of these husbands are not coming to us because of their own conviction over sin but because they were caught. They were living, often for decades, in darkness, and now they’ve finally been forced into the light. They usually come to us with a mixture of pain and relief—the pain of the consequences of their sexual sin and its accompanying deception, and also the relief of no longer living as hypocrites.
This initial exposure is freeing and provides with it real opportunities for change and transformation. While there are many dangers and snares along the path towards marital restoration, none is more common and more deadly than going back into the darkness.
For any of you familiar with twentieth-century American poetry or Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film Interstellar, you probably know the poem by Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In his poem about death, Thomas provides incredible wisdom for a husband tempted to go back into hiding. He writes,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Husbands who are battling sexual addictions are not only wrestling against the allure of sexual sin. They are also facing the constant temptation of lying about it to their wives. I’ve heard all of the major excuses for going back into the darkness:
“I love her too much to hurt her by telling her.”
“I know how she’ll react; she just can’t handle this.”
“She’s not supposed to be my accountability partner; I have men in my life I confess to.”
“Confessing to her doesn’t help me; she’ll just use that as fuel to punish me later.”
“I’ve already confessed it to the Lord.”
While we recognize that there are rare and extreme situations where it may not always be prudent or loving for husbands to confess their sexual sins to their wives, the general rule we find to be most beneficial for marriages is called “the 24-hour rule.”
What is the 24-hour rule?
The 24-hour rule is when a husband promises that he will confess, within 24 hours, any time that he engages in behavioral sexual sin—including masturbation, pornography, fantasy indulgence that lasts for minutes at a time, and anything worse than these behaviors. This includes any active pursuit of these behaviors, even if he is unsuccessful, such as seeking ways around internet filters to find pornography.
What the 24-hour rule is not
The 24-hour rule, misapplied, has the potential to become very detrimental to a marriage, which is why clear, objective expectations are essential. It is unhelpful for a wife to be privy to every single battle a husband faces with sexual temptation. We believe she deserves to know the battles he clearly loses, but not every battle he faces.
While every couple requires a nuanced approach, we generally try to steer couples away from certain scrupulous standards of confession. We generally do not encourage couples to adopt the following types of confession as a rule:
- Every time a husband takes a second look
- A sexually suggestive image appears on his device apart from his active pursuit of it, and he immediately flees from it.
- Tempting thoughts that come into his mind but against which he has fought and upon which he does linger for minutes at a time.
It’s important that couples understand the difference between a “rule” and Spirit-led confession. The purpose of the 24-hour rule is to build trust, as I will explain later. Understandably, breaking the rule has devastating consequences in breaking trust, but a husband can also freely confess as the Spirit leads. So, while it is not a rule that a husband confesses every battle with temptation, he may share about specific temptations with his wife from time to time, which can have very positive results for both of them. She can encourage and pray for him, and he can continue to learn how to trust his wife and be more vulnerable with her.
Expecting a husband to confess every temptation or lustful thought is often a grasping for control and only leads to a further breakdown of the fragile trust they are seeking to rebuild.
Why the 24-hour rule?
An entire book could and probably should be written on why this kind of rule is so helpful in marriages seeking restoration after sexual betrayal, but here are just a few reasons why we find this guidance so crucial:
- Often in these situations, the greatest damage done to the marriage is the loss of trust and the difficulty of earning it back. Succumbing yet again to the snare of pornography does great harm to a recovering marriage, but the difference between confessing openly and being caught in covering up sin is worlds apart.
- Wives usually want to know when their husbands have been unfaithful with pornography. It hurts them to know, but they still would rather know than be left in the dark. The most common response I hear from wives to their husbands is, “I’m hurt that you did this, but I’m grateful that you told me.”
- Committing and being faithful to a 24-hour rule takes the burden off of a wife to be a detective. Wives often feel scared when weeks or months have gone by without hearing from their husbands how they’re doing. In this scenario, no news is sadly often not good news. Faithfulness to the 24-hour rule guards wives against fretfully wondering what is true.
- The 24-hour rule forces husbands to live in the realty of their decisions. One of pornography’s greatest lies is, “This isn’t hurting anyone.” Needing to confess each instance kills that lie very quickly. I’ve heard many husbands talk about how great their marriages are apart from this one issue. Men have an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and downplay the impact of their sin on their marriages. Hiding this sin and never talking about it creates a very powerful illusion that things are great, but this backfires in the end. The more a wife believes her husband is being faithful, the greater the disappointment, hurt, and sense of betrayal once she finds out that’s not true.
- Confession creates opportunities for genuine relationship. Whether a husband knows it or not, keeping this sin hidden forces him to put up his defenses. He can’t be his true self around her. He’ll need to hold some of himself back from her. The two of them can’t truly be naked and unashamed, but being open with his wife provides the foundation for truly knowing one another.
- Confession gives his wife an opportunity to forgive him and for him to receive her forgiveness. This is a beautiful display of the gospel, reminding them both that we only have a saving relationship with Jesus because of his grace! Our marriages should point us to the gospel every day, and living in the darkness kills that opportunity.
- The 24-hour rule upholds the great responsibility, dignity, and honor of the marriage covenant. Most couples take vows at their weddings, and many will vow to “forsake all others.” Pornography breaks this marriage vow and tramples upon it. The offended party not only has the right to know but also needs to be involved for proper restoration to occur. A commitment to the 24-hour rule is an outworking of your commitment to your vows.
- Willing confession of sexual betrayal in a marriage is scary for a husband to do. Confession takes all of the control out of his hands, forcing him to entrust himself to the Lord. This is such a critical step in repentance. He must lose his life in order to save it. Sin so often seeks to make life work on our own terms. Hiding your sin is a prime example of a refusal to let God be the Lord of your life.
On more than one occasion, I’ve sat with wives in tears as they come to realize their husbands have been hiding their sin. Their faces show their embarrassment, shock, disappointment, and confusion. But what is perhaps most heartbreaking is watching them plead with their husbands to come back into the light. They aren’t asking their husbands to be perfect, only honest! These women are willing to forgive, to help, to pray, but they feel completely shut out, disregarded, and unsafe when they realize they’ve been deceived. Deception virtually wipes out any growth a marriage has made, leaving wives feeling like they are back at square one. But the enemy is so crafty in telling husbands the very opposite lie—that confession will take them back to square one. Deception, not confession, is your enemy, brothers! Fight it; put it to death. Entrust yourself to Christ because he will never forsake you! Rage, rage against the dying of the light.