Tuesday, 11 June 2019

The Sixth Commandment


What makes adultery wrong in the first place is not that it involves sexual activity but that it is an act of injustice. A promise has been made and a word has been given. The promise and the word are broken by the act of adultery. Community is not possible between human beings where promises cannot be relied on or words trusted. This is why adultery is as serious as human societies have always recognized.

Nowadays people move easily not just from place to place but from job to job and even from career to career. It can happen that relationships too are understood as things that will change: I know how I feel today but how do I know how I will feel next year? Who knows what the future will bring? It is often said that people now have problems with commitment. It can seem foolhardy to promise something until death, to say we will be faithful to one person all our lives and so give ourselves without reserve to marriage.

Foolish though it may seem, though, this is the kind of bond for which the human heart longs, a personal relationship that will be complete, enduring, unique and faithful no matter what. ‘In sickness and in health, for better and for worse’: there is nobility in these phrases, an ideal to which everybody responds. This is what we really want even when we sympathise with those who have found it too difficult.

Another word for faithfulness is ‘truth’. The portrait of God’s character given in Exodus 34:7 includes the phrase ‘rich in kindness and faithfulness’. This finds its way into the gospel as ‘grace and truth’: ‘the law was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17). To be faithful means to be true to my relationships. Shakespeare’s comment is well known: ‘to your own self be true, you cannot then be false to any man’. But to be true to myself includes honouring the commitments I have made. The ways in which I have promised to love another person (in the case of marriage) or other people (in the case of religious vows) make me to be the person I am.

So to be true to myself I must be faithful to what I have promised. But to persevere in such a commitment we need to look beyond ourselves, to God, the source of all grace and truth, the One who is faithful love. We are to ‘keep running steadily in the race we have started’ (Hebrews 12:1). But how can we do it, if it gets very difficult, if it seems impossible and we want to turn back, if alternatives are tempting or it seems we may have made a mistake? ‘Let us not lose sight of Jesus who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection’ (Hebrews 12:2).

None of us is spared anxiety in deciding, tedium in persevering, temptation to turn aside, worry about the future, or questions about the past. Like Jesus, and with Him, we must keep an eye to the joy that lies in the future (Hebrews 12:2). That means keeping God in mind, the source of all grace and the goal of all desire.

The marriage of Christians is a sacrament and not just a legal or social arrangement, important as that is also for the proper functioning of human society. God is a party to this commitment and blesses the marriages of his sons and daughters. God is ‘faithful love’, can only be true to Himself and cannot be anything other than kind and faithful, gracious and reliable. We learn all this from Jesus, the only Son who is closest to the Father’s heart. Our experiences of love find their deepest meaning and their greatest support in the love of Jesus for his Father.

In striving to be true to ourselves we must never forget, then, that we are children of God and followers of Christ. With God’s help we are building a civilization of love and justice. We make promises and we give our word: these are the building blocks of that civilization. Adultery is an act contrary to kindness and faithfulness, to truth and love, an act that subverts the reliability of promises made and of words given. This is why it is wrong.

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