Spiritual adultery is more prevalent than we would like to believe and has serious ramifications. We need to recognise our spiritual ‘lovers’ and repent.
Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
Adultery is a sensitive subject, not the least because of its far-reaching ramifications. Few things have the power to destroy relationships and families than this sin. Wounds from intimate betrayals remain long after the sin is committed. Adultery is perhaps the hardest betrayal to forgive because it encompasses intimacy on every level, not simply the physical. What we often lose sight of, however, is that worldly adultery is a reflection of spiritual adultery, which is as great a betrayal.
Spiritual adultery requires an existing relationship.
Today’s verse confronts us with a harsh message, one the church would much rather sidestep or gloss over than face head on. But James’ warning has to do with the church – the bride of Christ – and not with non-believers. The fundamental truth is that we cannot commit adultery unless we are in a relationship. Without an intimate relationship, adultery is fornication. Both are sins, but one requires an existing relationship and the other does not. Spiritual adultery is only possible for those who have a relationship with God.
Technically, non-believers commit ‘spiritual fornication.’ This term doesn’t exist as such in the Bible – we should avoid misunderstanding – but it is a powerful metaphor to help us understand spiritual adultery. Spiritual fornication would be spiritual intimacy outside of a God-ordained relationship – the relationship with Him for which we were created. The moment we make a commitment to Christ, however, we enter into spiritual ‘marriage.’ We become the bride of Christ. It’s an indissoluble union that God takes very seriously. This is a relationship of intimacy and mutual commitment that we mirror in our worldly marriages.
The age-old problem of spiritual adultery.
We can trace the metaphor of spiritual adultery right through from the Old Testament. The book of Hosea, for example, is a poignant story of adultery, forgiveness, and restoration that is a vivid, living ‘type’ of God’s relationship with His people. In the New Testament, this relationship is solidified in the church as the bride of Christ. It is now a ‘literal’ spiritual union and not only a metaphorical one. The implications of spiritual adultery are more pronounced and much more powerfully defined.
The ongoing difficulty that mankind seems to have – both in terms of physical and spiritual unions – is the principle of ‘leave and cleave.’ Even the notion of ‘leaving’ on its own has negative connotations. It implies giving up something, a sense of ‘sacrifice’ that we’re reluctant to make. Yet the Bible is full of illustrations of the essential nature of this command. Abraham is commanded to leave his home and family. The Israelites are commanded to leave Egypt. The rich young ruler is commanded to sell all he owns. Jesus tells us that no man who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. This inability to leave and to cleave is the basis of spiritual adultery.
What spiritual adultery really means.
Our sense of adultery is that of being unfaithful. This is, of course, entirely true, but it creates the impression that one has to actually ‘do the deed’ in order to commit adultery. But in Matthew 5:28, Jesus says: But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. This presents us with a very prickly truth. We know that the heart essentially defines who we are. What is in our heart is what defines us. The heart is filled through the mind and the senses, so ‘looking,’ as defined here by Jesus, will determine what is in our heart. What Jesus is saying is that if we ‘see’ the deed and entertain it in our heart, we’ve as good as done it.
Ouch. And what’s even more ‘ouch’ is that this truth must, therefore, also be our yardstick to measure spiritual adultery. The essential feature of adultery is ‘lusting after’ something we shouldn’t want. To understand the significance of this, let’s look at our ‘marriage vows.’ The first and greatest commandment pretty much sums these up – love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. There’s not much wiggle room there. Anything that lessens the ‘all’ is therefore adultery. Any affection for anything outside of God means we’ve broken the ‘all.’
Recognising our spiritual adultery ‘lovers.’
James pulls no punches in today’s verse. He calls it as it is, whether we like it or not. ‘Friendship with the world’ implies breaking our vow to be separate, set apart, a peculiar people, and called by His name. We must never lose sight of the implications of taking the name of God – of calling ourselves ‘Christian.’ Like a wife takes her husband’s name, we take our spiritual husband’s name. The principle is the same. We cannot be separated unto God and entertain worldly ‘friends’ – not limited to people – at the same time. Anything worldly that we hanker after, indulge in, entertain, or keep hold of is, in essence, spiritual adultery.
The basic principle of ‘forsaking all others’ is what applies here. If we give our time, resources, affections, or commitments to things that exclude God, that’s spiritual adultery. When we hang onto things from our previous unsaved life, that’s spiritual adultery. Compromising on the Word of God and following the crowd is spiritual adultery. Our worldly structure is hell-bent on diverting us from spiritual faithfulness by promoting the ‘sanctity of self’ philosophies. Wherever we turn, something is encouraging us to go after what we want, to not limit ourselves, and to explore our full potential. We’re ‘educated’ to think for ourselves, gratify our needs, and to put our aspirations and desires first. In a world where conventional marriage is rapidly going ‘out of fashion’ because it’s too restrictive, faithfulness to God is a sign of weakness.
Spiritual adultery has serious ramifications.
We simply cannot trade on the ‘faithfulness of God’ as a cop-out on the consequences of spiritual adultery. The reality is that God takes His covenant with us very seriously – so seriously that He signed it in the blood of His Son. But that does not mean that He has to keep it even when we don’t. When we commit spiritual adultery, we break the covenant. God is no longer required to honour a broken covenant, His grace and mercy notwithstanding. He will, if we confess and repent, renew the covenant in love and forgiveness. The criteria, though, is that we first return to Him.
There is a plethora of teaching on how God cannot break His covenant. This is absolutely true. To do so would be to deny His fundamental nature. But this does not mean that no matter what we do, the covenant will be unbroken. God cannot and will not break it, but once we do, that covenant no longer applies. It’s done, broken, finished, over. God is under no further ‘obligation.’ We need to take hold of this truth and move past the ‘blanket absolution’ this kind of presumptive thinking engenders. It’s a dangerous place to be in when spiritual adultery is such an easy sin with such enormous repercussions.
Spiritual adultery breaks the heart of God.
To see this sin in its true context, we only need to think back to those times where we felt God ‘let us down.’ Every Christian has at least one of these moments if we’re honest enough to admit it. Something happened and we were somehow disappointed because He didn’t do what we expected. The sense of betrayal carries a kind of spiritual woundedness, as if He broke His promises. In other words, as if He committed spiritual adultery. If we feel this way – without cause – how must God feel when He has literally given all and we turn aside? Yes, He is always ready to forgive and to graciously restore when we turn back in repentance. But the intimacy of our relationship means that even our small ‘indiscretions’ have the power to wound the heart of God – because He loves us with all that He is.
Forgive us, Lord, for the times we have strayed, either wittingly or unwittingly. Open our eyes to see our choices and desires for what they truly are. Protect us against the seductions of the world and empower us to keep our eyes on You. Draw us close to Your heart and stir up in us a desire to live the ‘all’ of Your gracious covenant. Help us to love You as we should, always and in everything.