February 01, 2004 Q & A

Adultery and Forgiveness


How does a wife respond when her husband has committed adultery? There is depression, anxiety, hurt, confusion, and a desire to get out of the relationship. We have a young daughter. Is there any hope for working things out?


The situation you present is one of the most painful experiences anyone can have and the feelings you describe are a natural human reaction to the personal betrayal that is adultery. While I can tell you the Bible's teaching about adultery and its consequences (which you may already understand), I cannot give you helpful counsel without knowing more about the actual situation. If the reason you have sent your question to the OPC web site is that you are a Christian believer and a member of an OP church or of another Bible-believing church, I urge you (with your husband if he will consent, without if he won't) to seek the counsel of your pastor who knows you.

A few general comments:

1). According to our Lord (Matthew 19:3-9), the marriage partner who has been betrayed by adultery is free to end the marriage with divorce (because the act of adultery has already broken the covenant of mutually sworn faithfulness), with the freedom to someday marry another. So this is an option you may consider. But our Lord does not command this action. It is permitted, but not required.

2). Therefore you may also consider "working things out", which is what you ask about. Your young daughter is a factor as you mention. In general children do better in intact homes than in broken homes (regardless of who is at fault). The well-being of your child is important, but not necessarily the determining factor.

3). "Working things out" means taking into account and dealing with such questions as: Has your husband owned up to his sin and repented (as opposed to just admitting that he "made a big mistake" because he was caught and now making excuses or minimizing it)? Is he willing to go to counseling with a Christian counselor (such as your pastor) and do the hard work of seriously examining his life with a view to changing attitudes and behavior that are wrong, by God's grace and for Christ's sake? Can you trust him to keep a renewed vow of faithfulness? What are the factors that may have led to or contributed to your husband's adultery, such as (perhaps) a sinfully selfish view of women in general, addiction to pornography, anger/resentment toward you for real or imagined causes, etc.? Is your husband a Christian believer? Is he a communicant member of the same church of which you are a member? Apart from the wrong done to you and the marriage, your husband has also put his own soul in jeopardy of damnation. Has he truly repented before God? This must concern you for his sake as well as for your own and the marriage's sake. These are all matters I cannot help you with in this forum. You need help at hand.

4). The Lord commands us to forgive a brother who repents, of which we are reminded every time we pray, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." If your husband has confessed and repented of his sin (as sin, without excuses or minimizing) and humbly asked you to forgive him, you—as a Christian trusting in God's forgiveness of all your sin through the atoning death of Jesus His Son—must seek grace from God to forgive him. Apart from the hurt your husband has caused, if you allow seething anger and resentment (which are definitely understandable!) to grow and fester, you will do your own soul terrible harm—quite apart from any question of a continuing relationship with your husband. Your little daughter needs to grow up seeing the grace of the gospel in your attitude toward one who has wronged you (I'm not saying that you tell her all of this which may be unwise and even wrong; but a baseline attitude of cold anger toward your husband, or ex-husband, will show in countless ways that will not be good for your daughter to see and imitate or be confused by).

5). Some say that forgiving a repentant unfaithful spouse requires also continuing the marriage (Jay Adams, for example). I do not agree with that (based on Matt.19:9). I think you may forgive (that is, tell your husband that you forgive his wrong and will not hold it over him or against him, forswear any punitive claims against him, etc.—a commitment requiring the work of the Spirit to keep), but at the same time require time and the meeting of reasonable conditions before being willing to consider again trusting his promise of marital fidelity.

An analogy: I might confront a business partner with his theft from the business, forgive him when he repents, but decide not to continue the partnership because I perceive character flaws that make it unwise to trust him with my money again. I am not being punitive, vindictive, or hateful; it is a matter of wise judgment and might also be best for him. Now, your husband's adultery has broken the marriage covenant and it is up to you, in a sense, whether or not to continue (renew) that covenant.

Balancing what I just said above is the fact that great glory goes to our Lord Jesus when He enables a couple to repair a broken marriage and even grow in their love for each other by His grace. I have seen restored marriages that were—after a sometimes long and difficult time—much better than before and in which lessons learned benefited others as well.

Right now you are feeling terrible emotional pain and the prospect of the hard work and further pain of working things out may seem too much. Pain avoidance is a powerful motivator, sometimes in the wrong direction. I urge you not to make an irrevocable decision now based on the understandable "I just want out". God may be pleased to get you through and past the agony and revulsion and bring you to where you will thank Him for the grace of perseverance under trial and the blessing of a restored marriage. Again, this is something I cannot help you with; you need godly, wise and competent counsel to work through this matter.

There is more I might say, but I think it best to stop here. If you have follow-up questions or comments, please feel free to come back. But I earnestly hope you will seek the counsel you need near at hand. All I have written here is based on assuming that what you have told me, however scant, is essentially accurate.

The Lord sustain and guide you and bless all involved (Philippians 4:13).



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