Not long ago, a clergy friend of mine committed professional suicide by seeking and pursuing an extra-marital affair via an online forum.
Of course, the fall-out was far, far more serious than the curtailing of his own career. Reflecting on the issue of sexual misconduct led me to think about how we can strengthen what lies within by reflecting on the consequences without. In other words, we need to find what causes us horror and use it well.
There has always been no shortage of practical advice given to dampen human avarice, be it sexual or otherwise. Some have suggested an early morning swim in the North Sea, or at least a cold shower. More recently, there has been an upsurge in adopting an “accountability partner” with whom one might share situations of risk or temptation. A variation on this are computer programs like Covenant Eyes, which monitors your online activity and reports anything suspicious to a named friend.
These approaches may help, but they are all external. They do not necessarily build up the inner person. All it takes for Covenant Eyes to fail is for me to get a new device on which the software is not installed. All it takes for my accountability partnership to fail is for me to lie, or avoid telling the whole truth.
Recovering our sense of horror at sexual misconduct strengthens the inner person, thus making us more reliable and safer human beings
So what will hold you in check when you fall in love (again) with someone who is not your spouse? What will strengthen your guard when you sense the power you have over someone who is vulnerable? What will curb your steps when you find it hard to resist following through that long-held (but ridiculous) transgressing of limits?
Recovering our sense of horror at sexual misconduct / exploitation / adultery is part of the process that strengthens the inner person, thus making us more reliable and safer human beings.
Here are seven thoughts which can strengthen our sense of horror at sin. You might find some more useful than others:
1. It’s taboo. Taking advantage of someone sexually or emotionally, or seeking a mutually agreed illicit encounter, is simply a line over which you would never cross. You have a horror of even thinking about it. The reasons don’t really matter. This is a deep intuitive inhibitor, which may come from your own childhood experience or simply perhaps a strong “fact” you have always accepted as the way things have to be. This “dark side” is territory to be greatly feared. It’s somewhere you simply should not, and must never go. For some people, taboos are easily broken; for others they are powerful motivators. Is this the case for you?
2. It’s unfaithful. For some, this simple fact makes an affair or other sexual misbehaviour simply unthinkinkable. You think of your spouse and you simply could not be unfaithful. Yet people do have affairs even when they “believe” in faithfulness. Sometimes they do things because of unresolved anger towards their spouse. But this may not be the case for you. For you, perhaps, faithfulness is is what marriage means. In fact it is not uncommon when one partner has an affair, for the other to be absolutely aghast for this very reason: How can you break your marriage vows?
3. It wounds the Holy Spirit. Curiously, a significant proportion of ministers who commit adultery are also people who seem to have a passionate personal relationship with God. But for many, the idea of grieving the one “who is closer than a brother”, the one whose grace has found you and who knows you more intimately than any other – to grieve the Holy Spirit is simply horrific. Especially in the case of an affair, which is on-going - how could you pray? How could you worship? In the case of a one-off act, you might be able to repent and ask for forgiveness. But in the case of something on-going, what room are you leaving for repentence – forgiveness – restoration with God? So you may not be overtly passionate in expressing your devotion to Christ, but it is one issue on which you will not waver – you could not sin so flagrantly!
4. It’s immoral. Plain morality may not be a strong enough motivator by itself – especially when the secular moral landscape is constantly changing around us. Nevertheless for some people, the question of adultery, sexual or emotional manipulation may simply be that: immoral, plain wrong. Seeing the world in shades of grey is important in pastoral work of all kinds, but some people can hold this alongside a powerful sense of right and wrong without being judgmental in their actual ministry. With reference to my friend, one person commented: “There are some lines over which you simply don’t go.” Such a sense of plain morality can be a strong guiding light in our personal daily decision-making.
5. It’s disgraceful. While much of the gospel seems to be about the removal of shame, disgrace can still be a strong motivator. Think of the shame this will bring on you, your family, the church, even on Christ himself. You will be cast out for sure! Your friends will shun you! The wrong relationship you thought would develop will probably collapse as well and then you will end up in abject, miserable isolation. And that’s simply what disgrace will mean for you as an individual! The sense of anticipating shame can be a quite proper inhibitor. We can, of course, hide from the fear of shame by persisting with the fantasy that we will never get caught. Who do we think we’re kidding?
6. It’s destructive. Many people who have affairs become extremely self-absorbed. They fail to see beyond their own obsession. But some will be strengthened against temptation by a horror of the utter destruction it causes. It will wreck your marriage; it will deeply affect your children; your wider family will find it hard to talk to you; your church will be in shock; people who believed because of you may lose their faith; you may well have abused the other person in your affair; you have wrecked their family and their children. The list goes on. For some, this huge litany of destruction is so horrific that they simply could not countenance starting the chain reaction.
7. It’s abusive. We tend to associate the word 'abuse' with predatory behaviour, but the power dynamics inherent in pastor – people relationships are such that inappropriate behaviour is very likely to be an abuse of that power. This is the case regardless of who appears to initiate the behaviour because if it was the other person, then the minister’s role is to maintain a safe place by resisting. This motivator works if you can be led by thinking through what is going on. Some people will simply be swept along by their emotions, their weakness, or their greed. For others, however, the thought of abusing their position and of simply using others for their own ends is too horrific to contemplate.
These are seven aspects of misbehaviour which may be horrific to a greater or lesser extent. Part of our role as humans, as Christians, and as ministers in particular is to create and maintain a strong, moral, truthful, grace-filled arena in which all can flourish.
Without grace this is impossible, but grace can only exist hand-in-hand with truth; and truth must deeply inform our morality or it becomes mere manners. In order to live and act in this way, we need to strengthen the inner person so that we know the boundaries over which we could never cross and the reasons why we could never cross them. Ultimately, no strategy is failsafe but reflecting on these matters will make us more reliable and responsible life-guides for others – righteous in the best possible way.
Richard Dormandy is an experienced Anglican Minister based in South London