We get a lot of heavy marriage questions, like this one today: How do you care for marriages after the pain of adultery? An anonymous woman writes in to ask. “Dear Pastor John, my husband and I have been married for several years and are walking alongside several other couples who are struggling. We pray for them often and do the best we can to encourage them to seek the Holy Spirit’s leading in their lives, while also keeping healthy boundaries in what we can give. Specifically, do you have any advice for couples impacted by adultery? These are the hardest situations for us to handle. How can trust be rebuilt between them? From your pastoral experience, what are some biblical realities and hopes that we could use to serve couples whose marriages are falling apart due to the devastating sin of infidelity?”
Two things about this question make me especially thankful, and it’s not the pain of the adultery being addressed. First, it’s that this couple has enough courage and compassion to lean into other people’s sorrow, rather than leaning away — which is the easy thing to do. And second, they’re not assuming that divorce is the right counsel. We live in a day where people are trying, it seems to me, to see divorce as more legitimate, rather than less legitimate. And I am thankful that’s not the way this couple is leaning.
Faithful to the End
Some would say that adultery has been committed, and that’s a pass for divorce. “So there you go. Take your biblical pass and leave.” I don’t think adultery is a biblical pass for divorce. I think our counsel should always be to encourage the highest level of faithfulness according to Jesus’s words to Peter, when he asked,
“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21–22)
Seventy-seven is not meant to be a limit. It’s meant to say, “More often than you think, Peter.” And when Paul was asked his advice about Christians going to court against each other, he said,
To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? (1 Corinthians 6:7)
And when God’s wife, Israel, was unfaithful, the language of divorce in Jeremiah 3 and Isaiah 50 does not mean decisive divorce followed by God’s remarriage. We know this because four verses later, after this so-called “divorce” in Jeremiah 3:8, God says to his estranged wife,
Return, faithless Israel,
declares the Lord.
I will not look on you in anger,
for I am merciful,
declares the Lord;
I will not be angry forever. (Jeremiah 3:12)
And we know it because God says in Isaiah 54:6–7,
For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In fact, God has only ever had one wife. And the book of Hosea is the most daring description of his faithfulness to his adulterous wife. God tells Hosea,
Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2)
So Hosea represents God in marrying an unfaithful wife. And believe me, I have seen in my ministry this book, this picture of Hosea, rescue couples in impossible situations, who are to this very day still faithful to each other years later.
And what will be the outcome between God and his adulterous wife? Here’s one glimpse of it in Hosea 2:14–15:
Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
And there I will give her her vineyards
and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.
So, the whole point of God’s history with Israel is that she was never deserving of his faithfulness to her — ever. But he would eventually, with unspeakable long-suffering, by the power of the new covenant and the blood of Jesus, bring her to be the beautiful bride he deserves. That’s the point of Ephesians 5:25–27:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
That is what God makes of his unfaithful wife by his long-suffering and sacrifice.
Two Miracles to Preserve Marriage
So, in answer to the question, “What are some biblical realities and hopes when ministering to a couple where there has been the unfaithfulness of adultery?” I would say this: Two miracles are required for the will of God to be done in the preservation and renewal of such a marriage. One miracle is forgiveness by the one who was wronged. And the other miracle is repentance and long-suffering — long-suffering and patience — by the one who has committed adultery. Let’s take these one at a time.
“Being forgiven is not a right to be demanded, but a gift of grace to be received with humility.”
Remember, both are miracles; that is, they will seem, in the moment of your counseling and in the moment of their deepest darkness, impossible. They will say to you, “That’s not going to happen. That cannot happen for us. It’s too late.” So, we need to be clear that such a miracle happens. Galatians 3:5: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” The key to how the miracles happen is hearing with faith — that is, hearing the word of God and believing God, that he can do the impossible. That’s the channel through which the miracles that seem so impossible happen.
1. Forgive as Christ forgave.
The first miracle is forgiveness. Ephesians 4:32: “[Forgive] one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Only by being overwhelmed — and I mean stunned — with our own forgiveness from Jesus, at the cost of his infinitely valuable life, will we be able to forgive such a horrible and painful betrayal as adultery.
This is exactly the way Jesus explained the miraculous psychological dynamics of forgiveness in Matthew 18:24. A servant owed his king ten thousand talents. And a talent was worth twenty years’ wages. That’s two hundred thousand years of wages. In other words, Jesus was saying that every husband and every wife who is a Christian has been forgiven thousands of adulteries against God. Two hundred thousand years of wages means zillions and zillions of what we cannot pay back. All of that was forgiven at the cost of the life of the Son of God. O God, help us. Help us feel this. It will change us.
And when the king discovers that the servant would not forgive his fellow servant, he said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt . . .” Two hundred thousand years of wages. In other words, an incalculable debt, thousands of times greater than anybody’s ever done against you. “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:32–33).
So, that’s the first miracle that seems impossible for a marriage to survive and thrive again. It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle.
2. Embrace faithfulness and cultivate trust.
Here’s the second one: repentance and long-suffering on the part of the one who has committed adultery — repentance meaning a deep change of heart that hates to sin and turns toward utter faithfulness.
For the long-suffering that has to happen, he or she recognizes that receiving forgiveness is not the same as receiving trust, nor should it be. The rebuilding of trust requires a patient, humble, long-suffering endurance. Being forgiven is not a right to be demanded, but a gift of grace to be received with humility and thankfulness and tears.
And trust coming from the spouse who has been betrayed is not like a stake you drive in the ground and walk past; it’s like an acorn you plant in the ground. And some day, God willing, it may be an unshakable oak tree of trust. But it will grow through tender stages by patient protection and watering and nurturing through storms that will threaten to kill the little sapling of trust.
‘We Made It’
Both these miracles — forgiveness and years of long-suffering — are lived by faith in the promises of God. “I’ll never leave you. I’ll never forsake you — either of you” (see Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5). That kind of promise. Holding on to that through all of those years — that’s the way the miracle will happen.
“I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you. I will not let anything befall you that I will not give you grace to endure. And I will make even the inevitable scars that will not go away — you cannot remove them — I will make them serve my grace. And I will keep you and bring you to your old age.”
One of my favorite images is the both of you sitting across from each other, holding your wrinkled hands, and with tears and smiles saying, “We made it. We made it.”