By Audrey Stallsmith
The recent government raid on a Mormon sect has already raised considerable controversy. But perhaps it's time we acknowledged the elephant in the room, that the press has mostly tiptoed around so far.
The Old Testament patriarchs frequently had multiple wives just as those Mormons do. (Thankfully, we can avert our gazes from the fact that Biblical females usually married young as well, since that isn’t relevant to my current subject.)
What the Scriptures make abundantly clear, however, is that polygamy wasn’t God’s idea. He created only one mate for Adam. And, in His New Testament comments on divorce, Jesus asserted the ideal, “that a man should leave his father and mother, and be forever united to his wife.” (Not wives!) “The two shall become one.”
When the Pharisees demanded to know why Moses had then permitted divorce, Jesus responded, “Moses did that in recognition of your hard and evil hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.”
No doubt, the Lord would have said the same thing about polygamy. It was often when they didn’t trust God’s promises, after all, that Old Testament men reverted to extra spouses or concubines--to assure themselves of a progeny.
Or reverted to other gods. So the subject of fidelity or infidelity has never just been about sex. What the men in these Mormon sects apparently fail to perceive is that a man can’t be faithful to more than one wife any more than he can be faithful to more than one God. The Biblical stories prove that pretty decisively, as the men who had multiple wives generally favored one over the others.
The topic of infidelity also reared its head in another context recently when the governor of New York resigned over his alleged employment of call girls. The man who next assumed the office then scrambled to confess his own extramarital relations before the media got wind of them.
There ensued, predictably, much discussion on what does or doesn’t cause spouses to stray, though I doubt the word “sin” was actually mentioned on mainstream TV. It should have been, however.
“The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage,” C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. It is like trying to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.” And, as Frederick Buechner concludes in Wishful Thinking, “Food without nourishment doesn’t fill the bill for long.”
“Don’t you know,” Paul asks in I Corinthians 6:16, “that if a man joins himself to a prostitute she becomes a part of him and he becomes a part of her? For God tells us in the Scripture that in his sight the two become one person.”
Buechner describes man and woman “as created to be helpers of one another, to complement one another as human beings. Sex expresses their own delight in each other and their responsibility to fulfill and complete each other as persons. . .The desire to know another sexually is really the desire to know the other fully as a person—to know and be known as a total human being. Where each gives not just of his body but of himself.”
Those who still claim to love their spouses while cheating on them aren’t fooling anyone, least of all themselves. Love, as I have repeatedly stressed in these articles, isn’t an amorphous something that descends on you out of the blue. It’s something you keep building—or tearing down--with every choice you make.
Every time a man turns away from sexual temptation to remain faithful to his wife, he is loving her. And every time he turns away from any temptation because of his commitment to God, he is loving God.
Sexual attraction and other types of temptation aren’t sin in themselves. Although the Bible does condemn lust, lust is--as Webster defines it-- “unbridled sexual desire.” “It is that which one does with that which is recognized,” Keith Miller writes in A Second Touch, “that causes the problems.”
In other words, everything depends on how much attention you give to what might otherwise have been just a passing fancy. In Banishing Fear from Your Life, Charles Bass asserts “men with underworked imaginations (who cannot picture their wives in their minds) are usually the ones who are unfaithful. We must think often about God for him to remain real to us. Otherwise something else will begin to fill his place.”
Those people, on the other hand, who give in to every temptation that presents itself don’t achieve the freedom they expect. “Men who ‘let themselves go,’” Fulton Sheen notes in On Being Human, “either go to seed or go mad.” I suspect that’s why some of these public figures appear to act so irrationally.
Whenever we watch a prominent person—like that governor--crash and burn, we tend to say, “He must have been crazy. Why else would he risk all he’d attained for a cheap thrill?” It’s the same thing that some of us asked years ago, when a small-town bigwig was caught shoplifting inexpensive items for which he could obviously afford to pay.
Psychologists would probably mutter something about ambitious people having a self-destructive streak. Perhaps what they should really call it is a self-deceptive streak. With the exception of a few mental cases, most of us know right from wrong all too clearly. So, to justify our sins, we have to deceive ourselves into believing that they are okay. And the man who turns his own brain against itself can’t do so very often without losing his hold on reality.
“But,” some may protest, “won’t too much repression turn our minds also?” To which this farmer’s daughter can only respond, “Hogwash!”
As Sheen points out in Peace of Soul, “The theory of license is founded on the false assumption that a psychological complex can always be cured by giving it a physiological outlet. . .Man is most self-expressive when his rational, God-given nature is in command. (A railroad train is most self-expressive when it follows the tracks.)
The principle cause of all unhappiness,” Sheen concludes, “is unregulated desire.” It is not stifled sin, after all, that destroys a soul. Rather the opposite. As G. K. Chesterton writes of a character in one of his poems, “His stifled conscience stinks through the green earth.”
A middle-aged spinster, I can’t address the topic of adultery from experience. But unfaithfulness isn’t confined to the marital relationship. And all of us have betrayed our Master at one time or another.
In the Old Testament God has bitter things to say about the unfaithfulness of Israel to Him. He frequently uses the marital relationship as a metaphor for this, so much so that he orders one of his prophets—Hosea--to wed a notoriously unreliable woman. That unhappy marriage presents the Israelites with a graphic object lesson about how God suffers when they betray Him.
In the New Testament, James accuses some of his fellow Christians of being “like an unfaithful wife who loves her husband’s enemies. Don’t you realize that making friends with God’s enemies—the evil pleasures of this world—makes you an enemy of God?" John also admonishes his fellow believers to “stop loving this evil world and all that if offers you, for when you love these things you show that you do not really love God.”
In other words, if we don’t keep God real in our thoughts, it’s often a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” What we don’t realize is that, when we lust after money, ambition—even our neighbor’s spouse, we are implying to God that He isn’t enough for us.
“Polygamy,” Chesterton writes, “is a lack of the realization of sex; it is like a man plucking five pears in mere absence of mind.” Our unfaithfulness to God often seems to have an absentminded quality about it too. Although most of us don’t do much bowing down to golden images these days, we still do much unthinking kowtowing to the gods of this world. And the gods of this world are all dying. (That sounds like a quote from somebody, but I can’t remember whom!)
Biblical women weren’t allowed to be polygamists. But I imagine there were many of them who, like Hosea’s wife, grew bored with their virtuous husbands. And started casting wistful glances at what seemed a much more exciting life--only to find that it was, in reality, much colder.
Hosea’s cheating wife ended up unattractive, alone, and penniless. So her longsuffering husband actually had to buy her back. No doubt, by that time she realized it took an exceptional man to do such a thing. “If you think virtue is languor,” Chesterton advises in one of his poems, “just try it and see.”
In Orthodoxy, he concludes, “No restriction on sex seems so odd and unexpected as sex itself. Keeping to none mate is a small price for so much as seeing that one. A man is a fool who complains he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.”
Just as a man is a fool if he complains that there is only one gate to heaven. When it is such an extraordinary one, why should we need any other?