Adultery in the Heart: Adultery with My Wife?

In the last post, we began discussing the statement of Christ, “You have heard that it was said, “do not commit adultery.” But I say to you, whoever looks at a woman to desire her [lustfully] has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We talked about the practical Jewish understanding of the sixth commandment at the time of Christ, and concluded that it was insufficient and did not reach the depth intended by God, who gave the commandment. This was seen particularly in the case of polygamy.

In this post, we will consider what it means to look at a woman with lustful desire, and then how that kind of desire could be considered adultery. Finally, we will consider whether a man can commit adultery in his heart with his own wife.

The Look

We know that the prohibition of adultery was interpreted at the time of Christ as a prohibition of a specific physical act committed in the wrong situation, that is, outside of marriage. But the  concept of the impure, lustful heart was not foreign. We find it particularly in the wisdom literature. (Did you notice that there was a part of the Old Testament left out in the last post?)

Desire, blazing like a furnace, will not die down until it has been satisfied; the man who is shameless in his body will not stop until the fire devours him…The man who is unfaithful to his own marriage bed says to himself, “Who can see me?”…What he fears are human eyes; he does not realize that the eyes of the Lord…see all the acts of men and penetrate into the most secret corners.     ~Sirach 23

Notice that the man described in this passage from Sirach has become entirely stifled from a true sense of conscience or guilt and is concerned only with the outward appearance of righteousness, fear of consequences imposed by other men if his indecent actions are exposed. This description reminds me of the countless men sitting in a room alone, watching pornography on their  computers, confident that with their secret internet browser tricks no one ever needs to know. Do they remember that the eyes of God “penetrate the most secret corners?”

Men are warned frequently in the wisdom literature to avoid the dangers of looking lustfully at  beautiful women – it sets the heart on fire, and the blaze will not stop until you are consumed! I fell into a burning ring of fire…” Once lust sets in, it insists on satisfying itself at an increasingly high cost, and the person is truly consumed, burned by it, no longer in control of himself but enslaved to his passion. He is never satisfied. It is never enough.

The Lustful Heart

The sinful man of Sirach has already gone from the lustful look to the actual act of adultery, but Christ stops us at the threshold, at the look itself. “The look expresses what is in the heart.” (TOB 39.4) There is a classic idea in ethics that action follows being – you do something because you are something, you do not act “out of character.” Christ here shows that looking follows being – you look with lust or concupiscence because you are lustful and concupiscent in the interior of your heart. “A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil.” (Mt 12:35) Whether you lust after girls on the beach or on your  computer screen, don’t fool yourself – that attitude toward women comes from the depth of your heart.

When a man lusts after a woman, he personally experiences a detachment from the spousal meaning of the body. In simpler terms, in his mind and his heart, a woman’s body, or rather, a woman herself, no longer exists as a person made for love; she exists for his enjoyment. That is the essence of her being as far as that man is concerned. (Of course this is true to a greater or lesser degree in different particular instances and times.) This changes not only what that woman is, but what femininity or female-ness or the female sex are in themselves for him. When a man lusts after one woman, it changes his view of all women; it changes what women are to him. Which, of course, changes his view of men as well.

The Natural vs. The Sinful

For a chaste man, femininity in general and a woman in particular call forth many desires, depending on his relationship with her – to know her, to spend time with her, to be admired by her, to show affection for her, to love her, to marry her, to touch, kiss, or make love with her, to be in a relationship with her, to have communion. All of these come first and foremost from her personal dignity. When an unchaste man looks lustfully at a woman, though, her beauty calls forth merely a desire to use her for his own sexual satisfaction. The noble and eternal call of the woman to the man is reduced and limited to something essentially animal in nature.

Note that I am not questioning whether it is normal and natural for a man to desire a woman in a physical, sexual way, and for a woman to desire a man. That is and always will be a healthy part of humanity. What is not normal or healthy is for a man to desire physical satisfaction from a woman in itself, apart from personal love and  communion. Note also that John Paul makes a distinction between a simple passing thought of a sexual nature toward a woman and one that has taken root in the will; in other words, there are sexual thoughts which occur spontaneously and then move on, and these are not sinful, not rooted in a heart of concupiscence. Then there are sexual thoughts which a person chooses to think repeatedly, or which he (or she) seeks out, or which he decides to act on. These come from the heart. These are sinful and destroy a man (or woman) from within.

Adultery with my wife???

Having defined the nature of adultery in the heart, as opposed to adultery in the flesh, John Paul goes on in the next audience to ask whether adultery in the heart can be committed with regard to a man’s own wife. Clearly, adultery in the flesh is not possible, but is adultery in the heart?

This was extremely controversial when he gave the audience. It’s not every Wednesday Angelus that raises the attention of international newspapers and television news programs, but this one did. People were aghast – a man committing adultery with his own wife? Those prudish Catholics have taken it a step too far!

The heart of the question is, what makes a sexual desire good and moral as opposed to bad, lustful, immoral, or “adultery”? Is it the legal relationship status? Exclusivity? Is it ok for me to think whatever I want about my wife (or my girlfriend) because she’s mine? What if she’s ok with it and thinks the same way about me?

Rather, the point Christ makes in the Sermon on the Mount is that justice, righteousness and chastity are not a matter of legal status but of respect for personal dignity. A man should not divorce his wife, even if it is legal, because it betrays the lifelong nature of the bond of marriage. He shouldn’t take multiple wives, even if it is legal, because it betrays the exclusive nature of the bond of marriage. He shouldn’t lust after his wife, even if she is “his,” because it betrays the personal communion that is the purpose of true marriage.

It is not wrong to look with lust because you are looking at the wrong woman; it is wrong to look with lust at a woman, whomever she is, because it reduces her personal dignity to an object of sexual gratification.

An Invitation to Reclaim Humanity

Purity of heart, chastity, true justice and righteousness are only gained by firmly rejecting everything everything that comes from concupiscence. A man or a woman cannot choose not to have concupiscence and not to be affected by it. (If only!) But he can choose to wage a daily war against every impure thought, a war against the instincts of his own body. He can choose to reject the separation of the sexual from the personal which our fallen hearts trick us into accepting, and instead work to place the sexual back into the context of personal love and communion where it belongs. If he does, he regains the depth and the freedom of his “original” humanity which has been so limited and reduced by sin. He becomes what he was really meant to be; man and woman, created as a gift freely given for one another.

We should not consider the difficult calling of Christ (surely purity in thought is more difficult than purity in action alone) as a judgment to be feared or resented, but rather as an invitation that we can accept with confidence, for God does not ask the impossible of us or make demands without giving us what we need to fulfill them. If Christ insists that we return to the personal sexuality originally intended for humanity, we can rejoice, because he is telling us that this level of purity, happiness, communion and love is possible, even for fallen man!

In the next post, we will take a look at some different ideas that have come up regarding Christian sexual ethics. Is the body so perverted by sin that it is bad and evil? (Manichaeism.) Is the human heart? (Total depravity.) Is all physical sexual desire (eros)?


One thought on “Adultery in the Heart: Adultery with My Wife?

  1. Someone once told me that chastity (an by this he did not mean abstinence, but real chastity) is harder within the context of marriage that outside of it. I think he meant that it becomes easier and easier to take one’s spouse for granted and to develop a selfish way of relating. Since I have not been married, I can’t really comment on this, but I thought it was interesting.


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