Adultery: When ‘Love’ Is A ‘Tragedy’

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
8th February 2014

Tagged: adultery love


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In a recent murder trial the defence barrister claimed: "this is a love story that became a tragedy". The newspaper heading took up the theme: Love Story Turned Tragedy. But was it a love story that turned tragedy or a tragedy that turned into a violent death and murder case?

I do not want to go into the details of the case that is before the courts at the moment. Suffice it to say that the newspapers are reporting a man, who was married for 10 years, had an interstate affair with a work colleague who was engaged to somebody else at the time. This sexual relationship continued even after the man's wife had discovered it and challenged him to bring it to an end. After the marriage ended the affair also came to a halt. There is dispute as to how the woman was stabbed to death but the husband is now on trial for murder.

This is the story that the barrister and newspapers want to call: "a love story turned to tragedy".

People can use a word in any way they wish; to mean anything they want to. However, to communicate with others it is important to use a word roughly in the same way as your hearer. Dictionaries do not define words they simply describe all the varied meanings of words as people use them.

The word ‘love’ has a variety of uses within our society. However, apart from a tennis score, it is nearly always used in a positive sense. It is a word of deep affection, intense feelings and romantic attachment. It differs from ‘lust’ in its element of romance. It is somehow superior to ‘lust’, which carries the sense of animal desire, self-centredness and other negative connotations. ‘Love’ is more personal and has more affection and romance about it than ‘lust’.

When the Bible is speaking of ‘love’ it does not mean romance or even necessarily "a strong feeling of affection", as the dictionary would have it. For the Bible, ‘love’ is much like ‘grace’ – giving oneself for the benefit of the other person. So, for example, the King James’ version of the Bible sometimes translated the word not as ‘love’ but as ‘charity’. The connection of love with giving can be seen in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave…” So in 1 John we read: "in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). Verses like these demonstrate God's strong feeling of affection for us, but his love is more than a feeling of affection, it is his motivating force towards us that leads to Christ's self sacrificial action on our behalf.

So common has it become to describe an extra-marital affair as ‘loving’ that even the dictionaries now define a ‘love affair’ as "a romantic or sexual relationship between two people who are not married to each other." We know words evolve over time; and the journalist and barrister may just be reflecting the now common meaning of the word. However, if that is true, our Bible translators and we Christians need to find a different word to describe God's character, his disposition towards us and his actions on our behalf.

For Biblical love - the love of God - does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). The moral character of this love can be seen in the way that love fulfils the law. As God says in Romans 13:8f “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet", and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” It is not possible to love your neighbour and murder him at the same time – or steal from him or covet his possessions.

That is why adultery should never be described as love. It is not a ‘love story’ or even a ‘love affair’– it's just an affair. And as such, it is a tragedy. All extra-marital affairs are tragic for they are the result of, and result in, the collapse of loving relationships and family life. You cannot love your spouse and commit adultery at the same time. You cannot love your children and committed adultery at the same time. You cannot love your neighbour and commit adultery with their spouse. You cannot love your children's grandparents, or your own grandchildren, and commit adultery. You cannot love God and commit adultery. You cannot love the person you are committing adultery with – for it is never in their best interests, any more than it is ultimately in your own best interest. You may not like the word ‘lust’ to describe the strong sexual affection that you have for the other person, but in adultery it is closer to the mark than ‘love’.

It may be a lost cause for Christians to fight for that wonderful word ‘love’. We may just have to change to some new word. Yet, when we read of an online dating service that encourages extramarital affairs under the slogan: "Life is short. Have an affair", we do need to fight for the life and love of families, children and society. The attempts of this online dating service to sponsor a football team in order to gain greater public acceptance for adultery must be resisted. We may lose the word love from our vocabulary but we must not lose the concept of love from our morality or our morality from the concept of love.