Prior to writing the Latin Vulgate, St. Jerome was so haunted by sexual fantasies of “bands of dancing girls” he was unable to quench his own “fires of lust” with fasting even to the point of starvation. Inspired by this and similar experience, he stated, “Anyone who is too passionate a lover with his own wife is himself an adulterer.” Some 1600 years later, Pope John Paul II caused a stir by indicating a man could commit adultery with his own wife in the Matthew 5:28 sense, that is, by looking on her with lust in his heart.
To which you might respond, “Um, what?”
After all, as we believe here, Hebrews 13:4 tells us there are only two impediments to the marriage bed remaining undefiled: fornication and adultery. Keep clear of them, and everything else done in marriage is kosher, right? Surely you can look at your wife?
Certainly, but don’t be too quick to summarily dismiss the spirit of what the aforementioned holy men were saying. In my opinion, a man can indeed commit adultery with his own wife in one of two ways.
Idolatry as Adultery
First, it’s entirely possible for a man to actually idolize his wife. I know; I’ve been guilty of it before.
Now, I don’t mean in the casual sense we often use these terms today — I “idolize” my wife, “worship” her body, call her “goddess” and the like. These are wordplay in a general or hyperbolic sense and do not — at least as they’re commonly used — constitute true idolatry.
However, it’s not difficult to elevate our spouse to an unhealthy priority level in our lives. Some elevation is to be expected, of course. Even Paul said “a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:33-34a). Our attentions are divided by the responsibility and love we have as husbands, and this is how God intended things to operate, but it’s also possible to go beyond this healthy division.
Love, peace, comfort, fulfillment, identity. There’s no harm in getting these from our wives, but there is a big problem when we begin needing these from our wives.
We can begin to prioritize our spouse over God, seeking their happiness or approval over obedience to God. We can begin to need them for things we should get from God — love, peace, comfort, fulfillment, identity. There’s no harm in getting these from our wives, but there is a big problem when we begin needing these from our wives. This is true idolatry, and it’s spiritual adultery.
This adultery is not against the covenant we share with our spouse but against the covenant we share with God. The one on which marriage itself is built.
Objectification as Adultery
The second way we can commit adultery with our wives is, as Pope John Paul II indicated, by looking on them with lust in our hearts. How’s that? Well, note Christ’s wording: “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully…”
He offers no exception if the woman happens to be your wife. Now, does that mean we cannot look upon our wives with desire? Of course not! We’re supposed to desire our wives. In fact, we’re designed to. Now, I believe this exception is implicit by the explanation of adultery. After all, if I sleep with my wife, it’s not adultery. Why would looking at her be any different?
However, it’s entirely possible for a man to look at his wife and see a woman— that is, a sex object and nothing more. Don’t read too much into this statement; I’m not saying women in general are sex objects and nothing more. Far from it. I’m saying that when a man looks at his wife with complete objectification, it is no longer his wife he’s looking at but instead a means to a sexual end. She is, for all intents and purposes, not his wife. She is a nameless, objectified, victim of a woman who deserves infinitely better than she’s getting.
And he’s an adulterer.
It’s entirely possible for a man to look at his wife and see a woman — that is, a sex object and nothing more.
Truth in Spirit
So while I might disagree with Jerome’s exact wording — I can’t be so passionate a lover with my wife I delve into adultery so long as that passion includes agape love from on high — the spirit behind his statement is sound. It’s possible to either elevate or debase my wife to such a degree that the marriage bed becomes defiled by adultery.
As long as she’s my wife and we’re centering our marriage on God and His Word, there’s no point at which I become “too passionate a lover” with my wife. She gets all the passion I can muster.
Originally posted 2015-12-07 08:00:39.