Honoring Marital Covenants
My son, pay attention to my wisdom, turn your ear to my words of insight, 2 that you may maintain discretion and your lips may preserve knowledge. 3 For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; 4 but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. 5 Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave. 6 She gives no thought to the way of life; her paths wander aimlessly, but she does not know it. 7 Now then, my sons, listen to me; do not turn aside from what I say. 8 Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house, 9 lest you lose your honor to others and your dignity to one who is cruel, 10 lest strangers feast on your wealth and your toil enrich the house of another. 11 At the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and body are spent. 12 You will say, “How I hated discipline! How my heart spurned corrections! 13 I would not obey my teachers or turn my ear to my instructors. 14 And I was soon in serious trouble in the assembly of God’s people.” 15 Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well. 16 Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares? 17 Let them be yours alone, never to be shared with strangers. 18 May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. 19 A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love. 20 Why, my son, be intoxicated with another man’s wife? Why embrace the bosom of a wayward woman? 21 For your ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all your paths. 22 The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them; the cords of their sins hold them fast. 23 For lack of discipline they will die, led astray by their own great folly.
As a guide to help us live, this proverb is straightforward. Beware of sexual temptation. Keep your distance, do not be fooled. Remember who you loved and why. If you succumb, you will invite a world of hurt. Breaking covenant has serious consequences: “For your ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all your paths. 22 The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them; the cords of their sins hold them fast. 23 For lack of discipline they will die, led astray by their own great folly.”
But laying under the surface of the obvious are a variety of assumptions about accountability, shame, and the nature of covenant that I want to touch on. There are all kinds of implicit value judgments, prejudices and explicit misogyny in our sexual attitudes and they must be acknowledged if we are to live in covenant.
As written, men need to be careful. They are at risk for breaking the rules but it’s really those seductive women that are the problem. Men would be honorable if it weren’t for that attractive woman living next door. Instead of focusing upon our individual responsibility, we find someone to blame. And going back to Eve, woman have been the explanation for men’s bad behavior. It is indulgent, condescending and enabling to say ‘boys will be boys’. It is an evasion of accountability to say “Eve made me do it.”
When I am working with a couple in which infidelity is the presenting issue, I ask the offender (whether male or female) if such behavior, by their own values, was acceptable. Though there are exceptions, most say No. The next question is how then, did they give themselves permission to break their own rules. I don’t want to hear how their partner was unavailable or didn’t listen. It is an abdication to say, “Look what she made me do.”; “He tricked me.”; or “You have no idea how misunderstood/lonely I felt.” Those things may be true but they do not explain our choices. They rationalize them. We have an infinite capacity to avoid accountability—we can explain anything— but the path to surviving breaches of covenant require we look inward toward our own hearts. It takes courage to identify our own needs and more courage to bring them forward in a relationship. It is vastly easier to say ‘It didn’t mean anything, it just happened’— as if we were innocent bystanders at a train wreck.
In general, sex is a difficult topic in the church. A long tradition in the Western church has been to view sex as necessary but dangerous. The best way not to get burned is to stay away from the fire. Our passage today says much the same thing. Paul argues in 1Corinthians 7:8-9: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. 9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” For Paul, celibacy is best and marriage becomes a concession to our inability to manage our passions.
From there, It is a very short step to saying sex itself is bad. There is a dense layer of shame that often surrounds sexuality. Woman are stereotyped as the provocateurs of sexual desire. They are told in any number of ways to literally conceal their sexuality. Men are stereotyped as natural born predators who cannot manage their own impulses. The stereotypical generalizations we make have led to repression, shame, misogyny, and violence.
Discussions about sex, if they happen at all, often become about rules and taboos. We focus on the dangers of the fire instead of how to use it. When my daughter was three, I told her she could not play in the street. But eventually, she would learn she could play in the street— it is just more dangerous. She had to learn to assess risk and must how to make her own decisions. How long must any of us monitor our children before we trust them to be ready to make responsible decisions. How do we teach good decision making skills? Every parent watching a teenager driver for the first time knows this fear. There will be mistakes, we just pray they will not be fatal ones.
Not doing bad is not the same as doing good. We need to focus upon what we are promising—and why. Rather few of us have any real idea what we are promising when we make our wedding vows. As often as not, consciously or unconsciously, we are seeking to enhance ourselves. We seek security, family, regular sex, a soul mate, a business partner, etc. When real life happens, couples of every configuration, learn that none of the promises made to them are actually enforceable. They are statements of good intention. The only thing we can be in charge of is whether we will keep our promises. We have no control over the compliance of our partners.
Love is always a gift. My short hand version of the marital vows is that we promise to proactively cherish our partner. Within our abilities, we promise to honor and enhance that person. These are unilateral promises. It is not “Let’s make a deal.”
Such promises are hard. Our vows are about what we give–not what we receive. And, even as we seek to care for one another, our human limitations and sinfulness mean that we will be hurt. We will be disappointed and we will disappoint. The question will be how often such pain occurs. If you learn these things about relationship, you’ll have a better shot at forgiving, accepting forgiveness and working toward reconciliation. It is surprisingly possible when the focus shifts to accountability and covenant. We have to accept the fact that we will love imperfectly—and so will our partner.
When it comes to sexual fidelity, we are not monogamous by biology, we are monogamous by choice. And depending upon the situation and the libido, we can find any number of ‘reasons’ to reneg on that choice. Those reasons may be romantic, exploitive, self delusional, or simply lustful but at the end of day, we seek our own gratification. In the end, promises that we’ve made ‘before God and these witnesses’ are broken. Our needs trump our promises to cherish. Until those needs are identified and owned, all promises to be better—or promises that it will never happen again are more about conflict avoidance than they are about reconciliation.
I have seen a lot of broken promises and a wide variety of infidelities—some physical, some emotional. Sometimes the pain is not reconcilable. In real life, there is almost never a simple explanation. Nor is it gender specific. Male adulterers are just as seductive and dangerous as female adulterers. Woman use sexual attractiveness to measure their value every bit as much as men use their ‘prowess’ to measure theirs. Both genders have difficulty identifying, much less being responsible for, their needs.
In the end our ability to be in covenant depends upon God’s promises not ours. We can only honor our promises to love if we feel safe in God’s love. Doing the right thing does not mean we will be safe or that we’ll be loved. No amount of service, sacrifice or dutifulness can ensure that we will be loved. No amount of gym workouts, surgeries or multiple partners will make us younger. If our desirability is based on the physical we are all doomed to die alone.
Proverbs warns us to receive instruction and discipline to guide us to what really matters. It is a fool’s errand to believe that we can manage love by our position, our ‘victories’ or our attractiveness. Theologically we are trying to earn love rather than realizing it is always a gift.
We ended our FIRL discussion with the maxim: Too soon old; so late, smart. It is so tempting to seek what does not nourish. We can live a long time on Doritos but we will finally die of malnutrition. As Proverbs puts it: At the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and body are spent. 12 You will say, “How I hated discipline! How my heart spurned corrections!
In real life we will make plenty of mistakes—-and some that are very painful. Sometimes they will be egregious and sometimes they will be nearly impossible to see. But we all are tempted to live for ourselves at the expense of others. The issue will be: Can we learn? can we face ourselves and can we accept accountability. Finally, can we accept forgiveness. We need it—as individuals, with our friends and lovers and as a nation.
Such grace is the promise of God and the path to life. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.