Hello, this is Russell Moore, and this is Questions and Ethics, the program where we take your moral dilemmas and look at them in the light of scripture and the gospel. And today, the question that I have is actually not from one of you. The question is from me. And that is because with all of the news and controversy right now about the Ashley Madison hack—For those of you who are not aware of this, it’s a website that is designed to help people to have affairs—so, people pay in order to find people to commit adultery with. And hackers, of course, have gotten into the list of customers. They’ve made that list available. So, I have just been—I don’t know about y’all, but I have been seeing all week long just one devastating situation after another where people have been caught in this, and marriages breaking up, and all sorts of awful ramifications.
So, the question I have is when this started to happen—because I have to tell you I assumed when I first saw Ashley Madison talked about on some television news program, I assumed that this was really just kind of a publicity stunt because I thought nobody’s really going to be paying money to do this. Well, I was wrong. Millions and millions and millions of people signing up and doing this. So, I found myself the other day on the phone saying to someone, “How could people be this stupid?” I mean, how could you think that you are going to go in and use your credit card and get involved with some website and that you weren’t going to get caught? I had several conversations with friends in ministry about that. It just seems crazy and irrational and self-destructive.
But as I said that, and I heard myself even asking the question, are these people really that stupid, the more I’ve started thinking about that, and to realize that the people who are Ashley Madison customers are not more stupid than anybody else. And I really should have known that even from the very beginning. Everybody who has an adulterous affair is acting in ways that are irrational and ultimately self-destructive. I mean, every situation like that is the case. I mean, even the guy who founded Ashley Madison told a New Zealand newspaper in 2010 that he’s happily married, and he’d be devastated if his wife ever cheated on him or if she ever used a website or something like Ashley Madison herself. So, it is inherently something that doesn’t lead to good results.
I mean, even if you just bracketed biblical morality and the gospel for a moment and just used that Proverbs sort of wisdom that says look and see how this ends up. You know, the Proverbs say that one doesn’t take a dog by the ears. Well, why is that? because we can observe and say people who come up and just take a random dog in the street and grab him by the ears, it doesn’t end well. And people who cheat on their spouses, it doesn’t end well. So, why do people do it?
And I think the problem that I was having as I was looking at Ashley Madison is that I was thinking in inherently rational ways which is not the way that any of us think. And that is precisely the danger of temptation, whatever the temptation is. We can assume that these people just lack intelligence or skill or foresight, and if they had just been a little bit smarter they wouldn’t have gotten caught in this. That is not the case at all. I mean, if you think of the pattern of temptation that we see in scripture, it always attempts to conceal potential consequences and to give the person a feeling as though the person is above consequences, as though the person is special. When the serpent comes to Eve, he says if you eat of this you will be like God knowing good and evil, and you “will not surely die.” Well then when we look in Proverbs 7 at the father saying to his son don’t go in the way of the adulteress—well, how does it happen? He gives the example of a young man who it just seems like everything is happening just right: He goes out onto the street, and he happens upon this woman, and she happens to be interested in him, and her husband happens to be out of town, and so she happens to invite him over. And he doesn’t realize that he is being gradually lured toward his destruction, “as an ox is taken to slaughter,” the Proverbs is saying to us.
And so what we need to realize is that temptation isn’t merely cognitive. People aren’t just marking out here are the benefits of this action and the consequences of this action. That’s not the way people think. It’s not merely biological either. There is a biological instinct toward sexual expression that is designed by God to lead us into marital intimacy with one another, toward the one-flesh union. And so it is very powerful. And that is exploited by the flesh, is exploited by what the scripture refers to as both the world—the environment around us and the system of the universe around us—and the by the devil—by those invisible personages in the universe that really seek our destruction. And the tempting powers come after us in much the same way, whatever your particular point of vulnerability is. They want to distort the way that we see the future.
So, if I am wanting to—if I know that eating deep fat fried doughnuts every morning is going to raise my cholesterol levels, you know, it doesn’t matter if I know that, cognitively, unless I can imagine myself having a heart attack. If I start to imagine heart attacks as the things that happen to other people and not to me, then it is easy to pull myself towards something that is going to be destructive in that way. If I choose to give my children building blocks, and I don’t choose to give them matches to play with, it’s because I can imagine what it would be like to see my house burning down.
And in almost every adultery situation I’ve ever seen—and I say almost—I think every adultery situation I’ve ever seen, there has never been a rational decision-making process going on. The person never really believes that he or she is going to get caught. And in many cases, in many of the adultery situations I’ve seen, the person who is cheating doesn’t want the marriage to end. In many cases, the person wants to keep everything the same—spouse, kids, and the lover too. Now, that is irrational. That is not the way the world works. I mean you just look around and you see this taking place, and you are able to say to this guy or to this woman, that is not going to happen, that is not the way that you can build a healthy marriage. But you can convince yourself, or you can be convinced that this will work for you.
And the way that you become convinced of that is to think that you are special. You start to see yourself as having power over—just as our first parents did—what the serpent said to them is you can be the one to discern between good and evil. You can have that power in and of yourself. And if you have the power to discern between good and evil then you have the power over life and death—“You will not surely die.” Once we become convinced of that, through whatever reason—if we’re in a place of deep vulnerability, we’re in a place of distance from God, we’re in a place of—whatever’s going on in our life, once we fall for that we can do crazy, crazy things. It’s not simply just a matter of intelligence.
Satan is intelligent. Satan is hyper intelligent. And yet, Satan is able to see and know that God made a promise that he would crush his skull. He is able to see that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead. He is able to see the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church through the life of the world. He is able to see all those things, and yet he rages all the more, Revelation 12 tells us, against Christ and his people because he knows his time is short. Now, that’s crazy. That’s crazy. Just in terms of military strategy, that is crazy because why would you continue to fight, when you know that you are on the losing side?
But the issue is not intelligence here. What we need is wisdom, and what wisdom does is not just give us consequences and benefits. Wisdom shows us the way that we are to walk. It shows us a picture of where our sinful choices are going to lead us—that sort of destruction—and it shows us the way to walk in which is sometimes a way that doesn’t seem right to us. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” the scripture says, “and the way thereof leads to death.” Okay. The scripture tells us that way is a person, Jesus of Nazareth, and we follow him even when it doesn’t make sense to us or it doesn’t feel right to us in the moment.
And so, you may be in a situation where you just aren’t in a place of vulnerability like these people who have been caught in the Ashley Madison situation are. And that may well be. We all have different points of vulnerability. But all of us, this side of resurrection, are on the verge of wrecking our life, at any point and at any time. We are always walking through the valley of the shadow of death. And the answer isn’t going to be found in our talent, it’s not going to be found in our strategy, it’s not going to be found in our brilliance—it is found only in wisdom, and wisdom is rooted, the scripture says, in fear, the fear of the Lord, and the vision of his future. And so we are constantly in need of the power of the Spirit. We are constantly in need of mercy.
And so, if you are tempted to do what I was tempted to do and to look at these guys caught and to say, “How stupid! How could you do that?” Well, take heed lest you fall because intelligence can’t save us from this. Planning can’t save us from this. Only the Spirit and the gospel can.
This is Russell Moore. This is Questions and Ethics. What’s your situation that you are dealing with? Do you have a moral dilemma? Maybe a conversation that you are having with a coworker and you are kind of stumped, or maybe you are reading your Bible and you come across something you don’t know how to make sense of it, or maybe something going on in the culture around you or in your neighborhood, and you are thinking I just don’t know what to do about this. Well, give me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be glad to take it up here on the Questions and Ethics program. Talk to you next time.
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