“But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28
For over 28 years I’ve heard the question from married men who’ve used porn: “Did I commit adultery? Can my wife divorce me now? Is she right when she says porn use is the same as cheating?”
Not to duck the question, but let me first point out that sometimes, questions like this can be an evasion. In an attempt to minimize the seriousness of their sin, lots of men compare their wrongdoing to other, more serious ones. So the guy who’s rude and bossy with his wife might say, “Well, at least I don’t knock you around like some wife-beaters do!” Or the guy who drinks too much will say, “Hey, at least I don’t use heroin!” True, perhaps, but comparing the severity of one wrong to another usually means a guy wants to justify his sin by minimizing it.
Still, it’s a legitimate question. Because some wives, in the throes of shock and pain when they discover their husband’s porn use, quote the Matthew 5 verse cited above as justification for a divorce. “You looked and you lusted,” they declare, “and that’s the same as adultery! And since Matthew 19:9 says adultery is Biblical grounds for divorce, we’re finished.”
Which prompts the husband to protest: “Yes, I used porn. But does that really make me an adulterer?”
Technically, no. But technically, yes. And, as Sir Thomas Moore famously said, “I trust I make myself sufficiently vague.” Let’s unpack this.
There is the literal act of adultery—the unlawful sexual knowledge of someone other than your wife—and there is behavior which does not technically qualify as adultery but is adulterous in nature. And the difference between adultery and adulterous is specific, and huge.
By way of analogy, let’s look at murder. All of us would agree that for something to qualify as a murder, it has to involve the unjust taking of another person’s life. That seems pretty clear cut.
Only it isn’t. Because John had this to say on the topic:
Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. (I John 3:15)
Clearly he’s referring to hatred as something murderous, a terrible sin of the heart. But would any of us really advocate the death penalty for everyone who hates? Sinful as that may be, surely the police won’t knock on my door if they heard I’m guilty of hating someone, because the literal act of murder is a far cry from the sin of murderous, internal hatred.
For that matter, in our church relations, we expect our pastors and elders to live exemplary lives. But consider the difference between these two scenarios: A pastor confessing to his board that he’s been harboring hatred in his heart towards a difficult church member, versus a pastor confessing to his board that he just shot and buried that pesky parishioner.
Doubtless the board’s response, much less their official actions, wouldn’t be the same in both cases. If the pastor murdered the parishioner in his heart by hating him, they’d pray with that pastor, encouraging him to seek healing and reconciliation. Perhaps they’d even determine that the pastor’s hatred has reached a point at which he needs to take a few weeks off. But so long as his sin remains internal, it’s doubtful they’d ask for his resignation.
So it is with lust and adultery. Adultery of the heart is, per Jesus Himself, a sin, and a serious one at that. The married man who commits it through porn use has betrayed his wife brutally, forsaking her fountain for images thrown at him from a stranger. This is no minor infraction, like coming home late for dinner or forgetting to pay the gas bill. It’s a deliberate, heinous violation, and no wife should be expected to tolerate it.
But to classify it as grounds for divorce is, to my thinking, as wrong as classifying murder of the heart as grounds for execution. So to the man whose wife is threatening divorce over his porn use, I would suggest making a few points clear to her, in hopes of reconciliation and healing.
1. First, you recognize the severity of what you’ve done, and see it as nothing short of violation which is adulterous in nature, but not the same as literal adultery.
2. Second, you will not only renounce this unclean habit, but you’ll take concrete, practical steps to help insure that you won’t return to it. You’ll make full use of the Covenant Eyes resources, and will establish accountability and deeper investments of prayer and scripture reading to build yourself up spiritually and emotionally.
3. Finally, you fully understand why she feels you’ve cheated, because, in fact, you did. You didn’t literally engage with another person, but you cheated your wife of that essence of yourself which is, by rights, hers and hers only (I Corinthians 7:4) Your sexuality, including your organs and your energy, is no toy you’re entitled to indulge for your private pleasures. It’s hers, meant to be shared and invested in a union the two of you created and sustain. Your behavior disrupted that union, and that alone warrants swift and serious remedial action.
So act now. Because if your sin does not technically qualify as adultery, that hardly minimizes its severity. Your wife’s anguish testifies against you, and the interruption of your home, not to mention your integrity, should be enough to motivate you to do whatever it takes to make this right.
By God’s grace, may you do just that.