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I've been thinking about the quality of fidelity lately. The dictionary defines fidelity as "the quality or state of being faithful," "conjugal faithfulness," and "strict observance of promises, duties, etc." Fidelity can also be thought of as the fulfillment of the Seventh Commandment. But is fidelity merely the absence of adultery, or is it something more?
In the Bible, Jesus doesn't have a whole lot to say about adultery. And unfortunately, I've seen people use his relative silence on the matter to justify all sorts of human behavior, saying, "Jesus never said anything about that!" He never spoke about writing computer viruses, either, but that doesn't mean he would condone it. And the few times he did speak about adultery and faithfulness, his remarks were pretty intense.
I teach a Sunday School class each week to a group of high schoolers, and so you'd better believe they are brimming with the kinds of questions that teenagers want to know about. Every once in awhile, they actually build up enough courage to ask me those questions. A couple of weeks ago, in response to one of my student's questions, I shared with the class part of the Sermon on the Mount -- one of the few times Jesus explicitly talks about adultery. It's in Matthew 5:27-28, and reads as follows:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
Now let me put that into my own words: "You have heard it said, 'Don't sleep around; that's adultery.' But I tell you that if you so much as think/fantasize about having sex with someone that you're not married to, you already have committed adultery." Ouch! I can imagine the reaction of the men that Jesus was speaking to. It was probably very similar to the reaction of some of my students a couple of weeks ago -- paralyzed with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, that still makes me laugh!
Shock is a common reaction for those who encounter that passage for the first time and really let it sink in, as people realize the great moral distance between themselves and Jesus. But sometimes people don't really progress much beyond that shock, and they start to think it's an impossible standard. And I think that's unfortunate. Is real fidelity an impossible standard? People will look at that passage and think, "well shoot, I've done that; therefore I must be bad." But I don't read that passage as condemnatory. I see it as a call to go higher.
What if, instead of approaching adultery as judgmental, we approached fidelity as progressive? Certainly, anyone overtly committing adultery needs to stop. The very next thing Jesus recommends is to cut off your right hand if it offends you -- meaning stop making excuses for immorality and cut it out of your life. But what about those who are not making any overtly immoral choices, and want to strengthen a relationship, but worry that perhaps they're not good enough? Or maybe they have had the kind of "wandering eye" that Jesus describes here, and although they haven't acted on it, they worry that it's a bad omen, or perhaps that their partner deserves better than them?
The worst forms of evil are often the most subtle, because while it's easy to distinguish an overt lie from the truth, we sometimes mistake a more subtle lie for the truth. It is a subtle lie to think "I'll probably never be good enough; my partner deserves better than me." That is a form of self-condemnation. The Christ does not come to condemn us, but to uplift us. So when we think about fidelity as it applies to our own relationships, it's crucial to approach things from a standpoint that saves and uplifts, rather than one of condemnation.
You can rise out of self-condemnation by focusing less on the negative, and more on the positive. Don't merely practice a lack of adultery; practice active fidelity. This means open communication with ones partner. This means building up a genuine desire to do things together, rather than apart, or with newer or more exciting friends instead. Your partner should be the most exciting person in the world to you. And what if they're not? Well, don't self-condemn, and don't condemn them either. Start by seeing the best in them. And give your best to them. Practice giving.
Alone time is still important. Time with ones friends is still important. But you should never have to dread the time spent with your partner. And what if you do dread it? It might help to start by remembering what it was that made you fall in love with them in the first place. And then look for fresh reasons to do it again. Find ways to give, to encourage, to celebrate. Carry the conversation if you need to. Rather than approaching relationships from a consumer mindset, approach them from a creative mindset. Each day with your partner is a gift, a new opportunity to express your best qualities, and to recognize the best in them. That is progressive fidelity. That is a higher fidelity.