Dear Donagh,

I find myself on the edge of a tragic storm that has partly been caused by adultery. A fragile marriage is almost broken, children are hurt and confused, friendships have been broken and trust has been lost. The marriage in question is my sister in law's and although she ended the relationship some time ago and tried to work hard on her marriage, the other person did not accept it was over and continued to try to restart the relationship. His wife found out what had been going on and now this has resulted in a number of separations. My sister in law then had to tell her teenage children what has happened.  What do you believe is the true Christian response to this situation? How should we show compassion and bring healing? We all know so well Jesus's reaction but what about the man in that story? I understand that in certain situations, such as times of crises, married people can find themselves attracted to another person and can fall in love. Is anyone entitled to pass judgement or throw the first stone? Please help me to do the right thing in this situation.  E.

Dear E., It’s good that you are there on the wings, and not judging.  It takes great self-discipline to keep from judging, especially in very personal family matters.  I feel sure it’s the key; and it is already in your possession. 

There’s no accounting for what people do.  It’s hard to understand how a reasonable person could do something so disastrous to her marriage and family.  But then, it wasn't a reasonable decision; it was some kind of dream of an alternative life, even though her own life was established – a dream of starting all over again.  That's the way with the imagination.  Everyone has dreams of starting his or her life all over again.  But it’s a shock when the dream turns into reality; it’s like sleep-walking out the window. 

That said, what do you do?  By restraining the instinct to judge, you are already doing more than most people could do.  We like to stand on the sideline and tell everyone how the game should be played, how their life should be lived.  It makes us feel very wise, and safe, and high above it all.  This is what drives it; it’s all about ourselves; and we never pause to see if we are doing good or harm.  Congratulations that you have not fallen for that. 

That is about what you shouldn't do.  But what should you do now?  You just show them how to go on.  Life is about going on; it’s about taking the next step.... By being there for them, on speaking terms with all of them, and not intruding your own judgments, you are demonstrating for them how to go on.  You are ‘modelling’ it for them, as the saying goes.  You are not telling them (many would) how to avenge, or how to cringe, or how to humiliate one another further, or how to exact the highest price; you are not telling them that it’s misery all the way from here to the grave.  Your calmness, your gentleness, your forbearance: these are the very qualities that they will all have to develop if their lives are not to be poisoned forever.  If your brother is so hurt that he is not yet able – or not yet able – to embody these qualities, your presence is a tremendous support to him.  And if your sister-in-law is deeply humiliated, the quality of your presence gives her hope that life can still go on. 

You mentioned “a number of separations.”  I don't know if you mean that both marriages are broken up.  Let’s hope it’s not irredeemable.  But even if there’s no immediate likelihood of your brother and his wife getting back together, your effort is not wasted.  It’s just as valuable as before, because, one way or another, their lives will have to go on. 

You can do great work with the teenage children.  Young people tend to have liberal views on sexuality – except in regard to their parents!  The very thought of their parents’ sexuality is an embarrassment to them.  So they won't know how to think or feel or talk about it.  But for them your presence and your conversation will represent a reaching towards normality.  They will be able to talk to you in ways that would be unthinkable with their parents.  You are a key figure, and thank God you have the wisdom not to throw fuel on the flames. 

The other man, if your sister-in-law wants to end the relationship, is now just an intruder.  Cooling that person’s ardour might be a task for your brother rather than for you.  

“What do you believe is the true Christian response to this situation? How should we show compassion and bring healing?”  I think you are already doing it exactly right.  “Judge not,” Jesus said.  He was to have some experience of judges: Herod and Pilate.  And when Pilate asked him “What is truth?” Jesus remained silent.  Don't expect – he seemed to say by his silence – don't expect to hear anything about the truth when you are sitting on your throne of judgment.  We don't have to issue a judgment – which is the very first thing that many Christians tend to do.  They think it would amount to a denial of the faith if they didn't condemn everyone in moral trouble.  They should read about the Pharisees.  The reason the Pharisees occupy so many pages of the gospels is that the writers wanted to hold them up to us as a mirror.  But the point is usually lost. 

God bless your great work.  You are working at the very heart of the Gospel. 


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