Update: In July, 2022, I was a guest on the Christian Circle Podcast, where I spoke on this article and the meaning of the 6th Commandment. Visit the site or have a listen:
“You shall not commit adultery.”
One of the amazing things that human beings are capable is of entering into a lifelong , covenantal, life sharing and life giving mission which we name marriage. Our understanding of marriage goes right back to the beginning of the Biblical story. If you look at the accounts of Genesis where God creates humanity, you’ll notice something incredible about the way we’re made. Genesis 1:26-27 explains that we, as male and female human beings are created in the image of God. Later, Genesis 2:18 introduces us to man as being alone until God creates a suitable match for him- one he is finally able to give himself to in a relationship of selfless love (that’s why they could stand together naked yet unashamed!)
What you’d see in these passages from Scripture is that God designed us for something very unique:
“God created man as male and female. He created them for each other and for love. He created them with erotic desires and the ability to experience pleasure. He created them to transmit life.” -YouCat 400
Note that this relationship is not self-centered, not built upon sensual pleasure, nor is it a utilitarian action designed to preserve the species. It’s a good, beautiful, wonderful thing which draws two people to become one, to give themselves to the other, and to create life. And this is something that God Himself calls good (Genesis 1:31), because our sexuality is a powerful thing.
But any powerful, good thing can also be misused. The commandment regarding adultery is, on its first level, concerned with the ways in which we might misuse our sexuality. This is the one commandment which, once broken, causes many people to go to great lengths to either justify or to hide. You’ll find these in real life as well as in Scripture. The Bible tells us of many God-loving people who were felled by their sexual weakness, the most famous of which is probably King David of Israel. David is described as a man after God’s heart (1 Samuel 13:14), but later lied, manipulated, and eventually murdered to cover up his affair with Bathsheba, who was the wife of one of his soldiers (2 Samuel 11). Other important figures from scripture who struggled with sexual purity include Solomon, Samson, Abraham – and these are included in the Bible to remind us of two things: first, that God works with imperfect people, offering hope for the moments we fall short of this vision; and second, that these failures are not what he created men, women, love, marriage, and sexuality for. There is a greater context to which sex belongs:
“Sexuality must not be separated from love; they must go together. The sexual encounter requires the framework of a true, dependable love.” -YouCat 403
What we believe about our sexuality is that it really does mean something. YouCat talks about the Church’s “holistic-ecological approach to sexuality” (YouCat 404), which includes pleasure, love, and fruitfulness… in other words, that having a sexual relationship with another person means something. Sure, it feels good. Absolutely, it brings you closer to someone you have strong feelings for. But as our late, great Pope John Paul II explained, “To give your body to another person symbolizes the total gift of yourself to that person.”
Let me be as clear as I possibly can on this next point: the Church is in no way, shape, or form against either sex or love. There is no area of this teaching which exists because either God or the Church have it in for us or don’t understand the powerful draw our sexuality has. God gave this capacity to you, of course He understands it! He simply doesn’t want you to misuse it, because it is such a valuable gift:
“A person can give someone else no greater gift than himself. ‘I love you’ means for both: ‘I want only you, I want all that you are, and I want to give myself to you forever!’ Because that is so, we cannot, even with our bodies, really say ‘I love you’ on a temporary basis.'” -YouCat 407
Sexual intercourse speaks a language. To enter into a sexual relationship with another is to bind yourself to them, saying (in the vow formula of our Sacrament of Marriage): “I take you to be my husband/wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” Marriage is a covenantal bond which is professed before God, our family, and our friends, and is sealed by the act of sexual intercourse. It is in this permanent, covenanted relationship that we imitate the very love of God – a love which is free, which is total, which is faithful, and which bears fruit.
Whatever the Church will say about any sexual sin comes down to the idea that they somehow fall short of this vision. And it is often here in these statements where we’re being told you shouldn’t do this or that in which people feel the Church hates sex. Because the Church cares about us, she is trying to defend the goodness and sacredness of sex and marriage.
To be sexually active outside of the bond of marriage is to miss the point of what sexuality is supposed to be. When we hear “You shall not commit adultery,” what likely comes to mind is “once you’re married, don’t have sex with someone who isn’t your spouse.” But remember that Jesus raised the stakes significantly in our conversation about adultery when He said:
“I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” -Matthew 5:28
What is true for the other commandments is also true here: adhering to it just about the bare minimum of what the words ask of us, it’s about doing more. YouCat uses some pretty strong language here to explain why we should treat our sexuality with such care. To abuse our sexuality by adultery or fornication is “a serious offense against charity; it harms the dignity of the person and fails to recognize the meaning of human sexuality” (YouCat 410), as well as a “fundamental betrayal of love, the violation of a covenant that was made in God’s sight, and an injustice to one’s neighbor” (YouCat 424).
You are made in the image of God, with an incredibly powerful capacity to love others. But as the saying goes “with great power comes great responsibility,” and a healthy, good, and truly fulfilling experience of our sexuality is lived within the intention God has had for it. No matter what your state in life might be, this involves cultivating chastity within ourselves, explained by YouCat as “the virtue by which a person who is capable of passion deliberately and resolutely reserves his erotic desires for love and resists the temptation to find lewd images in the media (pornography) or to use others as a means to achieving his own satisfaction.”
This is the greatness to which you have been called.