Deterring Immorality by Counting Its Cost
In 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter, a powerful novel centered around the adulterous relationship of Hester Prynne and the highly respected minister, Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale. The fallen pastor, remorseful but not ready to face the consequences, asks the question, “What can a ruined soul, like mine, effect towards the redemption of other souls?—or a polluted soul, towards their purification?” He describes the misery of standing in his pulpit and seeing the admiration of his people, and having to “then look inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize.” Finally he says, “I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!”
Ruined, polluted, black reality, bitterness, agony. And perhaps, worst of all, Satan’s laugh. These are just some of the consequences of sexual immorality in the life of one known as a follower of God.
I met with a man who had been a leader in a Christian organization until he committed immorality. I asked him, “What could have been done to prevent this?” He paused only for a moment, then said with haunting pain and precision, “If only I had really known, really thought through and weighed what it would cost me and my family and my Lord, I honestly believe I would never have done it.”
Some years ago my friend Alan Hlavka and I both developed lists of all the specific consequences we could think of that would result from our immorality as pastors. The lists were devastating, and to us they spoke more powerfully than any sermon or article on the subject.
Periodically, especially when travelling or when in a time of temptation or weakness, we read through this list. In a personal and tangible way it brings home God’s inviolate law of choice and consequence. It cuts through the fog of rationalization and fills our hearts with the healthy, motivating fear of God. We find that when we begin to think unclearly, reviewing this list yanks us back to the reality of the law of the harvest and the need both to fear God and the consequences of sin.
An edited version of our combined lists follows. I’ve included the actual names of my wife and daughters to emphasize the personal nature of this exercise. Where it involves my own lists of specific people’s names, I’ve simply stated “list names” so the reader can insert the appropriate ones in his own life.
Some of these consequences would be unique to me, just as some of yours would be unique to you. I recommend that you use this as the basis for your own list, then include those other consequences that would be uniquely yours. The idea, of course, is not to focus on sin, but on the consequences of sin, thereby encouraging us to refocus on the Lord and take steps of wisdom and purity that can keep us from falling.
(While God can forgive and bring beauty out of ashes, that’s a message to those who have already sinned...not to those who are contemplating sin! On the “front side” of sin we must not give assurances of forgiveness and restoration. We must put the focus where Scripture does—on the love of God and the fear of God, both of which should act in concert to motivate us to holy obedience.)
Personalized List of Anticipated Consequences of Immorality
- Grieving my Lord; displeasing the One whose opinion most matters.
- Dragging into the mud Christ’s sacred reputation.
- Loss of reward and commendation from God.
- Having to one day look Jesus in the face at the judgment seat and give an account of why I did it.
- Forcing God to discipline me in various ways.
- Following in the footsteps of men I know of whose immorality forfeited their ministry and caused me to shudder. List of these names:
- Suffering of innocent people around me who would get hit by my shrapnel (a la Achan).
- Untold hurt to Nanci, my best friend and loyal wife.
- Loss of Nanci’s respect and trust.
- Hurt to and loss of credibility with my beloved daughters, Karina and Angela. (“Why listen to a man who betrayed Mom and us?”)
- If my blindness should continue or my family be unable to forgive, I could lose my wife and my children forever.
- Shame to my family. (“Why isn’t Daddy a pastor anymore?”; the cruel comments of others who would invariably find out.)
- Shame to my church family.
- Shame and hurt to my fellow pastors and elders. List of names:
- Shame and hurt to my friends, and especially those I’ve led to Christ and discipled. List of names:
- Guilt awfully hard to shake—even though God would forgive me, would I forgive myself?
- Plaguing memories and flashbacks that could taint future intimacy with my wife.
- Disqualifying myself after having preached to others.
- Surrender of the things I am called to and love to do—teach and preach and write and minister to others. Forfeiting forever certain opportunities to serve God. Years of training and experience in ministry wasted for a long period of time, maybe permanently.
- Being haunted by my sin as I look in the eyes of others, and having it all dredged up again wherever I go and whatever I do.
- Undermining the hard work and prayers of others by saying to our community “this is a hypocrite—who can take seriously anything he and his church have said and done?”
- Laughter, rejoicing and blasphemous smugness by those who disrespect God and the church (2 Samuel 12:14).
- Bringing great pleasure to Satan, the Enemy of God.
- Heaping judgment and endless problems on the person I would have committed adultery with.
- Possible diseases: gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, herpes, and AIDS (pain, constant reminder to me and my wife, possible infection of Nanci, or in the case of AIDS, even causing her death, as well as mine.)
- Possible pregnancy, with its personal and financial implications, including a lifelong reminder of sin to me and my family.
- Loss of self-respect, discrediting my own name, and invoking shame and lifelong embarrassment upon myself.
These are only some of the consequences. If only we would rehearse in advance the ugly and overwhelming consequences of immorality, we would be far more prone to avoid it. May we live each day in the love and fear of God.
For more on this topic, see Randy's book The Purity Principle and his booklet Sexual Temptation: Establishing Guardrails and Winning the Battle.