Reflections on an affair

The self-deception of an emotional affair when it feels so right, how can it be so wrong?


It was after a particularly good sermon that Pastor Bob 1 first noticed her. Even though she was better looking than average, he had no improper thoughts toward her. But his heart skipped a beat as she shook his hand that day. He felt a tenderness in her touch. The look in her eyes revealed a woman in need.

Several days later he received a handwritten note: "I just wanted you to know how much your sermon last week meant to me. I've felt a bitterness toward God for some time, and your words made me long for a renewed relationship." Signed: "With appreciation, Beverly Bower."

Here was a sheep that had wandered from the fold, and it was Bob's mission to bring her gently back. He thought he had a God-given responsibility to invite her to his office and study with him. Then he remembered something he had read years before about how a man should not counsel a woman. But he wasn't counseling her; he was meeting her spiritual need. And that's what he was trained to do.

That advice is meant for weaker pastors, Bob thought. I've talked with women before, and nothing's happened. He was sure he could handle this situation. After all, here was a child of God in need of his help and counsel. He didn't foresee a temptation. He knew his own heart, and his marriage was the best it had ever been. Not that it was perfect, but just recently Karen and he had discussed how blessed they were to have a "better than average" marriage. They had suffered some rough times, but after 15 years together had settled into a comfortable relationship. Attending several marriage seminars had taught them how to communicate.

The next Wednesday evening after prayer meeting Beverly showed up at the door of Bob's private study, down the hall from the church lobby. She shared her story of how the anger she once felt toward her husband was now directed at God. "My husband made some bad financial decisions," she confided, "but I figured that since I had to live with him, I couldn't continue to feel bitter. Then I transferred that bitterness to God, because He could have prevented us from losing our home."

After Beverly finished her story, Bob spoke of his own spiritual walk and shared several key texts and encouraging quotations that would en able her to reach out to God again. Bob went home that night feeling a real sense of accomplishment. Beverly had soaked in every word he had shared, and seemed to be reconnecting. Without question this was a mission from God, and he was a true shepherd. Bob's heart was filled with compassion and sympathy for this bruised sheep he was carrying back to the fold of Jesus.

In following weeks the counseling sessions with Beverly became regular Wednesday evening events. She began building a bridge back to God. She also continued to share about the lack of nurture she was receiving from her husband. Bob found himself drawn to this woman who needed him so much. For the first time in many months he really felt he was helping someone with a significant need. She appreciated all his counsel. His altruistic feelings toward her weren't in appropriate, were they? He was doing only what he was ordained to do, restoring a lost sheep through spiritual nurturing.

Behind the scenes

If the curtains of human perception could be parted at this moment, Pastor Bob might hear Screwtape2 say to his conniving nephew: "Good job, Wormwood; I couldn't have done it better if I had masterminded this one myself. You chose your victim wisely. He's a natural to be caught in the web of adultery. It will be only a matter of time until he gives up the Enemy and is completely on our side by committing the unpardonable sin as far as church work is concerned.

"I remember him in seminary. I tried to trip him up then. He was such a good speaker and so admired, I thought maybe pride might do it, or arrogance—but he was too close to the Enemy. That's why I gave him to you. I knew it would take a while, but what's 15 years if you finally score a winner so big that in one fell swoop we can destroy a man's career, and family, and shake up the faith of an entire congregation! Ha! Ha! Ha!

"Let's review this case and define the personality profile most at risk for violating the Enemy's seventh commandment. Remember what attracted him to the girl he married? Yes, she too was a spiritually needy soul at the time, and he was quite a prize—the Enemy's religious leader on campus. He was a perfectionistic helper, not satisfied with doing things half well. In this girl he saw someone who really needed him. He invested many hours in soul communication, gazing into her eyes and soaking up her admiration. Ah! What a magnificent deception! While meeting his need to help someone spiritually, this soul communication met her need for someone who would listen and nurture her. She literally drank in all his advice and willingly conformed to his ideal.

"Then marriage and work: he, with his perfectionism, always did a first-class job for his boss, our Enemy, which he rationalized required not only his days but most evenings and weekends. His wife became her own person and no longer thirsted for his words of wisdom. The children came along. She became overcommitted to them, and he felt somewhat ineffective. Not finding his helper instinct appreciated on the home front, he threw himself even more enthusiastically into his work, helping to rescue the lost sheep. The years ticked by: ordination, bigger church, more time helping the helpless—and now we've almost got him.

"Now, listen: keep his mind centered on how much this beautiful lost sheep needs him; how helpless she is without his counsel. By all means keep him ignorant of the bonding process. He's learned the importance of looking a person in the eyes. Make sure this good advice is acted upon to hasten his demise. As she gazes at him in awe and admiration, make sure his eyes linger on hers. These Enemy workers have been warned about in appropriate touches, so he'll not fall here, at least not at first; but they're ignorant that the eye is the window to the soul. A lingering look can say more than words. Ha! And Pastor Bob thinks extended eye-to-eye contact is good counseling practice. The Enemy's parish workers have just enough counseling theory to make it dangerous.

"Next, Wormwood, try to increase their opportunities for communication—private communication. She's already written him a note. That's good. Very good! Notice he keeps it in his desk to read when things get tough. Work to increase his stack of keepsakes. Above all, let her communications get to him without the interference of his wife or secretary. Secrecy is on our side! Be sure he sets up the counseling appointments himself and have him shut the door when their talk gets sensitive. Give her car an occasional breakdown so he's forced to give her a ride home after their meetings. If you get her appointed to a church committee, there will be a legitimate excuse for them to meet for lunch.

"Then we've got to get Bob to think that self-disclosure will really draw out this lost sheep and thus provide the safe environment for her to be more open in sharing negative emotions. Get him to share things about his own marriage. He'll be guarded at first, but once he sees her interest rise and feels her empathetic response feeding his own emotions, he'll get more and more personal to continue eliciting the same intensity of response. The more intimate their talk, the more bonding. And they think touch is the only culprit! Ha!

"She's sure to respond with explicit details about her sad life, and the more they talk, the more they'll find in common—and the more they'll begin depending on each other. Imagine all this wrapped in the cloak of spirituality. We're close to nailing him on the first commandment. Now, let's go for the gold and get them to violate the seventh. The repercussion among the Enemy's flock is always much greater with that one.

"To make things appear proper, he'll need to persuade his wife to have her over for dinner. That'll give him opportunity to compare the two. Once he sees the difference between a wife who no longer needs him and the overwhelming 'I can't get along with out you' response from our temptress, he's almost ready to commit the seventh. Then let his wife get a little jealous so he'll get defensive. Have his wife withdraw, and he'll feel the need for someone who understands him. At the following session, when he shares his own hurt, add a sympathetic, lingering touch, and let an innocent 'I love you' slip out as his dear sheep now attempts to comfort him. Then victory is ours!"

The story continues

With every passing day Bob noticed that his thoughts were continually drawn to Beverly in one way or another. Something he'd see, hear, or read would bring her to mind. Even during private devotions he found himself thinking about sharing with Beverly. Throughout the day he mentioned her name in prayer. His own spiritual life seemed to take on a deeper meaning as it centered on Beverly and her spiritual needs.

Weekly he would share his new spiritual insights and feelings with Beverly. She in turn was developing a fervent walk with God and would share from her expanding personal devotions. It seemed they never had enough time to talk during the brief weekly visit, so Bob suggested they write their thoughts in a journal and exchange journals every week. Beverly eagerly agreed.

Bob soon realized he was communicating feelings and innermost thoughts with Beverly that he'd never shared with his wife. Again his mind flashed with the warning he had dismissed earlier, but once more Bob reasoned that he felt nothing immoral toward Beverly. He admitted being somewhat attracted to her—she was a good-looking woman—but he was more attracted to her mind, her spirituality. Certainly this attraction wasn't lust; he had no immoral physical intentions. They were just friends, that's all—just friends! Friends who had discovered a lot in common, with the key element being a mutually deep desire to reach out to God. Praying together each time they met was what he looked forward to. How could any thing be wrong with that?

Then his mind raced back to the previous month when Beverly had been crying in his office. He had come over and gently placed a comforting arm around her shoulder as he handed her a tissue. But what was wrong with that! People touch each other all the time, even in church. Just because two people touch doesn't mean they're involved in adultery.

There, Bob's mind had used the "evil" word. Adultery? No way! Adultery is when two people go to a motel room and do what the Bible specifically states is reserved for married partners. No, Bob had definitely not committed adultery. Counseling Beverly and others like her was his assigned ministry! He was helping someone find the Lord. What difference did it make that she happened to be a woman?

Yet the thought of adultery continued to plague him. Bob decided to check out his unsettling thoughts with Beverly. The following Wednesday evening they discussed their feelings for each other and decided they had no intention of breaking up their homes. They weren't involved in an immoral relationship. Beverly agreed, they were just friends, that's all. Friends who somehow sensed between them what Jesus and Mary Magdalene must have felt for each other—a spiritual rather than human love. That night they vowed their friendship would not reach the boundary of adultery. Their relationship would remain on a nonphysical level.

For a year Bob and Beverly continued their "friendship." In sharing thoughts, feelings, and their spiritual selves, they bonded emotionally, even though they never physically transgressed the seventh commandment. But the damage was nevertheless just as real. The "friendship" grew to the point where others, especially their spouses, began to notice the "electricity" in the air whenever Bob and Beverly were in the same room at a social function or church meeting. It was hard not to notice the light dancing in their eyes. One of the elders in the church even came to Bob one day and expressed his concern.

The following day Bob noticed a text that drove the point home: "The heart is deceitful above all things" (Jer. 17:9).* Had he been living in denial? Was his "talking" with Beverly indeed wrong, and had he been rationalizing it into something religiously right? Must he give up their friendship? But how could he abandon the lost sheep God had brought him? How could he neglect this mission from God, especially when they felt so close now, he and Beverly—and God? Another text seared his mind: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (Prov. 14:12).

Bob continued to read. In fact, the first seven chapters of Proverbs felt like a jackhammer working in the depths of his soul. He finally decided to look up the quotation that kept plaguing him.

"In the battle with inward corruptions and outward temptations, even the wise and powerful Solomon was vanquished. It is not safe to permit the least departure from the strictest integrity. 'Abstain from all appearance of evil.' When a woman relates her family troubles, or complains of her husband, to another man, she violates her marriage vows; she dishonors her husband and breaks down the wall erected to preserve the sanctity of the marriage relation; she throws wide open the door and invites Satan to enter with his insidious temptations. This is just as Satan would have it. If a woman comes to a Christian brother with a tale of her woes, her disappointments and trials, he should ever advise her, if she must confide her troubles to someone, to select sisters for her confidants, and then there will be no appearance of evil whereby the cause of God may suffer reproach."3


Bob knew he must talk to someone about his "friendship." He decided to see a professional counselor. After several weeks of counseling, Bob determined to cut off his relationship with Beverly—totally. Intellectually he knew this was right, but it felt like the crudest thing he'd ever done. And living without being able to share with Beverly, when they'd been intimate "soul mates," felt like emotional suicide. In actuality this relationship had changed Bob's entire emotional, mental, and spiritual focus. He realized he'd essentially turned his relationship with God into a relationship with another human. She came to occupy the place in his heart that had previously been reserved for God Him self. His thoughts, attention, and affection became hers.

With agony Bob came to the conclusion that in trying to keep from breaking the seventh commandment he had radically violated the first. He believed it was mutual—that Beverly experienced the same "soul connectedness" that came when she placed Bob on God's pedestal in her heart. That's what made the bond between them more difficult to abandon than if it had just been a physical union. By cutting off their friendship, they felt as if they were destroying their relationship with God. How could something that felt so right turn out to be so wrong?

For two years Bob struggled to erase Beverly from his memory. Every time he opened his Bible he'd think of her. Every time he tried to pray, thoughts of her flooded his mind. He wept over his sin, confessing it again and again, then trying to hear God speak to his soul. It was difficult erasing Beverly's form and voice from his heart and replacing it with God's. It was a slow and painful road back to where it was just God and Bob once again. The scars from that affair will always be present. Forgiveness is possible, but forgetting is not within the realm of human capacity. You can't erase a human mind in the way you can reformat a computer disk.

Forgiveness was needed not only from God but also from his wife, Karen. Bob learned that a spiritual or emotional affair can be more damaging to a spouse than a physical one. To share one's body may be less devastating to a wife than having her husband share his intimate soul with an other woman.

In time Bob and Karen's marriage went through a healing process. More than once they questioned whether it was worth struggling for what was left from Beverly. But in spite of their feelings, they knew God's will for their lives. For keeping them together, Bob credits Karen's unfailing love and support. If he'd been married to someone not as strong in the Lord or as committed as Karen, they would probably have divorced. Fortunately she saw in him something worth fighting for.

Beverly and her husband were not as fortunate, however. They divorced shortly after the "friendship" ended. Bob says he can't help feeling responsible and prays that both of them find healing somehow. He hopes she's not seeing another pastor now.

* All scriptures in this article are from the New International Version.

1. Names in this article have been changed. Anthony Alien works for a Christian publisher. This article is based on the forthcoming book It Isn 't Adultery if It's Not Physical, Is It?

2. With apologies to C. S. Lewis.

3. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 2, p. 306.

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November 1994

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