It is no longer a matter of speculation: Your spouse has admitted to cheating. Besides you have the evidence of this awful truth going back months–or even years–in your hands. The world has stopped, and you are in shock.
You think, “This sort of thing happens to other people. Not us!”
How might a pastor help such individuals?
1. Acknowledge that the faithful spouse has been soul raped and is a victim of true evil.
To this day, so much shame surrounds being violated in this way. A pastor can help combat that shame by noticing and declaring that he or she sees adultery victims.
Further, the pastor can help the faithful spouse by naming what has happened appropriately:
Adultery is soul rape. And adultery is evil.
2. Warn and remind them that they are in no way responsible for being sinfully victimized by their spouse.
The warning ought to take the form of warning them that many “false prophets” or religious people will try to convince them of “The Shared Responsibility Lie.” They will go through all sort of mental and spiritual gymnastics to shift the blame upon you for your spouse’s sins. These folks are not acting or speaking in a godly way. Do not listen to them!
Also, the faithful spouse will likely be tempted to take some blame for this. Warn them not to do so! Their performance as a spouse–good or bad–is not what caused this sin.
What caused this sin was a sinner–the cheater–who chose to act on the wickedness in his or her own heart (e.g. Mark 7:21-23).
God does not blame or hold anyone responsible for another’s sinful actions (e.g. Mark 7:21-23, 2 Corinthians 5:10, etc.). They are not responsible for their spouses’ infidelity at all.
3. Prepare the faithful spouse to end or walk away from the adultery-ravaged marriage.
Just as the faithful spouse was not given a choice in the matter of his/her partner’s adultery, it is not the faithful spouse’s choice whether or not the adulterous spouse will repent of such sin. In other words, godly restoration of the marriage is not an option the faithful spouse has control over choosing. The faithful spouse only has control over whether or not he/she will tolerate this behavior.
Gently remind the faithful spouse that as long as she is unwilling to divorce the cheating husband that she gives him the power to continue to abuse and sin against her. As long as divorce is always unacceptable, everything else–including even extreme abuse–is acceptable. This is not what God intended for marriage.
God has provided divorce as a mercy for partners who are abandoned or violated by their spouse’s sexual infidelity (see Jeremiah 3:8, Mt. 1:19, Mt. 5:32, Mt 19:9, and I Cor. 7:15). God does not require a faithful spouse to remain married to an unfaithful one period. Anyone who adds further conditions is adding to God’s words of permission on these matters.
The faithful spouse may really want to stay in the marriage. They need to be reminded that such a choice might not be up to them in a world of no fault divorce. It only takes one to dissolve a marriage.
Furthermore, it is not spiritually–or otherwise–healthy to compromise on repentance to stay married to someone who is unwilling to cease and turn from all unfaithful activity. That is a good way to risk well-being on all levels including the physical.
An important side note: Has the faithful spouse gotten tested for STDs yet? He/she should as that is one risk that comes with being married to a cheater.
4. Give them permission to grieve and warn them about the fake-forgiveness pushers.
Whether or not the faithful spouse is currently divorced. This person has still violently loss his spouse–i.e. the spouse that he once trusted. And a lot of other losses–emotional, social, physical, financial, etc–go with that abrupt taking of this key relationship.
This is a time for grieving great and many losses.
Everyone grieves in their own way and on their own timetable. It is an emotional–not a cognitive–process. You do not think your way out of grief. One must pass through this mad experience in order to find healing.
Warn the faithful spouse not to allow anyone to treat their grief as secondary to the process of forgiveness.
For timing on having the forgiveness conversation, a good test is to ask themselves if this is the sort of advice they would expect to be given to a widowed spouse or someone who was raped/molested. Adultery is soul rape, and so, it is a fair comparison.
A few more notes about discerning genuine and fake forgiveness:
Forgiveness does not entail never speaking or remembering what was done. God has forgiven me but I am reminded in Scripture that I am sinner who was redeemed. A person pushing forgiveness as a way to silence the adultery victim is not presenting godly forgiveness. Historical facts remain historical facts even after effective forgiveness.
Godly forgiveness requires repentance. Jesus instructs us to forgive our brother if he repents (see Luke 17:3). For someone to experience forgiveness–even forgiveness from God–one must humbly repent by acknowledging one’s need and turning from the sin (e.g. Hebrews 10:26-27, I John 1:9, 3:6, etc.).
In the end, all that forgiveness might mean for the faithful spouse is handing the cheater over–figuratively and spiritually speaking–to God for Him to handle. It is not our place to take revenge even if the person is unrepentant (see Romans 12:19). At some point, faithful spouses need to entrust the injustice done to them to the Just Judge. However, this should not be rushed as the anger here is righteous and a necessary part in the grieving healing process.
Another important piece is to encourage the faithful spouse to talk with someone who will listen without judging or condemning them. An adultery victim needs space to tell her story again and again! This is part of giving permission for the faithful spouse to grieve.
5. Offer to confront the cheater and pledge support to the faithful spouse in this traumatic time.
It may not be appropriate to confront the cheater for whatever reason (e.g. the cheater is not a Christian, has already been confronted, is not a member of the pastor’s church, etc). However, part of the pastor’s job is to rebuke when appropriate (see 2 Timothy 4:2), and adultery warrants a rebuke if ever a sin did!
Just offering to confront goes a long way to signal to the faithful spouse that this pastor takes adultery seriously.
These days I am less inclined to push church discipline (Mt 18:15-17) as a solution. My reasoning for this is that most situations lack the community church buy-in from the cheater for it to work. Furthermore, I am painfully aware of how people trying to implement church discipline quickly has turned into abuse itself.
That said, I support following Scripture (e.g. Mt 18:15-17) and suggest following the steps with the last step being a reminder to the cheater that his/her dirty secrets will not be kept as secrets anymore. The pastor will fully support the faithful spouse and encourage her to tell whomever she needs to for support about what the cheater did.
Truth is not slander.
If the cheater is another pastor, he/she ought to be removed from ministry for a time of healing and repentance as he or she is morally disqualified from such an office (see I Timothy 3:2).
In pledging support, the pastor ought to encourage and offer hope to the faithful spouse of a future beyond these painful days. Do not invalidate the real feelings of abandonment the faithful spouse is likely feeling. However, encourage the faithful spouse with reminders of Job’s and Joseph’s stories where godly men endured injustices even for a long time yet God redeemed their suffering.
This is not the place to push or encourage false hope in a restored marriage. God may do that miracle in the cheater’s heart, or He may not. It is wonderful if God does do a true miracle of marriage resurrection. However, the pastor ought to point out that God’s redemptive ability for the faithful partner is not limited by whether or not the cheater chooses to repent thereby starting the marriage resurrection process.
Many faithful spouses go on to live full and rich lives after divorcing a cheater.