What Is Adultery?


Why does the Bible say that whoever divorces commits adultery, and leads the other spouse to commit adultery too? I get it that divorce shouldn’t be encouraged because it isn’t favourable to the kids, and that introducing a step-parent (or new bf/gf) to their life disturbs them, but there is no cheating when the relationship is officially and publicly over. The definition of adultery is: if you are married: cheating on your spouse, if you are single: dating a person married to another

—Brian, SA


Dear Brian,

You raise questions that have been debated for centuries and by millions! A simple response by email seems a bit daunting but worthy of the effort. Ok, so some background is needed, drawn from the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda:

1. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees about the laws of divorcement given to the Jews by Moses, Jesus’ reply was “For the hardness of your hearts this (these) law(s) was given.” By this simple statement Jesus acknowledges that spiritual teachings have to suit the needs and consciousness levels of those to whom they are given. In such matters as marriage, there are no absolutes.

2. Jesus himself defined adultery as including lust, not just sexual activity with another who is not one’s spouse.

3. Paramhansa Yogananda taught that in respect to the evolution of the soul over countless lifetimes, a marriage “made in heaven,” such as was referred to by Jesus, can only be one in which the spiritual, soul-qualities of the two people draw them together for their individual spiritual upliftment. By contrast, Yogananda decried the superficial marriages in modern society which are based on sexual or emotional attraction, status, convenience, and casually shared interests. These, he said, are not the kind of marriages “which no man can put asunder,” as Jesus put it.

There are many circumstances wherein divorce is justified, though obviously perhaps too many such circumstances because treated so casually in today’s society. Both Jesus Christ and Yogananda are looking not at social consequences (children, as you mention, e.g., or the simple fact of mutual consent) but at the spiritual consequences to the individuals involved. Society can apply new and nuanced definitions to any word, including adultery, but what is being spoken of here, spiritually, is simple, good ol’ fashioned lust. And that begins in the mind (and heart) even if it never “flowers” in actual coitus.

The spiritual purpose of marriage is to unite “reason and feeling,” which is to say, balance the masculine and feminine expressions of the soul. Our souls are like half-souls and we achieve completion, wholeness both in God and in nature when we transcend the illusion of our separateness and all distinctions such as male and female. The physical purpose is, of course, children. In between, so to speak, is the powerful, magnetism of attraction and sexual pleasure (or anticipation of it) that makes it a reality rather than merely an abstraction. One can easily observe that in a true marriage, the partners grow away from sexual preoccupations and more and more towards friendship and mutual service. This is the law (or process) of spiritual awakening that marriage offers.

Thus divorce can rent asunder a relationship that may have had the potential to help them spiritually; more so, if the divorce is caused by infidelity, impatience, disrespect and other temporary human failings. To make divorce too easy is to threaten the spiritual value of marriage when, with a deeper commitment and understanding, the two partners might otherwise overcome their differences and become more mature and more spiritually awakened.

I perhaps have offered to you more than you are ready to hear, as Jesus put, “for those with ears to hear.” Spiritual teachings do not necessarily comfortably fit social mores or attitudes. This was as true in Jesus’ time as in our own. Jesus’ words of counsel are harsh to modern ears but Yogananda gave it a deeper explanation. In any case, we must be true to ourselves and to our understanding, even while open to correction or greater awareness.

Blessings to you!
Nayaswami Hriman