As Dick, my longtime neighbor, and I chatted across our shared fence, he effused about the latest excitement in his life - visiting online chat rooms.
This was five or six years ago, when the Internet was still new to me. I'd have long since forgotten the conversation, except that a few months later, Jodie, Dick's wife of 43 years, showed up at our door to say goodbye. They were divorcing. Dick had met someone online and slipped into what's now called cyber-infidelity.
Although we were never more than casual friends, Jodie had been something of a grandmother to the whole neighborhood, forever serving up freshly baked cookies to our kids and loading down my wife with homegrown tomatoes and zucchini, the fruits of her backyard garden. We were sad to see her go, sadder still to see a longtime marriage between two good folks go down the drain.
I didn't know how often their story would replay. Experts say the Internet has significantly altered the landscape of sexual behavior, partly because it's so easy, and seemingly so safe, to initiate contact. Once contact is made, experts report, things can escalate far more quickly from chatting, to cyber-flirting, to cyber-betrayal and cyber-affairs. About 30 percent of the time, such online relationships spiral from e-mails to phone calls to face-to-face encounters (see Monitor, Aug. 19).
The phenomenon burst into the public spotlight recently when the mayor of a Massachusetts town - she is married and the mother of three children - indulged in a brief online betrayal. Her husband discovered the e-mails and allegedly tracked down and assaulted the man with whom his wife was involved. The embarrassment from having a personal lapse so publicly detailed is easy to imagine.
What's harder to grasp is just how to respond in a way that supports people struggling with temptation or trying to recover a steadier moral footing. Dick and I still talk across our back fence. He's never mentioned the wreckage piled up from his cyber-dalliance. I've never asked. Maybe I'm wrong, but he appears to be living under a cloud of regret.
So, I ask myself, Is there a way of strengthening the moral and spiritual underpinnings of a lasting marriage? Is there a healing response for those who've already stumbled or whose spouse has stumbled? After all, everyone involved deserves to recover; to be healed of hurts, of regrets, of bitterness; and to reclaim the moral compass they need in order to steer a safe and steady course to where faithfulness and fidelity are preserved or restored.
Maybe this new problem is best countered by some very old precepts, some bedrock truths found in Scripture. Maybe it's worth rethinking what the most basic impulses, the most fundamental driving forces within each of us, are.
Consider the moral and spiritual law given statement throughout the Bible, especially in the Ten Commandments. On one level, that's a law to study, to understand, and to strive to obey. On a deeper level, though, it's less about striving and more about seeing that the law of God, according to the Bible, is written in the heart of each individual. It's inherent in you and in me as our true nature.
The presence of that law within means that it is, already and always, in force as we endeavor to steer our lives along courses that prize and protect fidelity. Jeremiah records God as saying of His people, "I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33).
What a great promise! What a kind protection God has installed into each of us. Once we glimpse that this moral and spiritual law is inherent in us as God made us rather than imposed on us, we can take advantage of it and make surer strides toward fidelity.
It's not so much a matter of which social conventions and mores we accept. It's more a matter of understanding the nature of God who is endless Love, the nature of men and women as the flawless likeness of that Love, and the nature of His fidelity to us as His loved offspring. It is so very right for us to express that fidelity to one another. Because God has written His law in our hearts, we're empowered to do a better job of being faithful, whether we're cruising the Internet daily or still living in a computerless world.