Sure, you may be thinking, that's a story I've heard lots of times.
But this story has a twist. Amy Taylor found her husband David Pollard cheating on her virtually, in a Second Life chat room. The Second Life world, in which people take on alternative online identities and pursue "second lives," has apparently become an obsession with lots of people.
But, no harm, right? I mean, in neither instance was Pollard really having sex with another woman. It was just harmless cybersex, some might say.
But undermining this argument is the fact that Taylor and Pollard themselves began their relationship online. And Pollard himself apparently thought his virtual relationship was real enough to tell his real wife that he wanted to end his real marriage.
These may be extreme examples of Second Life obsession, but they hold up an important truth: The wall between our thoughts and our actions is highly permeable.
Psychologists and medical researchers have been telling us for years about how obsessive thoughts of ill-health can lead to the conditions that hypochondriacs dread or to psychosomatic symptoms simulating them. And for decades, pilots, astronauts, and surgeons, among others, have used increasingly refined simulators to prepare them for their work.
But, at a more basic level, thinking about things as Mr. Pollard did at his computer screen--a seemingly harmless indulgence--is more than virtually doing them.
More than once, Jesus talked about the implicit connection between thoughts and actions. For example:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28)Jesus also said that unreconciled anger, even if you keep it to yourself, is virtually murder.* And thoughts of taking what belongs to one's neighbor were deemed so destructive of our relationships with God and others that the Ten Commandments contain not one, but two, prohibitions against coveting:
You shall not covet your neighbor's house. (9th.)**Both of these commands deal with thoughts for the simple reason that thoughts aren't harmless.
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his cattle, or anything that is your neighbor's. (10th.)***
Years ago, Norman Vincent Peale told about a man who came to his office for counseling. The man, a Hollywood type, had made a mess of his life. For some time, he'd been fantasizing a relationship with a particular young actress. Peale said that, repeatedly in his mind, this producer had run and rerun a casting couch scenario resulting in a sexual encounter. In Jesus' eyes, this man, married, had already committed adultery. But then, his fantasies became father of the fact. The casting couch scenario was enacted and the starlet became pregnant, threatening the man's marriage and his self-respect.
We live in crasser times than those when the Hollywood producer visited Peale. We're more boorish in our relationships, both real and virtual, less likely to see the harm in our thoughts and fantasies.
But what if we acknowledge that there's little difference between what we think about and what we do? What if we want to live in ways that please God? A few thoughts:
91. Understand that there's nothing we can do to earn God's favor. "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us," Paul writes in Romans 5:8. And then later, he reminds, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works..." (Ephesians 2:8-9). We all fall short of God's expectations of us, whether in our thoughts or actions. But God forgives sinners like me and you. In this lifetime, we'll never purge our brains of every destructive thought. That's why we need to rely constantly on the grace of God.
2. God is willing and able to help us when we consider being destructive of our relationships with God and others or of our own psyche and well-being. We can turn to God-in-the-flesh, Jesus, Who understands:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)3. Make a conscious effort to keep your thoughts on what's good, helpful, and wholesome. Paul writes: "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8). God can displace our destructive thoughts.
*Anger, in itself, is not a sin as I talked about here.
**I love Martin Luther's explanation of this commandment in The Small Catechism:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not desire to get our neighbor's possessions by scheming or by pretending to have a right to them, but always help him keept what is his.***Here's Luther's explanation of the Tenth Commandment:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not tempt or coax away from our neighbor his wife or his workers, but encourage them to remain loyal.