I had never heard of Ashley Madison until the news came out about the hackers who have released names and personal details of married members who are seeking an affair. "Life is short. Have an affair," they say in their tagline, and I can't believe somebody said that out loud once, much less on a website with nearly 40 million members. At first thought, my stomach dropped, and I shook my head. It makes me sick, and apparently the hackers with the Impact Team felt the same.
Since the release of adulterers' information, the internet has crucified Ashley Madison and anyone who's dared to sign up for a profile there, quick to call the site a scourge and quick to exhibit disgust, as well, I believe they should. I wonder as a believer in Christ how our response should be different, if at all. I wonder what your response would be if someone you love is revealed.
What I see in the church at a time like this is very important, not just to me, but to anyone deciding what to do with the idea of grace, repentance or healing, because it's easy to assume that how you respond to those found in the Ashley Madison database is how you would respond to me if my sins were revealed. I don't believe shame and disgust are necessarily inappropriate knee-jerk responses to such sickness, because an affair can bring destruction to the individual and to the entire family. But after the knee-jerk, where will we go from there?
I wonder about your response because I know myself. I know by experience how close I can walk myself to disaster while whispering the word "harmless" under my breath. How many of us live this way? Because I wrote my own affair story as part of my book, Wild in the Hollow, I've been afforded a great privilege in the church. Story begets story, so I've been hearing it for years now. I'm not the only one. In fact, I believe I can say that near half my closest believing friends have covered their wounds with the dark, easy loves found on the screen or in intimacy in harmless interactions. Many dear ones to me have had a serious struggle with secret sexual sin.
So, as the news comes out, and as the church responds to very real people and very real sin, I'm wondering: What if I were being caught? What would I need from you?
It's a fine starting place to show me your pain, how it makes you feel. When secrets come out, it's not time to pretend. In fact, it's a mercy and a grace for all involved to step a little bit closer to the pain. Trying to run from the pain is usually the real issue beneath the sin in the first place. Don't coddle my numb heart, but wake it up, and if I wake up and say the truth, don't forsake me. Set your boundaries, don't let me off the hook, but if you want for my healing, show me the Healer.
Too often these stories of purposeful moral failure start long before with intense pain and shame often born of rejection and abandonment. These aren't excuses, but we must know how often shameful things are used to cover shame that covers shame that covers shame. Too many of us have lived feeling completely incapable of stepping out of our hiding places. And isn't the secret always the hiding place, and isn't shame the shackle there, an endless loop of pain and self-soothing that creates more pain?
The way believers crucify anyone caught in an affair is often the very reason people in the church root down with their secrets. It's no wonder we turn to imaginary women with their whispering lips promising not to tell, instead of turning to Christ and especially to His people. Either way is pain, we think. It takes a rare, grace-filled, humble soul to show the resurrection way, the way that says come this way through the pain and meet your Healer.
Last night at sunset, I drove to Sequoyah Mountain, a place many go to find some peace here in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Sometimes it's covered in Christian college kids sitting in a row along the rock wall beneath a lit-up cross. The sky was gasp-worthy florescent pink, and several young men had gathered there maybe to talk, maybe to think they would sit in silence and awe. Instead every single one of them looked at their phones, as if the intimacy of the quiet might undo them. The silence feels like it might kill us sometimes. I'm no different, and I know it's especially hard when shame weighs us down, when we haven't addressed the pain.
If you found my name in the Ashley Madison database, maybe you could call me and let me know you're not disappearing, but the thing you could do, the real thing that would bring healing to marriages and to the church and maybe even to the world is help me learn how to be quiet. Help me learn how to rest again, how to sit in the silence with all the echoes of my heart and be filled there by God. Help me love my body, to not go hungry and to not flog myself. Remind me of the joy set before me and despise my shame.
Show me the way of peace. Show me that believers don't have to lash out, and they don't have to give an expository teaching about sin. If you want to see me come to healing, don't let me off the hook, but way before that, don't let yourself off the hook. Show me the way that says it's okay to hurt. It's okay to let the silence speak my secrets to the light.
Amber C. Haines, author of Wild in the Hollow, is a soulful writer and blogger at AmberCHaines.com, and a regular contributor to DaySpring's (in)courage and formerly to A Deeper Story. She loves the church and finds community among the broken.