Ashley Madison , City Slickers, and John Donne

ashley-madisonAbout six months ago my wife told me that she’d seen a television commercial about a service called “Ashley Madison.” We looked up the website together and discovered, to our mutual horror, that it offered to facilitate adultery hookups between married persons. I wished, at that time, that it would be the last I’d hear of such a thing.

Fast forward to just the other day, and Ashley Madison was once again in the news. This time because an anonymous group had hacked their database and released the user data from the website into the public. This user data included email addresses, credit card information, and user profile information (covering preferences and desires for these illicit encounters). The scandal was both immediate and prurient. Immediate because many people who had trusted the web service to hide their data were suddenly exposed; immediate because a number of public figures were revealed to own accounts (possibly the worst of which was Josh Duggar, a Christian involved with the Family Research Council). But the release was also prurient because it invited the curiosity of many. Spouses could search for the email addresses of loved ones. Pastors could search for the email addresses of congregants. What is more, suddenly everyone had access to the private desires of a host of people, and a sense of public shaming made it okay to look. In other words, it is permissible to savor the sordid details because these people shouldn’t have been doing this anyway–a kind of schadenfreude perverted by voyeurism.

As time passes, more people will doubtless be outed by this leak. Many marriages will dissolve. Hearts and families will be broken. Children will suffer. But will we be any the wiser when it’s all through?

I don’t know why people–especially Christians–continue to think that we can keep secrets about our sins. The verse which has been most prominent in my mind these past days has been 1 Timothy 5:24, “The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them into judgment; for others, their sins follow after.” There are no secrets with God. There are no hidden places where we can keep things from Him. There are no deeds performed, in the open or in private, of which He is unaware. And the Scriptures also testify repeatedly that sin has a habit of coming back to harm the individual. What you sow is what you will reap–sow sin, and you will reap sin. It is as simple as that. For the men and women who have used the Ashley Madison service, there was never anything secret about it. Certainly not to God. Neither to themselves.

city_slickersIn the 1991 movie “City Slickers” three friends temporarily become cattle hands in order to rediscover the meaning in their own lives. While they ride and talk one friend muses with the other about the possibility of having a no-consequence affair. If a gorgeous alien were to descend to the earth and offer sex without consequence or commitment, would he go through with it? And Billy Crystal’s character replies with great wisdom, “Nobody would know, but I would know.”* The sin would remain in his memory, in his body, in his very soul. Las Vegas’s tourism slogan claims that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Sounds appealing enough, but a friend of mine reworked the slogan to make it more accurate: “What happens in Vegas stays in you!” Every action we perform stays with us, is implanted in us. And that means that there are always two witnesses for every sinful deed we perform–myself, and the God of the universe. And the Scriptures teach that by the testimony of two witnesses a man can be put to death. Thus we all stand condemned. Case closed.

I’m reminded of another story where hidden deeds are made known. In Revelation 20 all of humanity is assembled before God and great books are opened, and then “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Rev 20:12). This “outing,” this exposure, this grand reveal will be far worse than the Ashley Madison scandal, because nobody will need to search for their email address. Your name is already in the book. And beside your name is a ledger containing every deed performed in your life, good and bad alike. Every misplaced thought. Every covetous desire. Every envious look. Every hateful word. Every disrespectful attitude. Every petty theft. Every unkind word. Every lustful thought. Every. Single. One.

During the bubonic plague members of John Donne’s congregation would wonder, as they heard the bell ringing, who had died in the night. Donne rebuked them and instructed them instead to take note of their own mortality, saying, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Don’t let your curiosity stand in the way of your necessary introspection. Don’t forget that you too live under a death sentence. Don’t forget that there is a book with your name in it as well. Don’t forget that one day all the data of that book will be opened for everyone to see. Ask not who has been outed by Ashley Madison, the scandal has outed thee.

*Originally this post incorrectly attributed the quote to Daniel Stern’s character.

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