Hidden sins tend to eventually become public knowledge, and when they do, the revelation can be embarrassing, life-altering, and even fatal. The past week illustrated this with startling clarity as a hackers’ network released the confidential data from the Internet’s best-known affair-hosting website. Millions of married men whose names and credit card information appear on the list of paying users at AshleyMadison.com now have a lot of explaining to do. Many are apologizing only after being caught. A lot of public careers are ending. And some are taking even more drastic action. The aftermath of the world’s biggest adultery scandal is rich with lessons we should take to heart, chiefly a reminder that safely secret sins are never truly safe or secret.
AshleyMadison.com is the world’s most popular dating site for married people — in other words, a kind of eHarmony for infidelity. The company’s succinct and brazen slogan says it all: “Life is short. Have an affair.” Boasting complete confidentiality, the service aims — or rather aimed — to ensnare married men who suffered from wandering eyes and an excess of money. And it did exactly that, boasting over 40 million member accounts, all paying an annual subscription for the chance to meet up with strangers and commit adultery.
But everything came crashing down this month when Ashley Madison became the latest victim of a cyber criminal ring that hacked into its servers and stole a whopping 10 gigabytes of user information, including names, addresses, and credit card numbers. The hackers then released the information to the public in one of the largest and most humiliating data breaches in Internet history. Immediately, eyes all over the world began scanning the list for well-known names, and as expected, they began emerging: “State and federal judges and prosecutors, federal employees, military personnel, college professors, journalists, Hollywood celebrities, lawyers, teachers, and even members of the British Parliament have already been identified in a preliminary sweep,” writes Paul Callan at CNN. Not surprisingly, police have associated at least two suicides with the release of the information, and the aftermath is only expected to spread as more names emerge from the massive list.
Not least among those identified last week was disgraced former Family Research Council employee Josh Duggar, son of Jim-Bob and Michelle Duggar from the now-cancelled TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting. Duggar had already faced a rough few months after charges emerged that he molested several young girls at age 14. Having resigned his post at FRC just a few weeks ago, he made another public statement this week, admitting to opening the account and to cheating on his wife. As with the molestation scandal, this one had particular impact because of Duggar’s longtime advocacy for traditional family values. The secular left seized it as yet another opportunity to decry Christians as hypocrites and to laugh at biblical morality.
The Ashley Madison leak represents the implosion not only of countless careers, but of a seductive illusion: the impression of true and permanent privacy. On one level, it closes just the latest chapter in the world’s long, hard process of learning that what happens on the Internet doesn’t stay on the Internet. Cyberspace is real, as are the people with whom we interact there. Theft, libel, fraud, and yes — infidelity — that happen on the Internet are no less serious than these same crimes in print or in person. Adultery leads to death whether it begins on a dark street corner or on a glowing computer screen (Proverbs 7).
There’s another, more spiritual takeaway, though. The Ashley Madison scandal reminds us that nobody is above reproach or beyond the grasp of sin. Even seemingly squeaky clean Christian men are showing up on that list, and that should humble and grieve us. But the debacle also illustrates the reality of Divine judgement and offers a foretaste of the day when men and women will have to “give an account for every empty word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36). Jesus reiterates the point in Luke 12, saying, “There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops” (Luke 12:2-3).
Scripture and the past few weeks’ experience leave no doubt: Those who seek to sin in secret will find the skeletons of yesterday tumbling out of their closets, often at the least opportune moments. If we fail to confess them, the wrongdoings of our past have a way of hunting us down and forcing us to confess — especially when it comes to the permanent, irretrievable footprints we leave behind on the Internet. But Moses probably put it best millennia before the Internet: “Be sure your sins will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).
As Christians, we have to live as though our every word and deed will make the evening news. Because in 2015, they often do.