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Missionary's Dilemma over Adultery Law

A scene from James Michener's Hawaii illustrates a weakness the apostle Paul noted in any law-based religion.

Abner Hale, a nineteenth-century missionary, is trying to help Hawaii's nobility institute some much-needed rules. One rule he insists on is no adultery.

But which adultery, they ask. "In Hawaii we have 23 different kinds of adultery."

"You what?" Abner gasps.

"And this would be our problem," they explain. "If we said simply, 'There shall be no adultery,' without indicating which kind, everyone who heard would reason, 'They don't mean our kind of adultery. They mean the other 22 kinds.' But on the other hand, if we list all the 23 kinds, one after another, somebody will surely say, 'We never heard of that kind before. Let's try it!' and things would be worse than before."

We can imagine Paul smiling wryly. He confessed in his letter to the Romans, "I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, 'Do not covet.' But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire" (Romans 7:7-8).

Abner Hale couldn't solve this problem; only life in the Spirit can do that, Romans 8 says. But he solved his immediate dilemma with this felicitous wording, which the Hawaiians understood perfectly: "Thou shalt not sleep mischievously."

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