In Genesis 38, Judah, having reneged on his promise to his daughter-in-law Tamar, decides to fulfill his sexual desire with a prostitute alongside a road. There was nothing sinful in the sexual desire. That is a God-given gift (although at times it seems more like a curse than a gift). The problem was his sinful way of satisfying that desire. Rather than rejoicing in the wife of his youth, and letting her breasts satisfy him at all times (cf. Proverbs 5), he "hooked up" (to use a modern term) with what he believed was a common street prostitute in the ultimate act of cheapening God's gift.
As a promise of a payment to be delivered, he leaves his ring and staff as collateral. However, when he sends the payment to reclaim his ring and staff, the prostitute is gone, and no one can remember seeing her. Knowing of the possible embarrassment, he decides to try to leave well enough alone (38:23). Three months later, Tamar shows up pregnant, and Judah commands her to be burned at the stake in punishment for her immorality. She produces the ring and staff as proof of fatherhood, and Judah is caught in a sin he thought he could get away with.
Joseph, on the other hand, was sold by his brothers and yet rose to a position of power in the household of his Egyptian master, Potiphar. In fact, Joseph had the run of the house, and complete control over everything in it. During the course of Joseph's duties, Potiphar's wife began to work her womanly charms on the young Hebrew. This woman was no doubt a very attractive woman with a sexual appetite, and her seductions seem amazingly pleasant. Joseph could have rationalized it any number of ways: She started it; I was simply doing what I was told to keep the peace and my job; I am a man in need of some satisfaction; God hasn't been good to me anyway in sending me here; no one will know; she can make my life miserable if I say "no;" and the list could go on and on. Most of us could probably offer a few rationales that we have used in the past to justify our own sinful choices.
But remarkably, Joseph looked a beautiful, willing, woman who had initiated the proposal in the face and said, "No way." And his rationale for refusal is God (39:9). He didn't just say "no" once. He did it time and time again. And eventually, when she grabbed him to try to force him, he took off running.
What moral strength and character that is rooted in a right view of who God is. Judah failed miserably, and reaped embarrassment and shame. Joseph knew God was watching even if no one else ever found out. His reward? Prison. Was it worth it? I imagine Joseph would say, "yes."
He knew all too well the truth that would not be inscripturated for another eight hundred years:
What is our response to temptation? Too often, we fall prey to the belief that we can "get away with it." And the truth is that we probably can. In the dark recesses of our minds, fantasies can run unabated and unseen by anyone but us. In the secrecy of our heart, we can satisfy our desires without on-lookers.
Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress? Why embrace the bosom of another man's wife?
For a man's ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all his paths.
The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast.
He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly.
(Proverbs 5:20 - 6:1)
And it doesn't just apply to sexual sin, nor is it limited to men. It is true across the board for all sins and all people. We are tempted to be dishonest because it helps us and no one will find out anyway. We are tempted to be lazy because we can close the door and no one can see. We are tempted to greed because we can make it look like God's blessing by saying the right things.
And in this life, we may never get caught. But there is a day of reckoning coming, and that is what frightens me. May God protect us from our secrecy. May God help us to live in private as we do in public.