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Building a Great Marriage

Building a Great Marriage

 Replacing Marital Bitterness with Forgiveness

Session #7

Great Marriage

Paul and Linda J. Bucknell

Building a Great Marriage Index:
Faith: #1 Hope | #2 Love | #3 Submission | #4 Oneness
Forgiveness: #5 Conflict | #6 Crises | #7 Forgiveness
Friendship: #8 Intimacy | #9 Trust | #10 Love works!

Resolving Marital Crises & Avoiding Conflict

Purpose: Replacing Marital Bitterness with Forgiveness: Great marriages have eliminated all the resentment that stems from bitterness and keep it this way. A forgiving spirit is able to destroy the most terrible bitter spirit. This is part #7 of the larger series 'Building a Great Marriage!'

If we are not careful, however, resentment will arise in our hearts and assault our marriages. Instead of being the victor, we will become the victim. Those consumed by bitterness seem to have no hope but to watch the destruction of their marriage continue.

Just recently I heard about a marriage in which the bitterness had grown so bad that the wife couldn’t sleep at night. This was only one of the many symptoms of a marriage infected by bitterness. There are many others. Again and again we see couples devastated by bitterness. It is a pity that couples wait until their marriage is on the verge of breakdown before they deal with the bitterness in their lives.

 Replacing Marital Bitterness with Forgiveness

Bitterness, I believe, is the number one killer of our marriages. Many would object and say it is differences on money or incompatibility, but these people do not understand how bitterness is a root problem to these and many other marital difficulties. It is this bitterness which step by step separates the couple from each other and lessening their commitment to each other.

buy marriage bookGod wants to bring healing to your marriages. He wants to eliminate all resentment.

Part of our problem is that we  don’t understand how He has already given us the tools to snap the intimidating influence of bitterness in our marriages through the wonderful power of the Gospel.

That little stone that God used in David’s hand is much like a special tool that God has given to His children to take down the threatening giant of bitterness. When we in our simple faith and obedience respond, we see God’s powerful love bring down all the walls of resentment.

If you could exchange a marriage where you merely tolerate each other for one in which you can't wait to be with each other, would you? We will show you how to take major steps toward this goal during this session. There is no doubt that God created marriage to be a blessing for mankind. Both the husband and wife are to find great fulfillment in marriage.

Ephesians 4:31 text in graphic formAnyone who has been infected by bitterness knows that it can be so dominating that all of whole life is influenced by it. All sorts of physical and emotional symptoms pop up including lots of stress-related pains and diseases. But it doesn’t stop there.

Bitterness starts by destroying relationships. It starts so quietly, though. Here are some possible symptoms of a breakdown in a relationship due to bitterness: rolling your eyes, ignoring simple requests, easily irritated, calling names in 'fun,' criticizing spouse’s efforts, jest about shortcomings, feeling put out. So many marriages have been destroyed simply by not following the apostle’s simple instruction.

"Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice" (Ephesians 4:31).

Bitterness should not be accepted in our personal lives. If we refused to tolerate it, then it would not plague our marriages. Bitterness eats away from the goodness that God has given to us in marriage.

Why have so many couples accepted some degree of bitterness in their marriages? Some have never thought about how bitterness is related to their troubled marriages. Others know of it but are so clearly committed to destroying the other that they are willing to put up with the suffering.

In our following discussion, we will show you how bitterness and anger deeply damage marriage. We will outline clear steps to eliminate bitterness and gain that sweet relationship marriage ought to be.

A) Understanding the Root of Bitterness

Bitterness comes from being offended by someone and holding a begrudging heart against him. For example, a husband says to his wife, “That meal was not good.”

His intention might not be as bad as the wife feels. But in any case, the wife resents her husband’s remark. She thinks to herself how it is easy for him to just come home and expect a grand meal. The seed of bitterness can be planted in so many ways. Instead of speaking honestly with her husband about how that comment hurt her, she secretly stores the offense in her heart then cools her heart toward him.

Root of Bitterness Tree Ephesisan 4:31From the verse above (Ephesians 4:31), we can see that bitterness has many ‘brothers and cousins’ including: wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice.

Bitterness is the root of many problems. A bitter heart spawns all sorts of evil reactions. Wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice are all means by which resentment expresses itself. Bitterness cannot stay in the heart by itself. It is true, bitterness can stay dormant for a long period until its storm arises, but it will come.

We should take off all of these expressions of hatred and discard them, get rid of them completely. When a person wants to remove a tree, he does not just cut off the branches. He has to get own to the dirty work of getting out the roots. Otherwise the branches will just grow back stronger than before.

The real solution is not just to get rid of the expression of anger but to deal with the root of bitterness. Let us see how bitterness can do such an evil work even in normal people like you and me.

The reason bitterness is so devastating is that it provides the justification for being mean, cold, short-tempered or unpleasant to others. Bitterness nurtures itself through its self-appointed privilege. Most people know that it is wrong to hate others. Our conscience tells us that it is wrong to do evil to others.

This limits the expression of our hatred towards others. If people are going to persist in their meanness toward someone, they need some way to override the guilt function of their conscience. Otherwise the guilt would pile on so thick that they would have to stop being mean. They feel bad (guilty) about it. Bitterness provides the needed short circuit that allows them to bypass the work of their consciences not only to do evil to others but even to feel smug and self-righteous about it.

Bitterness Cycle DiagramHow does bitterness do this? Bitterness fools the person by tricking his conscience. The person only needs to dwell upon the way someone offended him, and he becomes free from the protection of his conscience.

A biological parallel might be the effect of drugs or alcohol on a person’s body. The nerve connections become dulled so that he is able, in his drunken stupor, to do things that he would never otherwise do. Bitterness is a soul drug. It allows people to do evil things that they would not otherwise think themselves capable of doing.

I remember a former neighbor. He had so much bitterness that it destroyed his marriage and his relationship with his children. He would ride around with a gun in the car in case he got enough nerve to kill himself. It is important to know how bitterness works. It seems so powerful, but it can be disabled.

Bitterness works as long as it is being focused on. One would think that a person would spit out the poisonous venom of bitterness from his life just as I did the lemon. But people hold on to it. Why? The one who feels he or she has been wronged gains a slight sense of power and control.

In most cases, these people are convinced that they are God’s appointed people to carry out justice. That is right. They believe that they are doing good when they are in fact doing evil. It is this faulty sense of justice that blinds them to the evil of their actions.

When this happens in a marriage, the spouse puts him or herself at complete odds against his mate. Nursing the hatred and pain extend the ‘twoness’ and virtually eliminates the ‘oneness’ of marriage. They are married, but they act as two. Two opponents. Bitterness makes this division permanent as long as he or she wants it to last. Let’s take an even closer look at how bitterness works its wretched evil.


You can order the Building a Great Marriage printed seminar materials including handouts at the BFF Resource Center or just get the BFF Marriage Training Library which includes all our marriage articles including powerpoints .

A Peek Inside of Bitternes

"See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled" (Hebrews 12:15).

The scriptures reveal many things about bitterness. Hebrews 12:15 states three things about bitterness.

1) Short of God’s grace (The mark of bitterness)
2) Root of bitterness   (The nature of bitterness)
3) Being defiled       (The result of bitterness)

1) Short of God’s grace (The Mark of Bitterness)

Bitterness and grace are oppositesPeople can claim to be God’s and yet not have God’s blessing upon their lives. This is true with bitter people. Hebrews 12:15 says that some people come ‘short of the grace of God.’ Bitter people have withheld grace and therefore, God withholds His grace and mercy from them. Jesus clearly stated this in the Sermon on the Mount in the Lord’s prayer and afterwards emphasized it.

"For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions" (Matthew 6:14-15).

Jesus talked a lot about forgiveness for it lies at the heart of the gospel. Jesus tells us of the man who refused to forgive one who owed him so little even when the king had already forgiven his much larger debt (see side bar). When we withhold grace, it will be withheld from us.

The Importance of Forgiving One Another

Matthew 18:23-35

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. And when he had begun to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’

So his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ He was unwilling however, but went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened.

Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?’

And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Those people who are caught in the net of bitterness think that they have the right to carry out their vindictive spirit. When in fact, Jesus clearly states that these people who refuse to forgive others are in great danger. We know these passages raise all sorts of questions about what does “comes short of the grace of God” mean. Does it mean that a Christian can loose his salvation? Jesus describes their judgment in a very vivid way. We will leave it as Jesus did. He leaves us no doubt as to the cost of an unforgiving heart. The point is simply that in no case is anyone right to carry bitterness in his soul. We must always forgive everyone even our mate.

God’s grace will be held back from us as long as we hold it back from another. An unforgiving spirit is like withdrawing life and allowing death to set into our bodies. No wonder bitter people have the saddest marriages and lives on earth.

2) Root of bitterness (The Nature of Bitterness)

Hebrews 12:15 continues on by mentioning the ‘root of bitterness.’ There are two aspects to this root.

First of all, the scripture speaks of the sure way bitterness can cling to our souls. A plant’s resistance comes from its roots. If there are no roots, the plant will not live. But because the root is there, then the plant with its evident branches, leaves and blossoms will manifest itself if given enough time.

If a person is bitter or acts bitterly, then he should know that at sometime in the past a seed of bitterness was allowed to grow within his soul. Something has happened in his or her past that must be properly dealt with in order to eliminate the bitterness.

Secondly, we see that the root will spring forth all sorts of diabolical troubles. These I believe are the manifestations of bitterness along with their consequences. The larger the manifestations of bitterness, the greater the root of bitterness has grown. Bitterness has no good results. Justice is never served. Grace is never given. Marriages are destroyed. Some roots are bigger and deeper than others. Nurturing the root of bitterness causes it to grow.

3) Many be defiled (The Result of Bitterness)

The scripture passage above says in a final word that people who are bitter will be defiled and that the defilement in most cases spreads over into the lives of others. This is ever so clear. Can one spouse be bitter and the other not be influenced by it?

  • Clamor speaks of raging words.

  • Malice is the evil that is finally carried out.

  • Anger is the means disposition in which he expresses his displeasure.

  • Wrath is the volatile anger that erupts like a volcano.

  • Bitterness springs sort all sorts of trouble.

And to make things worse, those who are the victims of such acts, often get bitter themselves.

buy marriage bookInstead of being a means that God uses to extend His grace and mercy to others, this person has become an instrument through which Satan carries out his diabolical work. Anyone who plays in mud gets muddy. Those who play with muddy people get muddied. Anyone who plays in the field of hatred and scorn, will be defiled.

Summary

Let’s think about these things from the perspective of marriage. People get married to have a loving relationship and all the good fruits that come from such a relationship. When bitterness implants itself in either of the spouse’s heart, they end up with terrible troubles.

The problems go way beyond the simple disappointment of not having a loving relationship. The difficulties can be so overwhelming that life together becomes intolerable.

The seed (the offense) must first be planted. Roots grow. If we allow the seed to sprout and take root, then the plant of bitterness will grow and affect increasing areas of life.

On the other hand, we can pull out that root. If we exercise a little resolve here or there we can put some small offenses aside. In such cases, we will forget that the root is still buried in the ground.

By God’s grace we need to dig the dirt away from the root to expose it. Then the root can be easily pulled out. Let’s go on and see how to do this. Meanwhile, don’t let the bitter seed be planted! Avoid taking offense by always forgiving one another.

Life Application: Is it a policy in your marriage to always forgive each other?

B) Principles for Overcoming Bitterness

As we begin discussing how to eliminate bitterness, we need to see how the roots are entrenched into the soil. Many people have attempted to pull out the roots to no avail. As a home gardener, I know how difficult it is to pull out weeds that have been allowed to grow. Let’s look at some of the main principles we have learned.

• The bitter root grows from a seed. The seed is the original offense. The offense is an event, a word, a comment, facial expression or some such thing that has been perceived as a wrong done to me that I never forgave. Until this issue is identified, it cannot be completely pulled out. It can be made smaller by ripping the plant apart. I might even get part of the root, but it will continue growing unless it is completely eradicated.

• The strength of the root is dependent upon how much the bitterness has been nurtured. The bitterness is nurtured by taking secret delight in plotting revenge. The root of bitterness is protected by a faulty defense logic that asserts my right or duty to harm another. As long as these both stand, then the root cannot be extracted.

These faulty arguments must be exposed in order to get at the root. By exposing and destroying this line of thinking, God can start speaking again to my conscience through guilt. That in turn begins to work on me. As it is, pride in my desire for” righteous” judgment keep guilt far away.

• Bitter people are difficult to counsel because they continually going through a cycle of thoughts, that both justify myself and accuse the other. Usually breakthroughs don’t come until cycle is broken. Before deep root extraction begins, we need to discern how Satan confuses my cycle of thoughts. It is much like a rut. Even if I am able to get out, it is too easy to fall back in.

• God’s Word must penetrate my mind so that I can see that Jesus really condemns what I am doing. I must recognize that there are dire consequences if I don’t change. In fact, I am already troubled. Troubles are often the tools God uses to cause a person to be open to the truth and then be delivered from the deception.

The difficulty in pulling out the root is that it is so intertwined that it is hard to isolate and identify let alone pull out. Usually God will use a crisis to sufficiently humble me to the point at which I am willing to deal with bitterness the way God desires. When I am willing to forgive, then the whole root of bitterness is exposed and begins to wither.

Once I forgive, God forgives. In this sense bitterness is a great delusion. Let’s go through four basic biblical concepts that are necessary to heal break the bitterness cycle and relate them to our marriages.

1) Jesus said that we are to forgive with liberality.

We are to forgive everyone all the time. Just preceding the story above about the man who did not forgive, Jesus said these words.

"Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”" (Matthew 18:21-22).

Some people try to discover circumstances in which they might not have to forgive. There are not any! Usually these people are trying to find an excuse not to forgive someone. God’s command to bring forgiveness to every possible offense swallows up every opportunity for bitterness to sneak in.

I go by this policy. I liberally treat people with love. If this general love is not sufficient, then I need to take another step. I purposely forgive that person in my heart. We will talk about how to do this later. As ambassadors of His kingdom, we only have the right to love and show forth a mercy that God wants to distribute to the people of the world.

"Namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).

Forgiveness doesn't mean someone hasn't done something wrong. It means they did! The difference is that you are as Jesus instructed not holding that moral debt against them. We forgive because God forgave us. By forgiving another you allow God's divine grace to mightily work through your life just as Jesus did. It is only here we find real hope to overcome severe problems in marriages.

Marriage: The husband and wife must continually forgive each other for every wrong that is done or perceived to have been done. There must not be even one situation or circumstance that I will not forgive.

When getting married, it is wise to realize that your spouse, no matter how much you sense their love at that moment, will one day say or do some offensive things. Make a decision that no matter how mean, harsh or selfish your spouse is you will forgive them because Christ has forgiven you for much, much worse things. Take steps to clean out the unforgiven issues from the past. Presently forgive anything that needs to be forgiven. Prepare for the future by pledging to God that you will forgive everyone, every time, for everything.

2) The scriptures state that taking vengeance is alone God’s prerogative .

"Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord" (Romans 12:19).

When man attempts to distribute justice often it turns into further offenses. Personal vengeance is a far cry from God’s judgment. God tells us to take our hands off those who offend us. God Himself will carry out proper justice.

He is the just Judge who will exercise full judgment when He sees fit. I have no right to ‘pay back’ a person for the wrong he has done to me. “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone: (Romans 12:17). We are not stating that man does not deserve judgment but only that we are not here on earth to carry out the job.

Instead, we now have an obligation to love others and show people God’s grace. We must focus on the job at hand. Indeed it is far more glorious!

Our tendency is to justify our evil thoughts and ways by thinking we are doing good by carrying out God's justice. God tells us not to.

Marriage: We are one in marriage. If we judge our spouse, then we make our spouse our enemy. Our spouse at times does deserve God’s judgment. This is true. But judgment means that the time of grace has expired.

Instead we are to plead with God that He would give grace to our partner. I, as the spouse, am the most appropriate person to plead for God’s grace for my partner. Vengeance is not the way. Jesus refused to take revenge; so should we (cf. John 3:17).

3) God has told us to put on kindness, forgiveness and love and put off hatred and slander in all of its forms.

"And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you" (Colossians 3:12-13).

"But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth" (Colossians 3:8).

We must never embrace hatred even for a moment. We are God’s people born of grace. These responses do not characterize Christ in us. Christ is working through us. We focus on extending grace. We are to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Marriage: Marriage gives us plenty of opportunities to show God’s loving grace! We no doubt get offended more at home than anywhere else. Marriage is the place we are trained to be like our Father in heaven. Early each day we meet with our Lord asking for all the love and kindness that we need for all the people we meet through the day including our spouse. Then we get to distribute His love throughout the day!

4) We must trust God even in difficult times of oppression.

"Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:10-12).

We are sometimes tempted to alter our policies toward others when they badly mistreat us. True we are expected and commanded by God to love others at all times. We all owe each other love. When it is withheld through deliberate meanness and bitterness of heart, then God will judge.

Christ, however, gives us a totally different way from the world to think about oppression. He tells us that it is a circumstance to take joy in. We can turn the evil one’s purpose around by loving those who hate us.

We can turn the occasion for bitterness into an opportunity to minister. Instead of holding back God’s grace by being bitter, we forgive and receive God’s grace to love that person. This is the strongest weapon we have in breaking the hardness of our spouse’s hardness to God’s love. Romans 12:20-21 speaks about allowing the conscience fully to work when we respond with loving reactions rather than bitterness.

"BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS UPON HIS HEAD. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:20-21).

Marriage: Even when our spouse turns on us with the meanness of an enemy, God has given us clear plans of operation.

1)    First, I am to forgive. Only by forgiving can I take the next step.

2)    I am then to treat my spouse with a love that they really don’t deserve. If a husband loses his temper with his wife, we all know that the husband does not ‘deserve’ any kindness in return. But it is through extending undeserved kindness (perhaps making a very nice meal) that we have our only chance of turning around a mean spouse.

3) I am to rejoice in my opportunity to show love in such extreme situations. Why? Because everyone who witnesses love in such extenuating circumstances knows it is from God. It is a modern day miracle occurring in our living rooms or bedrooms.

Summary

The truth of God provides the weapons we need to destroy the greatest ploys of the enemy. Bitterness is no exception. Deep roots of bitterness have been pulled out of people’s lives. They are not the same any more. Satan had dominated their minds with bitterness. Now the person is no longer the same.

Although we know these truths, we need work through the steps of destroying the root of bitterness. We have the ammunition. Now we need to apply it to our lives.

C) Steps to Eliminate a Bitter Heart

The following thoughts are good for keeping bitterness away from our lives as well as for laying the foundation to take down the stronghold of bitterness. Do you see how we are destroying the root of bitterness?

Step by step we apply God’s Word to the faulty thinking behind the bitterness. As we carefully inject God’s truth into the conscience, they are further convicted by God’s Spirit. Yes, they might still be prideful, but if we are praying we should see that God is opening a door for reconciliation.

We will be addressing this issue with a couple in mind. Let us consider two situations: 1). a mild more typical case of bitterness and 2). a rare more extreme case.

1) Dealing with Mild cases of bitterness

First remember that the seed of bitterness has already been planted and has started to put out roots. We are not saying that great danger is not in store for this couple. The fact is that if they do not pull out its tiny seed, then it can easily grow to be a strong oak. This is what Hebrews warns us of. We should also remember that as much as we accept bitterness, then we are to the same degree not able to carry out love. The marriage will very quickly decline in affection and warmth.

The only advantage is that this person’s mind is not totally blocked by certain lies so he can still reason. In other words, the couple can still have a normal conversation. The cycle of lies only infiltrates part of the mind.

In this case, we need to find the seed of bitterness. Name the little offense that caused a reaction. Offense can happen so easily. Even if we think we are innocent of any wrong, bitterness can still grow in our partner. Bitterness can sometimes be founded upon an assumed wrong motive. I assumed that he did a certain thing because… when in fact his motivation was flawless. So we must always act as an off duty policeman.

When we notice our spouse’s coldness, then we need to discern what is going on. We need to thoroughly pull that seed out before it puts down any roots. Once the roots are in place, it is more difficult to break through. If we don’t take care of it as quickly as possible, it allows our spouse to feel that their coldness or highly charged emotion are the best way to deal with letting us know that they are offended.

What do I do when I sense my spouse is giving me the “cold shoulder” and isolates me?

Check for something you have done wrong.

First pray and ask the Lord to prompt you about anything you have done wrong. Pay close attention to what He brings to your mind. Then you can gently ask your spouse what you have done to offend them. I would like to think the latter works, but more often than not, my pride is too big for me to be corrected. In other words, I probably would have not have caused the offense if I was sensitive to the Lord in the first place. But due to the urgency to prevent this problem from turning into bitterness, I still try to resolve it right away.

Resolve to solve it before sleep.

"BE ANGRY, AND yet DO NOT SIN; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity (foothold)" (Ephesians 4:26-27).

The scriptures are quite clear. Anger, which is a normal and good emotion, can be turned into bitterness if not dealt with quickly. I are not to let the sun go down on my anger. I am to deal with any anger that very day.

Anger’s purpose is to motivate me to deal with something quickly. But if I delay solving the problem and confronting the person, bitterness takes root. Then the anger that was helping urge me on to a timely resolution actually becomes my weapon. I use that anger and wrath to hurl words that are laced with fire that further wound my partner.

My wife and I go to bed close to the same time. We have some of our best conversations in bed before falling asleep. We can easily detect if the normal tender kindness is missing. It might be the cold back treatment or brusque words in answer to my question.

Sometimes we can sense that something is not quite right. If both husband and wife are determined to solve matters before we sleep, then we have a good solid platform for reconciliation. I can remember praying late into the night on several occasions for God to heal our relationship.

God suggests that by allowing the offense to brew overnight, then the roots of bitterness have already begun to grow. What amazing growth! We give the devil an opportunity to toy with our minds when we have sinned. Sin shuts off our sensitivity to God and His truth. As long as this sin is not resolved, then we give an opening to Satan. He can deviously move in with his temptations and set up a base through which he can destroy our marriage.

3) Forgive and don’t wait to be asked

 “How can I forgive someone that doesn’t ask for forgiveness?”

Forgiveness is a technical term. Perhaps we can better understand it in the context of a money debt. If someone owes you ten dollars, then he is morally obligated to pay you back.  However, if you choose to you can forgive the debt. That person will owe you nothing. The account is settled regarding that $10. What did you do to forgive? You chose to bear the debt yourself and release the debtor from his obligation to repay you. In most cases you would state that you would not demand a payment. You forgave the debt.

The same thing happens when I forgive a spiritual debt. A husband should not have spoken roughly when driving, but he snapped at his wife. The spiritual law of love has been broken. He owes her. (He actually owes her kindness)

It might take ten hours for the Spirit of God to work on his heart. Should she nurture the offense the whole time? Absolutely not! Otherwise her response is sinful. She is commanded to forgive.

Instead she should simply say in heart to God that she forgives the spiritual debt her husband has incurred. She chooses to bear the debt herself and release him from his  obligation. Then it is gone just like the $10. The account is clear. Her heart is free to express her love for him.

God might decide to chasten our spouse, but that is His responsibility. Even though we forgave the debt he still is responsible before God for his sin. This is why we need to make two apologies when we sin against a person, first to God and to that person.

As a Christian matures, he will just naturally forgive those around him all the time. It will become an unconscious and yet true attitude. Instead of focusing on what people owe him, he will remember how much he owes Christ who forgave him of such a great debt.

Don’t wait for your spouse to ask for be forgiveness before you give it. Not a few individuals have asked me whether they should forgive someone who has not asked for forgiveness. Jesus says we need to. It is much nicer and the process complete if the offender asks, but even if he hasn’t, we still must forgive.

Many Christians have allowed an offense to stay in their heart too long. Every time this is done, our relationship with that person sours. So if our spouse has not lived out the law of love, then we should simply dismiss it. If we can’t, then we should go through the process of confrontation, apology and forgiveness.

Even if our spouse does not ask for forgiveness, we should still forgive them in our hearts. We don’t need to tell them “I forgive you.” That can sound rather arrogant. We should, however, tell our Lord we have forgiven him. As we do it in our hearts, we should seek a way to concretely express our love to our spouse. We can always seal our forgiveness with a prayer for blessing on that person.

Gently confront

This is difficult to implement until the couple is aware of the seriousness of the problem. The offender has in most cases done wrong and is on the defensive. The offended is thinking he is right to be offended. So who is going to confront? Whoever notices the problem first. Much like cancer, the earlier it is detected, the easier it is to deal with.

More than likely the offended spouse will not bring up the issue. We need to be so careful in confronting. Prayer and humility go a long way in helping the process along.  Never start by saying, “You did …”

If you are the offended, begin by saying, “When you said those words about eating this afternoon, it really hurt me. I tried to put it out of my mind, but it really bothers me.” If you are the offender and notice that your spouse is keeping his or her distance, bring up the issue with something like, “I know I spoke roughly this afternoon, could we talk about it a little. Let me start by apologizing for the way I spoke. …”

We don’t want to wait for too long after the situation has occurred. We may forget the details. Neither should we react immediately to the situation for then we would tend to be defensive. The words ‘speak the truth in love’ are very important here. We should also remember to confront in such a way that we are not accusing the other but rather encouraging conversation about the situation. Be ready to forgive where we have done wrong.

If I see that my wife is giving me the cool or silent treatment, more likely than not I have somehow offended her. I might know what the offending incident or attitude is or I might not. Sometimes I think I know what it is but realize she has misjudged me.

It doesn’t really matter much. I could be wrong. I will not be defensive. If I am found in the wrong, then I will apologize. The relationship is most important. My pride must go. I can follow through by asking her what is wrong. Perhaps I could say, “I noticed that you are quiet. Did I do anything that hurt you?” A wife might say, “You haven’t been talking much lately. Have I somehow displeased you?”

In any case, we must be dedicated to caring for our relationship.

Kindly discuss

We need to foster positive conversation. We want to talk about what we think we did and get down to discuss what we really did. We are careful not to accuse each other. A person might wonder if it is worth talking about it. “Isn’t it better just to forget about it?” If our spouse is offended, then we need to deal with it.

If a couple regularly argues, then there is probably a lot of resentment already stored in the heart from other unresolved issues. Conflict arises easily in such situations. Refuse to accuse. Be a true friend. You are not trying to make yourself look right but have peace with each other.

Give both sides time to adequately present their own understanding of the issue. Remember, you are looking for the ‘thorn’ that has caused offense. If spotted, then you can go on to the next step.

Give time

Let’s not corner our spouse. God’s Spirit convicts us of sin. We do not need to takeover His job. We merely bring up the issue so that it does not sprout and slowly start growing. Again, we need to talk as much as possible and then pray. When a person starts getting defensive, then either change the direction of your conversation or come back and talk more later (hopefully the same day!) At times after we have fully discussed the issues, I have suggested, “Don’t you think you should apologize?” She responded to this.

Confess and forgive

When a person has done or said something wrong, he or she should apologize by first stating what he has done wrong and then ask for forgiveness. For example: “I’m sorry for speaking so rudely to you at lunch. It was improper. Will you please forgive me?” Of course we need to ask the Lord to forgive us too. If both partners have done wrong, let the husband go first. If one spouse is stubborn, then let the humble one start.

What happens if only one spouse apologizes when both have done wrong? We are so foolishly stubborn at times. Go as far as you can. Let the person who did apologize first rejoice God has cleared that part up. His or her heart is clean. Now he can start praying for the spouse.

Be warned though that your spouse may accuse you of manipulation when you start to pray.  The one that has been forgiven needs to be careful or he could be offended by his spouse’s unwillingness to apologize. He could end up worse than at first. If we go by the policy that we are going to forgive even if the other person doesn’t forgive, then Satan can’t sneak in and take advantage of our progress. You are going to forgive their debt of love even if he doesn’t ask for it.

Now if the stubborn spouse asks for forgiveness later on, forgive and affirm your love for one another. And praise God that no root of bitterness grew up out of that situation.

2) Handling Extreme Bitterness

What we have just said about dealing with mild bitterness is also true in dealing with extreme bitterness. There are other things also need attention. Bitterness is not an easy thing to break through when its roots have grown deep over the years. The best approach is to deal with offenses as they come up.

Always have hope? God is with you

Always have hope in what God can do. We should not say that any situation is impossible. I have seen two absolute miracles in the way God dealt with people bound by bitterness. One was about to be shipped to a long-term psychiatric unit. The other person would have been there had others known what he was thinking.

Their pride was sky high. But God intervened through many people’s prayers. His abounding grace melted that pile of pride down to nothing in mere minutes. Always have hope. Always press the Lord for deliverance. Today is the day of salvation.

Remember that the evil one doesn’t want anyone to intercede for these people. This is why grace and mercy are the only things that can break through such barriers. If you are offended by them, then you won’t pray for them. We need to be in the ministry mode seeing ourselves as one light in the very dark world of the embittered spouse. At times you might be the only light in a very dark cave where both spouses are bitterly angry at each other.

Expect Trouble: Deeply Entrenched Roots

We have explained that there are two faulty perceptions: (1) A focus on the offense and offender and (2) justification of my wrong response. They grow in parallel. We need to take the different truths mentioned above and share them with our spouse as much as possible. They might spit it out like a baby who doesn’t like some new food. We need to seek God’s timing.

Sometimes if we can identify the real offense then it can bring a lot of help. They might be generally mad at their dad but don’t know why.

Other times it helps to show the terrible consequences that God has been bringing upon them because of their disobedience. We must also remind them that in disobedience to God they have not forgiven someone. Go beyond this and remind them of the many acts of kindness that they have missed because of the hatred in their heart.

That is right. Mention the truth so that their pile of guilt will overflow their defensive system of self-justification. Again, remember we are not doing this in an accusing way but in a gentle and yet explanatory way. We are just uncovering what is there. We do not need to accuse. But by exposing it, we let the Spirit of God do His work.

Look for Miraculous Breakthroughs

We need to be like Jesus in Isaiah 50.

"The Lord God has given Me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple. The Lord God has opened My ear; and I was not disobedient, nor did turn back." (Isaiah 50:4-5).

Intimidating foes only can be broken by waiting upon the Lord. The counselor or friend must throw himself on the Lord for grace and truth. He needs grace to be gracious to a mean and bitter person. This is not easy.

Secondly, he needs the truth that God gives him. Notice how in the passage above that he was a listener. He was a disciple learning from the Father. This is what Jesus did regularly in the course of His ministry. There is no greater spouse than the one who so intercedes like this on behalf of the spouse.

Make sure they know and hear the Gospel

Those who do not exercise grace perhaps have never been saved. They might profess to be a Christian, but we should have them tell us again how they came to know the Lord. If we have experienced God’s grace, then we are less likely to be engrossed in taking revenge.

Make sure they hear the Gospel of Christ Jesus that God died for sinners. I like to share from Romans 5:1-10 where we see three ways we are described before we are saved: helpless (6), ungodly (6) and sinners (8). All grace. We deserved nothing but gained everything.

Be patient

The process might take a while. They might even be bitter toward you. Think of it like this. Though it might not sound encouraging, they might not acknowledge their bitterness until the very end. We have seen several people come to the Lord on their deathbed. But even if it takes so long, are you not prepared to so love your spouse. We hope so. This is the covenant we have made before the Lord.

Distract with the truth

We know that the bitterness grows and sustains itself by focusing on the offense. Pray for wisdom for how to take their mind off such topics. Sometimes pain will do it. Other times getting them away from their environment. Often they are not eager to meet new people. But with these opportunities to change their circumstances, try to share some illustrations of the power of forgiveness. Start by sharing your story and how God saved you!

If you can get them from thinking in the same pattern, then you can implant the seed of truth that can combat the seed of bitterness. For example, we might interweave the truth about how only God has the right to judge others. Oh how we need to pray for such people.

Ask questions

We can ask them key questions: Why do you seem so unhappy? Why don’t you want to go anywhere? Were you always like this? What started your bitterness? If people have such bitterness, they sometimes will tell you what is wrong but be very biased. We need to explore for the truth. Ask them if they are willing to take a few steps to regain that beautiful marriage.

D) Practical steps for the couple to take

We would like each couple to take a few important steps. Each spouse that is reading this should understand that bitterness is always wrong and never beneficial. It is a root that springs forth trouble. None of us want marriages like that. Would you make a few decisions today?

(1) Always forgive your spouse. You will always forgive everyone. If you have other thoughts that tell you that must be mean to him or her, then just note that these are satanic temptations. Reject them. The Lord’s voice is saying be gracious as I am always gracious to you.

Just substitute your name in the sentence, “I ___your name__ will always forgive my spouse right away for any wrong thing he or she has done against me.” Remember by your forgiveness you are not saying that your spouse deserves forgiveness or that his or her evil is unimportant, but simply that you forgive the moral debt your mate owes you.

(2) Catch up on the past. You want to get all of the bitter root out of your own heart. It is true you cannot do it for your spouse but you can at least clear up what bitterness lies in your own heart. If you are a couple doing this, then each of you take a piece of paper and write down everything your spouse has done that has bothered you.

If you have forgotten it, then it was covered in your general love. Focus only on those things that bother you and you feel a little bit of resentment over. If a couple is doing this together, then let the husband start.

He should lead in a prayer in which they as a couple seek His forgiveness for all of their stored up bitterness. After this, the wife should confirm this in prayer. Then the husband goes through his list. He does not attack her or discuss any of the issues. Your spouse might want to discuss them later. Now is time for forgiveness. You might want to start with the most offending items. Name them one by one and then tell your spouse that although you have been offended by these things, you now wholly forgive for every one of them.

He then needs to ask her for forgiveness for storing up resentment and withholding his love and grace. He can say, “I have sinned by storing up resentment and withholding my full love and affection from you. Will you forgive me for all of this?” The wife should follow. After doing this, I would suggest going back to the Lord and ask His help in making you a couple full of His graciousness, always ready to forgive.

Your spouse might not be here today. That is fine. You still need to do follow up work. It might be a bit more awkward, but it is still needed. If your spouse is a Christian, then share what you have learned and what you would like to do. Even if your spouse does not have an understanding or agrees in heart about these matters, you can still proceed.

(a) First confess your sins to the Lord.

(b) Write your list and confess that because of your resentment you have failed your spouse. In your heart (this is the big difference) forgive them.

(c) Aloud ask forgiveness for your failures.

Remember it is not necessary to tell your spouse what you were offended by. This is more for you than for him or her. In the minimum tell the Lord. If your spouse is a non-Christian or easily irritated, don’t mention this process. They might take it as if you are attacking them.

The list is so that you can fully clean out your register of bitterness. Afterwards, burn up or rip up your list. Discard it. It is gone. Now express your love.

(3) Discuss procedure. You have made a commitment not to withhold forgiveness. If you have done this with your spouse, then you can set up some clear rules that will help you resolve differences.

(a) Urgency of forgiveness (by bed time)

(b) Arrange a signal that you need to talk.

(c) Arrange for a certain place for discussion (eg. dining room table).

(d) Peaceably mention your resentment.

(e) Pray together before beginning any discussion.

Conclusion

A single well-placed stone brought down the towering giant. That little stone is a forgiving spirit. When a person affirms release of that moral debt as Jesus commanded, he then opens the streams of God's grace to shower upon him. Instead of playing into the devi's hand, the spouse becomes God's divine agent of love.

A forgiving spirit releases all the hostilities one has in his heart. A forgiving spirit again allows God's love to touch you and your spouse with His sweet waters of grace. No offense is so great or enduring that it cannot or should not be forgiven.

There is pain in forgiving. Sometimes the pain is severe. But still the words and example of Jesus call us to trust Him as we faithfully obey Him in always forgiving everyone.

Let the spirit of forgiveness rule our homes and hearts, and our marriages and families will never be the same. Jesus will live there! Jesus' command to liberally forgive is not to limit us to some lesser life but to free us to live in the power of His Spirit.

Our ministry is to bring grace into the marriage not to cause a shortage of it. With this resentment gone, the marriage is instantly so much sweeter and pleasant. Is this not the reason we got married in the first place?

Study Questions

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