The story of the Trojan horse is well-known. For 10 years the warriors of ancient Greece besieged the city of Troy, but the stalwart defenders withstood their advances. Finally, Greece gave up frontal assaults and resorted to deception. They made a great wooden horse, inserted a band of commandos into its belly, and withdrew.
Convinced their besiegers had given up, and curious about the horse, the men of Troy dragged the great statue into their city and went to sleep. That night, the Greeks emerged from the belly of the horse and vanquished Troy from within.
Satan has inserted a Trojan horse within our marriages. What he cannot accomplish with the frontal assaults like adultery or unbridled anger, he achieves with this insidious, hidden weapon. And, like the citizens of Troy, most of us don’t detect it until it has done its deadly work. The writer of Hebrews names this hidden weapon: the “root of bitterness.”
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled. (Heb, 12:15)
Small Grievances, Large Impact
The root of bitterness is powerful and it’s especially insidious because if often comes through subtle means—slow accumulation over small grievances. But such bitterness threatens to defile both your marriage and your relationship with God.
I’m referring specifically to “routine” daily grievances and hurts that are part of living in intimate relationship with another fallen person and not to more devastating sins such as abuse or adultery. That would require a far more nuanced discussion and is beyond the scope of this article.
For example, despite numerous requests, a husband sheds his dirty clothes on the floor knowing his wife will pick up after him. She feels taken for granted. A wife who would never think of missing one her children’s events has no interest in going out to dinner with her husband. She loves her children more than her husband. He feels used, taken for granted and unimportant.
It’s clear that abuse and adultery ruin marriages, but it’s less obvious to us that small offenses, if treasured up in our hearts, can slowly lead to bitterness and erode marital health.
Wise couples fear the power of bitterness to wither affection, strangle intimacy, and smother joy. When you hear, “I just don’t love my spouse anymore,” unresolved bitterness is often the culprit. Yet the writer of Proverbs says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11).
In the hectic years when our five children were young, my wife and I attended a couple’s retreat. We needed time alone. Judy was so stirred up by the pressures of raising our kids that she had little emotional energy for me. I came home nursing resentment. After a few days, I recognized the problem, I repented of my bitterness, chose to overlook what I perceived as an offense, and began looking for ways to serve her.
Such bitterness, not repented, can be a spiritual snowball that eventually crushes everything in its path.
A wife criticizes her husband unjustly; instead of listening, he nurses resentment. Other resentments accumulate, and the alienation gets broader and wider. A husband repeatedly fails to call his wife before coming home late; she harbors resentment. Other grievances pile on, and three years later they’re sleeping in separate rooms.
Unwillingness to forgive and overlook small offenses will defile our relationship with God, too. Jesus gives a strong warning:
If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But, if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt. 6:14–15)
And Scripture is clear “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8) and a wise person is willing to overlook an offense (Prov. 19:11), but how is that lived out day in and day out within the most intimate earthly relationship between two sinners? There are at least four ways we can fight bitterness in our marriages.
1. Develop an ability to see your own sin through God’s eyes.
The primary weapon in this fight is an ability to see my own sin, not my spouse’s. Your willingness to forgive will be in direct proportion to your capacity to see the mountain of sin for which Christ has forgiven you—at infinite expense to himself.
For many years I took my sins against God lightly, but my wife’s sins against me seriously. I didn’t see my sin as God saw it, so I didn’t see why I should forgive. Then, 14 years into our marriage, I began reading the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards helped me to see the holiness of God and the enormity of my personal sin. When I saw the Mount Everest of sin for which God had forgiven me, I understood that my wife’s sins were a sand pile by comparison. How could I deliberately resent my wife when her offenses against me were so small by comparison? Blindness to the enormity of my sin was responsible for me harboring bitterness toward her.
Pride is the root of most bitterness. Pride makes me see my own sin with 20/300 fuzziness and my spouse’s with 20/20 clarity. This kind of self-righteousness is deadly to marriage, and it demotivates forgiveness. Christians forgive because God first forgave them. Ultimately Christ’s forgiveness, secured for us at the cross, enables us to forgive.
2. Realize that forgiveness is often more a decision than a feeling.
This second weapon may be more difficult. Too often, even after our spouse repents, we forgive and forgive, but the hurt doesn’t go away. The nerves are still raw, the wound still open, the pain still fresh.
We can’t control our feelings, but we can control our decisions. All God asks is that we be willing to repeatedly and persistently forgive our spouse’s misgivings, realizing we too are sinners.
3. Persevere until feelings follow.
When Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive his enemy seven times, Jesus responded, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:2). “Seventy times seven” is biblical symbolism for never-ending persistence. In other words, forgive, forgive, and never stop. There are many times in every godly marriage when two spouses must repent and forgive each other repeatedly, until the solvent of God’s mercy dissolves the hurt that’s hindered their intimacy.
Share how you feel. Your feelings matter—even over less obvious sins. Don’t keep them bottled up. Be honest. Tell your spouse how you believe they’ve sinned against you. Be humble toward one another and work toward repentance where it’s needed, toward full forgiveness and reconciliation.
4. Be open to the possibility that your hurt feelings and bitterness are unjustified.
Is it possible you are hurt about something you shouldn’t be? We never see others’ heart motives with 20/20 vision and are often deluded ourselves.
Are you expecting things from your spouse that you have no right to expect? In that case, the solution is to repent over being hurt or bitter. It’s important that we always be willing to examine our own hearts when bitterness begins to germinate.
One man I counseled was upset because he felt sexual intimacy with his wife wasn’t frequent enough. His anger toward her stewed for months, but he finally realized his expectation was unreasonable, the resulting bitterness toward her sinful. He needed to repent—not his wife. So he asked her to forgive him, and she did. We must watch for unreasonable expectations—they can lead us to see sin in others where none exists and demand repentance where none is needed. This, too, can lead to devastating bitterness.
Look to Jesus
Don’t be like the citizens of ancient Troy. The victory Greece couldn’t get by frontal assault, they acquired through deception. The evil one will attempt the same with us. He will assassinate your marital intimacy with the secret weapon of bitterness over what may seem like small issues.
Above all, keep your eye on the cross. Forgive aggressively for Jesus’s sake. Talk about these things together. Forgive repeatedly, and the root of bitterness will not defile your marital joy.