For nearly two centuries, Beethoven’s death was a mystery. The famous musician suffered from irritability, depression, and abdominal pain. His dying wish was that his illness would be discovered so that “the world may be reconciled to me after my death.”
In 1994, two Americans launched a study to determine the cause of Beethoven’s end. Chemical analysis of a strand of his hair showed his killer—lead poisoning1.
More than likely, it was a little poison in everyday activities that took his life. It could have come from drinking out of lead lined cups or having dinner on a lead lined plate—both common household items in that day. Or perhaps it came from eating contaminated fish or even the extensive consumption of wine. It didn’t come in one lump sum, but the lead killed him slowly and quietly—one little bit of poison at a time.
That’s also how bitterness destroys a marriage. It stores itself in the soul, and slowly poisons the one who carries it. It’s a blade meant for another that eventually severs the hand that tightly conceals it.
Recently, I have witnessed what a bitter wife does to a relationship. The problems with her husband are real, and her anger is justified. However, what keeps their marriage from healing is not only the problems that he has to overcome, but also the prideful bitterness she guards in her heart.
Little by little, day by day, she has allowed this bitterness to poison her. Her husband will do something disappointing, and instead of confronting the problem, she silently holds it against him. He continues to make the same mistakes, and she continues to harbor her resentment.
This pattern has gone on for years, and now the love she once felt has numbed and hardened her heart. Recently she walked out on their marriage wearing a list of her husband’s transgressions as her armor. Reflecting back on his behavior, she nurses her wounds with words that assure her that their marriage was a mistake—”I knew it all along,” she says.
What causes bitterness?
In every marriage, a husband or wife does something that hurts the other. It’s bound to happen because none of us is perfect. And in some cases, a spouse has a habit of doing the same thing over and over again, even after the behavior is confronted.
Bitterness comes when you hold onto hurt and refuse to forgive the person who hurt you. Most of the time, this comes as a result of ongoing actions of a small nature—lack of understanding, misuse of finances, harsh comments—that build up over time. Each offense takes residence in the heart, and at some point there is no more room left. That’s when bitterness is manifested and causes the most damage.
What’s wrong with bitterness?
A hardened heart can cause a lot of pain. Here are three reasons why bitterness should be removed from your heart as soon as possible:
1. Bitterness harbors unforgiveness. You may feel justified in your anger. You may think that your spouse doesn’t deserve your forgiveness until he or she straightens out. But have you forgotten the mercy that Jesus had for you?
Romans 5:8 tells us that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. By God’s grace, He didn’t wait for us to “get our acts together” before He provided a way for forgiveness. He gave it to us freely even when we didn’t deserve it. At Golgotha as the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ clothing, the dying innocent Christ prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). If forgiveness is given freely to us, how much more should we give it to our spouses?
Not only should you desire forgiveness simply because it was given so freely to you, but also, the Bible tells us that there are consequences for unforgiveness. Jesus said, “If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15, NASB). Seek forgiveness not only for the sake of your spouse, but also for yourself.
The other day, I found that my disappointment in my friend was turning into its own form of bitterness. So I sought the Scriptures for guidance. As always, the Word of God shone brilliant light on my own darkness. I was so moved by the verse I read that I wrote it down over and over until there was no more room left on the page. “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
I wonder how many hurting marriages would be healed if Christian husbands and wives learned to love mercy as much as they love justice?
2. Bitterness doesn’t give your spouse a chance to repent. If you’ve been holding in your hurt, your spouse may not even know he or she has offended you. Bitterness often comes from hurt that has been suppressed without communication, like filling up a bottle with pressure—eventually that bottle will explode. In the same way, the outburst in your heart can result in a broken marriage, and your spouse never even saw it coming. In this case, go ahead and tell him or her what’s been bothering you. Sit down and try to work it out.
Perhaps your spouse does know of your unhappiness, but chooses to continue in the same patterns. This does not negate your responsibility to remove the bitterness from your heart. You still need to give your spouse the chance to repent, although stronger measures, such as marriage counseling, may need to take place.
You may ask, “How many times does my spouse have to do something before I’m justified in my bitterness?” Peter had a similar question in Matthew 18:21 (NASB). He asked, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Jesus replied in verse 22, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
No matter how many times your spouse may do something, you are still responsible for forgiving him or her.
(Note: If your spouse is physically abusing you, get out of your house and do not stay there. A person who is physically abusive needs extensive counseling and rehabilitation. However, no matter how the situation ends, you can still work on forgiveness from the heart.)
3. Bitterness spreads. Have you ever seen a piece of moldy bread? It appears that there is only one ruined area, but if you were to look at the bread through a microscope, you would see long roots spreading throughout the slice. What appears on the surface doesn’t reflect what’s really happening below.
Bitterness grows the same way. One little bit of bitterness can start to spread throughout your heart and contaminate your whole body. It will start to manifest itself in your attitude, demeanor, and even your health.
In addition, the spreading can also affect your children and your family. Have you ever noticed how one person’s criticism makes everyone else critical, too? It’s the same with bitterness. Paul compares it to yeast when he writes, “A little leaven, leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:6). When you allow bitterness into your life, it extends to your family, your church body, and everyone else involved in your life.
Getting rid of bitterness
You may feel like there is little hope left for your marriage relationship. You may be so full of bitterness that you’ve convinced yourself that your marriage could never be healed, but let me assure you that the healing begins with yourself. With God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).
Here are four steps to take to begin healing from bitterness:
1.Confess your bitterness as a sin. It’s so easy to justify our attitude when we’ve been hurt, but the Bible teaches that bitterness is a sin. Hebrews 12:14-15 says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 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…” You must seek peace with your spouse and the grace to forgive.
2. Ask for God’s strength to forgive your spouse and diligently seek that forgiveness. In Ephesians 4:31-32, Paul exhorts us to “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
It’s hard to be tender-hearted to a spouse who has hurt you, but it is possible. We have the power to forgive because Christ forgave us, and He gives us strength through the Holy Spirit. For more information on how to forgive, read Nancy Leigh DeMoss’s article, “When It’s Hard to Forgive.”
3. Make a list of your hurts and find a time to talk to your spouse about it. After you’ve made your list, pray about which things you can let go and which need to be resolved. If you can let them go, then do so. You may want to physically scratch off each one that you can forgive as an act of faith. Then for those transgressions that are left, ask God to give you the strength to talk to your spouse about them.
Before talking to your spouse, let him or her know that you plan to set aside some undistracted time for you to talk about some issues. As you talk, keep the discussion productive. Start by confessing your own sins to your spouse. Then talk about your hurts. Don’t just dump all your irritations and criticisms on your spouse, but speak in love, rationally and gently.
If you feel like you can’t talk to your spouse alone, then ask a pastor or mentor couple to join you in the discussion. Make sure your spouse knows that someone else will be there. Once you begin, your spouse may deny the behavior or even become irritated. But the object of the discussion is to expose the wounds, not to accuse. Keep love the main motivator of your communication.
4. Worry about changing yourself, not your spouse. You cannot change your spouse—only God can. But what you can do is allow God to change your heart. If you have a log of bitterness in your own eye, how can you take the speck out of your spouse’s eye? (Matthew 7:3). You, too, have made choices in this relationship that have hurt your spouse and need to be mended. Even though your spouse’s sin goes unresolved for now, he or she will answer for it one day before God (Matthew 10:26). In the same way, God will hold you responsible for the bitterness in your heart.
Copyright © 2007 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
1. “Beethoven Was Poisoned”, Thursday, 19 October 2000, News in Science.