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From Bitterness to Forgiveness

By Matthew Steven Black

From Bitterness to Forgiveness (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Happy Thanksgiving! But for some it’s not so happy. Holidays can be anything but happy for people struggling in broken relationships. Someone said that bitterness is like taking poison hoping the other person will die.  Bitterness is a silent killer lurking and taunting us. Unforgiveness is the one thing that will kill the joy of relationship, especially in marriage. Yet it is the one thing married couples seem to have an endless supply of. It always leads to deep misery. Ephesians 4:31-32 describes the damage bitterness can do, and how we can get rid of it at its root. Without a real heart change toward God, we will be paralyzed in bitterness. “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.”

Six Toxic Attitudes

Paul mentions six toxic attitudes that need be repented of in all our relationships, especially marriage, since Paul is about to talk about the marriage covenant in the next chapter, Ephesians 5. These six toxic attitudes are bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. The following illustration may hit pretty close to home.

The cycle of bitterness is fueled by selfishness. With a selfish attitude, the goal is always to “protect or nurse my hurt” and to get my way no matter what. James says this way of thinking brings “disorder and every vile practice” (Jas 3:16).

Put Off Bitterness

I love the word Paul uses when instructing us what to do with these toxic emotions. He says to put them off. The idea is taking off a dirty garment or taking out the trash. Essentially, we need to take these toxic emotions and refuse to be controlled by them. We need to take out the trash our lives. If we do not, we become very “stinky” inside our heart. That sink will go far beyond our marriage and into other relationships. When I don’t take out the trash in my house, I become like a hoarder. I hoard my selfishness and bitterness and nurse all my hurts and wounds. The problem is, it stinks and reeks and is rotten. Paul gives all of us a wonderful, gracious and loving admonition: take out the trash! Stop the bitterness cycle.

The Solution: Put on Forgiveness

What’s the solution to this bitterness cycle? Simple. Surrender to God. Take out the trash. Die to self. Stop prosecuting your case. Put your hurts to death by putting on empathy and love for your perceived enemy. Feel for the other person (tenderness). Serve the other person and make life easier for them (kindness) and ask for forgiveness while refusing to insult the other person with their wrongs. Take personal responsibility for your sin. Like a caterpillar being set free from the cocoon, you will experience incredible freedom and relief!

Never say “Please forgive me, but…” Ask for forgiveness for your sins to God and to your spouse without excuses or rationalizations. Often, the husband may need to take the initiative in this because he is the picture of Christ in the relationship. Yet, if a bride doesn’t have humility, she is not representing the Bride of Christ. Christ went after his Bride and laid his life down for her. So must every husband. And the wife must submit to Christ and honor her husband. She can do this by humbly having a tender heart, and asking forgiveness when necessary. The real test of knowing Jesus’ forgiveness is your ability and tender willingness to forgive those who have sinned the most against you. Look to Christ’s example if you lack humility. Let his brutal sacrifice break your proud heart.

Being Forgiving and Grateful is Easier!

A great way to stop the bitterness cycle is to remember Proverbs 13:15, “the way of the transgressor is hard.” It takes far more energy to be bitter than to surrender to the Spirit (Gal 5:25). Surrender brings the infinite resurrection power of the Spirit. Once you are committed to a moment by moment surrender to God, you can begin to build trust. The answer is not to change your spouse, but to see transformation in your own life. Trust is absolutely necessary to have godly communication. The more tender, kind, and forgiving you are, the more you will be able to work on your problems / difficulties in a godly way. Every time a believer chooses to please God instead of self, they build trust with the person who has forgiven them. Instead of bitterness this holiday season, realize how God has forgiven you, and choose to forgive others. That will make for a truly happy Thanksgiving!