There is an intrinsic nature to bitterness. The bitter person is like someone with a cup of poison and each time she thinks about her problems she takes another sip.
Listen to the podcast
Marge is bitter at her husband. Biff is mostly oblivious to the frustration that silently churns inside Marge. He’s doing his own thing and if you ask him about their problems he would say, “We’re doing okay. Sometimes Marge gets a bit upset, but we’re doing good.”
Every time Marge hears him say something like that, she silently and inwardly goes off the deep end. The accumulative effect of their 20-year marriage has left her in a low-grade churning state of bitterness.
You may want to read:
- When Desires For Love and Respect Destroy Your Marriage
- Six Tips When Someone Hurts You and Bitterness Take Root
- How the Ongoing Sin of Others Impacts Your Health
The odd thing about it is how Biff does not discern the problem. He does not understand the depth of her frustration. He has convinced himself he is doing okay, even though Marge is spiritually deteriorating by the day.
Biff, the undiscerning person in our little scenario, is going happily, happily along with his way, living in his self-serving habits, while insulated from the reality of his marriage. Marge, who desires a good marriage, is spiritually dying.
It seems like the person who is more guilty would be affected the most and the one who wants a biblical marriage would be less affected. Not so. In our turned-upside-down world, things don’t always work according to how we think they should.
What I want to interact with in this case study is Marge, not Biff. While we all could make a biblical case for Biff to change, let’s pretend he is not going to change–at least not in the foreseeable future.
Maybe some of you would want to take a stick to the side of his head. Somebody should at least take a Bible and try to work it into his heart. No doubt Biff needs to be confronted. Without question, he needs to change.
Somebody needs to love him enough to begin a process of Matthew 18:15-17, which starts with talking to him about the problems in his life and his marriage. Maybe there is a possibility he would become convinced by God to change. That would be the best possible outcome.
From the Inside Out
Setting Biff aside, for now, let’s think about Marge. We are fallen people, living in a fallen world, while surrounded by fallen people. Becoming born again does not make us perfect, and it does not insulate us from trouble.
We should always be pursuing holiness regardless of whether the “Biff’s” in our world ever give the Lord equal time. Living in an imperfect world will not give us all our desires. Even marrying a Christian will not completely satisfy our deepest longings.
The more important question for you to answer is, “What do I want?” How you respond to that question will determine whether you’re going to take sips from the cup of bitterness or find contentment in Christ alone.
What does Marge want? You start by answering that question, which you will discern by her behavior. What is she doing? When she thinks about Biff and her marriage, how does she respond–inwardly and outwardly?
Jesus taught that if you are sinning on the outside, there is something wrong with you on the inside (Matthew 15:18). If you take a peek under the hood of Marge’s life, you will probably find a few of the following.
Anger, self-righteousness, bitterness, fear, anxiousness, self-deception, arrogance, discontentment, discouragement, and possibly depression. She may also have a few physical problems too.
Some would say Marge’s problem is Biff. That’s misplaced wisdom. As hard as it may be for her to hear, someone needs to love her enough to help her see what she is doing to herself.
Though Biff is authentically, objectively, and biblically sinning against his wife, Marge is not permitted to sin in response to his sin. God does not give you an excuse to sin, no matter how horrible someone treats you.
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. – 1 Peter 2:19-20 (ESV)
Marge has a hard choice before her. Will she be more mindful of God than her miserable marriage? If her husband never changes, it will become imperative for her to be stabilized by God. If she is not, she will drink herself to death.
The height of Christian maturity is to be sinned against not be overcome by the sin while putting Christ on display in spite of the mistreatment. Suffering is your calling. (cf. 1 Peter 2:21)
Change What You Can
There are three primary reasons Marge needs to gain victory over her sin while being sinned against by Biff.
- Her sin defames God—it does not put Christ on display.
- Her sin defiles her—she is drinking from the bitter cup.
- Her sin defeats her witness—she won’t be able to help her husband.
Because the first point is obvious and the third one is not an option right now, I’m going to interact with the second one. Marge wants a biblical husband, and her method for acquiring a biblical spouse is unbiblical. The result is she is defiling herself.
Even though her sin could cause behavioral changes in Biff, she won’t get an authentic God-centered husband that will last. If she wants a God-loving man, the place to begin will be in the most likely place for change to happen—in her heart.
The upside to this approach is if Biff does not change, she will no longer be drinking from the bitter cup. That, in itself, should be enough to motivate her to change.
Because Marge is sinning in response to her husband’s sin, we know there is something wrong in her heart. It’s essential for her to see this. Here is an excellent x-ray question that will quickly get you to her core problem.
I could be happy if ________________?
The right answer to this “heart inquiry” is, “I could be happy if God were my King” (or something along those lines). Any other answer you place in the blank is idolatry. It would be biblically accurate to say that any other “solution” you put in the blank is your functional god.
You shall have no other gods before me. – Exodus 20:3 (ESV)
Whatever controls you is your functional god. There is only one thing that can control you in any given moment (Matthew 6:24). In Marge’s case, her husband has control of her, which makes him an undesirable, imperfect “god.”
If he would shape up and meet her expectations, especially her desire for a God-loving man, she would presumably be okay. While he should shape up and he should be a biblical man, his shaping up should not be the thing that determines her soul stability.
As hard as it would be for Marge to hear, she is an idolator. The biblical implication of her actions is if her husband would come through for her, she could stop sinning.
She needs Christ, plus a good spouse. Can Marge change only after her husband changes? Or, can Marge change in spite of her husband’s shenanigans? Marge is unwittingly setting up an arbitrary and codependent grading system for her marriage.
Her happiness is bound up in Biff’s performance. If Biff meets her expectations, she will be okay. If he fails, she will not be okay, plus she will let him know by reciprocating sin for sin.
I’m not sure if Marge’s marriage will ever be right because Biff may never change (2 Timothy 2:24-25). His potential restoration to God is a tertiary matter at this point because he is not responding to sound counsel.
Regardless, Marge is negatively interfering with her bad marriage. The key will be whether or not she can find contentment in God alone while being less controlled by her husband’s meanness.
The best possible hope at this point is for her to position herself as a means of grace to help her husband change. Setting aside her desires will be a big step of faith for her. Can she trust God to help her to repent of her personal disappointment in her marriage regardless of the outcome?
Don’t Feed the Addict
Let’s say Biff does change. Let’s say he becomes everything Marge wants him to be. Would that make everything right? Would the marriage be biblically better? On the surface, maybe. But Marge would not have gained the victory she needs over her sin.
She would sin less often, no doubt, but the strength of her marriage would always teeter on the merits of Biff’s behavior. Let me convey this by using a different kind of illustration.
Suppose you had a crystal meth addict next door and she came to you asking for a hit. You decide to give her a fix because it will make her happy. She continues to come to you each day, asking for another bump.
What have you done? Have you fixed the problem? Is she better or is she just getting her fix? The problem with feeding an addict is the addict has an insatiable appetite for her drug of choice. You will never satisfy her.
Marge will never be satisfied as long as Biff is her drug of choice. Even if he did give her all she wanted, it would never be right because she would be getting her “fix on” through Biff.
God is the only One who can satisfactorily supply all you need (Philippians 4:19). If you have to have a God + someone else, you will never be content, never have true biblical relationships, and you will always be a people-user.
Part of the problem for Marge is the grayish nuance between good and bad desires. If Marge had an evil desire, it would be easier to figure out the problem and bring resolution.
You could walk her through why God says you can’t have that bad thing. Her problem is that she does not want an evil thing. She wants a husband to love her the way Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25). No sound thinking Christian should have a problem with that.
The problem occurs when you can’t get your good desires met. Marge wants something biblical. Where she is convoluting the matter is when those good desires turn into something she is not willing to relinquish.
Anytime this happens to you, it will put you a breath away from idolatry. Your unmet good desires turn into expectations that you assume God and others should meet. You wait and wait for them to come to pass.
When they don’t come to fruition, you can become demanding and even mean-spirited, especially to those who should be the conduit through which you get want you want.
Marge had a biblical expectation. Her hope did not come to fruition. In time, that good desire supplanted God as her source of hope, strength, contentment, and happiness. She probably never saw it coming.
A stronghold began to develop in her mind (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). It took hold of her thoughts and each time she was disappointed by Biff’s failure she took an undiscerning sip from her cup of bitterness. In time, she was blinded by the poison. She became self-deceived.
It was so subtle because what she wanted was a good thing. Good desires perpetuate a sense of self-justification for her sinful responses to her sinful husband.
A careful discipler needs to help her see what she has done to herself. You affirm her good desires, but wisely and carefully help her understand how those desires have twisted themselves around her heart.
She is not beyond hope. The Lord can restore her. She can find satisfaction in Christ alone. She can be a means of grace to her husband. It is even possible the Lord would use her to help restore Biff to Himself (Galatians 6:1-3).
The journey won’t start until she is willing to allow someone to lovingly and carefully bring this kind of gospel clarity to her. She has to see what she can’t see right now. She needs to understand what she is doing. She needs to put down her bitter cup.
Also published on Medium.