Bitterness in marriage can sometimes be a result of forgetfulness in life. Often we hold grudges, become resentful, and refuse to overlook an offense because we have forgotten just how sinful we are in ourselves. We overlook our faults in order to fixate on the faults of others. A healthy dose of humility can go a long way, and this starts with remembering all that God has forgiven us in Christ. As we remember what we’ve been forgiven of, we can move towards one another in forgiveness and grace. An important principle for healthy marriages is to remember what forgiveness feels like.
You don’t need me to tell you that your spouse isn’t perfect. You’ve likely experienced it often enough to know this truth, and the longer you’ve been married the more you know it. You also likely know the reality that you yourself are imperfect. You know that you are a sinner and that your sins are many, and you have sinned against your spouse and, more importantly, against the Holy God of the universe. Of course there is a big difference in how we think about the sins we commit and the sins committed against us. My sins are “mistakes,” and as such they deserve grace and forgiveness. The sins of others, however, are intentional offenses that deserve justice. We want to see others pay for their offenses. We want to see them “get what’s coming to them.” We want revenge or punishment. The disparity between our thoughts reveals that we do not really see the weight and depth of our sin. We do not see just how wicked our sin is.
All sin before a holy God is cause for condemnation. Whether you and I regard our sins as small or great God regards them all the same. His perfect justice means that no sin can go unpunished and that all men are wicked and deserving of an eternal hell. There’s no grading scale with God. He cannot sweep some sins under the rug, and condemn others. We are all condemned, this is why Paul can so easily lump things like “haters of God,” “inventors of evil,” and “disobedient to parents” together (Rom. 1:30). He knows, as God has taught, that all sin stands equally condemned before Him. It is for all our sins, no matter the size or comparative weight, that God sent His only Son to die. Jesus died for your sins. The weight, depth, and breadth of our sin caused Christ to suffer and die. For our sins Jesus experienced the wrath of the Father and separation from the Godhead. We must understand these truths if we ever hope to repair our relationships with others. For, if we do not think our sins are great then we will feel no need to be forgiven. And to the degree that we feel forgiven we will forgive others.
Do you remember what forgiveness feels like? Paul wouldn’t let himself forget. He regularly repeats the amazing story of His conversion, reminding himself and others that he was the “chief of sinners.” So he writes:
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, (Gal. 1:13-16a)
8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:8-10)
7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, (Ephesians 3:7-8)
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16)
He tells his full story again to King Agrippa in Acts 26, describing in detail the wickedness of his heart and his actions. But always his stories are moving towards the grace of God which saved Him and was granted to Him as a display of the glory of God. Paul knew how much he had been forgiven of. He knew how serious his sins were and that He did not deserve anything from God. It was this truth, ever before him, which motivated Paul to continue to preach the gospel even to those who hated him and wanted to kill him (Acts 14:19-20). It is this same truth which will empower us to love.
So, the Scriptures repeatedly teach us that we are to love and to forgive as we have been loved and forgiven. Grace received results in grace extended. Jesus’ parable of the ungrateful servant serves as a warning to us that we must forgive others (Matt. 18:21-35). Elsewhere this truth is communicated more positively:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34)
This is My commandment, that you love one another as I loved you (John 15:12)
and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant sacrificial offering to God. (Eph 5:2)
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph. 4:32)
Bear with each other and forgive any complaint you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col. 3:13)
We have been given a model of forgiveness and love; we have experienced the grace of God in powerful ways in our life. If we remember this we can extend that same love, forgiveness, and grace to others.
Do you remember what forgiveness feels like? Do you remember what it is to have your sin thrown in your face? To be struck by the devastating reality of your failure? Do you remember the sickening feeling of the consequences of sin, the humiliation of it? Do you recall the release of forgiveness, the freedom of it? Do you remember your debt being paid, your guilt being removed? Do you recall the shock and surprise of Jesus “turning the other cheek,” taking your punishment, accepting you instead of rejecting you? If you have forgotten how forgiveness feels you will not be able to forgive others. Remember again, friends. Write out your testimony. Recall the shock of God’s love. Remind yourself, like Paul, of who you were apart from Christ and how serious your offenses are before God. Remind yourself in order that you might be able to forgive afresh.
When you are tempted to become bitter and resentful towards your spouse, when you are frustrated and tempted to hold a grudge, when you want to punish and retaliate against your spouse, then remember what forgiveness feels like. When their offense feels weighty, remember what it felt like to find that God forgives you for an even greater offense. Remember what forgiveness feels like and you will have greater sympathy for your spouse. This doesn’t mean that we never have to work through issues, but only that those issues don’t have to divide us.
This truth can change your marriage, friends: remember what forgiveness feels like. The more that we remember forgiveness the more equipped we are to forgive others. Often our bitterness in marriage is a result of forgetfulness in life. We forget how much we have been forgiven, and think that we are owed more than we deserve. Ask God for help in remembering forgiveness and find that your relationships will be better for it. We can forgive because we have been forgiven.