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Lesson 25: Your Marriage: Better or Bitter? (Colossians 3:19)

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May 29, 2016

A church bulletin read, “At the Ladies’ Aid Society Meeting, many interesting articles were raffled off. Every member brought something she no longer needed. Many members brought their husbands.” There are probably many wives who wouldn’t mind making a little profit by raffling off their husbands! Some might even pay to have you take him off their hands!

Of course, no marriage starts there. They all begin with high expectations. But somewhere not too far along, there is a fork in the road. From there on, marriages seem to grow either better or bitter. Either a husband and wife are growing closer in a deepening love for each other, or they are growing more distant as resentment and anger build a wall, brick by brick.

Beginning at Colossians 3:12, Paul shows how a relationship with God should impact our relationships with one another in the church and in the home. Those who have been chosen of God should be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forbearing, and forgiving toward one another. Love and the peace of Christ should bind us together in the one body of Christ.

Then Paul applies these qualities specifically to wives and husbands, to children and parents, and to slaves and masters. You can fake being a Christian at church or before the world. But you can’t fake it at home. So in Colossians 3:19, Paul shows how husbands are to live out their faith toward their wives. (Paul is probably brief here because he expected the Colossians also to read his letter to the Ephesians.) Here Paul says:

Husbands must love their wives and not be embittered toward them.

There are two sides to Paul’s terse command: The positive (“love”) and the negative (“don’t be embittered”). No matter how mature you are as a Christian, you’ve got room to grow in obedience to this command. It’s not the sort of thing where you can check this off your list and move on to something else! I want to focus on how to apply this command to your marriage so that it will grow better, not bitter.

1. Husbands must love their wives.

After Paul’s command to wives to submit to their husbands, you would have expected him to write, “Husbands, rule over your wives, as Christ rules over the church.” Many husbands read it that way. If you were to ask them their number one responsibility toward their wives, they would say, “To be the head of the home.” But Paul says that our primary responsibility is to love our wives. If you are a husband, you should think often about how you can better love your wife as Christ loves the church.

To apply this verse properly, we need to understand what Paul meant by love. If love is a strong feeling over which you have no control and the feelings are gone, then there’s not much you can do, is there? I’ve had Christian couples tell me, “We’re no longer in love, so it would be best if we just divorced and moved on.” Usually these couples are so angry and bitter that they don’t want to work at rekindling their love.

But as you should know (since I’ve used this definition twice in recent messages), biblical love is not primarily a feeling. Rather, it’s a self-sacrificing, caring commitment which shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved. While such love results in deep feelings, the core of it is not feelings but commitment. Romantic love focuses on how the other person makes me feel, but biblical love focuses on what I must do for the other person. It can be willed, it is seen more in actions than in feelings, and its aim is totally different than the selfish aims of romantic love. So to obey this command, I need to understand that the main way I love my wife is by being committed to sacrifice myself to seek her highest good. There are three parts to this:

A. The main component in biblical love is commitment.

You can’t command a feeling, but you can command a commitment to act in certain ways. In our day, we fall in love and marry our lovers. But in Paul’s day, most marriages were arranged by the parents. So Paul is not saying that love is the basis for marriage (as we practice it), but rather that marriage is the basis for love. He’s saying, “Love the wife you’re married to.” It applies to every Christian husband.

There’s good news and bad news in this command. The good news is that even if the feelings of love have died in your marriage, they can be rekindled! The excuse, “I just don’t love her anymore,” is not valid. Paul doesn’t say, “Love your wife if the two of you are compatible and are romantically attracted to one another.” He says, “Learn what love is and do it.” If you obey, the feelings will follow. So there’s hope even for the most hopeless situations.

The bad news (or, at least, difficult news) is, loving your wife becomes a matter of obedience to God for which you’re responsible. If there’s no love in your marriage, then husband, it’s your fault! “But if you knew how this woman treats me!” “Love your wife!” “But if you had to live with her every day!” “Love your wife!” “But I’ve done so much for her and she never does anything for me!” “Love your wife!” “But ...!” “Love your wife!” Paul yanks the rug out from under all our excuses. Love for my wife is a command which I am responsible to obey. If I blame my wife for the problems in my marriage, Christ puts it back on me. He says, “My church hasn’t always been the most beautiful bride, but I still love her with a committed love. That’s how you must love your wife.”

When he was in his late fifties, Dr. Robertson McQuilken’s wife, Muriel, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was the President of Columbia Bible College and Seminary, where he had served for 22 years. For several years, he tried to juggle his duties at the school with caring for his wife. But as her condition worsened, he could no longer do both. Many of his friends encouraged him to put her in a care facility, but he couldn’t bear the thought of her being in such a place. He shared his thoughts about leaving his thriving ministry to care for her (Christianity Today, “Living by Vows,” Feb. 1, 2004):

When the time came, the decision was firm. It took no great calculation. It was a matter of integrity. Had I not promised, 42 years before, “in sickness and in health … till death do us part”? …

This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt….

I have been startled by the response to the announcement of my resignation. Husbands and wives renew marriage vows, pastors tell the story to their congregations. It was a mystery to me, until a distinguished oncologist, who lives constantly with dying people, told me, “Almost all women stand by their men; very few men stand by their women.” Perhaps people sensed this contemporary tragedy and somehow were helped by a simple choice I considered the only option.

It is all more than keeping promises and being fair, however. As I watch her brave descent into oblivion, Muriel is the joy of my life. Daily I discern new manifestations of the kind of person she is, the wife I always loved. I also see fresh manifestations of God’s love—the God I long to love more fully.

The main component in love is commitment to your wife as long as you both shall live, no matter how difficult that may be.

B. The main action in biblical love is self-sacrifice.

In Ephesians 5:25, Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” Biblical love means sacrificing yourself for your wife. It means dying to yourself and living for her highest good, even as Jesus Christ died on the cross so that we may have eternal life.

Probably, you’ll never literally need to lay down your life for your wife. But almost daily you have opportunities to die to yourself by putting aside something that you want to do at the moment and serving your wife. Many years ago, I was going to preach on this text one Sunday. One night that week, I was all comfy in bed with a good book. Marla was getting into the shower and said, “When the dryer goes off, if I’m still in the shower would you mind getting the clothes out?” I said, “Sure! I need a good sermon illustration about sacrificial love for my wife!”

But seriously, maybe it’s listening to your wife share some concern when you wanted to read the paper or watch something on TV. Maybe she needs help with the kids or cleaning up the kitchen, but she doesn’t want to ask. So you see the need and get up and do it without being asked. Perhaps she would be encouraged if you stopped what you’re doing and prayed with her about a difficulty that she is facing. She always needs you to take the time to understand her needs and verbally assure her of your love.

I read (Reader’s Digest [6/86], p. 159) of a wife who had been married to a coach for 34 years and had learned that a ball game always has top priority. But one particularly frustrating day she burst out, “Frank, you’d miss my funeral to go to a ball game!” He calmly replied, “Roberta, whatever made you think I’d schedule your funeral on the day of a game?”

Obviously, that guy could have used some pointers on self-sacrificing love! Don’t be like that! Remember Jesus’ words (Luke 9:23), “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” And the motivation for such self-sacrificial love is the Savior’s great love for us, demonstrated when He gave His life for us on the cross.

The main component in love is commitment; the main action is self-sacrifice.

C. The main goal in biblical love is godliness in the one loved.

Love seeks the highest good of the one loved, namely, that the person would become like Jesus Christ. A husband who loves his wife as Christ loved the church has as his main desire for her that she would be growing into a woman of God.

You say, “Yeah, I’m always telling her she needs to be more godly!” But you don’t accomplish this goal by lecturing your wife. There is only one way to pull it off—by your own godly example. As your wife sees you walking with the Lord, dealing with sin in your own life, and growing in gentleness, patience and kindness as you spend time in the Word and in prayer, she will want the same thing for herself. Of course there are times when you must give a gentle word of correction. But the primary way to nurture godliness in your wife is not by lecture; it’s by your life. You cannot impart to your wife (and kids) what you do not practice.

Which leads me to ask: Are you setting the spiritual example in your home? Do you lead your family in reading the Bible and praying together? Do you pray for your wife and with her about the things she faces each day? Do you establish commitment to the church as a family priority, or does your wife have to nudge you toward church? Seeking your wife’s highest good means seeking her spiritual good. The way you do it is through setting the example of godliness in everyday living.

That’s the positive side of Paul’s command: Loving your wife by being committed to sacrifice yourself to seek her highest good. But he also adds a negative command:

2. Husbands must not be embittered toward their wives.

In classical Greek, this word “regularly denotes the bitterness associated with disappointment, hate and anger” (G. T. D. Angel, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan], 1:202). It takes root when you focus on the sins or shortcomings of your wife. Behind it is the disappointment of unmet expectations. It expresses itself by embittered anger, vindictiveness, or being cross or harsh. Obviously, Paul’s command assumes that wives will do things that may embitter their husbands. There are three implications of this negative command:

A. Not being embittered implies leading by love, not by harsh authority.

Bitterness is the response of a leader who feels threatened and tries to lead by force and coercion. When his will is resisted, he turns up the pressure. After telling the wives to submit to their husbands, Paul knew that many men would try to help their wives obey that command by asserting their authority as husbands. But he’s saying, “Harsh authority is wrong for Christian husbands. You lead in the home by loving your wife and being gentle and considerate with her. Being the leader does not give you the right to be harsh and authoritarian and to trample on her feelings.”

I think that there are times when a Christian husband, after thoroughly talking and praying things through with his wife, must say, “I have to answer to God for the direction this family goes. And so I must disagree with you and say, ‘Our family is not going to do that or live that way; we’re going this way.’” In other words, there are times when you must go against the wishes of those under your charge and assert your authority as a leader. But even then you can do it gently and by setting the example of obedience yourself. Unless you have a rebellious wife, those times of asserting authority ought to be very rare.

B. Not being embittered implies controlling your anger and dealing with your hurts in a godly way.

Bitterness is settled anger which comes from disappointed expectations that are not properly dealt with. When someone you love hurts or disappoints you—and it is inevitable in the close relationship of marriage—if you don’t deal with it, you begin to build up a reservoir of unsettled anger and hurt feelings. The more that reservoir grows, the more you blame your partner for your unhappiness in the marriage. Both partners become increasingly angry with each other. They snap at each other and fight over trivial things. But the real problem is the reservoir of bitterness stemming from disappointed expectations that they’ve never dealt with.

Maybe you wanted a wife who would be a certain way and when you were dating the woman who is now your wife, you thought she was that way. But after you got married, you discovered that she really is not that way. The more you see how she really is and the more you see other women who seem to be the way you wanted her to be, the angrier you get. You’re embittered against your wife because she disappointed your expectations.

The key to overcoming bitterness is to recognize that your wife is not perfect—and neither are you! She probably has a list of disappointed expectations that you didn’t fulfill! So you have to accept and love the wife you have, not the wife you idealistically wish you had. Focus on her positive qualities and thank God for the wife He gave you. Accept her as you want her to accept you (Rom. 15:7).

As a couple, you may need to talk honestly about unfulfilled expectations that you both are dealing with. Some of these may be valid shortcomings that each of you can work on, but some may be personality differences that aren’t going to change even with spiritual growth. That’s where mutual acceptance comes into play. If you don’t face these disappointed expectations and deal with them God’s way, then can turn into angry demands that will drive you apart. All such anger stems from selfishness, which you’ve got to recognize and confess as sin. Then you can talk through hurt feelings and misunderstandings in a climate of love, not accusation.

What often happens is that a wife does something that hurts her husband (it works both ways, but I’m looking at it from how the hurt husband needs to deal with it). Since men often aren’t too good at talking about their feelings and since it wouldn’t be macho to admit how he feels, he lashes out in anger and blames her for what she’s done. They have a nasty argument and she goes off crying while he buries himself in front of the TV. After a while, a calm of sorts returns to the household, and he doesn’t want to disturb it, so he never talks about his hurt feelings.

It’s always easier to let it go and not talk it through. But that’s like not cleaning out a dirty wound because it hurts too much. A scab forms over it, so you let it go. But then it gets infected and then it’s messy and painful to clean it out. The best thing is to clean it out right away, in spite of the pain. Then it can heal properly.

I’m not suggesting that you need to deal with every little slight in your marriage. Often we ought to absorb our hurts and give our disappointments to the Lord without mentioning it to our spouse. But if it’s causing distance, I need to deal with it by confessing my own sin and controlling my anger as I talk it through with my wife. I always need to view my wife as my own body, so that my goal is to nourish and cherish her, not to wound her (Eph. 5:28-29). But I need to take the initiative to deal with emotional hurts.

So not being embittered implies leading by love, not by harsh authority. And it implies controlling your anger and dealing with hurts in a godly way.

C. Not being embittered implies setting a positive emotional climate in your home.

Bitterness describes an emotion. Emotions are at the heart of relationships. Intimacy is a feeling of closeness. Bitterness results in a feeling of distance and alienation. If a husband allows himself to be moody and depressed and lets bitterness toward his wife fester, he’s setting a negative emotional climate in his home. A lot of husbands poison their families by being grumpy and depressed and then they get angry when the family reflects it back to them.

But as the spiritual leaders in the home, we need to set a positive climate of faith in the Lord, of thankfulness for His goodness, of joy for His blessings, and of peace because we have His peace in our hearts. Men, if you’re often grumpy, critical, pessimistic and negative, how do you expect your wife and kids to be what they need to be in the Lord? I’ve had to tell myself, “I don’t have the luxury to sulk and be depressed. I’m the spiritual leader in my family, and if I want my wife and kids to be full of joy in the Lord, I’ve got to lead the way by my example.”

This means that when you walk in the door after work, you’re on! Rather than expecting to be served, view your home as your ministry and go in prepared to love and serve your family as their spiritual leader. Determine to set a warm, loving climate of joy in the Lord so that every family member feels like home is the greatest place on earth to be. Men, the responsibility for whether your marriage is growing better or bitter lies with you!


A young man, recently married, came to the well-known Bible teacher, Harry Ironside, and said, “Brother Ironside, I want your help. I’m in an awful state. I’m drifting into idolatry.”

“What’s the trouble?” Dr. Ironside asked.

“Well, I’m afraid that I’m putting my wife on too high a plane; I love her too much and I’m displeasing the Lord.”

Dr. Ironside asked, “Are you indeed? Do you love her more than Christ loved the church?”

“I don’t think I do.”

“Well, that is the limit,” Ironside replied, “for we read, ‘Husbands, love your wives even as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.’” (H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies [Ephesians] [Loizeaux Brothers], p. 281)

Men, until we reach that limit, we’ve got work to do! Love your wife and don’t be embittered toward her!

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to define love as a self-sacrificing commitment that seeks the highest good of the one loved, and not as romantic feelings?
  2. How can we know when to absorb a hurt and when we need to discuss it with our spouse?
  3. How can a man who is not comfortable talking about his feelings grow more comfortable?
  4. How can a man who has never led his family spiritually overcome the awkwardness and begin?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Home, Christian Life, Marriage, Men's Articles, Relationships

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