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.”

Hebrews 12:15

EVERYONE KNOWS THE STORY OF THE TROJAN HORSE. For ten years the warriors of ancient Greece besieged the city of Troy, but the stalwart defenders withstood their advances. Finally, forsaking their futile frontal assaults, Greece resorted to deception. They made a great wooden horse, inserted a band of commandos into its belly, and withdrew.

Convinced that their besiegers had finally given up, and dying of curiosity, the men of Troy drew the great statue into their city and naively went to sleep. That night the Greeks descended from the belly of the wooden curiosity and quickly vanquished Troy from within.

The Trojan Horse

In the same way, the enemy of our souls wants to insert a Trojan Horse in our marriages. It is his most effective weapon, one equipped to destroy our marital communication and intimacy. What he cannot accomplish with the frontal assaults of adultery, financial stress, or bickering over in-laws, he easily achieves with this insidious, hidden, but little-feared weapon. Like the citizens of Troy, most of us do not take it seriously until it has done its deadly work.

What is this Trojan Horse? The writer of Hebrews called it the “root of bitterness.” “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” (Heb. 12:15).

It slams the door on marital harmony. It defiles everything it touches.  It destroys more marriages than any other cause. Only the foolish lightly regard this enemy because “Resentment kills a fool” [Job 5:2].

Is it killing joy in your marriage?

The wise fear this adversary. They covenant to never let it fester in their relationship. They do this for two important reasons—they fear what resentment will do their marriage, and they fear what resentment will do to their relationship with God.

Withered Marital Harmony

The first reason to fear the power of bitterness is its ability to wither affection, smother intimacy, and defeat joy. Whenever you hear, “I just don’t love my spouse anymore,” unresolved bitterness is often the culprit.

In the hectic years when our five children were young, my wife and I attended a couple’s retreat. We needed time alone. But Judy was so distracted by the pressures of raising our children that she had little emotional energy for her husband. I came home nursing resentment. It cut off our communication, intimacy, and affection. By God’s grace, I eventually recognized the problem, decided to forgive and began to look for ways to help her lift the pressure. Resentment had temporarily driven two lovers apart, but God’s grace soon restored our relationship.

Resentment is like a spiritual snowball. It starts small, but as it rolls downhill it picks up new grievances eventually becoming an ice-mountain that crushes everything in its path.

A husband ignores his wife’s repeated pleas to call when he knows he is going to be late for dinner. The meal she worked so hard on is repeatedly left cold. She feels taken for granted, abused, and neglected. She begins to nurse resentment. Other grievances pile on, and three or four years later they are sleeping in separate rooms.

All of this is compounded by the fact that the more you need someone’s love the more power they have to hurt you. Whose esteem and acceptance do you need more than your mates? William Blake noted: “It is easier to forgive an enemy than a friend.” This is why a wound from a jilted lover goes much deeper than the rejection of a distant acquaintance.

All of this is what the author of Hebrews means when he warns that the root of bitterness will “defile many.”

Withered Relationship With God

The second reason to fear the power of bitterness is that it will wither our relationship with God. God hates bitterness and unforgiveness. Therefore couples that want to please him fear his displeasure. They forgive aggressively. They know that a root of bitterness “grieves” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and this they greatly fear.

With God forgiveness is a serious issue. Jesus said: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But, if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14-15). Anyone who takes this text seriously will forgive aggressively.

There are times when Judy and I have forgiven each other through clenched teeth, not because we wanted to, but because we feared God’s displeasure.

“Unforgiveness is the poison we drink hoping the other person will die.”

Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Forgiven To Forgive, Day 3

My wife keeps a spotless house, but when she was eight months pregnant with our fifth child it became uncharacteristically and justifiably messy. One afternoon I insensitively criticized her for being lazy. She felt taken for granted, hurt and rejected by the one person whose sympathy and respect she most needed. Even after my repeated apologies she still struggled to forgive. Why was the hurt so deep? I was the one person whose love and understanding she needed more than any other. Couples who understand this principle temper their speech, forgive quickly, and aggressively seek to be forgiven. They keep and give short accounts.

Three Ways to Overcome Bitterness

How can we learn to forgive one another? God has given us at least three weapons to help us conquer bitterness:

  • See your sin through God’s eyes.
  • Remember, forgiveness is a decision.
  • Persist in forgiveness until the feelings follow.

First, see your own sin through God’s eyes. I have learned that my ability to forgive is in direct proportion to my capacity to see the mountain of sin for which God has forgiven me—and, He forgave me at an infinite expense to Himself.  

For many years I took my sins against God lightly, but I took my wife’s sins against me very seriously. This was because I didn’t see my sin as God saw it. Therefore, I did not see why I should forgive. It seemed unreasonable to forgive Judy for not rolling up the toothpaste tube when I was so sincere, tried so hard, and had done so little to offend God or her. But that is not how God sees it.

Then, thirteen years into our marriage, I began reading the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58)—to whom I owe a great debt. For the first time, I saw the holiness of God and the enormity of my personal sin. In short, I saw the Mount Everest of sin for which God had forgiven me. I understood that even if my wife committed adultery, a highly unlikely situation, it would be a small offense compared to the crimes for which God had forgiven me. Failure to see my own sin kept me from being a “forgiver.”

The more I saw my sin as God saw it the more compelled I became to forgive. How could one so unworthy of God’s forgiveness resent his wife when her offenses were so small by comparison? Blindness to the enormity of my sin was responsible for most of my unresolved bitterness.

It is my experience that pride is at the root of most unwillingness to forgive. We have 20/300 vision about our own sin, but 20/20 vision when we look at our mate’s faults.

You might be thinking, but you don’t understand what my spouse did to me.

You are right: I don’t. But, I know this—if God exacted the same standard of justice from you that you want from your mate, you would be the object of his vengeance in hell forever. Christians forgive because God first forgave them. Ultimately, Christ’s forgiveness, secured for us at the Cross, at an infinite expense to Himself, is where believers obtain the power to forgive.

A famous person once said: “We are most like animals when we kill, most like men when we take vengeance, but most like God when we forgive.” That is because the desire for vengeance is natural to fallen human nature, but forgiveness is a supernatural act. It lays down the need for vengeance. You can only do this with God’s help, and it is available to those who meditate on the cross.

The second weapon that overcomes bitterness is understanding the place of feelings. Numerous times people have told me, “Bill, I have forgiven and forgiven, but I still feel hurt. The wound still smarts. The feeling of rejection is still raw.” But here is the key: forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling. We can’t control our feelings. We can only control our decisions. All God asks is that we repeatedly and persistently decide to forgive.

A woman had been married to a man who had repeatedly hurt her for thirty five years. I asked how she had learned to forgive her husband. “I just forgave and forgave from the heart,” she said, “Eventually my feelings caught up with my decisions.” This is what effective forgivers do.

Persistence is the third weapon God gives effective forgivers. When Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive his enemy seven times Jesus responded, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven” [Mt 18:22]. Seventy times seven is Biblical imagery for unending persistence. In other words, forgive, forgive, and never give up. There have been times when my wife and I have had to forgive each other over and over until the solvent of God’s mercy has dissolved the feelings of resentment into cherished intimacy.


A marriage counselor once told me that, in his experience, resentment and unforgiveness were the cause of most marital strife and divorce. Neil Anderson wrote: “The number one problem in the church today is unresolved bitterness.” In my experience, they are both right!

Don’t be like the ancient citizens of Troy, utterly deceived because they did not take this enemy seriously. The victory that Greece could not accomplish by frontal assault she quickly acquired by praying on Troy’s naiveté. If you let him, the Evil One will do the same with you. He will put your marriage to death, or “defile” it, with the unappreciated but deadly strategy of bitterness. Learn to keep short accounts. Daily lay down the right to revenge. Defend you marriage from Satan’s assaults.

After forty-eight years of marriage, my wife and I have a wonderful relationship. Learning to forgive has been a major factor. It has not always been easy, but it has returned great rewards, and it has attracted God’s favor to our relationship. Learn to forgive for Jesus’ sake. Learn to forgive for your own sake, and you will be recipients of God’s rich blessing on your relationship.

For more on this subject check out my new book, Marriage In Paradise. You can find out more about it here.

As always, your comments or questions are appreciated.