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The only antidote to bitterness was something I didn't feel like doing.

I need to talk to you," my husband said. I was resting comfortably in our bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed, and I knew from his serious look that something was terribly wrong. My heart began to pound, and I feared some tragedy had taken place.



"What's wrong?" I asked.

"I've kept a secret from you all these years—and it's kept me from being completely open and honest toward you. I want to break the power this secret has held over me—and us."

The words came slowly as he told me he lied to me during our engagement when he told me he was a virgin. I was shocked. I felt betrayed—and I was angry.

Being pure when we married was important to me. What angered me more, though, was that he'd lied about it for 35 years. I wanted to lash out and hurt him as much as he'd hurt me.

Every Christian knows about the importance of forgiveness. It's an expectation: just forgive; you're supposed to forgive. But what happens when it's difficult to forgive?

I grabbed one of his favorite shirts and shook it in his face. "You don't deserve to wear this shirt any longer." The shirt bore the logo of the Promise Keepers men's association, "Men of Integrity." I threw it in the top of my closet.

Later, as my anger cooled, I remembered a few years earlier when I'd hurt my husband deeply—a time when I'd become emotionally involved with another man. My husband chose to forgive me. I knew I had to do the same for him. I just didn't want to.

How could he do this to me? Especially when I trusted him? I wondered. I thought about how Jesus told us to forgive so that we will be forgiven (Luke 6:37). But nothing was going to change my attitude toward my husband.

As Father's Day approached, God continued to deal with me. Finally, I realized our marriage couldn't overcome this obstacle until I chose to forgive. Asking God for strength, I tearfully took the shirt from the closet, wrapped it, and gave it to him. He cried with relief as we embraced.

I was surprised by how that simple act doused my anger and flooded my heart with forgiveness. And we moved on with our lives.

Emotions follow actions

I had to choose to forgive my husband even before I felt forgiveness. Though still angry and hurt, I had a responsibility to forgive. The apostle Paul writes, "As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Colossians 3:12-13).

Every Christian knows about the importance of forgiveness. It's an expectation: just forgive; you're supposed to forgive. But what happens when it becomes difficult to forgive? It doesn't even have to be over something "big," such as infidelity. What if it's over the annoying little habits or seemingly stupid things your spouse continues to do or not do?

How do we truly forgive our spouses when they offend us? What does forgiveness look like in practical, everyday life? In marriage we find an opportunity to learn to forgive a myriad of hurts, large and small. In Sacred Marriage, author Gary Thomas writes, "One of marriage's primary purposes is to teach us how to forgive."

At a conference several years ago, I was talking to a woman who'd been physically abused throughout the course of her marriage. She was now divorced, but still having trouble forgiving her ex-husband. I explained that in the Bible the word for forgiveness means to abandon, to send away, leave alone. True forgiveness is a releasing. I don't have to wait until I feel like forgiving. That may never happen. Instead, I must choose to forgive. God will deal with whatever else needs to be done. When someone first shared that insight with me, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. And as I shared it with this new divorcée, her eyes filled with tears. She realized forgiving her ex-husband didn't mean condoning his behavior, it meant releasing him so God could deal with him.

Bitterness and unforgiveness are two of the most difficult issues many of us deal with in marriage. Ordinary annoyances that occur in every marriage can cause anger and frustration—such as when your spouse interrupts you during a conversation or forgets to pay a bill. These small irritations can grow into mountainous obstacles if we don't deal with them daily. But if we make forgiveness a habit, even for the little things, it will be much easier to forgive the big ones.

Anger can be toxic. If we don't take care of it, it can turn inward and become bitterness. The apostle Paul says, "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry" (Ephesians 4:26). Our bodies aren't equipped to handle residual anger: harboring anger and bitterness takes a toll on us psychologically and physically. It causes undue stress and physical illness.

In the October 27, 1997, issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, the editors asked physicians, "What specific personality characteristic causes physical illness?" Their answer: anger.

God didn't design our bodies to carry the venom of anger, unforgiveness, and bitterness. He designed us to live in peace and harmony with our mates, which can only occur through forgiveness.

In everyday living, when our hearts are bleeding, our emotions are bruised, and our sense of justice screams for revenge, how do we exercise true forgiveness?

Confront. There is a time, a place, and a way to confront the offense (Mark 11:25). Though immediately confronting my husband with his shirt made me feel better, it wasn't the best time or way to handle my anger. My hurt was still too fresh. Pray before you speak, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide your words and thoughts. Once you've spoken your peace, let God take over. He does a much better job of convicting and convincing.

Let it go. Every time you remember that offense or frustration, pray that God will help you forgive, and then determine not to dwell on it. In Steps to Freedom in Christ, Dr. Neil Anderson writes, forgiveness is "a crisis of the will. Since God requires us to forgive, it is something we can do. You will let [the offender] off the hook, but [that person is] never off God's. He will deal with them fairly, something we cannot do." Not until we're obedient and choose to forgive will we experience the freedom forgiveness offers.

Remember how God forgives us. Whenever I get upset by something my husband does and I want to hold onto that pain and anger, God reminds me of how completely he has forgiven me. I think about Jesus hanging on the cross, crucified to remove my sins. Put in that perspective, I realize I can forgive others.

Bless your spouse. When you remember the offense, pray that God would bless your mate. Avoid criticizing. Determine to give up any dishonor, scorn, or reproach toward that person. Forego any critical conversation about that issue. Release it.

Forgiving doesn't mean forgetting. Dr. Anderson says God doesn't expect us to have "spiritual amnesia." While we can't control what we can or can't forget, we can control what we do with that memory.

If you still have trouble forgiving, seek a trusted, mature friend or a Christian counselor who can help you walk through those steps.

How do we practice forgiveness in marriage? We choose to forgive our mate as Jesus forgave us. We choose to release the offense. We choose to believe the truth of the Word of God—that he will heal our wounds over the painful shouts of our emotions. The Holy Spirit will help us as we make it a matter of will. As we walk in obedience to God's command to forgive, eventually we'll find ourselves truly free from bitterness.

Golden Keyes Parsons, a freelance author, Bible teacher, and speaker, lives in Waco, Texas.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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