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Volume 9, Issue 5: Husbandry

Bitter Husbands

Douglas Wilson

Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.
Col. 3:19

In this place, the apostle Paul gives very brief instructions to the husbands of the church. The meaning of Christ-like love is greatly amplified in his parallel letter for the Ephesians, but the brief comments Paul places here remain instructive. When Paul tells husbands to love their wives, and then says just one thing by way of application, his message is that the men must not become embittered.

The word for embitterment is pikraino. The verb is in the passive voice, which means that the husbands are told not to allow themselves to be embittered. The temptations to ignore these words come from the outside--from their wives. Because these men are told to love their wives, they must therefore have their defenses up.
Bitterness focuses on the sins of others, in this case, the sins of the wife. But a man may confess his wife's sins without ceasing, and his bitterness does not disappear, and his joy will not return. The more he thinks of the "situation" the more he is tempted to remain in his bitterness. This does not change even if all the "thinking" is done in the course of prayer. He is now just sinning on his knees.
The occasions of bitterness may be real or imagined, but in either case, any embitterment is prohibited for Christian husbands.. Men are tempted to bitterness by different things than would tempt their wives. A common error supposes that men do not get resentful as easily as women, but it is closer to the truth to say that they simply manifest their resentment differently, and are resentful over different kinds of offences.
In each case, a man who confesses his bitterness must then evaluate what has happened, and why. The problem may be entirely his--he is bitter over a bunch of nothing. In the second instance, his wife's problem may be a real problem, but it might be something which he directly created. If there is no food in the house, it may be that his expenditures are the cause. The third option is that his wife has a genuine problem which the husband must lovingly address. But of course he cannot do this if he is bitter over it. If someone must be restored, the only one qualified to do so is one who is spiritual himself (Gal. 6:1).
For example, a man can be embittered by lack of house-keeping, or poor cooking. He is well aware of what the Bible says about a woman's obligations to domesticity. He may have mentioned it to her or not, but when he begins mentally to note her shortcomings, he is bitter. But the same Paul who wrote Titus 2:4-5 also wrote Col. 3:19. Why does she have to give up her sin when he gets to keep his?
A man may be embittered by a lack of sexual responsiveness on the part of his wife. He may be comparing his wife falsely to the lies put out by the pornography industry, or he may be comparing her to the Shulamite. But in either case, his bitterness will only make a bad situation worse. A man bitter over a lousy sex life may begin by telling himself that he would not ever be unfaithful. He fears God, he thinks. But the same God who told him not to take a mistress also told him not to be bitter. Does God prohibit us from slapping at Him with the left hand, but tolerates it when we do it with the right?
A man may be embittered by his wife's appearance. He wants to be proud of her, but if she doesn't fix her hair, or doesn't make herself presentable, he may just sink back into resentment. Such abdication is sin on his part, but it is a common problem. Another problem with appearance can be with a lack of modesty. If he is a Christian man, he does not want other men looking her over. In her conscience, a Christian woman should have an internal compass which tells her to provoke her husband's desire alone. If she does not seek his guidance in her modesty, or ignores it when it is offered, he may conclude that she wants to invite other men to look. And that is a prescription for resentment.
All these situations are descriptions of what frequently happens--they are in no way written to provide a justification for a husband's bitterness. Paul presupposes that wives will do things which could embitter their husbands. That is why he gave the instruction.
Bitterness must be identified and confessed as sin, and it must be confessed as though the bitterness is the only sin involved. Too often our confession is simply a reluctant willingness to "go first." Then, when the other person does not do her part, the bitterness returns, worse than ever. The sins of the other must be set aside for the time being. Until the bitterness is done, and stays done, the sins of others should be completely and entirely ignored.
After the beam is out of his eye, the eye has healed, the surgeon has been paid in full, and no beam recurrence seems likely, then a man may be used to lovingly correct his wife's problem.
But not until.

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