The Compost Pile: An Analogy of Forgiveness and Forbearance in Marriage

January 29, 2013

[This article was originally written six years ago, when John Piper was preaching the series of sermons that eventually became This Momentary Marriage. The sermon referred to here was revised to become chapter 4 of the book. Beth and I use this document both in preparing couples for marriage, and in helping those who are dealing with marital problems.]

This last Sunday, John Piper continued his series on marriage, discussing forbearance and forgiveness. In conclusion, he relates an analogy he and his wife have found helpful. What follows is an edited transcription of that analogy; I’ll extend it with some additional thoughts afterwards:

The compost pile: Trying to pull together forbearance and forgiveness and all the things we’ve seen – I’m closing with the compost pile. Picture your marriage . . . as a grassy field. You enter it at the beginning full of hope and joy. You look out on the field and you see beautiful flowers and grass stretching and rolling hills and trees. . . . It is beautiful. You want to walk in this all your days. (The grass, the flowers, the hills, the sky, the warm breeze: [these represent] not what happens to you, [but] the relationship. . . . I’m describing the relationship). And on the wedding day, I want this woman, and I want this man, and we want to be together, to walk in the beautiful fields of green grass, and spring flowers, and trees, and hills, and bright sunshine and cool breezes. That’s the way [we think] it’s going to be. But before long, you step in a cow pie. And in some seasons of your marriage they seem to be everywhere: “This is not grass; this is just manure!” Late at night they become especially prevalent. . . . These [cow pies] are sins, flaws, idiosyncrasies, weaknesses, annoying habits in your spouse. And you try to forgive them and you try to forbear.

The problem is, they can tend to dominate the relationship. Everywhere you step, it smells. It may not be true that they’re everywhere; it just feels that way. I think the combination of forbearance and forgiveness leads to the creation of a compost pile. Here at the compost pile, you and your wife or husband begin to shovel cow pies into this pile. And you put a fence around it to hold them in. And you look at each other and you simply admit that there are a lot of cow pies, . . . [saying,] “You and I bring a lot of cow pies to this relationship.” And you say to each other, “You know, we’ve got to do this because [these cow pies are] all we’re thinking about. I mean, we’re looking for them to step in. So let’s get them and throw them in one place. Let’s throw them in a . . . compost pile. Compost can do some good. . . . When we have to, we will go there . . . and we’ll smell it, and we’ll feel bad and we’ll deal with it as best we can. Then, we’ll walk away from the pile . . . and we’ll set our eyes on the rest of field.” [This] is right at the heart of what I’m trying to say. Satan and our flesh can begin to take a few disappointments, a few frustrations, and multiply them so out of proportion that we think there is no green grass anywhere, there are no flowers anywhere, there are no trees, there are no hills, there is no sunshine – which is an absolute lie. And then we say to each other, “We’re going to walk away from that pile and set our eyes on the rest of the field, and we’re going to pick some favorite paths and hills that we know are not strewn with cow pies. And we’re going to be thankful that that part of the field . . . is sweet.” It may be a small part now, but that part is sweet.

Our hands may be dirty. And our backs may ache from all the shoveling. But we know one thing: We will not pitch our tent by the compost pile. . . . We won’t go live there. We won’t retreat there. We won’t lick our wounds there. . . . We will go there when we must. This is the gift of grace that we will give each other again and again and again. . . . Why? Because you and I are chosen and holy and loved.

This is covenant keeping. I recognize that I am a forgiven sinner. And, with eyes wide open, not eyes that are blind to her faults, I recognize that Beth is a forgiven sinner. Furthermore, I recognize that she and I are credited with the righteousness of Christ Himself. And so, having been forgiven much, and living with a forgiven sinner who has  Christ’s righteousness, I promise to pick up all the cow pies that she is responsible for that are strewn over the hills of our marriage, and carry them to the compost pile and leave them there. She promises to do the same.

That’s the promise. And that’s vital in marriage. It’s vital in any intimate Christian relationship.

But then a miracle happens. Have you ever had a compost pile? We keep vegetable scraps under our kitchen sink before carrying them out to the compost pile. And sometimes, if we’re slow to take out the buckets, they can smell putrid by the time we take them out. Even rinsing out the container can be a chore. It stinks! The compost pile smells rotten when you first dump the bucket on it. But if you add some dirt and leaves and mix it and turn it occasionally – after a few weeks, it no longer smells bad. Instead, it smells fresh. Deep. Earthy. And if you then take that compost and spread it over the grassy fields, the grass sucks up the nutrients, and thrives, and becomes deep and thick and luscious and green.

Just so in marriage. The compost created by all the forgiveness and forbearance represented in the pile deepens and enriches the marriage. You now grow wonderful grass in areas where, in the past, the hilltop was barren and bleak. You can now stop and rest – yes, you can enjoy – parts of your shared life that previously were messy and stinking and unapproachable. You can laugh at your former insensitivity and stand amazed at what God’s grace has done in your shared life through His Spirit’s enablement of forgiveness and forbearance. Oh, you will each continue to create cow pies. But your covenant is: “I will take these to the compost pile. And I believe that God will use these too to enrich, and not to make barren, our life.”

Will you make that covenant with your present – or future – spouse? Will you commit to forgiving and forbearing one another – to the glory of God? Will you practice covenant faithfulness?

That is my commitment to you: To model such faithfulness in my marriage, to seek forgiveness quickly when I do not, and to help you to live this out through opening up the Word. May God be pleased within DGCC to make us a people who forbear, who forgive – and who thus make wonderful, nourishing compost to the glory of God.

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