Forgiveness, Forbearance, and Fertilizer

What my husband said last Sunday at the end of a sermon on forgiveness and forebearance in marriage:

Picture your marriage as a grassy field. You enter it at the beginning full of hope and joy. You look out into the future and you see beautiful flowers and trees and rolling hills. And that beauty is what you see in each other. Your relationship is the field and flowers and the rolling hills. But before long, you begin to step in cow pies. Some seasons of your marriage they may seem to be everywhere. Late at night they are especially prevalent. These are the sins and flaws and idiosyncrasies and weaknesses and annoying habits in you and your spouse. You try to forgive them and endure them with grace.

But they have a way of dominating the relationship. It may not even be true, but it feels like that’s all there is—cow pies. I think the combination of forbearance and forgiveness leads to the creation of a compost pile. And here you begin to shovel the cow pies. You both look at each other and simply admit that there are a lot of cow pies. But you say to each other: You know, there is more to this relationship than cow pies. And we are losing sight of that because we keep focusing on these cow pies. Let’s throw them all in the compost pile. When we have to, we will go there and smell it and feel bad and deal with it the best we can. And then, we are going to walk away from that pile and set our eyes on the rest of field. We will pick some favorite paths and hills that we know are not strewn with cow pies. And we will be thankful for the part of field that is sweet.

Our hands may be dirty. And our backs make ache from all the shoveling. But one thing we know: We will not pitch our tent by the compost pile. We will only go there when we must. This is the gift of grace that we will give each other again and again and again—because we are chosen and holy and loved.

What I thought as he went along:

That is so true....But then I hope the congregation doesn’t think he means we should just shovel our problems aside and live in denial. We do need to deal occasionally with the disagreements and sins that come between us....No wait. Listen to him. I should have known he wouldn’t leave us with that misunderstanding. “When we have to, we will go there and smell it and feel bad and deal with it the best we can.”

What I told him after the service:

The compost pile is such a good analogy, and you know, you can take it even further. Thanks, see you later.

He smiled:

I wonder what she means.

What I meant:

I’ve never composted, but I understand that periodically you need to leave your pleasant paths and visit the compost pile.You need to bring your shovel or pitchfork and stir the compost around. In other words, occasionally we do need to revisit the causes of stress and anger that are between us and release and diffuse the heat that’s been building up in the pile. Yes, we spend most of our time in the large, pleasant meadow that represents the good that predominates our relationship, but sometimes we have to talk about hard things or sometimes one of us needs to confront the other about something that is difficult. We do sometimes have to go there and smell it and feel bad and deal with it the best we can.

When we do that digging and stirring, our hands will be dirty and our backs will ache. But after the digging and stirring is done for now, if we have stirred well, our aches will be the satisfying pain of a job well done.

We don’t want to live there, but the compost heap does exist and we do need to dig down deep sometimes. This can involve stirring up some stinky, rotting material that we’d rather not see or smell. But if we don’t stir it up, we’ll just have a manure pile, not compost. We wouldn’t want to pitch our tent right there, but we do need to visit sometimes.

I expect to hear more about that kind of visiting and shoveling during your sermon dealing with confrontation, because confrontation is one thing that drags us helter-skelter to the compost pile.

I don’t expect ever to enjoy shoveling the compost. But it helps to know that over time, with proper shoveling and mixing, our stinky, rotting manure becomes compost. Yes, composting and fertilizing is hard work, but the whole field of our relationship is richer and greener and sweeter for it.

Noël Piper (@noelpiper) is wife of John Piper, mother of five, and grandmother of twelve. She is author of Treasuring God in Our Traditions.