A long time ago, perhaps during the Gerald Ford administration, one of my best friends was having a difficult time finding rest in the grace of God. He was plagued by the memory of sin and plagued by the guilt he carried. He was a Christian--a committed Christian by nearly any standard--yet his heart was not at rest. I had no patience for problems like this. My approach was to confidently quote a Bible verse and move on to the next problem.
“Seriously man, give it a rest,” I said. “The Bible says ‘Love covers a multitude of sins.’”
“Yes, but how?”
“Who cares how? I’m just glad it does.”
I was selfish: my version of "the truth" conveniently served me. There seemed only one possible interpretation of this verse--God loved me, and he covered my sin. Like so many things in my life, I was technically right, yet completely missed God's heart.
But this one exchange, uttered over three decades ago, recently found its way to the surface of my thoughts again. How does love cover sin? Whose love? And why? It turns out that while I was correct in asserting the love of Jesus as adequate for our guilt and shame, it turns out I quoted a verse that has very little to do with the the sacrifice of Jesus. Here’s the actual verse in a slightly fuller context:
The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. (I Peter 4: 7-10)Peter was talking not about the sacrificial love of Jesus but rather the love we are called to demonstrate toward others. Peter expected the imminent return of Jesus, so he instructed us to think clearly, act reasonably, and pray hard. The intended result leads us to love deeply; we can cover the sins of others. The Spirit of God, speaking through Peter, is calling us to do for others what Jesus has done for us.
I can still hear my friend’s voice, “Yes, but how?” While I no longer have the foolish confidence of youth, I've seen some serious demonstrations of love over the years, so perhaps it’s time to suggest three possibilities from Peter's words:
- Love covers sin by filling the void: When we see the sins of others we have a choice; we can rush to expose the sinfulness we see, spreading guilt and condemnation, or we can rush to the aid of those who are the victims of that sin. The presence of sin means the corruption of God's best intentions. We can become God's police and blow the whistle on sinfulness, or we can become God's EMS and provide triage to the wounded. All sin comes with a price. Someone, somewhere is paying the price. I believe we are called to cover the losses left behind by sin: a husband leaves his wife and child--who will fill the void for a suddenly-single mother? A government exploits the people it should serve--who will serve the unmet needs of the people? We have a choice: crusade against injustice or love those in need.
- Love covers sin by 'gifted service': In a practical expression of his grace, God himself lavishes gifts beyond reckoning, and directs us to employ his gifts in the service of others. Too many believers revel in the crazy generosity of God, assuming it's all about them: do we see God's saving action as a hand-out to us or an invitation to join him in his kingdom work? The way of the world is to receive a gift and enjoy it for our own pleasure. That's what consumers do. The way of the kingdom is ask the Giver, “what would you like me to do with this?” That's what disciples do.
- Love covers sin by offering hospitality: God's love serves people, especially strangers. The New Testament word for “hospitality” suggests showing love toward the stranger, the foreigner, and the outcast. It suggests quite literally that we should make a place for others. It's not as if there are a limited number of seats at the Father's banquet table: by turning water into wine and multiplying food Jesus demonstrated that true hospitality will always be supported by divine provision. Our assignment is to joyfully welcome others. When we add another place at the table we are really looking forward to the day when the Father will say, “you really did it for me.”