A long time ago one of my best friends was having difficulty resting in the grace of God. He was plagued by the memory of sin and tormented 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 (and ignorantly) quote a Bible verse and move on to something more pleasant.
“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, I was technically right, yet completely missed God’s heart.
This one exchange, uttered decades ago, recently found its way to the surface of my thoughts again. How does love cover sin? Whose love? And why? While I was correct that the love of Jesus is adequate for our guilt and shame, it turns out I quoted a verse that has very little to do with 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.” 1 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?” 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 come to the aid of those who are the victims of sin. We can become God’s police force and blow the whistle on sinfulness, or we can become God’s ambulance and provide triage to the wounded. All sin comes with a price. Someone, somewhere is paying the price. 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 these 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 rescuing others? 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 Father, “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. Our assignment is to joyfully welcome others. When we add another place at the table we prepare ourselves for the day when the Father will say, “you really did it for me.”
Whatever the Father has done for us, he encourages us to do for others. His gifts come with the empowerment for us to give them again and again. Jesus told Peter and the disciples, “freely you’ve received, therefore freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Every benefit we have ever received from the Father is also an empowerment to give to others. It will cover a multitude of sin–but don’t take my word for it, take Peter’s.