READ : Proverbs 10:12
Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.
Proverbs 10:12, RSV
The ancient proverb says, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” That’s what I want to think about with you today: the covering power of love.
HATRED AND LOVE
Hatred and love here are almost personified. Each acts toward others in a characteristic way. Especially, each deals with the faults and failings of others according to its nature. “Hatred stirs up strife,” we read, “but love covers offenses.” Hatred wants to bring things to the boiling point; love wants to cool them down. Hatred wants to get people fighting, get them at odds with each other. Love wants to see them at peace. Hatred likes for others to appear contemptible. Love, on the other hand, wants them to look good. Hatred delights to publish abroad the shortcomings of other people; love wants to hide them from view. Hatred hurts while love heals. Hatred seeks vengeance and aims to destroy. Love forgives and longs to impart life.
In the news recently here in the United States, has been the book For the Record by Donald Regan, formerly White House chief of staff. The book is of a kind commonly called “kiss and tell,” although that gentle term hardly describes it. It brings to light in a merciless way the weaknesses and foibles of the President and the First Lady. It exposes to view unpleasant things about them which no one really needed to know. It’s hard to see how anyone could profit from such revelations except the book sellers. Regan’s book will probably, as the Proverb says, “stir up strife.” It is hardly the love that covers.
On the other hand, perhaps you can think today of persons who have dealt with your weaknesses and failures in a quite different way. This friend or loved one seeks your good. He would always call attention to the commendable things about you. She would try to enhance your reputation. Because they have known you well, people like this have the power to wound you by what they reveal, but they would never do that. They throw a cloak of kindness over everything unsightly. Theirs is a love that covers.
Most of us feel comfortable around others to the degree that they show this quality. Maybe you’ve had the experience of being around persons who seem eager to want to expose your weaknesses and make you look bad. They take pleasure in subjecting you to minor humiliations, pointing out things about you that hold you up to scorn. Maybe you’d never put into words exactly why, but you know you don’t enjoy being around people like that. You feel relieved when they depart.
It’s not that we want to be surrounded with flatterers. Another proverb reminds us: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” We need people who will tell us the hard truth about ourselves, who love us enough to help us face some evil that may be growing like a cancer within us. But that’s different. Those friends will be straight with us but they won’t gossip about us to others. They tell us the way things are because they want to help us up, not put us down.
There’s perhaps nothing more important for the life of a Christian congregation than the regular mutual exercise of this covering love. Listen to this charge of the apostle Peter in the fourth chapter of his first letter: “Above all, hold unfailing your love for one another since love covers a multitude of sins.”
Peter here is talking about the approaching end, the windup of history. In the light of the fact that Christ may be returning soon, believers are to hold fast to their love for each other, because love covers a multitude of sins. What does that “because” mean? Why is it so important for Christians to do this?
Some interpreters believe that Peter is speaking here about the effects of love upon the people who show it. On that view, Christians are to keep on showing kindness to their brothers and sisters in Christ because their love will cover over the multitude of their own sins. In other words, their transgressions will not be held against them because they will be cancelled out and covered over by their positive expressions of love.
But this surely cannot be the apostle’s meaning. He is writing to believers in Christ. These people have already been freely justified through faith in the Savior. All their sins have been forgiven. “There is no condemnation,” as Paul writes to the Romans, “for those who are Christ Jesus.” They are not to generate love, or any other Christian virtue, in order to atone for, make up for, cover over, their own sin. That is not only unnecessary; it is impossible. “What can wash away my sin?” asks the old hymn, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” It’s not by works of righteousness that we have done but according to God’s mercy that we are saved. Our expressions of love do not and cannot atone for our own sins. The apostle has something very different in mind. He’s writing to a whole community of believers, and he wants them to see the power of love in the midst of their fellowship. The proverb says that love covers all offenses. Mutual love brings a kind of mutual covering. We do it for each other. We forgive one another, bear with one another, and thus love keeps the destructive, alienating power of sin under control. Love in a fellowship keeps evil from growing and spreading.
Think of the other proverb, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.” There is a way of living and speaking in a group that incites others to evil. We may taunt them, provoke them, anger them so that they act in ways unbecoming for Christians. Or we may relate to them in ways that restrain evil and encourage them to be all that they can be in Christ.
It is said of great professional basketball players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird that by the excellence of their play, they make all their teammates better. They bring out the best in them. That’s a picture of what love does in a Christian fellowship. That’s why it’s so vital that we hold fast to our love for one another because it prevents, holds down, quiets all kinds of evils that might otherwise erupt. A loving fellowship helps us all to be our utmost for God’s highest.
Love among members of a community mediates the pardoning love of God. In the name of the Lord we absolve one another, restore one another, keep one another back from evil. Love, Christ’s love in us, is the power that does this.
GOD’S LOVE IN US
This way of understanding covering love is borne out by another New Testament passage that quotes the same proverb. Listen. This is from James, chapter 5, verse 19:
My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Suppose now that someone in the Christian community suffers a serious spiritual lapse. He wanders away from the Lord and from the truth. But there are people whose love won’t let him go. They keep praying for him. They seek him out. They persist with their kindness and concern for him. Eventually the erring brother is restored to the fellowship. Like the weary prodigal, he comes back home.
Now it is said that such caring Christians will “save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” Obviously, they do not save their own souls from death by reaching out to the estranged and the fallen. They do not thereby hide a multitude of their own sins. In what sense, then, do these believers with a shepherd heart save souls and cover sins? By leading others back to Christ, to fresh repentance and faith, by bringing them again to a forgiving God. In what sense do they hide a multitude of sins? In the same way. It is their love, Christ’s love in them, that cares about the wayward, goes out seeking them and brings them God’s call. This is the very nature of love, to seek to cover, to forgive others and free them from their sins.
Now all of this is an expression of the most profound and marvelous covering on God’s part. In the Hebrew language, the word “to cover” can also be translated “to atone.” God is ultimately the One who covers sin, who atones for it, who puts it out of the way. When God covers sin, He removes it altogether from view. He provides an atonement, so dealing with our sin that He no longer looks upon it. He removes our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. He buries them, we are told, in the depths of the sea and remembers them against us no more. He hides sin, blots it out, puts it away, so that it is never seen again. It is no longer laid to the account of the one who has sinned.
Remember how He said to Isaiah in that awesome moment of calling in the temple, “Your guilt is taken away; your sin is covered”? Remember how the psalmist celebrates the miracle of being forgiven, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered”?
In the Old Testament, the covering of sin was associated with animal sacrifice. This was by God’s command. He is the One who determines what is sufficient to cover sin. He let His people know under the old covenant that He was willing to accept the life of an unblemished animal as an atonement, a covering for the sins of His people.
As the biblical story unfolds, however, we learn that this was only preparatory, only provisional. The animals were only substitutes that God for this time was willing to accept. That whole system looked forward to something beyond itself. To actually put away sin, provide for atonement, required far more than the blood of bulls and goats. It was an unspeakably costly act of God. In the person of His Son, crucified for us, God bears upon His own heart the judgment due to a sinning people. Jesus dies an atoning, covering sacrifice. He covers over the mountain of our sin and guilt so that now God can deal with us as though that sin had never existed. He can accept us as completely righteous in His sight when we put our trust in the Savior. Our sins, friends, are blotted out. Our iniquity is covered. And like the psalmist, we go on our way rejoicing.
None of us can contribute in the slightest to that perfect, all-sufficient, atoning work of Christ, but all of us, as grateful believers in Him, can partake of its spirit. We can learn to live with that kind of attitude. We can learn from the gospel this art of covering love. We can learn not to rejoice in the iniquity of others, but to rejoice with the truth, not to be happy when people fall but to be glad when they are restored. Whether in our neighborhood or in our nation, we can resist the hate that stirs up strife and encourage the love that covers offenses. We can help to make life richer and better within a congregation and to bring wandering ones back to God’s fold. We can celebrate and pass along God’s great covering love. All of this because we find the pattern for it and the power for it in Jesus our Lord.
PRAYER: Father, for this miracle too great for words, that all our sins are blotted out, that we are totally forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we bless You this day and pray that we may learn from You the blessed art of covering love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.