This article was written by Steve Midgley and published by BCC
It’s a familiar phrase: love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8). But how does it sit with the biblical counseling community?
To some, biblical counseling seems obsessed with sin. As though finding, exposing, and naming sin and then bringing people to repentance from sin was the full gamut of the biblical counseling enterprise. From that perspective, every biblical counseling conversation is nothing more than a relentless kind of sin hunt.
An Obsession with Sin?
Such descriptions are, of course, inadequate and inaccurate caricatures. Yet, they are not without a kernel of truth. For in the unfolding story of the Bible, sin is the problem. Sometimes it is our own sin that leads to suffering for us and others. Sometimes it is the sin of others. At other times trouble arises simply because sin produced the fall, which has led to trouble. In an essential sense, sin is the problem. For that reason, the Bible has been described as a book of two halves. Genesis chapters 1-3 constitute the first half, where we discover humanity’s problem, and Genesis 4 to Revelation 22 provide the second half, where, ever so slowly, we discover God’s glorious solution. If sin is—in that sense—the problem, then good counseling will involve helping people identify the difficulties sin is creating and how, in their particular circumstances, the gospel of grace—God’s great solution to sin—will provide them with help.
Should We Really Cover Over Sin?
That is precisely why 1 Peter 4:8 may not sit easily with the biblical counseling community. To a counseling theory that thinks sin is the problem and doing business with sin is the solution, covering over even a single sin may seem alarming—nevermind covering a multitude. If sin is the problem and repentance the solution, how could covering it over help? We want it out in the open, so it can be dealt with.
So, what sense shall we make of this verse? Proverbs may help. Peter, it seems, is borrowing from Proverbs 10:12, which says, “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” Peter, then, may be primarily thinking about the life of a community. That, indeed, is the context of 1 Peter 4, where Peter teaches about hospitality (v. 9), the use of gifts (v. 10), and speaking God’s word (v. 11). In church community, Peter is saying, “love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (v. 8).
What Covering Over Can’t Mean
There are various things this verse cannot mean. It can’t mean “never confront but only ever graciously overlook.” At times godly confrontation will be needed. It also can’t mean “tolerate abuse and overlook oppression.” In recent years, we have finally woken up to the many ways power can be misused. Attending to abuse is much overdue. The Christian church should be leading the way, and it is a tragedy when the opposite has been true. When it comes to using power to bless others (by setting it aside), we have the supreme example in Jesus Christ.
Three Things This Verse Should Mean for Us
1. Imitation of God
First, in imitation of God, we should have an instinct to forgive. It should, if you like, be our default mode—so that we will, frequently, simply choose to overlook sin. Something in us should want to move past sin so that relational harmony can be sustained and not disrupted. This is an expression of Ephesians 4:2, where Paul urges believers to “be completely humble and gentle: be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Bearing with one another in love: God has found a way of doing that with us. Entirely through His initiative and without any contribution on our side, He found a way to set sin aside and restore us to relationship with Himself. We should want to do likewise. If there is a way to let sin go so that it does not disrupt community life, we should be eager to take it. As has rightly been said, we are never more like God than when we are forgiving.
2. Resisting Personal Affront
We should also work hard to identify the motives for our responses to sin. We need to distinguish between responses driven by personal affront and responses driven by love for others. It’s instructive to notice that, in the gospel accounts, when Jesus is angry, it is never a response to personal affront. When He confronts the Pharisees, it is because their self-righteousness is damaging other people (e.g., Matt 25:13). He clears the temple because God’s honor is compromised (Mark 11:15-17). It is never aroused simply out of personal affront. We should learn from that. Confrontation of sin that is driven by self-interest is never an imitation of Christ. And such errors are further compounded by a tendency to respond to criticism with ugly, self-justifying defensiveness.
3. The Character of our Churches
Third, we learn here a key component in creating welcoming church communities. For where love does cover over a multitude of sins, communities will exude a sense of welcome and warmth, a sense of unity and peace, generosity and joy. But where it is lacking, churches will be grumpy and cold, judgmental and harsh, divided and disturbed. In this covering over of sin, we become imitators of Christ Himself, which produces profoundly attractive communities. For by this, Jesus tells us, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).