This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”
As we near the end of this series, we need to wrestle with a verse like I Peter 4:8, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” What does it mean for love to cover a multitude of sins? How is this different from covering up sin (i.e., hiding or dismissing sin)?What does it mean for love to cover a multitude of sins? How is this different from covering up sin (i.e., hiding or dismissing sin)? Click To Tweet
Answering these questions will require us to get to know Peter and his audience better. If we approach this verse as a disconnected theological nugget, we are likely to misinterpret God’s intent and, thereby, generate a sense of mistrust towards the God who calls us to forgive.
As we walk through this passage (I Peter 4:1-8), parallel the suffering you experienced by way of an interpersonal offense with the suffering Peter’s original audience was experiencing. Peter is writing to Christian friends who were forced to leave their homes because of religious persecution (1 Pet. 1:1).
Peter spent the first three chapters of this letter helping them process their experience of suffering; not just having to flee their homes but also the unfair treatment they experienced in the places they settled afterwards. As Peter begins to discuss “love covering a multitude of sins,” he is building upon this encouragement and instruction to them.
Walking into verse 8, Peter is warning his exiled friends about the heightened temptations that comes with intense suffering (I Peter 4:1-4). He begins by reminding them that it is better to suffer than sin (I Peter 4:1-2). On a much lesser scale of intensity, we teach our children the same thing, “Even if your friends make fun of you it is important to do the right thing.”
The Bible is realistic. Peter knew that when it feels like God has failed, it is easy to seek comfort or escape. That is why he makes a list of ways we often mentally and emotionally escape in hard times (I Peter 4:3-4). When it is hard to believe you can “cast your anxieties on [God] because he cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7),” we will often settle for a bottle, a lover, or rebelling against anything that represents the “order” that failed us.
Recognizing the powerful draw of this cynicism during suffering, Peter calls on these believers to be “self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers (I Peter 4:7).” When we suffer intensely there is a strong tendency to “run from” something (i.e., the pain, the oppressor, or reality itself). Self-control is the opposite. It is “running to” something intentionally because you still believe in hope.
Without this kind of self-control, they would not pray. What happens when we don’t pray? One result of prayerlessness is that we begin to expect from other people what only God can provide. We begin to expect the actions of people to be as satisfying and healing as the activity of God in our life. This has significant implications for forgiveness.
The repentance and efforts at making amends by those who hurt us will only be healing to a degree. There will always be a gap between what their contrition can do and the healing our heart needs. It may seem “fair” to hold them responsible for the gap. After all, they caused the pain. But doing so will leave us perpetually stuck in our pain. Remember, forgiveness is freedom for us too.
When we suffer intensely, our thoughts ride the wave of our circumstances and we take on a pattern of thinking, bracing against worst-case scenarios. Being sober-minded is different. When we are sober-minded, we weigh things rightly. We have talked about this in several reflections on forgiveness. Peter spoke to the deep-seated skepticism that creeps in with suffering and unforgiveness. We begin to assume the worst as a form of self-protection. But the short-term protection that accompanies this kind of thinking comes at the price of long term emotional pain and bondage.
It is from this flow of thought that Peter says, “Above all, keep loving one another, since love covers a multitude of sins (v. 8).” In light of our discussion, we can begin to see that one of the implications of this is that forgiveness changes the dominant narrative. Any good movie has multiple plot lines. A “twist” in the movie is when we realize a subplot was really the main theme of the movie.
When that happens, does the subplot become untrue? No. It just becomes of lesser importance to understanding the movie. The subplot is understood as it serves the main plot. That is one picture of what it means for “love to cover a multitude of sins.” In a twist of forgiveness, what was the main plot of pain becomes a subplot to grace. The pain doesn’t become untrue. It just serves to highlight the main plot.
Peter’s primary example of this love gives us a clearer picture of what he has in mind – “show hospitality” (I Peter 4:9). Peter is picking an activity when the suffering of exiles would be most pronounced. When are homeless exiles most tempted to extravagant sin? When it’s time to eat and there is no food. When it’s time to sleep but there is no shelter.
What is the natural instinct in these moments? Isolate. Self-protect. Look out for your own. Is that understandable? Absolutely. What is its effect? It adds loneliness and isolation to persecution. The pain echoes. The reverberation of our pain rings like hallow bells in a forsaken land.
Hospitality covers these sins. Caring for others and allowing others to care for you takes what was the main plot of pain and isolation and in a “twist” makes it a subplot to grace and community. Not only is it emotionally effective, it is also logistically wise for people to rally resources in hard times.
Let’s wrap this back around to forgiveness more directly again. Unforgiveness is self-protective and isolating. Unforgiveness does with trust what exiles do with food during persecution. Does it make sense? Yes. Is it effective? Not really. Unless there is a plot twist and we begin to live hospitably in healthy relationships, our soul begins to shrivel. We can feel it.
In previous reflections, we have discussed what wise trust looks like. In those reflections, we painted a map, but we did not create any timeline. We were cautious not to rush you. In that sense, we were like a doctor treating an ankle injury; advising not to put more weight on it than the ankle could bear. When you reach this point in your journey, that same doctor is saying the risk of not putting weight on the ankle is greater than the risk of walking normally. That is not a contradiction. It is actually a compliment of your progress.
To come out of that metaphor and speak plainly, the risk of unforgiveness is a lonely life marked by mistrust. For a time, processing the pain (i.e., keeping weight off the ankle) is wise. After a while, it becomes a way of life that makes pain the dominant plotline of your life. Forgiveness is the plot twist that covers (re-interprets, not hide) the story of pain with a story of grace. Even if it is unwise to open the door of relationship to the person who hurt you, forgiveness opens the door of relationship for you towards others.
Questions for Reflection
- How is “forgiveness covers sin by creating a plot twist that supersedes the pain caused” different from “forgiveness covers sin by hiding it or pretending it doesn’t exist”?
- How does pain being the forefront plotline in your life long-term create isolation? As you wrestle with forgiveness, how is it wise to weigh the risk of forgiveness against the isolating affects of unforgiveness?
 It is worth noting, this book of the Bible was not originally written with chapters and verses. It was written like a normal letter. Chapters and verses were added when the Bible began to be mass published for the general public so that people could find the same place when studying the Bible together.