Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4.8.
In our normal everyday world, love is not something we think of as an act of will. Falling in love is, of course, completely involuntary and beyond our control (the clue is in the word “falling”) but so too is the steadier and more regular loving that goes on in our lives. Most of our loving is an innate response to the unique personality, warmth, and character of some other individual who has entered our circle and whom we have got to know. And once we do find ourselves loving someone, we may actively work to keep that love fresh and alive, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the love itself sprang up and grew without our deliberately willing it to do so.
Once we step into the Kingdom of God, however, things change. Love then becomes an imperative – “Love one another” (John 13.34) – and very much a matter of our will. This is agapē love: a sacrificial love that is not based on feeling at all, but on our resolve and determination to put the welfare of another above our own. It doesn’t matter whether or not we find a fellow Christian “loveable” or even likeable; we are commanded to love them anyway.
But this text takes it even further. We are to love them “deeply.” This is the NIV’s translation of the word ektenēs, the root idea of which is “stretched” or “strained”. In Classical Greek it is used to describe a horse that is being pushed to the limit by its rider. Other translations have “fervently” or “earnestly” while Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of it in The Message is, “as if your life depended on it.” What Peter is saying is that, when faced with a brother or sister in Christ – particularly, perhaps, one for whom we have no natural warmth – we must exert every “love muscle” in us to its fullest extent to encircle and hold that person. Why? Because there is a direct relationship between how much we love someone and how much we cover their sins and failures and shortcomings.
That is surely the primary meaning of what Peter is saying here. If I ask myself: “Whom, of all the Christians I know, do I criticise and find fault with most (whether just within my own heart or even outwardly to other Christians)?” the answer will invariably be: “The person I love least.” The more we love someone, the more we “cover up” for them. (It’s what most commonly delays the bringing of criminals to justice.) We want to shelter them and protect them from exposure. We are prepared to forgive them – again and again and again.
And that’s the way God wants us to treat all our brothers and sisters. He hates it when we lay bare the failures and weaknesses of others. See how Jesus refuses to look upon the woman taken in adultery and doodles in the dust until her accusers have gone. Only then does he look at her and cover her in his love and non-condemnation before sending her on her way (John 8.1-11). As Paul says: “Love … keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13.5-7).
God knows that there is nothing more destructive to the unity of the church and nothing that weakens it more than finger-pointing, criticism, judgmentalism, and unforgiveness; which is why, says Peter, we must stretch ourselves to the limit in loving all our fellow Christians.
Little love, little covering; much love, much covering; and, yes … total love, total covering.
Total love. That brings us back to God who utterly loves us – the unloveable and unlovely – and, because of that total love, covers all of our sins. The word cover is kaluptō which means to “envelop” or “wrap round”. Like the best robe wrapped round the prodigal that covered all that happened in the far country, so God has wrapped the best robe around us and covered all our sins, failures, shortcomings and rebellions. They are hidden from his sight. and he “remembers them no more” (Jeremiah 31.34). And his command is: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
No can do? Oh yes, we surely can. God never asks us to do anything that he has not already enabled us to do. (“Go in the strength you have,” the Lord told Gideon – though until then Gideon didn’t know that he had any strength at all – Judges 6.14). He is Perfect Love and, dwelling within us by his Spirit, he himself will (if we are willing) show us how.