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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Essentials of Love

Essentials of Love

I Corinthians 13:4-7

Love is patient,
Is kind,
Love does not envy;

Love does not boast,
Is not arrogant;

Is not rude,
Does not insist on its own way;

Is not irritable,
Is not resentful ;

Does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth;

Bears all things,
Believes all things,
Hopes all things,
Endures all things!

1 Cor 13:4-7 (ESV)

The Apostle Paul opened his letter to the church in Corinth by appealing for unity, joined in mind and judgement. Their wisdom and righteousness, sanctification and spiritual redemption was to be solidly founded upon Christ Jesus.

This passage is a poem, perhaps a song. If we could read Greek easily and fluently, we would enjoy the rhythm and rhyme with which Paul wrote this. Paul is appealing to both our minds and our emotions.

In the Corinthian church, Paul saw immaturity, jealousy and strife. The community of Corinth thought of the Christians in Corinth as exceeding all limits of sexual immorality, animosity, lawsuits, betrayal, superstition, legalism, and idolatry.

Their worship was divisive and shallow. Their spiritual service was political and competitive.

Our passage today is in the thirteenth chapter of this letter. After twelve pages of rebuke and exhortation, after twelve chapters of correction, Paul speaks of "the most excellent spiritual gift", the most excellent way of living together as Christians. In the thirteenth chapter of his letter, Paul speaks now of Love.

Love is not mere words, no matter how eloquent or majestic;

Love is not simple prophetic knowledge and understanding;

Love is not having powerful faith;

Love is not sacrificially giving or serving.

Can you imagine?

Can you imagine someone who speaks wonderfully? Someone who has such a gift of oratory, able to capture the attention of crowds of people, able to inspire them with courage and enthusiasm. Not only with powerful words, but with deep understanding, even to the point of foretelling the future, knowing even the mysteries of the ages? Someone who can pray for a miracle and it actually happens! Someone who gives thousands of dollars to benefit others, someone who sacrifices all they have, even to the point of death?

Without love, this wonderful person gains...NOTHING!

Love is not mere words, nor even mere actions. Love describes the proper, most excellent, motive for speaking the words and doing the actions. Love is the motive, not the manner.

And without love, we exist as nothing and we gain NOTHING!

There is nothing ambiguous about the words Paul uses here:

I AM NOTHING: eimi oudeis (I exist as nothing)

I GAIN NOTHING: opheleo oudeis (to me it is not useful or beneficial in no way)

Look at what Paul is emphasizing most heavily here. Paul is not saying that loveless service has no good effect. My listeners may indeed benefit from my words, even if I'm expecting fame or reward from them. My knowledge and faith and self-sacrifice may indeed, in fact, most likely it will, benefit others.

But Paul is looking at what the lack of love does to me, as I serve. Without love, my service gains me nothing. Without love, even my existence is as nothing.

Paul is speaking of our reward for doing good things. There are only two different possiblities: Either we gain nothing, or we gain what is most excellent.

Paul condemns loveless actions because they do not benefit the one doing them. Paul is implying that we should expect to benefit from doing good. We should benefit from doing good by becoming something of value or by gaining something of value.

That's radical! The popular view of genuine love is that of altruism, of doing good WITHOUT expectation of any reward. The popular view of genuine love is skewed and inadequate.

In reality, genuine love expects the greatest reward, the "most excellent" reward, and ONLY the most excellent reward.

So, what is the most excellent reward for loving others? In what way does love allow us to exist as something most valuable and gain something most valuable?

I believe that Paul describes the reward for loving others in verses 6 through 7:

"It [love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." 1 Corinthians 13:6-7 (ESV)

The reward for love is joy and comfort, the faith to depend upon Jesus, a confident anticipation of future pleasure, and the ability to endure tough times. These things come only to a heart controlled by love.

But first, let's look at verses four through seven, where Paul describes what Love IS:

Love is patient
Is kind
Love does not envy
Love does not boast
Is not arrogant
Is not rude
Does not insist on its own way;
Is not irritable
Is not resentful
Does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth
Bears all things
Believes all things
Hopes all things
Endures all things

1 Cor 13:4-7 (ESV)

LOVE: agape (love: affection or benevolence, specially a love-feast); from agapao (to love in a social or moral sense); from agan (much)

The Greek word for love means affection or benevolence. The word described a meal shared with others from love. The Apostle Jude mentions "love feasts" or "feasts of charity" (Jude 1:12), using the Greek word, agape.

Agape love is caring for others without requiring payment or reward from the ones being served. It is like a potluck dinner, where everyone is invited, regardless of what they bring, or how much they bring, or even if they bring any food at all. Agape love is an expression of caring about others because they need caring about and it brings joy to be able to care for others.

Paul could have used a different word for love. "Phileo" also means affection, as in being a friend of, or being fond of someone or something. But this word implies a personal attachment, an emotional response to something pleasureable in the other person or thing.

Jesus saw people praying on the street corners and He condemned them for loving to pray in public so they could impress others by their self-righteousness. Jesus used the word "phileo". He used the same word when He said they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and being called "Rabbi" by others. (Matthew 6:5, 23:6-7)

Phileo is not a bad love - it's very good! God the Father loves Jesus the Son with this kind of love (John 5:20). It's the same word with which Jesus loved Lazarus with this love (John 11:3). Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved Him. Twice Jesus used the word, "agape", and the final time Jesus used the word, "phileo". Peter responded each time by saying he loved Jesus, using the word "phileo" every time.

Phileo love means there is something in the other person that gives you pleasure, and for this you feel affection for them.

Agape love means there is something in you which gives you pleasure when you help someone else.

These words for love are distinguished by their source of pleasure, the source of their joy.

In phileo love, the source of pleasure or joy is in the person with whom you think of or care for. They have a personality or a trait which gives you pleasure. In agape love, the source of pleasure is from God Himself, giving you joy in serving others, no matter what personality or trait they may have.

So, what's so bad about helping someone because of what they can do for you, or how they make you feel when you are around them? Nothing bad, but in comparison to the "most excellent" thing, it's empty. As Paul said, without agape love, any benefit you get from helping others is as nothing.

Think again of the person described by Paul in the first four verses of Chapter 13:

The gift of oratory, understanding, prophecy, miracles, philanthropy, even to the point of self-sacrifice...without agape love, without feeling the simple joy of freely helping others, this person will try to feel pleasure in what other people will do in return. He may hope to be praised or honored. He may hope for fame or money or food, or whatever...anything that people can give in return.

Paul says that unless your pleasure comes from God's Spirit, it's only halfway pleasure, it's as good as nothing in comparison to the joy of glorifying God by serving others.

That should bother us.

We should be a bit peeved to realize that $40,000, or more, spent on a college degree benefits us nothing unless it rests on a foundation of agape love, love that gets joy out of helping others regardless of how they respond to you.

We should be set back on our heels to realize that our 10% tithe, sent faithfully every month to the charity of our choice, benefits us nothing unless it is given, and used, in agape love, love that gets joy out of helping others without expecting them to reciprocate in someway. 10%, 50%, 110%, giving even to the point of death...it is worthless without agape love, love that gets joy out of helping others with out expecting them to repay you in some way.

We should be kneeling in humble self-evaluation if we are preaching to others or loudly praying for miracles in order to gain fame or influence or wealth. All that we do, if not for the joy of simply serving others, benefits us nothing.

But what are we to do if there is a disconnect between what we know is right and what we feel? If agape love means doing good for others with an expectation of the greatest joy, the joy of the Lord, what do we do if we don't feel joyful at the prospect of doing what is right?

None of us can manufacture emotions. None of us can feel joy when we feel despair. Emotions are like nerves, sending us feelings of pain when our body encounters something harmful. Pain is a red flag to alert us that something is wrong with our body. Emotions can be similar alerts for our mind, sending us sadness or displeasure or fear when something is wrong with our mind.

"You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you." Isaiah 26:3 (ESV)

Peace is a pleasureable emotion, which results when my mind is depending upon or holding on to the power and compassion of God.

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds." Jeremiah 17:9-10 (ESV)

God's Spirit is sensitive, aware of all that is in our minds, and in His mercy, He allows us to experience emotions and circumstances that alert us to desires that are wicked. Our emotions can be a red flag, warning us when our desire is less than excellent, something worthless in comparison to what God desires for us.

"Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Romans 1:28-31 (ESV)

A debased mind will fill a person with all manner of attitudes and emotions that are self-destructive and worthless.

"To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." Romans 8:6 (ESV)

Paying attention only to what our flesh craves, acting upon what temporarily satisfies our sinful nature, leads to death, a state of nothingness and worthlessness. But to seek what satisfies the Spirit of God within us leads to life, a mixture of pleasure, security, trust and comfort that is best described as "peace".

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12:2 (ESV)

Displeasure or unhappiness are emotional red flags that warn us when we desire things that are less than excellent, things that are good enough for this broken, temporary earthly world, but nothing in comparison to the excellence of the joy that God desires us to experience.

Love and joy and a clear mind are all part of the complex relationship that the Bible calls "being in Christ":

"If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." Philippians 2:1-2 (ESV)

So, what do we do if there is a disconnect between what we know to be right and our emotions?

We do what is right, and at the same time, we do all we can to strengthen and build up our spirit and mind, and our emotions will respond by giving us peace and joy. We think about God's Word often, we pray for help, and we praise and worship God often, all the while, doing what is right.

We act in love.

We imagine the joy that others will feel when they receive the good thing that we are doing, and we begin to share in that joy. But more than the joy of others, we focus on the the Joy-Giver. God Himself does good because of the joy He feels in doing good. If we focus on what gives Him joy, we share in that joy, and we are filled with joy!

We trust God for our joy in serving.

We act in love.

The remainder of this passage describes the emotions that respond to a mind of love, and emotions that are red flags of warning that our minds are desiring something less than excellent.

PATIENCE, KINDNESS AND ENVY

PATIENT: makrothymeo (to be long-spirited or forbearing); from makrothymos (with long enduring tempter, leniency); from makros (long or distant) and thumos (passion, as if breathing hard); from mekos (length) and megas (big) and thyo (to rush or sacrifice)

KIND: chresteuomai (to show oneself useful, to act benevolently); from chrestos (employed or useful); from chraomai (to furnish what is needed)

ENVY: zeloo (to have warmth of feeling, for or against); from zelos (heat, ardor, jealousy, malice); from zeo (to be hot, glow, be fervid)

The Greek meaning of the word "patient" is to be long-spirited, from two words that together mean long and passion, with passion meaning as if breathing hard. With the word, "kind", Paul describes the concept of doing what is needed, helping another person.

Envy describes the natural emotional red flag that signals an inner desire that is opposed to that which the Spirit of God desires.

A good illustration of kindly patience is that described by Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians:

"We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all." 1 Thessalonians 5:14 (ESV)

Imagine yourself having to deal often with idle trouble-makers, or people with fainthearted and timid souls, or the weak and sick. Anyone would feel the stress! The natural responses to stressful situations are increased heart and breathing rates, a feeling of heat, physical responses to the emotion of envy or anger. But whether you feel happy about the situation or not, there are some things that are absolutely necessary. There are some things that must be done whether you like it or not.

Love restrains the anger and envy of stress. Love is like the well-insulated oven that safely contains the fiery heat. The oven does not deny the heat or attempt to cool it, but rather, the oven controls the heat, prevents it from spreading outward and destroying other things. Love acknowledges the inner heat of anger and envy, but also sees the need for helping another. Love controls the heat of anger and envy and thus gains the most excellent reward for helping someone.

The emotion of anger and envy is a red flag, signaling that I am desiring something that is less than excellent. I am perhaps desiring the idle trouble-maker to stop getting in my way. Or perhaps I desire the fainthearted and timid soul to buck up and start sharing in the work that needs to get done. Or perhaps I'm tired to the bone of helping someone who is sick, and I'm desiring comfort and rest for myself. None of these desires are bad, but they are not excellent, and in comparison to God's best for us, our mediocre desires are wicked.

Patience controls the emotional heat of anger and envy, allowing us to refrain from striking out or verbally attacking. Instead, patience allows us to be kind, doing what is best for the other person, all the while desiring God's best for us, desiring the most excellent reward for doing what is right. Patient love spurs us to pray and seek God, worshipping Him as Lord over every situation, seeking the most excellent reward from God for doing what is right.

BOASTING AND ARROGANCE

BOAST: perpereuomai (to loudly declare the excellence on one's own accomplishments)

ARROGANT: physioo (to inflate, make proud); from physis (growth, production, disposition, usage); from phyo (to puff or blow, to swell up, germinate or grow)

The act of boasting or inflating one's skills or accomplishments are evidence of seeking mediocre rewards, rather than seeking the most excellent reward, from doing good.

To boast means to loudly declare the excellence on one's own accomplishments.

Arrogant means to inflate, to make proud, as if your ego is swelling up in self-importance.

At the very beginning of this chapter, Paul described a person who spoke wonderfully, with prophetic power, understanding, knowledge and faith. This person was generous to the extreme, giving all he had, including his very life. And it was all to gain something mediocre in comparison to what is most excellent. This person very likely had the mistaken idea that joy comes from being made much of by other people. This desire to be made much of generates actions of boasting and wildly inflated descriptions of one's own accomplishments.

Love, however, seeks a more excellent reward. Love places no expectation of being made much of by others. Love desires nothing of fame or reputation or position. Love seeks something much better.

RUDENESS AND SELF-INSISTENCE

RUDE: aschemoneo (to act unbecoming); from aschemon (shapeless, inelegant); from schema (a figure, mode or circumstance or condition)

INSISTING ON ITS OWN WAY: zeteo heautou (seeking or worshipping one's own self); from autos (self)

Rude means to act unbecomingly, in a way that does not fit the circumstance or necessary condition.

Insisting on its own way means to seek or worship one's own self.

Rudeness is an outward expression of an inward desire for something less than excellent. It is a desire to get joy from embarrassing or scorning others. In a situation in which it would be appropriate to express honor or kindness for another, rudeness instead intends to shock the others into humility by withholding the expected honor or kindness. A rude person may outwardly do good things, but the rude manner exposes the true motivation for the good things: seeking joy from humiliating others.

Love seeks the most excellent reward for doing good: joy from serving others with patience and kindness.

To seek something is the same as to treasure something. To spend time searching for something implies that it has value to you. To worship one's own self is to treasure one's own comfort and honor above all others, including God. Because God is the Only One Most Excellent, only God is worthy of worship. To worship or treasure of anything else besides God alone, is to be satisfied with treasuring something less than excellent. In comparison to God's excellence, our own value is mediocre at best, and as filthy rags in reality.

A person without love may well be able to do good things for others. They may give of their time, money and possessions to supply the need of others. But without love, their motive is focused only upon gaining their own way, showing others how important or valuable they are, seeking to be made much of in the eyes of others. This will be their only reward, and it's a pitifully inadequate, unsatisfying reward in comparison to the joy of the Lord given to one who serves in love.

Love seeks Christ's glory more than its own.

IRRITABILITY AND RESENTFULNESS

IRRITABLE: paroxyno (to sharpen alongside, to exasperate); from oxys (keen, rapid); from ake (a point)

RESENTFUL: logizomai (to take an inventory, to estimate); from logos (something said or thought); from lego (to lay forth or relate, a systematic discourse or argument)

Two emotions that are a red flag of warning are irritableness and resentfulness. A person who seeks joy from others, rather than from God, will often feel pierced with irritation at others. They will resentfully keep track of every mistake or disappointment, building up a compelling argument for why someone should be punished or humiliated.

The emotions of irritation and resentfulness should make us realize that we are doing good things with the wrong expectation of reward. Not that we should NOT expect reward...we should! Paul began this chapter by emphasizing how pitifully empty is the reward of one who serves others without love. Paul is saying that without love we experience only the mediocre reward of being made much of by others, which is much less than the most excellent reward offered by God to those who serve others in love.

Paul now reaches the climax of this passage by describing in vivid terms the difference between the empty, mediocre reward of serving others without love, and the wonderfully fulfilling reward of serving others with love.

REJOICING

REJOICE AT WRONGDOING: chairo epi adikia (to be cheerful, calmly happy or well-off with legal or moral wrongfulness); from adikos (unjust, wicked, treacherous)

REJOICES WITH THE TRUTH: synchairo aletheia (to be joined with another in being cheerful, calmly happy or well-off in truth); from alethes (true, not concealing)

The difference involves from what source is our joy. Joy derived from legal or moral wrongfulness is mediocre and empty, in comparison to the joy that comes from truth, truth that is shared with others.

Any good act done with a hidden desire to be made much of in the eyes of others results in an unsatisfying, mediocre joy. It will be accompanied with emotions that are red flags, signaling a disconnection with truth:

Feverish envy
Loud boasting
Puffed up arrogance
Shocking rudeness
Self-worship
Sharp irritation
Resentfully keeping track of wrongs
Joy in legal or moral wrongfulness

Paul sums up the reward for doing good things without love as being "nothing". Anything less that the most excellent reward from God is mediocre at best and ultimately empty.

Rejoicing in the truth means doing good things for others in expectation that both you and they will share together in the this joyful truth: God alone is the Source of all goodness, and helping others is just a reflection of His grace for us all. Helping others is a way of emulating God, a way of honoring the image of God in which we are created, a way of offering worship and praise to the One Who created, sustains, rescues, redeems, and restores us.

We will end this passage by describing four emotions that are victorious signals that our desires are matching up with those of God's Spirit within us:

BEARING, BELIEVING, HOPING AND ENDURING

BEARS: stego (to roof over, to cover with silence, to endure patiently); from stege (a roof); from tegos (a thatch or deck of a building)

BELIEVES: pisteuo (to have faith in, to credit, to entrust); from pistis (persuasion, credence, moral conviction, reliance upon, constancy in, truth); from peitho (to convince, pacify, concilate, assent, rely)

HOPES: elpizo (to expect or confide); from elpis (expectation or confidence); from elpo (to anticipate with pleasure)

ENDURES: hypomeno (to stay under, remain, undergo, bear, have fortitude, persevere); from hupo (under) and meno (to stay)

To serve others in love means to do what is necessary and true with the expectation of joy given by God, with the emotions of being safely sheltered by God, completely trusting God for your present and future situations, confidently expecting God to ultimately bring pleasure to you, persevering through whatever He has for you right now.

To expect a reward for doing good is completely the right thing to expect. Just be sure that you are expecting the most excellent reward. Do not be satisfied with the mediocre joy of being made much of by others, or temporary comfort, or fleeting wealth or fame. Be satisfied with only the most excellent joy: the joy of Jesus, given to the soul who serves others in return for intimacy with Jesus.

Image courtesy of Patrick Nijhuis, www.urban-orbi.nl

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Christian Freedom

Christian Freedom

"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another." Galatians 5:13-15 (ESV)

FREEDOM: eleutheria (freedom); from eleutheros (unrestrained, to go at pleasure, as a citizen, not a slave; exempt from obligation or liability); from erchomai (to come or go)

We were called to freedom.

Who called us to freedom, and how are we called? In what sense are we free as Christians?

The Greek word means unrestrained, able to go at pleasure, as a citizen and not as a slave. The word means being exempt from obligation or liability.

Paul described Christian freedom as "the freedom of the glory of the children of God", in his letter to the church in Rome (Romans 8:21).

"The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death." Romans 8:2 (ESV)

Paul saw freedom in Christ as culminating ultimately in the redemption of his body, the physical and spiritual freedom from the effects of sin and aging:

"The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." Romans 8:19-23 (ESV)

As a Christian, our sin-debt to God was completely paid by the death of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God's sure guarantee to us that we have been forgiven and we will now inherit, as children of God, all the blessings now enjoyed by the resurrected Christ.

Our planet, our broken, diseased and polluted, will be made completely new, just as our weak, diseased, sin-susceptible bodies will also be made completely new. This is the glory of being set free from bondage to corruption.

Until that glorious day of Christ, when all will be made new, we live here on earth in spiritual freedom, without obligation to God to pay for our own sin.

The freedom we now enjoy as Christians includes intimacy with the Spirit of Jesus, allowing us to see His glory and gradually become more and more like Him:

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 (ESV)

Christian freedom removes the obligation to perform rituals that once served to prepare people for the coming of Christ:

"Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! Galatians 4:9-10 (ESV)

"For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." Galatians 5:1 (ESV)

"In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." Galatians 5:6 (ESV)

"If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law." Galatians 5:18 (ESV)

The law and traditions and rituals of the past were to prepare for the ultimate sacrifice of Christ and His indwelling Spirit. Freedom in Christ means complete dependence upon what He has done, is doing, and will do for us.

Christian freedom allows us to rest from our own personal struggle to be good enough. Christian freedom allows us to devote our energy and passion outside of ourselves, towards others, in love:

"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. Galatians 5:13-15 (ESV)

Image courtesy of Lesley Mackin

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Love's Cover-up: Hiding Sin?

Love's Cover-up: Hiding Sin?

Several verses in the Bible describe a radical, extreme level of love, requiring Christians to love others despite the other person's sin, even to the point of covering up or hiding their sin.

"But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them." Luke 6:27-31 (ESV)

I am to love my enemies, doing good them who hate (detest, persecute) me.

I am to bless (speak well of, to thank, to pray for good) them that curse (condemn me to doom).

I am to pray for those who abuse (insult or slander) me.

Even for one who strikes (repeatedly hits me with a stick) me on the face, I am to remain near, not retaliating nor even defending myself.

For one who takes my clothing, I am to allow it, even to the point of giving more than is taken.

I am to give to every one that begs for help, without requiring repayment.

I am to put myself in the position of others, imagining myself as needing what they lack, and doing for them what I would need done for me.

"Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins." 1 Peter 4:8 (ESV)

I am to intently love others, stretching myself, extending out beyond comfort and self-content, in doing good for others, not regarding their sin, seeing only their need.

"Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends." Prov 17:9 (ESV)

Love for others will move me to cover their sin, refusing to make it public, in the hope of maintaining a close relationship.

Unbalanced?

The notion of covering the sin of others, hiding it from public view, treating them with love and kindness despite their sin, even the sin of theft or violence, seems to me to be over the top, an extremely unbalanced love without reason or caution.

What am I missing here? How can covering up the sin of others glorify God? How can hidden sin bring peace and comfort, to myself or to another?

The reference to striking on the face (Luke 6:27-31) seems to refer to a violent, forceful insult. My immediate reaction to the idea of allowing this to happen, without attempt to defend or hinder, is to reject it immediately. I cannot imagine allowing someone to wrongfully slap me.

I have the same objection to allowing someone to take my clothing.

I have no desire to give money or food to someone who seeks it deceptively, pretending to be in need, or someone who is lazy.

Why don't these biblical references allow for self-defense and reasonable caution?

Covering the sin of others seems to be most repugnant to me. If I imagine a friend coming to me, asking for money for food and shelter because they lost their own money by gambling or waste, I could not respond blindly, giving what I have, without considering their sinful actions.

When I see someone begging by the road, how can I simply hand over money, without knowing what brought them to this point, or knowing why they are not working for their own support?

Define "Covering Up"

The only way in which these verses seem to make sense to me, is if "covering sin" is defined differently.

Look again at the last verse that I referenced:

"Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends." Proverbs 17:9 (ESV)

The context of Proverbs 17:9 is limited to a close relationship, and the offense is one committed by one friend against another. Once the offense is committed and recognized by both friends, love must rule the response to that sin. Love will move the one offended to restore the relationship, regardless of the offense. Covering the offense means forgiving the offender. Covering the offense means giving up the desire for retribution or punishment. Covering the offense means seeking the best for the offender, no matter what the offense was.

COVERS: kasa (to plump or fill up, implying to cover as clothing or secrecy)

The word in Hebrew means to to view the sinful offense of another person through the filter of love, seeing only the good that the other person needs, rather that seeing the punishment they deserve.

Let's imagine a worst-case scenario. Imagine a friend has taken advantage of your friendship and stolen $1000 from you, or worse, has violently hurt you in an attempt at gratifying selfish desires.

Hatred for this friend's sinful offense would move you to punish them. Hate would drive you to attempt to have them to feel pain and loss. Hate would imagine them dressed in rags, chained in prison, doomed to punishment or execution.

Love, however, will imagine them dressed in undeserved comfort, resting safely, grateful for forgiveness, overwhelmed with repentance for their sin, intent upon living a life of value and goodness.

Love would move you to do all you could to see this friend satisfied with good, rather than punished with bad.

And what might this sinful friend need? Most urgently, most importantly, they need to admit their sin against you, they need to repay what they took, and they need to accept whatever consequence is required by human law and God's revealed will. This most likely would require you to testify against them in a court of law. Whether they accept responsibility for their offense or not, whether they demonstrate repentance or not, is not within your province. Their repentance is not what YOU require, it's what THEY require, and that's what you pray for and that's what you urge for them. Without that repentance, your sinful friend indeed is doomed to bitter guilt and condemnation, although not from you.

Covering the sin of one who has offended you does NOT mean restoring the friendship or pretending that the sin has not happened. It means seeing clearly what would be best for the offender...and not only seeing what would be best, but desiring intently what would be best.

Best for a a sinner is always repentance and humble dependence upon God's grace. Without this grace we are all doomed to punishment for our sin.

Definition of "covering sin": desiring what is best for an offender, without desiring punishment or doom.

If we define "covering sin" in this way, the other verses make better sense.

"But I say to you who hear, "want the best for" your enemies, do "what is best" to those who hate you, "speak of the best thing for" those who curse you, "ask God to do what is best" for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, "offer what is best", and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold "what is best" either. Give "what is best" to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not "desire retribution or repayment". And as you wish that others would do to you, do "what is best" to them." Luke 6:27-31 (author's version)

"Above all, keep "desiring what is best for" one another earnestly, since "the desire for what is best" covers a multitude of sins." 1 Peter 4:8 (author's version)

"That which is best" does NOT mean "turn a blind eye to". It does NOT mean "be nice to all".

When responding to someone's sin, "that which is best" means urging them to repentance and humble dependence upon God's grace, without a desire for retribution or punishment. God most likely will allow human courts or circumstance to bring punishment to a sinner. He may even allow the sinner's hard heart to continue into death and destruction. God's response to sin is entirely His own province. Our response to sin must be entirely based upon love: the desire for what is best for others.

I think clothing may best illustrate this concept of "covering up" the sins of another person, meaning the forgiveness of their sin against me, and my pursuing their good rather than persecuting their punishment.

Imagine that clothing were to represent the level of affection and trust I had in someone. Whenever I looked at a friend, they would appear to be dressed most becomingly, very stylish and attractive. But were I to look at an enemy, they would be dressed in rags, or worse, with nothing at all, showing all their blemishes, weaknesses and ugliness.

Imagine that my friend sinned against me, taking something of value from me or hurting me. Now when I look at my friend with hatred and bitterness, I see them dressed in stained, torn rags of clothing. The more I rehearse their offense against me, the more I wish for their punishment, until they appear to me naked, with wrinkled, drooping, flabby, crusted skin.

But love changes how I see them. When I release my anger I no longer seek their humiliation and destruction. My heart softens, remembering how completely I've been clothed in the sight of others against whom I have sinned. And now, with love rather than hate, my heart looks at my friend and clothes them. Perhaps at first I clothe them only in a simple wrap that covers only part of them. Perhaps for many years their appearance to me is only tolerable, but it at least allows me to wish for them the best. Perhaps the scant clothing that my heart allows them is still not sufficient for me to renew the friendship completely, but at least I pray for them, at least I seek the best for them, and I steadfastly refuse to try to punish them or humiliate them. At least when I look at them I no longer hide my eyes or punch the wall. And perhaps in time, my sight will begin to clothe my one-time lost friend in nicer dress, more attractive, more understanding.

I have forgiven them.

Image courtesy of Heather Sorenson.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Forgiven and Forgiving

Forgiven and Forgiving

Jesus, my Lord,
My Redeemer and Rescuer,
My Ransom paid to set me free from sin's doom,
I cannot forgive the one who has hurt me
Because I do not feel forgiven for my sin.

As long as I grip my sin like a bloody glove
Used to commit murder,

As long as I wear a veil of mourning
To grieve over my sin,

As long as I ignore Your forgiveness of me,

I cannot forgive another.

Oh! But when I see You!

When I see You spending Your life for me,
When I see You pay the ransom for my sin,
When I see You witness for me before the Judge,

I am set free!

Now free, I see others differently.

Others are gripping their sin and veiling their sorrow,
Causing them to bitterly hate and judge themselves and others.

Others are where I was.

I forgive you.

You hurt me like I hurt you.

I forgive you because Jesus forgives me.

Image courtesy of Marco Michelini