The book of Proverbs talks about how we can solve interpersonal conflict. What is the meaning of Proverbs 17:9? How do we cover someone’s transgressions?
What does Proverbs 17:9 say?
“He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends.”
When someone we trust mistreats us, responding rationally and with love can be challenging.
The Bible says much about how to deal with interpersonal conflict, especially when it occurs between friends. The book of Proverbs addresses how we should approach someone who has transgressed against, or mistreated, us.
In this short verse, we are given keys to handling interpersonal conflict among friends, including what to do—and what not to do—when someone we trust wrongs us.
But what does it mean to “cover a transgression”? What does this have to do with seeking love?
Let’s explore the practical meaning of the wisdom found in Proverbs 17:9.
Covering transgressions doesn’t mean ignoring them
The New Living Translation of Proverbs 17:9 reads, “Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates friends” (emphasis added throughout).
Read this way, Proverbs 17:9 isn’t talking about completely ignoring an offense. Instead, this verse paints a picture of keeping a matter between those involved. The matter isn’t ignored—but dealt with in a healthy, loving and private manner.
God commands us to forgive those who transgress against us if we want to be forgiven by God (Matthew 6:12). So this proverb doesn’t mean we should simply let it go when someone actively mistreats us. Instead, this proverb insists that we continue to show love while dealing with someone who has wronged us, no matter how hurt our feelings may be.
We should also understand that only God can forgive us when we sin by transgressing His law. We can forgive others when they offend or hurt us, but only God can forgive the sin.
How can we show love when dealing with transgressions?
Proverbs 27:6 tells us that the “wounds of a friend” are “faithful.” This verse should ring true for anyone who has ever been corrected by someone close to him or her. In the moment, the chastisement may hurt, but it is often for our own good.
When it comes to personal offenses, we must be careful to act in a way that demonstrates love for the other person and discretion. After all, godly correction always comes from a motivation of love (2 Corinthians 7:8-9; Revelation 3:19).
In Matthew 18:15, Jesus teaches that the best way to deal with a brother who has sinned against us is to “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.”
Notice that Jesus said the two should talk alone—in other words, in private.
The entire point is to win over a brother, not to drive him further away with public accusations and finger-pointing.
Jesus also outlines the proper channels to follow if the person is unwilling to listen. However, He is clear that our first step after being wronged should be to talk about it privately.
Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus Christ, set an excellent example when he learned that his fiancée, Mary, was pregnant. While Mary had not been unfaithful, Joseph initially didn’t have all the facts and was understandably taken aback by this turn of events.
Despite this shocking revelation, Matthew 1:19 tells us that Joseph was thinking about putting Mary away secretly, out of the public eye. Rather than making a big scene by announcing Mary’s situation to everyone in town and ruining her reputation, Joseph was planning to keep the matter as private as possible.
There is no denying that Joseph’s love for Mary played a pivotal role in how he dealt privately with her pregnancy. Had he selfishly made the matter public, he would have wrongly accused his betrothed of adultery, putting her reputation—and possibly her life—in danger.
Joseph’s example can teach a lesson on reacting with love and discretion when faced with a difficult situation. If God can respond to our sins with loving forgiveness, we can do the same for our brothers and sisters who sin against us.
As we read in 1 Peter 4:8, “Love will cover a multitude of sins.”
To see more lessons we can learn from Joseph’s example, read “Joseph, the Husband of Mary.”
How we shouldn’t deal with transgressions
The second half of Proverbs 17:9 offers the other side of the coin, telling us what not to do when transgressions arise: “He who repeats a matter separates friends.” The opposite of covering transgressions is spreading awareness of them to others.
We call this gossip.
Gossip is often perceived as harmless chatter in today’s culture, diluting the severity of a rumor’s effect on others. However, God wants us to be above this sort of idle blabbering. God views gossip as a sin. (For more insight on the problem of gossip, read “Gossipy Gossips and Their Gossip.”)
In his letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul warns about certain members of the early Church becoming “gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not” (1 Timothy 5:13). Nearly 2,000 years later, this is still a temptation people struggle with.
When we spread negative information—whether true or not—about other people’s faults and mistakes, we are doing the exact opposite of what Proverbs 17:9 and Matthew 18:15 tell us.
Joseph’s actions upon learning that Mary was pregnant were very different from those of religious leaders in John 8:1-11. In this passage, the scribes and the Pharisees discover a woman’s adultery, loudly proclaim her sin to others and demand she be executed. They were testing Jesus, trying to get something to accuse Him of (verse 6).
The Pharisees weren’t wrong that the woman’s adultery was a sin (Exodus 20:14). However, their manner of dealing with this transgression was grossly inappropriate and Jesus called them out on it.
In John 8:7, Jesus commands that any accusers “without sin” should cast the first stone. It would seem that not even the Pharisees were deluded enough to believe they were sinless. Now “convicted by their conscience” (verse 9), they left one by one.
Once He was alone with the woman, Jesus did exactly what the Pharisees should have done—privately addressing her sin and imploring her to “sin no more” (verse 11). While the Pharisees publicly accused her to exalt themselves and to try to trip Him up, Jesus corrected her in love, not drawing excess attention to the matter.
The central lesson of Proverbs 17:9 is to seek love
The real lesson of Proverbs 17:9 is much richer than just an encouragement for us to forgive others and refrain from gossip—it teaches how Christians should live their lives.
Simply put: Everything a Christian does should be driven and motivated by love.
Keeping a transgression private provides a perfect opportunity to show love in our relationships. It increases the likelihood of reconciliation and mirrors our relationship with God.
That is the practical meaning of Proverbs 17:9.
For more information on how to better your personal relationships, read “How to Be a Better Friend.”