Love the sinner, Hate the sin.
This is one of the worst pieces of advice I’ve ever heard, and sometimes given.
It’s an attractive axiom until you think about how it actually works. Built into the statement is a particularly untrue idea that some sin is worse than others, more specifically that your sin is worse than mine. Below are couple of my major objections to this statement, and a suggestion for a better way to think about showing love and dealing with sin.
1. Jesus never said “love the sinner, hate the sin”
I was actually a bit surprised to learn that this iteration of advice doesn’t actually occur in the scriptures. Given the frequency that this sentiment is uttered, you would think that is was one of those straight-from-the-mouth-of-Jesus teachings that we ought to strive to apply.
**(The closest that we get to this idea from Jesus happens in John 8 where he is given a test by the legalists of the day about how to deal with a woman who has been caught in adultery. Jesus says that he does not condemn her, and urges her to go and sin no more.) There is much more to be written about this story, perhaps best saved for a future post.
There is quite a lot in the scriptures, particularly in the teachings of Jesus about showing love to a number of folks… friends, neighbors, parents, children, enemies. Even Jesus’ BFF’s John and Peter spill lots of ink instructing us to love one another well, for it’s in the loving that we show what God is like. Even the academic, straight forward St. Paul writes a whole chapter on the necessity of love. (1 Corinthians 13)
So in part, “love the sinner” is actually really good advice. In fact you could go so far as to say this is an idea directly from the life and teaching of Jesus.
There are also a few places where sin is regarded as particularly nasty business. We learn that God “opposes the proud” which isn’t great news for the proud, but it’s not quite hatred. There is a list of things that God hates in Proverbs 6:16-19 (listed below.)
Here are six things God hates,
and one more that he loathes with a passion:
eyes that are arrogant,
a tongue that lies,
hands that murder the innocent,
a heart that hatches evil plots,
feet that race down a wicked track,
a mouth that lies under oath,
a troublemaker in the family.
Jesus himself is no fan of sin, he often confronts the ideas and actions that separate us from God’s intention for us. His BFFs get in on the action too, listing in several places behaviors or sins that are problematic, incompatible for following the way of Jesus. Perhaps you have had someone share one of these “vice lists” with you in an effort to change your behavior.
It’s not that sin is something that we are ever called to aim for, in fact one of the most accurate definitions of the word “sin” means to literally “miss that which we aim for.” You could rightly assume that sin is a problem for God, it is that which separates us from him, and the reason that Jesus comes as a sacrifice for us. Again in one sense the “hate the sin” idea is also grounded in the teachings of the bible, and even Jesus himself, the problem is in the joining of these two ideas.
The challenge with this phrase is the behavior it elicits from the Believer toward those who are not quite as sanctified (read sanctimonious) as the one passing judgement. I have never met someone who was able to apply the sentiment of this statement in real life. When Jesus spoke about assessing sin in the life of others he compared it to removing a spec from the eye of our friend, all the while we have a log in our own eye. A better iteration of the sentiment might be then, Love the sinner, Hate your own sin.
2. This love the sinner, hate the sin business is also bad news because it isn’t possible.
Hear me well, I’m not implying that to show love to someone is to blindly endorse behavior in their life that is in fact sinful, on the contrary I think real love seeks to encourage and help one another to follow more closely the way of Jesus. I just don’t think “hate” of any kind is part of that process.
Often the application of this axiom has the “hate the sin of others” part locked down, but can’t quite get around to that “love the sinner” part. What’s worse is the justification that takes place when we opine “I do love them, they just need to get this or that figured out.” Immediately placing conditions on the love that we offer.
Hatred is poison. If you mix even a little bit of that awful stuff with anything else, you ruin the whole batch. Setting aside the fact that we have our own sin to deal with, which is life-long work, hating sin in others is much easier than hating sin in your own life. It’s a lot more fun to point out what’s wrong with you, and a lot less fun to deal with my own shortcomings. Hatred is hard to contain to behaviors alone, human being have a tendency to vilify those with whom we disagree. If we are even a bit honest, we must recognize that loving someone who regularly does something we don’t agree with or we believe is harmful to them is hard work.
Judgement in the Christian world is rarely driven by a healthy motivation to seek the best for the other. More often it is about condescension, or being validated in some sick way. Real accountability happens in the context of relationships, and must be invited. More simply, if a sinner has not sought your help in dealing with their sin, they probably don’t want your advice about it.
A better way forward.
It is clear that sin is a problem. Anything that keeps us from God’s best for us is a problem. It is also clear that love is to be the primary strategy for showing God to those inside and outside of the church.
So how about this as an axiom for interacting with others: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is directly from the mouth of Jesus, “neighbor” is broadly defined to include all people that we encounter who are in need. It includes a recognition that like our neighbor, we also have stuff to deal with. It implies that we will have relational credibility when speaking with one another about important things, and it follows the way of our master Jesus, where love is defined by the willingness to die for our friends.
In regard to dealing with the sin problem, we must remember two critical things;
- Jesus saves us from sin, once and for all.
- Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength means that we will work to be more like Jesus in every area of life, all the while recognizing and being grateful for amazing grace.
More love, less hate.
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