Love the Sinner But Hate the Sin

If there was an award for “Most Obnoxious Cliches,” Christianity would win it every year, slightly edging out creepy self-help seminars. But apparently we are also in the running for “Most Unaware,” because we just keep slapping them on the back of our cars, front of our t-shirts, and on top of pictures of kittens that we upload to our Facebook pages.

But there is one cliche that isn’t just obnoxious but perhaps quite harmful (actually there is definitely more more than one that fits this description but just go with it). It is the popular phrase “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.”

First, it assumes that our sin is not a part of who we are. We spent much of our Sundays with coloring pages and Cheerios learning about what actions we do are “sinful” and which are “Christian,” that is “things saved people do.” Everything else, we were left to assume, was neutral.

As we got older and could understand more complicated concepts, we were taught that deep down we are “saved” but that we still do lots of “sinful” things. In other words, we were taught that what we do doesn’t necessarily reflect who we are. This is dangerous. Over time, we learned that bad behaviors were labeled “sinful” and we were taught to “try hard” to get rid of those behaviors. Good behavior was labeled “Christian” and they confirmed “who I truly am,” they confirmed that deep down I am saved.

The problem with this is that after years of this training, we get really good at creating an internal self (who I really am) that is distinct from our external self (the bad things I sometimes do). The good things get to be a part of my identity while the bad things are just “behaviors.”

So basically Christians, at least in the tradition I grew up in and am experienced with, spend years creating this identity outside of their sinfulness.

But this is thoroughly unbiblical, illogical, and psychologically unhelpful. By definition, sinners sin. I am my sin. At the deep core of who I am, I am a sinner. Instead of allowing Jesus to truly love me as I am, I spend years creating a false reality about myself. I end up telling myself that Jesus loves me just as I am, well, because deep down Jesus has made me a good person (<– that’s kind of an oxymoron by the way).

But Jesus loved sinners as sinners. That is he loved all of them, sin and all. Because we are our sin. There is not some deep part of us that is quarantined, immune from brokenness. Jesus loves sinners to the core, not sinners who pretend not to be sinners at their core.

And, here is the kicker. If we don’t accept that deep down we are still sinners and that sin is a part of our identity and yet Jesus still loves us, then we will keep naively and unintentionally hurting a lot people. By definition, sinners have sin as a part of who they are. So if you use this cliche, what you really mean is that I will love this part of your life but I will hate that part of your life. Or should I say, that’s often what people hear you saying. And you wonder why people find Christians judgmental and not very Christ-like?

So don’t tell a drug addict, a person who loves money, a person who loves themselves, or (if you believe that being gay or gay sex is a sin) someone GLBTQ that you love them but you hate their sin. Or if you do, don’t expect them to understand and do expect them to be hurt by your words. Because what they probably hear is I will always love this part of you but I can never accept the whole you.

And don’t expect me to agree with you that such is the way of Jesus. We are all sinners. We are all sin. We are all loved. All of us.

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24 responses to “Love the Sinner But Hate the Sin

      • You continue to be a role model for me as you always have been for quite a long time. I began reading that book I asked you about, and it a very good guide for escaping the Christian cynicism that is so tempting and destructive

  1. Thanks, Jared. Indeed there is no dichotomy between who a person is and their behavior (is this line of thinking further influence of the Cartesian split, I wonder?). What excites me even more is that what you proffer here is truly what the Church is supposed to be: a community of sinners! The untruth of this ‘Love sinner/hate sin’ cliche is that it creates a community of people who think they are somehow better than others – which is the antithesis of the Gospel community! Bonhoeffer captures this so well in Life Together: “But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desparate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you,” (111). Maybe Life Together should be mandatory reading for every Christian? 🙂

  2. Funny that you should mention this. Sometimes when I’m feeling really morbid, I’ll read the Blaze. And I noticed this in one of the comments about an article dealing with homosexuality:

    You can’t take ” LOVE THE SINNER, HATE THE SIN” out of the bible just because you don’t like it or understand it. THAT’S WHY CHRIST DIED!! ROMANS 5:8 “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners CHRIST DIED FOR US”.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This poor guy is being deceived and he is doing it with his eyes wide open.

    They’re right about one thing. You can’t take it out… and good luck finding it. That’s right up there with “God helps those who helps themselves.”

  3. You’ve hit a lot of good nails on the head, but to me, there is a glaring problem with the conclusion that God loves our sinful nature.

    I agree that the ‘love the sinner hate the sin’ is a cliche and is ususally misused, but it seems pretty clear that God loves in spite of our sin, and that even though he loves as we are, his love transforms us into what he wants us to be. As Nathan Tasker puts it in one of his songs:

    Well You cannot love me more
    and You will not love me less
    Though I come to You with nothing
    I receive Your righteousness
    Well I come just as I am
    oh but here’s the mystery
    While I can come without changing
    Your love changes me

    I would imagine that if my child were a drug addict, I would love, but I would despise what they were doing to themselves – but I would despise it precisely because of my love for them. I would hate that part of their life, because of my love for them.

    Have a read of Amos 5 – God hates the injustice his beloved people are allowing, and he calls his people to hate injustice.

    So while I agree that we need to acknowledge that our sinfulness is a part of who we are, and that God loves us anyway, his is love which hates our sin, and is working to make us new creations in Christ.

    • First of all, thank you and blackphi for being great conversation partners and always kicking back in a helpful way when you think you should. I think maybe we are disagreeing on a technicality, let me know what you think.

      I would agree completely that God loves in spite of our sin but in saying that my point is that, then, God loves us in spite of us. It is not that he loves one part of us and not the other, it’s that he loves all of us. And in loving all of us, even those dark places of sin and pride, his love transforms us. Does that make sense? Love doesn’t transform dark into like unless acceptance is given to the whole person. People need to know that I love all of them, even their “sinful nature.”

      I understand the hesitation. How then does love confront those parts of people that are self-destructive? And I think that is a very complicated answer that is much more nuanced than “hating sin” or “hating a part” of someone’s life. I think it looks very different in different relationships and situations.

      Now, if we want to look at the OT, it seems to get even more complicated. I have no idea what to do there. God hates a lot of things and a lot of people in the Old Testament so I am not sure how to make sense of it theologically or hermeneutically, perhaps you can help me see things more clearly. For instance, Psalm 5:5 claims that God hates everyone who does wrong. So, if that’s true, then my entire argument is garbage, as is yours. What do you think? How do we wrestle with these incongruities?

      • To jump in on Andrew’s section of the comment thread:

        “How then does love confront those parts of people that are self-destructive?” – Ting! (Is there an emoticon for ‘little light goes on’?) That’s resurrection: the transformation of something that is irredeemably evil into something that saves and renews the world. The switch from utter failure to total victory.

        The difference between judgement language (like Psalm 5, say) and resurrection language is that the former destroys anything which is sinful, or even tainted by sin, whilst the latter changes sinfulness to wholesome virtue. Jesus, through the cross and resurrection, makes all the difference in the world.

        If a part of me is dark and ugly now, but is to be transformed into something that will remain part of me but will be good and lovely, then maybe it is not surprising if God loves all of me now, even the destructive bits, because He knows how to create beauty from them, and will in due course. That’s a very clunky sentence, but I hope you can see what I mean.

  4. There are two fascinating verses in 1 John (actually there are lots, but these two are in particular tension):-

    “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” – 1 John 1:8, echoed in verse 10.

    “No one who lives in him [Jesus] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” – 1 John 3:6, echoed in verses 9,10.

    John wasn’t daft, he hadn’t forgotten what he had said just a few paragraphs earlier: the tension is surely deliberate.

    It seems to me that many churches and churchgoers are addicted to clearly delineated black and white, sin and virtue (or to its neutered cousin ‘shades of grey’). I guess this might be fair enough in a kind of ‘this is what I was’, before Jesus, and ‘this is what I will be’ after resurrection; but in the meantime life is more complicated. I rather like the analogy of chiaroscuro – modelling with light and darkness, where both are important to the whole picture. And, as you say, if God loves us here and now, then He loves all that we are, here and now, not just the ‘good’ bits.

    However … I cannot help feeling there’s a baby in that bathwater. Does being a follower of Jesus, a part of God’s community/family, really make no difference to who we are and what we do? Is the Holy Spirit within us so ineffective in our life that He/She/It has no effect on our actions? Does God really love sin?

    Or does He just love <i.us, full stop; and the sin stuff is merely a distraction – something Jesus has already dealt with?

    • I will start my reply the same way I did Andrew’s below: thank you. Thanks for being great conversation partners and always kicking back in a helpful way when you think you should. I agree that I tend to throw out babies so let’s think this through.

      I think what you have said is key: does being a follower of Jesus really make no difference to who we are and what we do? In my experience, that too is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Is it all or nothing? As you said, it’s much more complicated than that. I think we don’t often do justice to the already/not yet nature of the Kingdom of God. We are new creatures but we are also creatures of habit. We are part of the Kingdom of God but also part of the Kingdom of this World. And I think that until we admit to the fact that Christ does not always just change us into great people with no scars, bad habits, and just overall crappy and oppressive behavior, we are resisting the change that comes from seeing ourselves for who we truly are and allowing the knowledge that God still loves us EVEN SO to change our hearts.

      In other words, in my life change has come when I have given up needing to change to be accepted, even by myself. People who loved me unconditionally motivated more change in me than all the church people who kept showing me my faults and telling me that I needed to repent. As Mumford & Sons says (the theologians that they are),

      “It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
      But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
      It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
      But the welcome I receive with the restart”

      The Bible often speaks of sin in some personified and abstract sense. Does God love sin in some abstract sense? The Bible is clear: no. But the problem is that sin (or evil for that matter) is never abstract. It is always attached to a human being who has adopted sinful practices into their very identity.

      I feel like the real question to wrestle with is “what does it look like for love to confront those parts of people that are self-destructive?” And I think that is a very complicated answer that is much more nuanced than “hating sin” or “hating a part” of someone’s life. I think it looks very different in different relationships and situations.

      Well, since I already quoted Mumford, I might as well end with more lyrics, this time from Derek Webb:

      If you want my glory you gotta take my sin
      if you want my future you gotta take my skin
      if you want my heart you gotta take my blood
      if you want my bed you gotta take my lust

      (chorus)
      ’cause i’m not a half a man
      i’m not a half a man
      Lord knows i love you now
      but a saint and a sinner is what i am

      What do you think?

      • Your posts get me thinking, and your responses to comments push me to thinking deeper, so thank you, Jared.

        “People who loved me unconditionally motivated more change in me than all the church people who kept showing me my faults and telling me that I needed to repent.” I have some difficulty with generalising this to those who seemingly see no need for change.

        Other conversations with other wise and thoughtful people are also pushing me to move away from a feeling that Jesus’ followers ought to be … different? … something … I’m no longer sure what. But I do find it very hard to let go of that ‘ought’.

        The problem I have, I guess, is that I see the descendents of the Pharisees in today’s churches and I get judgemental. I think they need to repent of their intolerance. I get the contradiction, but somehow I still see a world of difference between those who are on a journey but struggling, versus those who are satisfied with where they are and confident of their own moral superiority.

        All very conditional and, as I think about it, in many ways more about groups than individuals. I know many lovely people in local churches around here, but somehow there’s an anti-synergy when they come together, a whole that’s less than the parts, a Galatian tendency to embrace legalism, whilst turning ever more inward on themselves.

        As I say, my position is slowly moving on this. Maybe I need to learn to love the Pharisee whilst hating the … 😉

        Mumford I know, but I think I shall see what Jango has from Derek Webb.

    • what if we don’t jump to 1 John 3, but just a little further on… 1 John 2:1-2 “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

      John doesn’t precisely resolve the tension here, but he does allow that followers of Jesus will keep sinning. the important things are a) that we don’t claim we have no sin and b) that there is an atoning sacrifice available.

      as Jared has pointed out, we do sin, we are sinners, even though we are followers of Jesus. there is the sense of the already/not yet. we will be fully transformed one day; we aren’t fully transformed yet. i wonder if this is where we might grasp the “ought” that you don’t want to let go of… God loves us as sinners and in order that he might have fellowship with us, he accept atoning sacrifices (leviticus et al, and then Jesus) which cover over/pay for/preferred metaphor our sin.

      when i read 1 John, i’m not surprised that some of the early church fathers thought that any sin proved you weren’t a christian (Hermas, Tertullian), but i don’t think that does faith to either the tension that John leaves (as you note) or the astounding statement in 2:1-2. Jared’s right… somehow sin doesn’t separate us from God at the same time as it does. we can’t pretend that sin is somehow exterior to us. but i think at the same time we can’t lose the vision of our current and coming transformation either. i read the bible, and i can’t find a God who turns his back on his creation… ever. even in Genesis 3 he’s talking to Cain, trying to keep him from sinning.

      huh. i’m wandering here… might need to blog on this myself 🙂 i think for the time being, i’ll go with Augustine being wrong, and we’re not totally depraved, lost, in the dark, and separated from God. maybe it’s that God can find us, we just can’t find him.

      • Thanks, Leah.

        Clearly the habit of many preachers/commentaries of ‘chunking’ Scripture – looking at individual passages (eg 1 John 3) separately rather than following the flow of the argument – has very long roots. 😦

        We aren’t fully transformed yet – fair enough, but does the already/not yet tension imply a sudden jump, or should there be progress in transformation, ie should Jesus’ followers be partially transformed? When is the fruit course, if you like?

        Atonement is, of course, central. But accepting that Jesus has dealt with the consequences of sin now, and that the sin itself will be dealt with in due course (admittedly there are other ‘plain English’ takes on atonement), still leaves an issue of ‘in the meantime’. If, in Tom Wright terms, the Kingdom is breaking in, then is it doing so visibly in churches?

        It’s characteristic of a fallen world that what is is not the same as what should be, but my background is scientific and I tend to the view that if something is real it should leave evidence. Or maybe I’m just legalistic at heart and I ought to work harder at getting my head around grace!

        (Incidentally, would it be fair to say that God wasn’t just trying to keep Cain from sinning, but he was also protecting him from the consequences of his sin – the ‘mark of Cain’ and all that?)

      • hi BlackPhi,

        i can’t find the “reply” link on your post, so i’ve had to click the one on my own. also, apologies for the protracted and late reply.

        i agree with you that the church doesn’t look like it ought. i do think part of that is because it is still composed of sinners, but also because for so long the european church (western and eastern) has been the established, civil religion. prophetic calls to the kind of radical living and self-sacrifice that were characteristic of the earliest church are dismissed today as unrealistic, too radical, or sadly in some cases as too dangerous to the status quo. maybe that’s the first sin we have to deal with before we can start talking about other fruit?

        (i brought up Cain because the standard american evangelical narrative is that Adam and Eve’s sin separated us irreparably and totally from God, except in the very next episode, God’s right there hanging out with Cain. and God continues to interact with Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and on and on and on…)

      • Hi Leah.

        I can’t help feeling I shouldn’t be nesting so deep on someone else’s blog, but I have to admit I’m finding the whole discussion fascinating, so just a couple of short points.

        1. Last year I was part of a team preaching through the first half of Acts. Until then I hadn’t realised just how reluctant the early church was to actually go out there and do something. It was something like 17 years between Pentecost and the Council of Jerusalem, when the church finally agreed to let non-Jews in on equal terms. Radical & self-sacrificial living appears to have been a minority activity, at least after the first burst of enthusiasm.

        2. Churches are collections of sinners now as they were then, fair enough. But is their (okay, our) sin being steadily dealt with in this age, or is nothing really changing until ‘the age to come’?

      • Nest away, this is actually when I consider a post successful: when it creates conversations that I don’t need to be a part of!

      • and yet, the reply links have disappeared 😦

        i am still drinking my morning coffee, so this response may not be as coherent as it should be, but i have been pondering.

        1. why do you equate the consensus on fully welcoming the gentiles with self-sacrifice? it seems to me (acts 2-6) that the jerusalem church almost immediately reorganized their lifestyle economically/financially. also, the council of jerusalem was to solve the dispute that really started in acts 10 when Peter did welcome gentiles as full members. Paul was as well, by his own testimony. and then we know from Paul that James or those advising him disagreed. but it was already happening. but yes, they were still sinners.

        the writings we have from the first few centuries of the church seem to show that the radical economic support of each other continued, although they were quick enough to turn around and kick out the jews.

        2. it depends on what you mean by ‘steadily.’ every time someone calls on the name of the Lord, they start at 0 with their sin problem. i don’t think God is progressively changing human nature just because the church exists. i do think we are being steadily dealt with, and a christian should be looking more like Jesus as they continue in their walk. “My dear children, I write this so that you do not sin.” obviously those who have entered the community ought to be sinning less. the church should look different. but i can’t say that the person who turns to Jesus today is somehow already less sinful than those who turned to Jesus in the 1st century.

      • When you reply to a comment it indents from that comment, so I suspect that WordPress only lets you ‘reply’ a couple of levels down to stop the comments becoming unreadably thin.

        I guess I’d say there is a question mark over which failing of the church is more important today: the breakdown of the economic radicalism of the last part of Acts 4 (which begins almost straight away in chapter 5), or the ‘us and them’ breakdown in community (which begins in chapter 6).

        Maybe the priority differs between locations. Here in the UK, it seems to me very problematic that, with the exception of the small Fresh Expressions movement, churches are really bad at (and really indifferent to) engaging with people outside the church, and even worse at accepting those who are different, in all sorts of ways. Maybe in the US money and power are more of a priority focus.

        Jesus worked hard at including the excluded, but he also had a lot to say about money, so both are important.

        Either way, of course, prophetic calls to do something about it do, by their very nature, carry a strong ‘ought’.

  5. It seems that the discussion circles around sin and how it affects our interaction with God. We know that God has created a way for sin to no longer bear the weight of destruction upon us. We continue, however, to strain against the very weight He removed. I think that our treatment of others should only be painted with the same color of Christ’s interaction with humanity. It was indeed only those who withheld grace and placed “burdens to heavy to bear” upon men that were most harshly judged by Jesus, yet he interacted with sinners (i.e. those who appeared to be living willfully in sin) such as the woman caught in adultery in a strange and lovely way. He, the only man on earth capable of damning, stayed his judgement and said “Go and sin no more.”. While this statement has always seemed strange to me I believe that our understanding of the definition of sin is what shapes our doctrine concerning it. If sin is what separates us from God, than what Jesus was saying was not that she was no longer going to err, but that the sin she did have was no longer an offense to Him. The passage should then read “Go and never be separated from me again.”. We cannot remove ourselves from the equation of sin, but we are no longer faced with the impending doom of separation from God because of it. It is then our job to promote the grace of Christ and allow that same grace which freed us from fixating upon our fallen nature, to move upon those around us.

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