Should We Love the Sinner but Hate the Sin?*

If an award was given for “Most Obnoxious Cliches,” I think 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 I’d like to reflect on a cliche that might also be harmful. 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. If we grew up in the Church, we spent a lot of Sundays with coloring pages and Cheerios, learning about what actions we do are “sinful” and which are “Christian,” that is “things saved people do.”

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, “really are,” “deep down.” 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.

My first quibble with this is how we inconsistently apply this to ourselves but still judge others based on their behavior. When I lie, I give myself the benefit of the doubt to say that “deep down” I am not a liar, I just lie sometimes. But when I catch someone in a lie I am prone to think of them as a “liar,” as a part of their identity. That logic seems a little hokey and a little unfair.

But secondly I think this idea 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. Now biblically we might say “In the eyes of God,” we aren’t sinners. But in the very simple and obvious sense, since I sin, I am still a sinner.

But 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 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. 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.


*This is a re-post from last summer. Check out the comments of that post for further conversation.

14 responses to “Should We Love the Sinner but Hate the Sin?*

  1. I think we need to approach the cliche in the same way we do Scripture. When did it come about and for what purpose? It’s hard to determine the context of the cliche, but I’m willing to bet that at it’s inception, it made more sense (and was probably a response to another popular belief at the time).

    Scripture says many things are an abomination to God, that He hates certain things – hands that shed innocent blood, haughty eyes, etc. Am I not to hate those, yet love my brother that might display them?

    I think our culture has become one in which the first response to sayings/teachings/actions is a step beyond devil’s advocate, but in doing that we tend to check things like grace and benefit of the doubt at the door.

    Just some thoughts.

    • I appreciate your thoughts for sure. My only response would be that I do have grace toward those who use this cliche and do not doubt their intentions one bit. I am just addressing their apparent surprise when their gay friend doesn’t appreciate the cliche as much as they do. I almost never question people’s explicit motives (though their subconscious motives are a different story), I think Christians often have other people’s interest at heart. We just don’t think through the implications of our actions and words oftentimes.

      • Gotcha. I feel like everyone in America is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to homosexuality. Call it sin, and you’re not displaying grace. Call it not sin, and you’re not being true to the Word.

        As a homosexual, if you call it sin, you’re condemning yourself and every gay person out there. Call it okay, and you’re (a) just a gay person that doesn’t know any better and can’t read a Bible correctly or (b) hated on and persecuted against.

        I think I see two problems overall, one from each side. For the non-gay person, grace is hard to show when you’ve been told all your life how wrong the sin is (greater than all the others!). For the gay person, a refusal to admit that something is broken inside them (assuming it’s a sin; if it’s not, then I guess the gay person doesn’t have an issue).

        Either way, God saves who He wills. It’s his act, not ours. Having an opinion that engaging in gay behavior is okay won’t damn your soul to hell, whether you’re gay or straight.

      • So I guess my question is “what do we do? how do we handle it?”

        I have a very good friend who is gay, takes part of the parades in Dallas and all that. He attends church and loves Jesus. I’ve told him that I do believe the Bible is explicit that his behavior and attraction leading to lust is a sin, but that I’m committed to our friendship, and committed to our friendship growing deep in Christ and if he gets convicted and seeks change then great; and he respects that. But there will always be that elephant between us. Why can’t it work out better? Is it his fault? My fault? I obviously have my opinion, but it’s frustrating you know?

      • I guess my question would be, do you have any other Christian friends who behave in ways that you think are “sinful” but they don’t have any qualms about? If so, do you have an “elephant” in that relationship as well? Those questions might help us recognize our own prejudices.

        But secondly, right or wrong, I have learned that I just can’t take responsibility for other people’s actions. A lot of my friends do things I think are wrong, sinful, unhelpful, unhealthy, & unwise (as do I). I don’t think it’s my job to make sure they know where I stand on their behavior. But that’s just me and I could be wrong.

      • Fair points. I think I’d point out extreme greed (refusal to get out of debt) and other sexual immorality (affairs, strong pornography addictions, strong flirting). There would be an elephant there too without repentance I imagine. That’s done out of love for my brother and his pursuit of holiness, though. In those cases, as our brother’s keeper, it’s important to let them know their behavior is wrong. But homosexuality is for sure a sticky issue these days. We have a history of sweeping affairs under the rug. We don’t persecute cheaters. However, the church has a violent history with homosexuality. And I think that’s what’s causing it to stand out vs many of these other sins.

    • Sounds like Paul is telling us that grace shouldn’t be taken as an opportunity to be slaves to our sin. I am not sure how they are connected. What do you think is the connection between my post and Romans 6?

  2. Thinking more about this, it occurred to me that we use the word “sinner” in this cliche differently than saying “we are all sinners.” I think that’s a big difference. It seems the “sinner” in the cliche is one that is somewhat removed and sounds like someone we’re not closely devoted to. And then the “sinner” in “we are all sinners” is so broad that it seems diluted.

    So I understand the reaction from the GLBT community or anyone else who has this cliche thrown at them. There seems to be an unspoken understanding of the speaker being elite, and the receiver being broken and low-life.

    • It is God who has said that sodomite conduct is an abomination [SIN}, Not man or Paul. “All Scripture is inspired of God “. Just as well that Adultery, Stealing ,Lying. Murder, etc. are sins. some sins have been numbered by God as an abomination too Him because it has to do with the way man conducts himself before a Holy and Just Go in his sexual conduct which God never intended for man or woman. He {God} made them Male and Female at the beginning . And man being made in the image of God also has something to do with God’s anger with this among men.

  3. “I always am uptight when somebody says…’I love the sinner, but I hate his sin.’ I’m sure you’ve heard that line over and over again. And my response is, ‘That’s interesting. Because that’s just the opposite of what Jesus says. Jesus never says, ‘Love the sinner, but hate his sin.’ Jesus says, ‘Love the sinner, and hate your own sin. And after you get rid of the sin in your own life, then you can begin talking about the sin in your brother or sister’s life.’”- Tony Campolo

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