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.