Some time ago, someone asked, “Are you folks who believe in ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’ advocating treating a person differently because they are ‘in sin’?”
That’s a valid question. Most often we regard those to be “in sin” who sin differently than we do, forgetting that we are all “in sin,” one way or another.
I used to wonder why gay people, in particular, hate the expression to “love the sinner but hate the sin” so much. I wondered until I received a note which said, “I’m only saying this because I love you” when the content of the note revealed clearly that the person didn’t care enough to try to understand me and was only trying to impose her idea of morality on me.
Too often we can use the expression that we “love the sinner, but hate the sin” to cover up our own feelings of self-righteousness. The expression is often used in reference to homosexuals – as in loving homosexuals but hating homosexuality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel very loving to homosexuals because the folks who use the terminology don’t bother taking the trouble to understand what it means to have a homosexual orientation.
If we really love sinners, it will show without us making a lot of noise about it. If we really love sinners, it will show that we see ourselves as sinners and thus see that we are just as much in need of God’s grace as the next sinner, including the gay activist sinner.
God really loves the sinner and hates the sin
And I’m so glad, because it means that God really loves me, a sinner.
If God didn’t love sinners, we’d all be toast. And if God didn’t hate sin, He wouldn’t be God. Sin, after all, is all that is contrary to His character of love.
I believe that the real meaning of “love the sinner and hate the sin” is a contrast to our usual way of dealing with things. It is quite “normal” for us to hate the sinner – the one in whom we see our own sins demonstrated – and love the sin, doing the very things we condemn in others. That’s what Pharisaism is all about. And unfortunately the expression “love the sinner and hate the sin” has been too often used by those who practice quite the opposite.
To “love the sinner and hate the sin” means to be God-like. It means to love people irrespective of the sins that we may see in them, recognizing that we, too, are sinners in need of grace. It means accepting those who sin differently than we do and loving them just as they are. We don’t have to deny that people are sinning in order to love them, just as God doesn’t deny that we are sinning while He loves us.
Can we really love other sinners?
Of course, it is quite impossible to truly love those who sin differently than we do. We have a natural affection for our sins and a natural hatred for other people’s sins. Only God makes this kind of love possible when we accept the love of God into our own lives and submit to His transformation of our hearts and lives.
I believe that the objection most gay people have to this terminology hinges on their idea that when we “love the sinner, hate the sin,” we refuse to accept something intrinsic to their personality 1. The primary meaning of the expression to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” really means to love the person without adopting their standards or lack of them in our own lives, i.e. without practicing the same sins.
The concept is very liberating, really. It allows us to leave the judging up to God while we practice the self-sacrificing love He demonstrated on the cross. It allows us to hold ourselves to a high moral standard without consigning to hell those who do not see things the way we do. It frees us from imposing our standards of morality on those around us, and, if adopted by those whose morality depends on theological hair-splitting, it can still make them loving and lovable Christians.
If we truly love the “sinner,” we will want him/her to know the liberating freedom of knowing God as we do – to experience the power of God to liberate us from the sins that do so easily beset us. However, urging them to give up their sins doesn’t usually have the desired effect. It is far more effective to love the “sinner” as Christ loved us sinners and, by our own conduct and communication, model a better way. Even in words we can uplift the right and the good, and sin will appear in its true colors. However, if we do not model the love of Christ and give no evidence of His power in our lives, no amount of verbal haranguing will induce the “sinner” to give up his/her sin. And it will only drag us down further, for by beholding we become changed – whether we behold Christ in His purity or the “sinner” in his sinfulness.
It also seems that we usually apply the “love the sinner/hate the sin” terminology to what we deem as “open sin,” while we too easily pass over our less visible yet often more dangerous sins – sins like pride and self-righteousness, for instance.
Yes, let us indeed love sinners – and don’t we all fit that category? – and hate the sin in our own lives, including the “acceptable kind,” that makes us poor representatives of the Christ we claim to serve.
This post was first published on the GLOW in 1998. This is a 2010 revision. You are free to copy this post to your blog or website or print it off, providing you give credit and a link back to this blog entry. (See Permalink.)