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Love the sinner, hate the sin?

by Inge Anderson 1998, 2009

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On a discussion list 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, objected so much to the "love the sinner but hate the sin" expression. I don't wonder any more -- not since receiving a "loving" note which said, "I'm only saying this because I love you" when the content of the note indicated clearly that the person didn't care enough to try to understand me. Too often we can use the phrase to cover up our own feelings of self-righteousness. If we really love someone, it will show without the use of such terminology.

On the other hand, the expression is an old one, and it is a valid description of how God relates to us. I believe 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, i.e. practice the same sin ourselves. 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. It means accepting them and loving them just as they are without thereby "loving" their sins and practicing them ourselves. This is only possible as 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 expression is based on their idea that when we "love the sinner, hate the sin," we refuse to accept something intrinsic to their personality. The primary meaning of the term, though, 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, so we don't have to carry the burden of setting others right. If adopted by those whose morality depends on theological hair-splitting, it can still make them loving and lovable Christians.

On the other hand, 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. Urging them to give up their sins doesn't usually help.  Far more effective is to love the "sinner" as Christ loved 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 consider "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's all 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.

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Last updated 03 Jun 2010 02:30 PM