“Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner.”
This is one of those cliches that Christians tend to use (or at least I’ve heard people use them, I don’t remember hearing someone say it) and one Christian in particular doesn’t like it. Here’s what Christian Piatt (a fellow Disciples of Christ pastor) has to say about this:
This is a backhanded way to tell someone you love them, at best. It also ignores the command by Jesus not to focus on the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes while a plank remains in our own. Bottom line: we all screw up, and naming others’ sin as noteworthy while remaining silent about your own is arrogant.
Many Christians, mostly those in Mainline churches, hate the phrase and with reason: it’s been associated with how some Christians have viewed LGBT folks. While I’ve never heard people say this, it is common for more conservative Christians to act this out and in some cases there’s been more focus on hating the sin than there is on loving the sinner.
Because of this tendency, there has been a move to basically be offended at this practice. “Mind your own damn business!” Is the response from most people.
While I understand the tendency, I feel we are losing something in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Trevor Lee, an evangelical Disciples of Christ pastor in Denver wrote this in a post last week:
I need to be able to hate the sin while loving the sinner. I need my wife and kids and friends to be able to do it too, because I am a sinner. I want to be better than what I am. I hope my wife and friends want me to be more than what I am too. Not because I need to impress God or tilt the scales but because sin is destructive. It is not hating sin that is unloving.
Even more broadly in culture we embrace this at times. We long for our friend to stay sober, and hate it when he doesn’t, because we love him. We rejoice when a co-worker catches a real glimpse of the plight of the poor and turns from selfishness to generosity (and so we affirm that something is better in her now than it was before). We hate that a family member runs from one broken relationship to another, because we long for him to experience more. Yes, there are times when we hate the sin and love the sinner, even if we don’t call it that.
The Bible is replete with the call to leave sin behind and walk in love, peace, and righteousness. Jesus himself called people to change things about their lives–to walk in his way. This acknowledgement that not all things in their lives were as they should be was not an act of hatred but an act of love. He, more than anyone else, could and can see what people could be if sin were completely stripped away, and he hates the sin for what it does to the people he loves.
And this is what I wrote in response:
While it has been used against LGBT persons like myself, I still think the phrase has value because, well, it’s what God call us to do. We are to love one another, but that doesn’t mean we ignore sin- I think we have to be able to lovingly hold each other accountable. Too much of our culture has become about self-esteem (which has found its way into religion) and not about how we can lift each other up to be the kind of people God wants us to be.
Like I said in my response, I do think the practice has been misused. And yet, the idea has some value. As Trevor noted, Jesus did call people to righteousness as much as he reached out to sinners. While I don’t think being gay is a sin, I am a sinner and I do think God calls me to repentance, not for being gay but for missing the mark of what God wants for me.
Is there a way we can hold each other accountable and yet not be judgmental and condescending? I’d like to think so, but how do we practice that? Christian Piatt is correct to bring up that Jesus told folks not to worry about the splinter in our neighbor’s eyes and ignore the plank in our own. But does that mean we never to talk about what might be going on in another person’s life? What did Jesus mean when he said this? When is it right to “butt in” and when is it right to stay out?
As you can see, I am not totally settled either way on this. What are your thoughts?
I love your ability to be able to see the nuance in a point of view and how you are able to see both sides of an issue. Most people do not have such a gift. You really help people think about things a little differently.
This is why I regularly visit your blog.
It seems we have lost the art of nuance these days, haven’t we?
Great thoughts Dennis. I think the problem I have with Christian’s perspective is the huge assumption that recognizing sin in others means you are not recognizing the sin in yourself. When Christians do this it is a huge problem, and in those cases I agree with what he’s saying. However, I know plenty of Christians who are broken about the sin in their own lives and do view it as a plank in relation to the splinters of others. But if I love my neighbor then I will want their help removing my plank and will want to help them remove their splinter, making a more comfortable ocular situation for both of us. After all, Jesus did say that we should remove our plank first so that we can see clearly to remove the splinter.
(I write this knowing full well there are plenty of Christians who use this as an excuse to be judgmental for the sake of judgment, not out of love (and that I unfortunately do that at times too). We have no disagreement on how wrong that is.)
Good thoughts. I wonder if we tend to take this parable out of context. I don’t think Jesus was saying we should never confront people on their sin, but that if we are judging others and ignoring our own sin, then we are hypocrites and not really helping those who are in trouble.
Interesting final question. I think there are two circumstances in which is is ok to “butt in.” One is when a person’s behavior is hurting other people. So if someone drinks too much but is only messing up their own life, leave well enough alone. I believe, very strongly, in a person’s right to self-destruct however they want to. On the other hand, if someone drinks too much and, when drunk, becomes physically abusive (or other behavior that has consequences on those around them) then it’s time to butt in, because being physically abusive is really not ok.
The other time I view it as being ok to interfere is when someone has actually asked for help. So if someone drinks too much but is only hurting themselves, don’t butt in. If said person goes to you and says, “I drink too much and I’m hurting myself. I need help,” then butting in becomes a good and responsible thing.
(requisite disclaimer, this comes from the perspective of a non-christian)
I believe we as Christians need to be humble and reflective and continuously monitoring our motivations. We need to examine our prejudices and our biases, which we all have, and do our best to make sure they aren’t influencing our desire to label something as “sin” or someone as a “sinner.” We need to listen to people with an open mind and with empathy and understanding and love. We need to be willing to look deeply at the full context of Scripture in light of what we know as 21st century human beings and without our personal bias of what we want the Scripture to mean or without an obstinacy to understand a meaning different than what we were always taught. If someone is hurting another, we need to do what we can to stop it. Forgive the person, but never let the person hurt anyone again. Forgive, but don’t forget.