A recent online conversation has led me back to the old debate about the phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner.”* As I said back in 2012, I’ve never had the reaction that other mainline/progressive Christians seem to have about it. Blogger Ben Godsen shares why he feels we need to kick this phrase to the curb:
See here’s the thing, you can’t “love a sinner” without getting to know the person. But you can hate the sin without ever knowing the person. So if we don’t really know a person but we do think you know about their sin, then we’re just trying to find a “bless their heart” way of saying we don’t approve of whatever it is we think their sin is. That way the real guilt remains on the other person and not on our judgmental view of that person. It’s a phrase that gives us the right to declare what’s right and wrong with the world without ever having to invest in the lives of another person and especially a person who might be different from us. It’s a phrase that gives us permission to guard ourselves against encountering the grace and humanity in others and thus preserving our own sense of superiority.
I’ve been wondering why I don’t have as much a problem with the phrase that others seem to have. As I mulled it over, I came to a conclusion: I saw this practice lived out in the life of my mother.
Mom has always been someone that seems to balance sin and grace in a way few do. I remember Mom talking about her two younger brothers who at the time were living with women without being married. She thought that was sinful, but she never stopped loving them. She never stopped helping them out when they needed help. Contrary to the belief of some that this phrase is used to express moral superiority, Mom never saw herself as better than her brothers. She had her belief that what they were doing was in her eyes sinful but it didn’t keep her from loving her brothers. Love, not counting sin was what mattered.
Mom showed this same love of sinners and hating sin in other occasions. Mom used to see homosexuality as sinful, but that would never stop her from caring for people no matter who they were.
This new conversation has me thinking more about sin in American society, namely how much we don’t talk about it. A lot of the discussion around “hate the sin…” is focused on telling people to focus on their own sin and not the sins of others. That makes sense to a point, but here’s the thing: we don’t really focus on our own sin. We really don’t want to focus on our sin, let alone the sins of others. How many churches really do confession and forgiveness on Sunday mornings?
Maybe that’s what bothers me about some of the criticism; it doesn’t talk about sin in our own lives and the lives of others in our communities. The alternative vision offered seems to look like cheap grace more than anything else. I might be wrong, but it feels that way.
I’m not advocating that we start acting like Puritans and placing Scarlet Letters on people. I don’t doubt that there are people who want to offer backhanded comments that put down people instead of lifting them up. But I wish that when we think about this phrase, that we be more thoughtful about how it is used.
*The funny thing about “hate the sin…” is that I’ve never, ever heard anyone utter those words. It doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, just that I’ve never heard it in my own life.