Part 2: Why Love the sinner hate the sin doesn't work

Thursday, October 30, 2014

This is a follow-up to my previous post Why Love the Sinner Hate the Sin doesn't work. In the comment section for that post Matthew writes this,

"I think you make some good points here about how we use the phrase 'love the sinner, hate the sin' and how it can become a destructive political statement. The concern with reputation was something Jesus hammered the Pharisees on more than once. 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' becomes a sort of a misnomer when used in this way--are we really loving someone by judging them as 'other' and 'inferior' simply because they sin differently then we do?

However, there's another sense of the phrase that I would add here, related to the first version you mentioned. That is, when the phrase is used about someone who is suffering under their *own* sin. In this sense, 'hate the sin' is not a balance for 'love the sinner', but rather a natural consequence of 'love the sinner.' For example, with an alcoholic, I should love the person and desire his well-being. Because I desire his well-being, I hate the addiction that he is a slave to. Not because it's theoretically 'wrong' or 'sinful', but because it is damaging. I desire to see him free from this addiction."
Now let me first clarify that I am not proposing that we should love sin. In the example of an alcoholic that Matthew mentions, let's begin by all agreeing that alcoholism is a serious problem that can devastate a person's life. I don't "love" alcoholism or addiction. I don't love hurt.

The problem is that even though this seems pretty obvious, when we actually tell someone that what they are doing is wrong or damaging, what often happens is that they deny it. We might tell someone "Hey you have a problem with drinking" and instead of saying "Yes I know, how can I get help?" they will instead say "No I don't! I'm just having fun, and who are you to tell me how to live my life!"

Here's the crazy thing: They probably know they have a problem. So why then are they denying it? What's going on?

The big reason that "love the sinner, hate the sin" does not work is that it is virtually impossible for us to separate our actions from ourselves.  So when someone criticizes what you do, you feel personally attacked. That's just human nature. If I said to my wife, "Honey I love you, I just think your cooking sucks" that would not go well at all. If you tell a kid "good job" they beam with pride. We connect what we do with our worth. We all do.

That's the reason people get defensive. They feel that they are being rejected as a person. So when they say "I don't have a problem, and who cares anyway!" what's going on underneath that is the fear of being devalued as a person. It's about rejection. That makes us get defensive and put up walls.

So when a person thinks their therapist or pastor disapproves of their drinking (to stick with that example), they will try to hide or minimize the problem in order to gain their approval. The sin does not stop, it just gets pushed into the dark in order to maintain the human connection.

But what would happen if a person instead got the message that our love was unconditional? What happens when they understand that we will not reject them, not turn them away, no matter how messed up they turn out to be? What would happen if you knew someone would stand by you, even if they knew about all the dark and messed up parts of your life? 

That's liberating.

Being loved unconditionally like that allows people to open up. It allows them to put down their guard and be vulnerable, to admit their real struggles and wounds. It allows people to bring their problems into the light, rather than hide them and pretend everything is fine.

That's why I say that "love the sinner, hate the sin" does not work. It does not work because it results in pushing the person away and causing them to cover up their sin rather than facing it. What we need to instead communicate is love the sinner, despite the sin. Because the only way we can face our sin is when we face it with love. That's how you need to face your demons, and that's how I need to face mine. 

So if our desire is for the good of others, if we really want to see people healthy and whole, I want to have you try this experiment: Don't tell them about their faults and failings at all. Instead go out of your way to communicate unconditional love to people.

What you will find when you do this is that people will come to you and tell you about their struggles on their own, they will open up their hearts because they feel safe. See, we all have things in our lives that we struggle with. We all have dark parts, wounded parts. We might look fine on the outside, but there are all sorts of hurts that are going on behind closed doors. The question is how do we get people to open their door? Unconditional love is the key.

Try it, it really works.

Labels: ,


At 2:23 AM, Blogger Dave said...

I think it's very worth noting that we are all sinners too. I seem to remember jesus saying something about a log?

Some months ago I watched a video where Tony Campolo criticised the phrase being talked about here in the context of issues surrounding same-sex relations. He suggested we modify it:

From: 'love the sinner, hate the sin'

To: 'love the sinner, hate YOUR OWN sin'

I think this fits with the idea of unconditional love towards others. It conveys that 'nothing you do will change how much I love you, even though I can see that what you're doing is hurting you, or someone else, or both. I'm still gonna love you anyway. And you know what, I suck at this life thing too. My life is pretty messy. But I'm not gonna be arrogant and tell you that I'm better than you. In fact I'm just as guilty as you, so what right do I have to tell you you're doing something wrong and should change when I'm in the same boat! So no, I'm not going to judge you or tell you to change. I'm just going to love you. And in doing that I hope i'm going to show you a way to get out of this that I know works. And that's a guy called Jesus.'

That is 'loving a sinner, and hating your own sin'.

At 2:39 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

Thanks for the follow-up post. For the most part I'd agree with you. I made my comment more about attitude than method...and it sounds like you agree with it as far as one's internal attitude goes ("Now let me first clarify that I am not proposing that we should love sin").

However, when you try to take this into the realm of method by actually telling a person, "Hey, you're sinning," most of the time you're going to push people away (as your post points out). "Meet people where they are at" has been a motto of mine for the last few years. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Hear what they are hearing when you tell them they are sinning. We as humans are not rational beings...we're complex creations full of swirling emotions and conflicting reasonings. We have to remember that when we talk to people.

That being said, I do believe there are times for putting your foot down. They are rare compared to when we should act gently as you described above, but they are there. And they're hard to do correctly, because they require commitment to the person. It's not a matter of just saying "Dude, you're hurting yourself"'s a matter of sticking by their side till they come into healing because you know they don't have the strength to do it themselves.

I guess my point here is that every person and every situation is different (people are complex), so we need to be careful about claiming to have a one-size fits all rule. Yes, we should respond in love always...but love sometimes takes different forms. We have to really take the time to listen to our neighbor, see through their eyes, and hear through their ears before we can really know what they need from us.

Not trying to oppose your article as I think you have an important message here that we all need to hear. When it comes to just telling people that they have a problem, I think you are absolutely right...we're not helping by pointing out the obvious. Just trying to offer a balancing perspective. It's all about finding how best to help them onto the path of healing.

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes Tony Campolo is awesome! Big fan

At 11:08 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


"I do believe there are times for putting your foot down. "

One thing that is important to clarify is the context of who the two parties are here. If we are talking about a pastoral/therapeutic relationship that is quite different from, say, a marriage relationship since in a marriage the hurtful actions of another would potentially deeply affect and impact their partner.

So in that case, it is of course legitimate and important and healthy to be able to say "Hey this is really hurting me. What's really helpful here is to make that the focus. That is, rather than saying "what YOU are doing is bad" which will make the person defensive, instead you want to help them to see the effect it is having on you, which hopefully would lead to empathy and concern since they care about you.

In the case of a pastoral/theraputic relationship the key is that a person can only effectively get help to change if they realize they have a problem. In that the "putting your foot down" method is not really effective, and usually has the opposite effect of pushing the person away as I was explaining in the above post. They say "a person go into recovery until they have gone into discovery." So the question is how best to help them to discover their issues, how to help them to become self-reflective and aware.

There are other relational contexts I could also think of (for example a parent/child relationship) that would again present a different dynamic from the two I have discussed above. So in that sense, it would not be a "one size fits all" rule as you said, but one that is used in the appropriate circumstance--or better one that takes into account the given relational dynamic.

At 7:57 PM, Blogger Curtis M. said...

Define "work".

At 9:15 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

y'all ever heard of nonviolent communication by Marshall Rosenberg? It's not that damaging things shouldn't be addressed. It's how you do it.

NVC gives a good method for doing so. The problem with "hate the sin" is not the original concept, but the semantics. It's hard not to experience a feeling of hatred when you, well, say that you hate something. But hatred is not an emotion you can have at the same time as love (a little neuroscience here), even if you dress it up as hating something "bad."

Your emotional brain knows not the difference - it just experiences hatred.

At 9:05 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Great insight Samurai.

There are basically 3 scenarios here: #1 we in a relationship where we have an "invitation" to speak into someone's life because of the role we play (for example: a parent, a therapist, etc.) #2 we are personally affected by the others actions (for example: a marital affair) #3 we just like telling people what's wrong about them. With #3 I perhaps we should just be quiet. With #1 & #2 it's about a strategy to communicate effectively.

Keeping with the idea of neuroscience: If a person feels accused then their amygdala will kick in making them self-focused and closed off. Instead what we want if for them to show empathy--to see how their actions are hurting others who they care about. So as you said, the point is not that we do not address difficult things, it's that we do so in a way that evokes a response of empathy and thus leads to positive change. maybe that's why Paul says "it's God's kindness that leads us to repentance"

At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

"it works" = to be effective, to function in producing the desired results. Example: "I replaced the battery so the remote control works again."

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Curtis M. said...

So, is the desired result to eradicate the sin? Or to get this person to confess this sin to you? Or is this the guideline for some sort of gate keeping assignment? I do like your response to Samurai and it seems to me that option 3 should be by far the most employed. When I read the title, why ltshts doesn't "work", it just strikes me as needing a worthwhile goal for it to then "work". As an internal guide, sure. Although a simple "Love your Neighbor" seems a better strategy, free of the self righteous qualifier, of course. As a statement that one says out loud, especially to the "sinner", I simply can't come up with a situation where any positive goal could be achieved.

At 10:58 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I don't think I would want to speak in terms of "eradicating" anything. I think a better way to frame it is helping people to be healthy and loving and whole. The question then is whether we are in a relationship with them where the help is desired. As I said above, if for example we are a therapist or pastor and the person has come to us asking for help with something then that means we have an "invitation" offer help. That invitation is crucial. Another possibility is that we are in a relationship with them where their behavior is affecting us. Then it is of course reasonable to be able to communicate to them "hey this is really hurting me."

As I said above, if we are just their "neighbor" then a better policy would be for me to focus on the plank in my own eye, and not worry about being the "moral police" for everyone. In other words: focus on showing love.


Post a Comment

<< Home

This website and its contents are copyright © 2000 Derek Flood, All Rights Reserved.
Permission to use and share its contents is granted for non-commercial purposes, provided that credit to the author and this url are clearly given.