Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why Love the Sinner Hate the Sin doesn't work

Love the sinner, hate the sin. I'm sure you have heard the phrase a million times. Some attribute it to Augustine. Those who use it view it as a generous position to take. But many "sinners" are protesting and saying that they find it unhelpful and even arrogant. So maybe it's time to take a look at love the sinner, hate the sin.

The first thing we need to consider is the context: Who are we addressing when we say this? The way we answer that question makes a huge difference.
If we are speaking to people who feel wronged, wounded, hurt, by others--addressing people who are struggling with loving and forgiving those who have deeply hurt them--then "love the sinner, hate the sin" can be a powerful push towards recognizing the humanity in another and thus taking a step towards looking to mend the relationship. In this context "love the sinner, hate the sin" is about recognizing the humanity of the other. It moves the one who hates to instead learn to love in the face of hurt with the hope that love can act to mend the wrong.

However, much of the time when people say "love the sinner, hate the sin" the focus is not on helping another move away from hate and towards compassion, but rather it is more of a political statement, a way of saying publicly "I'm a compassionate guy, but let me make clear that I don't approve of this!" It's motivated by concern for our own good reputation--not wanting to be associated with those of questionable morals.

This is a focus that is primarily concerned with self-protection, with preserving one's own good name, as opposed to a focus on the needs of the one who is accused and condemned. This is the focus of PR firms,  advertising companies, and those concerned with the "bottom line" of public image and money.

It is decidedly not the focus of Jesus who had a reputation of being a "friend of sinners" (not a compliment) and was because of that association judged by the religious people of his day as a sinner himself. Hear me when I say this:

Jesus didn't give a damn about his reputation in their eyes.

What he cared about were those in need--the poor, the disenfranchised, the neglected, the condemned, the forgotten. That's who we should care about, too, if we truly care about the things Jesus did.

This brings me to the third focus of "love the sinner, hate the sin" which is when it is addressed to the sinner. This is where the phrase becomes especially unhelpful. In this context it sounds arrogant, patronizing. This is because people recognize that the real focus is not on them and their welfare, but on making a public statement to protect the speaker's reputation. People recognize that the statement is self-focused and that the professed care for them is disingenuous.

If our desire is truly focused on helping people move away from hurtful behavior then we need to realize that saying "love the sinner, hate the sin" simply does not lead to change in a person's life. In fact, it acts to push them in the opposite direction. Let me explain why:

When someone tells you what you are doing is wrong, your natural reaction is to become defensive. This is about self-preservation, and we all do it. What we need to instead communicate to a person is that we care about them, that we value them. When people feel safe--that is, when they know they are unconditionally accepted--this safety creates the possibility for vulnerability and reflection and openness.

Now, we may think that having a non-judgmental environment would be promoting sin, but actually the opposite is the case: When a person feels shame, they tend to hide the behavior. Defensive walls go up, things are covered up. If you want to see change, then what is needed is honesty and reflection--in other words, an atmosphere where things can be brought into the light, rather than hidden in the dark--and that requires a non-judgmental environment where a person feels secure and accepted.

That unconditional acceptance, rather than promoting sin, creates the setting where people can actually be real, where they can face the dark and broken places we all have. In that place we can own up to our weaknesses, to the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of and hide from.

That's beautiful when that happens, but I need to add a word of caution here: Be careful who you open your heart to. If we are vulnerable like that in a place where we are not in fact secure--where the love and acceptance is conditional--then that vulnerability can be dangerous, leading to condemnation and rejection. That of course can deeply wound us.

Behind that condemnation and rejection is fear, wrapping itself in a religious mantle. The Bible says that "love casts out fear" but the reverse is equally true: Fear casts out love. Many Christians are sadly driven by fear instead of love. They do not stay with God in response to love, but because they fear punishment. Take away the threat, and they will leave. Because they never really loved.

Love works. Love leads us to repentance. Love moves us towards healing and wholeness. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love always protects, always trusts, always perseveres.  Love never fails.

So I hope you stay because of love. I hope you can find a place where you are loved unconditionally and experience how that makes you come alive. I hope you find a place you can really be real, where you can admit your struggles and failures and hurts, and hear those two powerful words: Me too.


  1. Your post is very touching and brings comfort to many. I myself finally saw the light some time ago and experienced a personal conversion; much like Paul’s when he was knocked off his horse by a blinding bolt of lightning.

    However, my conversion was to the Church of the Painful Truth - which teaches that many people have a vast in-depth knowledge of religious mythology, but the sum of their true knowledge about God is zero.

    Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.
    BERTRAND RUSSELL, "Dreams and Facts," Sceptical Essays

  2. Anonymous3:06 PM

    Awesome, awesome post.

  3. Howdy! I'm a bit new to the blog, so I'll start by saying I really appreciate the challenging perspective you bring to the table. I especially liked your article on Christus Victor--it helped me to bring resolution to a lot of questions.

    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.

  4. Hey Matthew, I understand the point you are making and I think the answer can take us into a really interesting conversation, but I'll need more space to really unpack it, so I think I'll write a follow-up blog post and address it there. Stay tuned!

  5. I look forward to it =)

  6. Man what a topic! Love to hear way more on this and some of its implications in practice.