Retiring ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’

This is part of Justin Lee’s “Sanity” syncroblog in celebration of his new book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate.

When Justin Lee came through town earlier this year, one big part of his presentation was the need for people to better understand the definitions of the terms they use. If people on different sides of an issue use the same terms but imbue them with different meaning, it’s difficult to really have a conversation.

We see this in politics. When someone says “fiscal cliff” or “tax reform” or “increased revenue,” those terms mean something different depending on their party affiliation – and that definition might be different from the one assumed by reporters, voters and other, more impartial observers.

We really see this in sexuality. The topic is so personal – and so poorly discussed – that we have lots of room to internalize our experiences and apply definitions that may or may not be the same as anybody else’s. Then when we bring those experiences and terms into public discussion, we assume we’re all working with the same definition. But we’re not, and we end up talking past each other.

One frequently used phrase that needs better definition is “love the sinner, hate the sin.” All too often, this is defined as “convert the sinner, hate the sin” or “reluctantly accept the sinner, hate the sin.” In fact, Richard Beck will tell you it is psychologically impossible to love the sinner and hate the sin. You cannot hate what someone is doing and still love them unconditionally.

Further, it is not actually a biblical phrase. To paraphrase Andrew Marin in his video accompaniment to Love Is an Orientation, “There are plenty of places in the Bible where Jesus tells us to love sinners. And there are plenty of places where we are told to hate sin. But nowhere are those concepts put together.” In fact, Jesus’ message to us does not appear to be “love the sinner, hate the sin,” but to “love the sinner and hate our own sin.” Marin quotes Billy Graham: “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love.”

A lot of well-meaning Christians believe they can love the sinner and hate the sin. But this phrase relies on assumptions about love, hate and sin that may not be shared by – for example – someone who believes their sexuality is an inextricable part of who they are. If you consider that piece of their identity worthy of hatred, they would argue you cannot in fact truly love them.

“But,” some would argue, “it’s not our definition of sin that counts; it’s God’s.”

Exactly. Which is why he is the judge and not us. We are all sinners in need of love. Let’s focus on getting love right and let God take care of the rest. If we do that, I believe we’ll find our conversations about sexuality, regardless of our personal positions, will be greatly improved.


10 thoughts on “Retiring ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’”

  1. My wife sins, so do my children, so do the godly men who invest in my life. While I do not claim that I have attained — or ever will attain — unconditional love for any of them, is not striving for unconditional love for them my mandate from Jesus, despite their (and my) sin? That means I’m pretty sure I disagree with Richard Beck’s claim, and even if he is correct, I must still strive to achieve the impossible in that regard, because that is what God calls me to do.

    1. I think it’s a question of focus. When you love your wife or children, do you think, “I love them, even though they sin,” or do you think, “I love them”? I suspect that when we think of others through the “love the sinner, hate the sin” lens, it’s because we’re focusing more on the sin and less on the love. Another way to put this is to ask why we even need to use the phrase if indeed we are to love all people the way we love our own families, given that all people are sinful? Why not simply “love the sinner”?

      1. I think your question is a fair one, your supposition about the mindset of the universal “we,” not so much. And although my role as a parent is markedly different from my role as brother in the faith, it’s still worth noting that I am very much aware of my children’s sins — and my wife’s. The grace we receive from Christ and the grace we’re called to extend to others isn’t predicated on denying sin, it’s predicated on loving in spite of sin.

  2. I’ve heard it pointed out (can’t remember by whom, might have been Richard Beck) that the only time “love the sinner, hate the sin” actually works is in situations where you already loved the person: ie, the loving relationship exists prior to the sinful behavior becoming an issue in the relationship.

    1. I wonder what Richard Beck (or whomever made the observation) would say in response to an alcoholic or drug addict who experiences the love of people who were total strangers who literally knew nothing about him other than his sin when they first met, or a broken man who shows up at a church — not knowing a single person — wishing to confess and repent of chronic sexual immorality, and experiences the love of those strangers.

      1. Well, again, are they focusing on the sin or the sinner? I’d argue they focus entirely on unconditionally loving the sinner, knowing the sin will work itself out when the addict finds acceptance, support and accountability in a group of people who love him. They are “loving the sinner.” The phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” implies an equal balance that, in my opinion, cannot be maintained. One of them has to give.

      2. First, you’re now saying something different than what has been attributed to Beck. He didn’t say (at least as attributed here) there was a process by which a person without a pre-existing love for another focuses on the sinner rather than the sin; he said that “the only” time love the sinner, hate the sin “actually works” is when the lover already loved the sinner. My examples suggest otherwise, by their very definition. Your attempts to explain away my examples don’t support Beck’s claim.

        Second, I’m not convinced that your theory about the focus is accurate. In fact, I’d say, based upon personal experience that it’s definitely not universal, at the very least. Just because people (wisely and compassionately) may not belabor the sin doesn’t mean that they’re ignoring or forgetting the sin. I’m not convinced that the phrase “implies an equal balance.” In terms of “balance,” it’s not a zero-sum game; the two sentiments exist independently and simultaneously.

        Finally, I’m not sure what you mean by “sin work(ing) itself out.” To the contrary, unconfessed sin only takes a stronger hold on us until we confess our sins, whereupon God forgives our sin and purifies us of our unrighteousness.

  3. Another reason Christians might retire the phrase, “Love the sinner; hate the sin,” is that it originated with Mahatma Gandhi and not Jesus. I think Jesus would have said, instead, “Love the sinner; heal (whole) the sin.”

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