Love the sinner–period

We’ve had an interesting discussion on the Hellbound? Facebook page and elsewhere lately about the saying, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” (I’m more familiar with the reverse phrasing: “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”) The discussion was spurred by this comment from Wendy Thomas, one of our readers:

Love the sinner, hate the sin is a crock. It’s a copout that makes you in a different group as those “sinners.” LOVE, love the sinner. That’s where that sentence should end.

Her comment generated three main responses:

1) Yes! Totally agree.

2) Others suggested we follow Tony Campolo’s lead and change the phrase to: “Love the sinner, hate MY sin.”

3) A third group disputed the sentiment, arguing from Romans 12 that since God hates sin, so should we.

My response? I tend to agree with Wendy’s comment for a few reasons:

1) As Wendy points out, labeling anyone a “sinner” creates an us/them scenario, which is almost always a pretext for scapegoating them. It also implies that we occupy the moral high ground, that we have the inside edge on truth, and all sorts of other self-righteous thoughts. Like all scapegoating maneuvers, pointing out the sins of others–even in a benevolent way–conveniently blinds us to our own sin.

2) I don’t think we should hate anything, because hate tends to be a product of love spurned, so our level of hatred probably reflects our level of desire to indulge in the behavior we supposedly scorn. And as everyone knows, we tend to become what we hate the most. God’s “hatred” of sin leads to self-sacrifice. Ours tends to lead to sacrifice–of the sinner.

Case in point: I’m currently reading Dirty Wars, and I’m absolutely appalled not only by the extent of America’s black ops in the Middle East and elsewhere, but perhaps even more so by the fact they are closely presided over by a President who was given a Nobel Peace Prize (and who included a justification for war in his acceptance speech!). Do I hate this sort of behavior? Yes! In fact, I told my wife several times that if I was a young Muslim man and had read that book, I would probably be boarding a plane to Somalia or Yemen or Pakistan or anywhere else where I could join the jihad.

But as many young jihadists have learned, indulging such hatred would ultimately be my undoing–just as I believe America’s “hatred” or terrorism will ultimately be its undoing, b/c it is turning into a global terrorist organization, launching drone strikes and conducting assassinations anywhere, everywhere, and against anyone it feels might prove to be a threat. So while we can’t help but react emotionally against such abhorrent behavior, I don’t think it’s safe to indulge those feelings. Rather, I think the spiritual discipline is to seek to transform those feelings into something constructive by first of all acknowledging our own sin and temptation in the face of such evil so that we don’t unwittingly become a party to it. Then, rather than respond in kind, the truly creative and heroic act is to model a response to evil that doesn’t require us to mirror the evil we are countering.

3) Looked at another way, perhaps our level of hatred is a reflection of the level of pain we feel b/c we have been (or feel we have been) victimized by a particular behavior. Once again though, our hatred is merely the flip side of love. The intensity of our pain is a direct reflection of the perceived level of betrayal. However, indulging that hatred is counter-productive. I know many victims of childhood abuse, for example, and I have witnessed firsthand how such hatred becomes the “gateway drug” to obsession and, ultimately, self-destruction.

So, love the sinner, period–especially if that sinner is you!

(Or, as Robert Rodriguez put it, “If you hire Machete to kill the bad guy, you better make damn sure the bad guy isn’t you!)

""insanity (thank you, Richard Dawkins)" What do you have against Richard Dawkins? I haven't read ..."

You go ahead and keep feeling; ..."
"I love this article. Will look for other stuff you've written"

Have you fallen for the myth ..."
"If all violence led to eventual wishes for revenge, why is it possible for members ..."

Teach me how to treat you
"How about Stalin? How would you have fought him?"

Why violence is the perfect solution ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I understand how “love the sinner and hate the sin” has been misused. But we are to hate sin. Why? Because sin hurts people. It destroys relationships. It wreaks all kinds of havoc on our world.

    In a world where there is so much injustice and so much avoidable suffering caused by our sins, the fact that we are sinners is good news, because it means that when we repent of our sin, substantial healing can take place.

    In my neighborhood (I pastor in a culture of poverty neighborhood) I see kids growing up in families where every child has a different dad, and none of the dads are present. I live with people who have no hope for a better life because they don’t have role models of people who have lived life differently. I see young people who have no concept of what a healthy marriage might look like because they have grown up in the midst of addiction, abuse, and unfaithfulness. So, of course, they continue the pattern.

    The good news is that God hates all these behaviors that victimizes people this way and that he offers a better way, but to get to that better way I have to move beyond “victim mode” and take responsibility to repent of my own sin.

    We are working in our church at creating a culture that combines radical grace (making people feel welcome wherever they are–so we have many excons, addicts, sex offenders, etc.) with loving and firm accountability for those who wish to become a part of the body (members). Our vows for both baptism and membership include the promise “to give and receive loving correction.” We are seeing some amazing fruit of this combination of radical grace and radical accountability. The life transformations are amazing!

    One of the problems with the way “love the sinner and hate the sin” is lived out is that we express our hatred of certain sins to those outside the church. Paul warns that we are not to judge those outside, but those within the church we are to hold accountable. That distinction, we are finding, is the key to marrying radical grace to seekers and strong, loving accountability for disciples. The fact that those outside the church overwhelmingly see the church as hypocritical, judgmental, and anti-gay (see the book unChristian) testifies loudly to the fact that the church has been guilty of judging those outside the church.

    One of the cruelest things we can do to another is to bless their sin, because sin destroys. Learning to radically love sinners (including ourselves), but also to invite them to “go and sin no more” as Jesus did does not come naturally, but it is essential to being Jesus in the world.

    • Kevin Miller

      Eddy: I understand your concerns. However, in my experience, we aren’t very good at separating sin from sinners, so a hatred of sin easily turns into a hatred of people who indulge into it. Second, love–not hate–is our goal. If we focus on hating something, we become obsessed by it. It begins to own us. Hating is an activist mentality. It is merely against something. I’d rather be an advocate for a powerful idea.

      • Good morning, Kevin: I agree that we often aren’t very good at separating sin from sinners, that it often turns into hatred of people who indulge in it. But I think you set up a false choice: you would rather be *for” a powerful idea that “against” something. Paul, though, exhorts us to “love what is good and hate what is evil.” Doesn’t love for someone require us to hate the evil that “steals, kills, and destroys” that person, whether the evil is that they are being sinned against or whether it is that they are engaged in their own self-destructive sin? We talk around here about the imperative to balance truth and grace. Truth without grace is harsh, legalistic, judgmental. Grace without truth is permissive and fails to empower people to break free of the sinful patterns that “steal, kill, and destroy.” Yes, we haven’t been very good at maintaining the right relationship between grace and truth, but that doesn’t mean that throwing out one or the other is the solution.

        I agree that if we focus on hating something, we become obsessed by it, but that is not what Jesus or Paul is advocating. The reason we are to hate sin is because we love those who are victimized by it (by their own sins and that of others). So our motivation must always be love. As I understand it, that is why God hates sin–because he loves those who are victimized by it. Love must always be our focus, never hate. But because we love, we hate that which violates love.

        If we confess that we are not very good at this, that is a good starting point (an admission of our own sin). The solution, though, is not to give up on learning to love as Jesus does (which includes hating the sin that damages those he loves), but to confess our difficulty with getting it right and asking the Spirit to teach us to respond as he does.