Love the Sin, Hate the Sinner… Or Something Like That

The following post is from Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care at The Marin Foundation. You can contact Jason with inquires connected to pastoral care at jason@themarinfoundation.org.   You can read more from Jason at his blog, www.jasonbilbrey.com

You’ve heard this aphorism a million times: “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I doubt there’s anyone in America, religious or otherwise, who hasn’t. It originated not from the Bible, but from St. Augustine, before being popularized by Gandhi and quickly adopted by Christian conservatives.

Though seemingly universal in its applicability, “love the sinner, hate the sin” has become the go-to platitude, particularly for many straight Christians thinking about gay issues. It assumes an easy differentiation between who a person is and what that person does, and urges Christians to adjudicate on these matters. The phrase suggests a peaceful coexistence between pity and piety.

Clearly, I’m not a fan. Let me suggest that the message we communicate when we invoke these words is actually “love the sin, hate the sinner.” Yes, you read that right. If that sentence seems backward and cold, that’s because it is. I don’t turn this phrase on its head to be flippantly subversive; I really think that’s the message we’re sending.

Let me explain. There’s a reason why “love the sinner, hate the sin” is quoted so often in our conversations about LGBT folks specifically– it’s because the broader Church community has come to the unsaid but very real conclusion that homosexuality is not just a sin, but the worst of all sins. Ask someone who’s gay. There is no faster way to lose all your Christian friends or get kicked out of your conservative church, than by coming out of the closet. I know of a counselor who urges her gay clients living at home to have a bag of clothes packed at the front door before they come out to their family. She’s not being overly dramatic. According to a 2012 Williams Institute Study, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. In many circles (certainly those that I grew up in), being gay is considered the worst thing you can be.

Which is why we Christians love talking about it: we’re fixated. (I say “we,” not because I myself identify with this sentiment, but because I do indeed identify as a Christian and a member of the worldwide Church, which has been, on the whole, systematically persecuting the LGBT community for decades.) Homosexuality is the Jersey Shore of Christian Ethics–that thing we love to hate. Saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” about, say, pornography just doesn’t feel as good. It’s a little too personal, perhaps. Porn, for us straight folk, isn’t as easy to stigmatize or separate from our own desires or inclinations. But “hating” homosexuality comes with the added benefits of not only rejecting something that feels easy to reject, but also reinforcing our highly protected sense of heterosexuality. Hating homosexuality makes us feel good about ourselves.

When we say, “hate the sin,” so often and with such conviction in our conversations with (or, more likely, about) gay individuals, we really communicate the opposite. We’re fixated. We love homosexuality.

And what does that fixation communicate to LGBT individuals–those “sinners?” That we love them?

There’s a reason why “love the sinner, hate the sin” is not “I love who you are but hate what you do.” It’s not a phrase that has resonance in real human relationships. That’s because it requires a polarity in one’s attitude that is impossible to maintain or effectively manifest.

In real relationships, love is not just a warm disposition toward the other. It’s a genuine care that will find expression with the actions of listening, empathy and respect. Love is not so much felt as demonstrated. And the demonstration of our love for LGBT individuals means that we converse with a desire to understand.

I remember having coffee with a guy early on in my time here at The Marin Foundation, who talked about his reaction to people saying that they loved him but hated his “sin.” To paraphrase, he said, “Homosexuality is more than simply the choices I make. It’s how I’m wired. When Christians pit ‘the sinner’ versus ‘the sin,’ they’re trying to artificially separate me from any expression of my sexual identity, which is an inextricable part of who I am. The message I hear is not that they love me, but that you think I’m broken and want to fix me.”

Christians cannot stigmatize homosexuality without also stigmatizing the individuals for whom homosexuality is not just some ethical abstraction, but an everyday reality. It’s harder to hate homosexuality when you hear from gay folks just how much many of them hated it themselves when first coming out. Many will tell they spent years praying everyday for God to take away their desires and make them “normal.” I’ve never heard of anyone who decided to become gay. Imagine, just for a moment, actually trying. How would you do it?

Love is entering into the experiences of others, no matter how uncomfortable or confusing. If Jesus commanded his followers to walk that extra mile with their oppressors, the Romans, how much farther would he require us to walk with those whom we, his Church, have oppressed? Your gay friends and family members aren’t served by your feelings of love, tempered as they are by hatred for any expression of their sexual identities. They’re served by the demonstrations of your love, those actions that manifest the depth of your commitment to them and the dignity in which you hold them. In rising to this task, you reaffirm the worth they have always had in God’s eyes. You speak the truth, a truth about the core of God’s nature that is summed up in Scripture with such brevity and simplicity that it’s easy to miss: God is love.

You don’t have to be comfortable with homosexuality in order to love the gay community. But hating it with vitriol poisons souls. Including your own.

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About Andrew Marin

Andrew Marin is President and Founder of The Marin Foundation (www.themarinfoundation.org). He is author of the award winning book Love Is an Orientation (2009), its interactive DVD curriculum (2011), and recently an academic ebook titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility can Save the Public Square (2013). Andrew is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets and frequently lectures at universities around the world. Since 2010 Andrew has been asked by the United Nations to advise their various agencies on issues of bridging opposing worldviews, civic engagement, and theological aspects of reconciliation. For twelve years he lived in the LGBT Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, and is currently based St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is teaching and researching at the University of St. Andrews earning his PhD in Constructive Theology with a focus on the Theology of Culture. Andrew's research centers on the cultural, political, and religious dynamics of reconciliation. Andrew is married to Brenda, and you can find him elsewhere on Twitter (@Andrew_Marin), Facebook (AndrewMarin01), and Instagram (@andrewmarin1).

  • Preston

    Whoa, Jason. I just critiqued this same phrase about an hour ago in a blog. Slightly different take on the general issue, but a very similar critique of the phrase. How about “love the sinner and hate your own sin?”

    http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hey Preston,

      I appreciate your drive to critically engage with these issues. And I agree that we Christians are often guilty of this plank-in-our-own-eye style of moral superiority when, in fact, we are equally captive to sin and undeserving of the grace we’ve been given through Christ.

      However…I think we belittle the LGBT experience when we equate any expression of their sexual orientation with what we consider to be our own sins. Just because I personally feel tempted to sin by, say, cheating on my wife, doesn’t mean that I can compare my experiences to those of my LGBT neighbors who are trying to live within what Conservatives might call a “biblical model” of sex. For me, living within this “biblical model” means my wife and I can do all kinds of unspeakable acts every night of the week, and maybe even on lunch break :) But I can’t cheat on her. For my gay friends, living within this “biblical model” means no sex, no romance, no companionship. Ever. These two experiences are not even remotely akin.

      You wrote a line in your own post that, I think, gets to the heart of my disagreement: “Marriage, sex, and children are gifts given by the Creator, not inherent rights demanded by creatures.” I think that sells God short, honestly. He’e created us, all of us, in his own image. Our natures and drives reflect his own. It’s not a matter of feeling entitled to these luxuries. Wanting marriage, sex and children is an expression of how we’re wired, reflecting God’s own nature as one who loves, creates and gives of himself wholeheartedly, faithfully and intimately. True, not everyone wants these things. But when our immediate and only response to our LGBT neighbors is demanding lifelong singleness and celibacy, we’re holding them to a standard that not only goes against their created natures but also one that most of us straight folks could never personally uphold.

      Ok, I know I’ve veered pretty far from the sentiments you expressed in your comment, but those are just my thoughts as I read your post and try to articulate why “love the sinner and hate your own sin” still rubs me the wrong way. Please let me know if I’ve misunderstood you at all. I certainly don’t want to twist your words or misinterpret your arguments.

      • Preston

        Hey Jason,

        Thanks for your thorough and helpful response! I’m not sure if you read some of the comments (and my replies) to my blog, but ya, I totally get what you’re saying and I’ve conceded many points. I.e. I’m going to adjust my language for future :)

        Couple thoughts. Re: my comment: “Marriage, sex, and children are gifts given by the Creator, not inherent rights demanded by creatures.”

        I don’t think my statement precludes what you’re saying. That is, saying that these are “gifts” doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to “want” them. Children are a gift from the Lord; my wife was a gift from God, etc. I’m not saying that it’s inhuman to “want” these things. Not at all. Much more to say about this, but perhaps that would take us too far in to left field!

        Re: what you said: “But when our immediate and only response to our LGBT neighbors is demanding lifelong singleness and celibacy, we’re holding them to a standard that not only goes against their created natures but also one that most of us straight folks could never personally uphold. ”

        Obviously a super touchy, debated, confusing, and tear-filled emotional discussion. I actually haven’t voiced my opinion on this; perhaps I will when I think through it a bit more. I would say that I do know several celibate straight people who don’t want to be, and, in spite of the ongoing, painful struggle, they celebrate the uncanny power of the gospel in fostering a creation-enjoying, God-glorying life that furthers the mission in spite of their (daily) pain. Sometimes God even redeems and hijacks their pain (Rom 8) to cultivate the mission and endow them with unexpected joy in the process.

        All that to say, I’m trying to do three things as I think through the issue of celibacy: (1) enter into the pain of others by “being” a community to people who are lonely for whatever reason (celibacy, unwanted singleness, etc.), (2) repent for my daily failure to do this very thing!, and (3) believe in the unbelievable power of the God of the gospel, who whispers stars into existence, divides seas in two, and quickens dead hearts with a simple word.

        I think any responsible Christian should wrestle with the tension of these three (very difficult) truths.

        Just thinking out loud! I’d love to continue the dialogue, Jason.

        Oh ya, as far as representing my thoughts (as you said), I think you did, although I’d recommend (if you had the time) to read the first 12 posts for a better context of my approach and journey.

        Again and again, thanks for your very helpful thoughts, Jason! It means a lot.

        Much love
        Preston

  • Micah Seppanen

    So very true. Thanks for sharing this. It will be a great reference for future conversations when this comes up!

  • DrewTwoFish
  • Steve

    Imagine that a friend of yours has cancer. You probably don’t see the cancer as a valid part of the person’s body. Rather, the disease is an attack on your friend’s body. As you see your friend suffer, your love for your friend will lead you to experience intense hatred for his cancer.

    The two feelings will be directly proportional to one another. The more you love your friend, the more you’ll hate the cancer. Why? Because loving a person naturally leads us to hate everything that harms him.

    Likewise, sin is not part of who we are. Sin harms us and distorts the person we are supposed to be. Pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust – these are all poisons for the soul. They are chains that bind us and prevent us from attaining true freedom.

    Hating the sin without loving the sinner turns a person into a pious, arrogant referee. Like the Pharisees, it means you are more interested in having a sterile moral environment than bringing people to God.

    On the other hand, love for the sinner without hatred for sin reduces love down to a polite sentimental niceness. It flies the banner of love while abandoning the person’s highest good – union with God. In reality we cannot separate one from the other. Both elements are necessary to form genuine Christian love.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi Steve,

      Indulge me for a moment. Imagine that you are gay yourself. You have zero attraction to women. You only have attraction to other men. That’s just how you’re wired. Regardless of what you decide to do with that orientation, would it be helpful or encouraging to have a friend who hates that side of you? If your answer is yes, then I think you should read more stories from gay folks about their experiences with vocally disapproving friends.

      Cancer isn’t anything like homosexuality. Cancer isn’t really like sin, either. Imagine telling your cancer patient-friend the things we Christians often tell those we believe to be living in sin: “God just wants you to repent of your cancer.” Or, “Just die to your old, cancer-riddled self, and take on the new self in Christ.” Or, “Turn away from your fleshly desire for cancer and take up your cross.”

      Listen, I agree with you that we should hate cancer and what it does to our loved ones. Our hatred for cancer is, in this case, borne from empathy and entering into the experiences of our friends. But when we actually and wholeheartedly empathize with and enter into the experiences of our LGBT friends, I think our reactions will be much more thoughtful and nuanced than simply hatred. Because homosexuality does not do to someone what cancer does. It’s just not the same thing.

      So I fundamentally disagree that loving someone without capitol “H” Hatred for his/her “sin,” as one might understand it, “reduces love down to a polite sentimental niceness.” I think it’s quite the contrary. I think an attitude that truly seeks to know and understand the other best expresses and elevates love.

      • Steve

        Thank you for removing the “See the Gospels” comment at the end of your reply. That level of sarcastic condescension ill-fitting to a reply that was otherwise sincere.

        I can imagine a couple situations that are personal to me. My father was an alcoholic. He got it from his family, who were also alcoholics. My mother hated his alcoholism. His buddies embraced that side of him and told him to ignore my judgmental mother. Who really loved by father?

        I was once heavily addicted to pornography. My friends knew
        this. My intolerant, disapproving Christian friends told me I needed to get away from the stuff. My nice, accepting friends told me not to worry about it. Who really loved me?

        You’re right that cancer isn’t like sin. Sin is way worse than
        cancer. This is why Jesus said: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.” [Matthew 5:29-30]

        Now, I posited that we hate things that harm the people we love. Sin harms people. Thus, we ought to hate sin. It seems to me that you don’t deny the truth of that, but what you are really after is asking: “How should a Christian’s hatred for sin be manifest?” For many people the default mode is badgering, hectoring, and ostracizing people. I think that is a trick of the devil.

        I have same-sex attracted men in my life. The hatred I have for sin is manifested in inviting them out to activities I do with the guys – like go-carting. Trying to build them up in male friendship. And I also think it is good to invite them in casual Church functions. Trying to build their relationship with Christ.

        They need no reminders that the Church says homosexual acts are contrary to chastity. Rather, they need an invitation into a community that loves them. That way, withdrawing from the homosexual lifestyle and community won’t feel like a trip alone into a desert.

        Maybe you should think about a harmonization of worldviews, one in which the hatred for sin is animated in empathy and compassion to the sinner.

        • Jason Bilbrey

          Hi Steve,

          You’re right about that “See the Gospels” comment. It was out of line, and that’s why I removed it after some reflection. I apologize.

          I’m encouraged by your explanation of what you see “love the sinner, hate the sin” looks like in practice, though I still disagree with you on a few points. But I think email would be a better format for this continued conversation. You can reach me at jason [at] themarinfoundation.org.

          But just as an addendum to what you’ve written here, I should go on record as saying 1) I don’t think addiction (whether to alcohol, pornography or anything else) is akin to homosexuality any more than cancer is; and 2) I think the claim that homosexual acts are innately harmful and somehow uniquely “contrary to chastity” is questionable to say the least.

          Anyway, Brian, thanks for your feedback, and please feel free to shoot me an email if you’d like to continue this dialogue.

          • Steve

            Who is Brian?

            … I’ll think over the private exchange.

            • Jason Bilbrey

              My mistake, Steve. I don’t know where “Brian” came from :)

  • J.

    “we’re holding them to a standard that not only goes against their created natures.. “, interesting.


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