Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner?

I’ve said before that I don’t like this phrase. I think hate is a really strong word, and it is hard to hate one aspect of someone without it bleeding into the way you treat that person. Hate (to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward; to detest, despise or loathe) and Love (a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person. fondness, predilection, warmth) are antonyms, I simply cannot see how they can be in the same sentence together, or refer to the same person.

There some beliefs and some deeds that I truly do hate. I feel that they cause major damage, harm real people, and disregard humanity. However, I have people in my life, who believe these same things, and do these same deeds. When I think of them in terms of being the people who believe or do those things that I hate, I do not feel loving towards them. I feel stressed, anxious, frustrated. But the fact is, some of these people are still what I would consider close. How is that possible? Well, first off, I do not have an outside source/third party figure or instruction book telling me what I must hate and what I must love, so I live the way I do and I realize that others may live differently regardless of how I may feel about it. If I am relating to someone with whom I know disagrees with me on a particular topic, I do not focus on my feelings about that particular topic. If I relate to these people in other ways, I try not to define them based on the area we disagree in.

When I have times where my strong opposing understanding of an issue threatens to cloud everything in how I relate to that person, I try to bring myself back to balance, remembering the reasons that I have kept that person in my life, remember to love them for those reasons, and agree to disagree. In fact, I think one of the main problems I have with the phrase “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” is that it defines the person by the “sin” you are supposed to hate. That is like saying “Hate Homosexuality, love the Homosexual” as if that is all that person is to you. It would be like me saying “I Hate the practice of spanking children, but I sure love spankers.” When you define that person by the thing you hate, by the very thing with which you disagree with them, that hate is all that is left to your relationship. There is no love left.

Let me see if I can try to explain with as example that is completely unrelated to me.

Lets say I am a Vegetarian, the thought of eating something that once had a face repulses me, I feel strongly about how cruelly animals are treated in the food industry. I cannot fathom how anyone can be OK with eating meat when the very thought of it makes me feel sick. However, I have several friends and family members who are not vegetarian, we are aware of each others difference of opinion, and have even had a few debates on the topic. But we definitely do not agree. However, lets say one of these friends is a great jogging companion, and another is always up on the latest news stories that I love to discuss, and another gardens at the same community garden I do and we always end up exchanging tips and chatting together about the rest of our lives. When I meet them, the first thing that comes through my mind is not “carnivore!”. When I hang out with them I am not plotting how I can insert little digs into the conversation against eating meat. We hang out, we talk, we enjoy each other’s company. We may even share meals together, although we might not be eating the same things.

However, the “friend” who thinks I am an idiot for being a Vegetarian, and constantly rags me about what I ate that day, and sends me emails about the benefits of eating meat and the downsides of being vegetarian, who makes me the butt of their jokes at parties, who perpetually makes completely unrelated assumptions about me based on my eating habits, who provokes discussion and then refuses to listen to my perspective and dismisses and ignores every explanation of why I feel the way I do, that friend, is not truly a friend. They are not someone I would want to hang out with, or see on a regular basis, or confide in, or ask advice from. Because that is not respect, that is not friendship, that is not love.

Since Haley and I have come out, some people that we have known for some time, and still disagree strongly with our reality, have been able to still communicate respectfully, listen to what our perspective is, relate to us on other levels, express concern and ask questions without being derogatory or dismissive. Others have not been able to do this. Why is it that people with seemingly the same beliefs can differ so much in their ability to relate to us? The answer isn’t that some are magically able to “Hate the sin, love the sinner”, it’s that they are willing to practice tolerance.

This may sound a little different coming from me, because I usually choose to use the word “Acceptance”. But some recent research on these different terms has cleared up some prior confusion on my part. I grew up with people who claimed they didn’t hate anyone (remember? They “love” sinners.) I even claimed to “love sinners while hating their sin” myself once upon a time. I understood tolerance to mean extreme distaste and dislike and disapproval, coupled with an ability to refrain oneself from violence towards the person you felt that way about. I felt that acceptance better expressed an ability to disagree, but be OK with that person living their own life.

In reality, The definition for the term Tolerance is:

A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.

Interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one’s own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.

Synonyms for tolerance are:

Patience, sufferance, forbearance; liberality, impartiality, open-mindedness. agree in allowing the right of something that one does not approve

This term encompasses perfectly what I am asking from people who do not agree with the reality of LGBTQ persons, and/or the exact ways they may choose to live their lives. Being willing to hear another person, seek to be fair and objective and impartial, is exactly what I meant to say by using the term “Acceptance” (A term which can ironically mean approval, something I was never trying to ask of anyone) I am sorry for any confusion this may have caused. I found myself steering away from the term “tolerance” because of the false understanding I had been given of what it meant. Many people who claim to be tolerant think that minorities should feel grateful that they are not being hung in the town square. They make no bones about the fact that they “Hate the sin.” And the “love the sinner” begins to sound more like “don’t kill the sinner”. This is not tolerance.

I know people who have absolutely no problem with me, when I am with them I feel comfortable, at-ease, not stressed, relaxed. I know people who disagree with my sexuality and/or my marriage or my spouse’s gender identity, but are tolerant of our differences. When I am with them I feel comfortable, at-ease, not stressed, relaxed. These people do not define me by whatever it is they disagree with me on. They respect me and my views, they are able to listen to my perspective and ask questions or express concerns respectfully. They seek to be fair and impartial regardless of their personal feelings, and they do not actively fight against me or spread lies about me.

I also know people who disagree with me and also claim to be tolerant. But around them, I feel nervous, on-edge, tense, slightly nauseous, on-guard, afraid. This is because they are not actually tolerant. They are trying to uphold that impossible dichotomy of “Hate the sin, Love the sinner.” They define me by whatever issue they disagree with me on. Their conversation is sprinkled with opinions and judgments and pronouncements from their understanding of spirituality, they find it difficult to relate to me in other ways or on other topics. I have trouble feeling close to these people, even when I want very badly to feel close to them. When it is hard to relax around someone, it is hard to feel safe around that person.

I have heard people try to defend the phrase “Hate the Sin, Love the sinner” by saying that all of us our sinners, that they hate every sin equally and that they themselves sin. I’m not going to get into whether or not these people actually hate every sin equally, but I understand that they may believe that a certain list of ideas or actions are “sinful” and should be avoided. And by all means, live according to your beliefs and avoid the ideas or actions you disagree with in your own day to day life. Every person should have the right to live their personal life as it affects them in the way they feel best benefits them. But that same truth also goes for people who are different from you. Why define a person based on your beliefs which that person (obviously) does not have? Change the phrase to “Hate my actions, love myself” if you like, but stop applying it to anyone and everyone who does not live life your way.

Ideally, I think this phrase should become;
“Live the way I see fit, respect others who live differently.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12947846629735463824 Mórrígan

    I love this! Great post!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13211182794921080338 Rae Brown

    I always thought that phrase was contradictory. You explained it so well! And doesn't it seem that this phrase always gets used against the lgbtq community and no one else? I never understood that either. You and Haley are happy. That's all that matters.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10254315970336710941 Catholic Mutt

    Well-written! I greatly dislike that phrase as well.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11888282268531278077 elbereth32

    See, this is why I like reading you. You make me think :)

  • Contrarian

    Tangentially: If one can "love the sinner, hate the sin," then one can "love the Christian, hate Christianity" or "love the fundamentalist, hate fundamentalism." Try that line on the people who are condemning you and see how they take it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06410682651072046347 TwisterB

    As a vegetarian, I appreciate your analogy :)

  • http://www.margherder.com Marg Herder

    Nice! I don't think I've ever read anyone address this as well. It's a crazy phrase, and all it really says is that the person uttering it thinks they are so much better than you that it's okay to judge your way of moving through the world. Really glad to have come across your blog. BTW, came to this through the Patheos "No More Quivering" pieces you wrote. Loved those too. Nice honesty there.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03079852628674185384 Karen

    I honestly am fond of some vegetarians and vegans, though I don't agree with their views. I honestly am fond of some (perhaps a lot) of Christians, though I don't agree with their views. I'm fond of some Jews, though I don't agree with their views. But I can't be fond of a child molester, or anyone convicted of harassment, or a murderer, or a kidnapper, or… But I'll never understand the doctrine of "hate the sin, love the sinner." That love seems secondhand or worse. If you're Christian and you believe, your Lord loves that sinner. But that's asking a lot of you. As for the "your doctrine is different than mine" crowd, loving the sinner but hating the "sin" of just disagreeing with the doctrine is patronizing at best.

    I'm tired tonight; that's the best sense I can make of it, though I grant you it's not a sterling piece of writing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    It's one of those loaded language phrases that don't mean what they claim to mean, and this article explains it better than I have ever read or heard. That's some head you've got on your shoulders, Melissa. =D

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Good post. I agree with the sentiment that it seems like they only use this sentence with LGBTQ people… In contraposition to those jerks have lots of love tolerance and acceptance from us. =)

  • Rachel

    Melissa, I wrote you on Facebook.

    One further thought, I wonder how the concept of "tolerance" squares with the Catholic catechism, which, although it provides that homosexuality is "objectively disordered", instructs that people with those "tendencies" should be "accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."

    As an aside, I suppose the bishops justify their position on marriage "equality" by calling that "just" discrimination….Huh.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10485916904448169533 Raìne

    Great post. That phrase has always bothered me, especially when people seem to use it as a catch phrase to stop them from thinking any further on why they believe as they do and how they relate to and treat other people.

    When hear it I always think of something Mark Lowry said, "Love the sinner, hate the sin? How about: Love the sinner, hate your own sin! I don't have time to hate your sin. There are too many of you! Hating my sin is a full-time job. How about you hate your sin, I'll hate my sin and let's just love each other!"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07206888495081361453 Michelle

    I love that idea, Raine!

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    A very interesting post, Melissa. I'm not sure how I feel about comparing being vegetarian to being LGBTQ because, in some way, that seems to be conceding that being LGBTQ is a choice, like being vegetarian is. I can see why a lot of anti-LGBTQ people WANT to think that it is a choice–it allows them to construct their attitude as a simple ideological/philosophical disagreement, rather than rejection of a fundamental part of a person, which is much harder to reconcile with being a good, loving person. I want to be like "You can't have your cake and eat it too! If you want to be loving, LOVE THE WHOLE PERSON!"

    On the other hand, I can also see what you're saying about not wanting to be defined by being LGBTQ and, with that in mind, the comparison to being vegetarian makes a lot more sense. And I guess I really should listen more than talk here. I'm not LGBTQ myself and you know much better than I do what is most important in how people interact with you and your family and what makes you feel the most comfortable and accepted. But it's an interesting conflict that I hadn't really thought of like that before. On the one hand, there's "Being LGBTQ does define all that a person is." On the other hand there's "But it is PART of who a person is–it's not a hat that they've put on where, if you disklike it, that dislike has nothing to do with who that person really is." If that makes any sense.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Um, and what would Jewish views be, exactly? As Jew who has Jewish friends and spends a great amount of time engaging with them in lively argument and disagreement about Judaism, I am very curious to know what "[our] views" are…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03519675898483081005 Mrs. Searching

    Very well put – and so true. Love for others was always taught to us from the perspective of caring enough about them to keep praying for them despite their rebellion and wickedness. While avoiding them lest their evil besmirch us too. So sad.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02614822971755761394 Rebecca

    Thank you for good reminders on how to talk to/treat people I disagree with.

    This may not be exactly what you are trying to say, but it speaks to me in the same vein. Casting Crowns has a song called "Jesus, Friend of Sinners." The chorus goes like this:
    Oh Jesus friend of sinners
    Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers
    Let our hearts be led by mercy
    Help us reach with open hearts and open doors
    Oh Jesus friend of sinners break our hearts for what breaks yours

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03079852628674185384 Karen

    I didn't mean to pigeonhole anyone!

    The two (religious) Jews I've experienced in my life (there were lots more non-religious Jews!) both had a strong opinion that suicide is always wrong, a weak response to dealing with the difficulties of life. Oddly enough, during both time periods when I knew these people, I was seriously considering suicide. I was angry with them (though I didn't express it) for thinking that taking one's own life was even considered a solution to a *fixable* problem. Choosing to die is admitting you are not fixable. Thankfully, that's all in the distant past; good psychotropic meds have had me stable/sane/productive for years now. Perhaps my religiously Jewish acquaintances did me a service, and prompted the "you aren't ready to die yet" inner voice to speak louder.

    More generally, most people (Christians, Jews, Wiccans, Hindus, Muslims) that I've dealt with believe there is Somebody or Something out there, beyond the natural. That Somebody/Something may or may not care about us, but s/he/it was instrumental in establishing us as we are now. I'm just a garden-variety atheist; I don't insist there is absolutely no Somebody/Something out there, only that I haven't seen any evidence to support the assertion.

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    I mentioned this on twitter, but I utterly despise that phrase. I had an … interesting childhood. As a teen, though, I thought I had found a group (a Christian church in the small town where I lived as a teen — having moved there from Houston) who actually cared about me.

    From the moment I became an expecting teen parent (and was excluded from more and more things and segregated from other teens) the reality began to become clear.

    It crystallized one particular Sunday. My infant daughter (now 30) had had pneumonia. That had been a terrifying experience for me. I had spent nights not really sleeping, but listening to her breathe. She was finally better, and we decided to go church. However, I wasn't willing to take her to the nursery like we had done on the intermittent times we had gone back since she had been born. So I took her with me.

    The service hadn't been going on too long when the pastor went to the podium and told me to take my daughter to the nursery because she was "disturbing" the service. I looked down at the sleeping baby girl in my arms in utter shock, stood up and left. By the time I walked to our car I was shaking in rage.

    And it was twelve years before I was willing to set that experience aside and give Christianity the same sort of examination I had given other religions.

    That's what "hate the sin, but the love sinner" actually accomplishes. I know that it's different from what you and Haley have experienced. No two experiences are ever exactly the same. But I do understand how destructive that attitude toward people is. Period. It has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

    What little I've learned about Christianity over the past couple of decades certainly incorporates the idea that I am the worst of sinners. If we say or believe anything else, we are the pharisee and not the publican. But our charge from Christ seems clear. Learn to "hate" my own sin and thus break its rule over me. Love sinners. And pray for those who do evil toward me. (Not there yet, but I do acknowledge that I should.) Period.

    As far as other people's "sin" goes, if it's not a self-destructive behavior that I am in a relationship which obligates me to try to do something or an act harming others that I am in a position to prevent, then it's really between that person and God. If I try to condemn, then I am asserting a sort of equality with God. Something about as you condemn, so you will be condemned comes to mind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Melissa

    In using the vegatarian example, I was trying to pick something more nuetral that doesn't count as a sin in most religions. I agree that being LGBTQ is a huge part of someone, definetely part of what defines you. The point I was trying to make is that the phrase "Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner" literally defines that person by whatever "sin" you have decided they are guilty of, and I have a hard time seeing how you can forge a relationship with someone based on whatever you dislike about them. I'm not saying that people who think being gay is a sin are going to be like best buddies for life or anything, but the people who disagree but are able to be tolerant you can actually be around and communicate with, despite differences.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Melissa

    Thanks for sharing. I agree that this mentality affects people of all kinds, even people without a technical (or at least public) "sin" to condemn them. I like what you said about condemning is like asserting equlity with god.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Melissa

    It is used on many contexts, particularly in conservative circles. But you are right, if you google the phrase many of the links refer directly to homosexuality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17967070182847617840 kisekileia

    A major contributing factor to my abandoning evangelical sexual ethics completely was realizing that you can't believe that homosexuality is "objectively disordered" or that gay people have to be celibate, and "accept [LGBTQ people] with respect, compassion, and sensitivity" at the same time. I concluded that "love your neighbour as yourself" trumps the lesser commands in the Bible re: sex.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09967972437986569073 Victoria Finney

    I am a bisexual ex-christian, one of my family members (who I love deeply) has recently told me that until I "surrender my sin up to the lord" I am no longer "safe" around her children. My daughter is not wanted around her children. She says she loves the sin but hates the sinner. Gotta say, I'm feeling pretty hated right now.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Melissa

    We are expereiencing a very similar dynamic right now, and it does hurt, so much.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10853868724554947854 Sheila

    I always just thought of it as a shorthand for, "No matter how much you hate the choices that someone else is making, that's no excuse for not treating them with love." Love, not barely-veiled contempt.

    If I had happened on your blog at random a week ago, I might not have followed it. I'm a Catholic and I do disagree with your views on homosexuality. But I knew YOU already, through what you'd written before. I bonded with you over your descriptions of spiritual abuse, which is something I've suffered as well (in a very different context). The gender of your spouse isn't really something important to me, you know? That's between you, your spouse, and God. As for me, I have plenty of sins of my own, and when I've gotten rid of all of them from my life, I'll have the right to throw stones … but I assume I will no longer want to.

    Meanwhile, the things you have to say on, for instance, spanking or other parenting issues, are really interesting to me and I'm sticking around for them. At the same time, hearing how your life is going right now is challenging me to really think through my own beliefs. I can't, as so many Catholics do, write off same-sex attraction as just "disordered" and let it go. It's a real thing, and Catholics who suffer from it (I say suffer because to be a faithful Catholic and have SSA is a big cross) are marginalized, or we pretend they don't exist, or we pretend that it's easy for them in the hopes of advertising to non-Catholics that this is something easily manageable. And it quite simply isn't. Since I don't have same-sex attraction myself … at least, not much … I don't feel I can exactly judge someone who does.

    I'm not perfect at not judging. But reading your words every day or two makes it easier for me. You put a face on things and make it impossible for me to write you off.

    Now, people who are mean to kids? Still working on not judging that batch.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Melissa

    Thank you Sheila, your comment made me smile. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08312760352116849244 Family Way Doula

    When my eldest child was a precocious and very verbal toddler, he overheard the woman ringing the bell at the Salvation Army Christmas collection kettle say something nasty about our friends, a lesbian couple, kissing each other good-bye in front of a child. Not liking to hear anyone say anything mean about his friends, he toddled over to the woman and asked her what she was doing. She replied that she was taking donations for people who were in need because that is what God and Jesus taught us to do. Having only ever been inside a Church for the baptism his biological father insisted he get, my son cocked his head to one side and asked "what is God?" She crouched down, a real feat in the stiff SA uniform she was wearing and explained that God was love. He nodded solemnly and said "love, like my friends" in reference to the very couple that had prompted her nasty remark. She shook her head and said no, that God didn't like that kind of love. He got a look on his face that I recognized as his 'indignant' expression, got very stern, waggled his finger at her and said "No! God is love. Love is LOVE. ALL LOVE is God!" She was left rather speechless and he took my hand and told me he didn't want to talk to the 'mean lady' anymore. He was a few months shy of three. Now he is 17 and openly bisexual, even being out at his private Catholic school. I'm just as proud of him now as I was then.

    The problem with the whole 'love the sinner, hate the sin' concept, for me, is that WHO we love, our relationships, and our families are INTRINSIC to who we ARE. Sexuality and gender identities are not 'bad behavior' that can be separated out of what makes us the people we are. Denying sexuality and gender identities creates an incredible amount of toxic pain. There really is no way to accomplish this whole 'love the sinner, hate the sin' thing that people prattle on about. I'm talkative and eccentric, I always have been. Weird, according to… well, pretty much everyone. I was also profoundly unpopular. I had one friend, who, in attempt to be helpful, told me that people would probably like me better if I could just stop being 'weird'. Now, that is only one aspect of who I am. But, like my sexuality it is part of what makes me ME. How ridiculous does it sound for a parent, or a friend, to say "I love YOU, but I hate that you are weird. If only you could ACT normal, and deny that weirdness, then everything would be alright"? I got that message a lot, actually, both overtly and more subtly, but people can recognize it as being absurd and hurtful and NOT anything even CLOSE to "Love". That same thing goes for the vast spectrum of healthy, 'normal', sexuality that goes beyond 'heterosexual and cisgendered'.


  • Daniel

    The problem that many people have is that they “DEFINE” people by their actions. The bible clearly seperates people and deeds (this does not mean that people are not accountable for their deeds; only that they are not defined by them) whereas the world merges the two.

    On this basis, the phrase “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is totally acceptable. You can hate the deeds a person does but love them as a person. Let me give you an example; someone has a habit of stealing. They only steal small things but it causes distress to people. It is totally acceptable to say “I love this person but I hate the stealing that this person has done”. They are seperate. The problem with opposing this approach and merging deeds into the identity of the person is that you have to judge the PERSON rather than the DEEDS.

    This effectively means you are forced into saying someone is a “bad person” or you are forced into accepting someone’s particular lifestyle choice as acceptable, even when this happens to be sinful. In other words, you have to take one of two extremes rather than a balanced view. The sin that the vast majority of people have a problem seperating is homosexuality, which is defined in the bible as a sin. God hates homosexual practise but loves those who have commited homosexual practise.

    If a person changes their lifestyle or deeds, they are still the same person; they have just changed in their actions. If a person is defined by their deeds, we are saying there is no hope for people who have done something we consider unacceptable and that we must make excuses for the bad behaviour of people we do not want to tar with a black brush.

    You can judge deeds (we all know murder is a sin) but the bible says you cannot judge character. Someone may have done something very bad but noone has the right to label someone as a “bad person” in the bible because all have sinned. In essence, I hate everyone’s sin (including my own) but I love everyone as fellow people (including myself).

  • http://www.healingoutloud.org Frederina “Freddi” Jensen

    This is a WONDERFUL post! I am so glad I found you – and by the way, I found you by searching for the very phrase you talked about “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” – which I internalized by listening to the same people, until I walked away. What caused me to walk away was my youngest child, Noel. Noel came out to me when he was 16, and it took me 9 years to wake up to the only fact that mattered: the love of my son, not the hell-fire fear that engorges itself through the words and passions being ignited. I thank God that I had another 12 years left with Noel before he was brutally murdered in Houston in 2008. The hatred being promulgated by some of our churches is palpable, and I am now doing everything I can to make a difference for the gay community in the straight world. I am also sharing this to my Healing Out Loud Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/#!/HealingOutLoud
    I am doing my best to get the word out about members of the gay community being put here by God for the same reason He put us straight people here: so that we can learn about Love, and all that entails.