Difficult? Or Impossible?
Years ago I was in an undergraduate social psychology lecture at the University of Central Florida. The professor, speaking of attitudes toward homosexuality, told us, “Christians say they can ‘hate the sin but love the sinner,’ but I think that’s pretty hard.” By his non-verbals it was clear that he meant is was really quite impossible.
In a way I agree with him. Jesus himself was realistic about love. In a classic passage, Matthew 5:43-48, he says,
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Loving those who love us is easy. Anyone can do it. To love our enemies is to be “sons of your Father who is in heaven.” It runs parallel to a call to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But is it impossible? No. I need to return to that in a moment. First, though, I want to set some context from that day in the lecture hall.
Must Homosexuals and Homosexuality-Affirmers Be Haters?
This is one of those “I wish I had thought of that” stories. I wish I had stood up right then in the middle of the 150 or so students and said, “Excuse me, Professor, but I disagree.” Of course I don’t know how he would have responded, but clearly I would have been violating at least two college norms: you don’t interrupt a lecture in that large of a group, and (for undergrads especially) if the professor takes a position of authority, you don’t dispute it.
So had I done that I would have had two strikes against me from the start. But I would have gone on to say that I believe homosexual practice is wrong, but as a Christian I could love those who practice it anyway. That would have been strike three. I think most homosexuality-affirming profs would get upset over that.
And at that point I could have asked, “Professor, do you think what I’m doing is wrong, unethical, even disgusting?” A lot of professors would say yes. Then I could have asked, “Then your view of me runs parallel to my view of homosexuality. You may not use the word “sin,” but you consider my position hateful, do you not? So, now that you have this view of me, is it impossible for you to have any love for me? Or must you hate me now?”
This idea that it’s impossible to hate the sin but love the sinner is common in homosexual rhetoric. But everyone can think of something they regard as sin. For Christians like myself, homosexual practice is one of those things. For homosexual activists, my position is hateful and hate-worthy. So if they are going to be consistent about their position on “hate the sin but love the sinner,” it would seem impossible for them to have anything but hatred for me as an individual.
What I’m Not Saying, and What I Am
At this point I’m in serious danger of being misunderstood. I am not saying that homosexuals and homosexual-affirmers are necessarily haters. I have plenty of personal experience to prove that’s not the case. What I am saying is that if they think that those who disagree with them must be haters, then it’s hard to prevent that from pointing right back at them. So there must be more to the story than that.
What It Really Means to Love
Homosexuality-affirming Kid Charlemagne blogged his opinion that “hate the sin but love the sinner” is generally a cover for bigotry. He included a picture of a sign reading, “If you fight love, you’re always the loser.” I agree with that, provided that “love” means something higher than physical lust or even romantic love (eros). The love of which Jesus spoke was agapé, an unconditional, self-sacrificing, giving kind of love. It is the love with which God loves us all, even in our rebellion against him; the love that led to Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, and made it possible for us to be reconciled to God. It is not a love that says every evil thing is okay, but rather that every person is of highest value. Romans 5:6-11 speaks it well:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Loving By the Power of God
That is the love of God. Can we humans achieve anything like it? Or is it really impossible for us, as my prof thought? When Jesus called us to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he was setting the standard out of human reach. But that’s only part of the story. Those who trust and follow Jesus Christ get more than a crassly self-serving ticket to paradise out of it. We enter immediately into a living, loving relationship with the living, loving God. 2 Peter 1:3-4 tells us of God’s gift of promise by which he imparts his own nature to his followers:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
Paul prayed (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12),
that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christians’ good works, including love for those we disagree with, are works of faith by God’s power, by his work within us, and not by our own strength or virtue.
Which Would You Prefer?
Take away God’s working within us that way, and I think my social psych prof would have been exactly right: it really would be impossible to hate the sin yet love the sinner. I can’t judge him for what he said, for I know he did not know of God’s power in people’s lives. But if I had been on my toes that day I would have interrupted him, just as I said above. I would have asked him whether his own position meant he could never love someone like me who disagreed with him on homosexuality. And then I would have turned to the class and asked, “Which would you rather follow: a philosophy that says you can only love people you agree with, or Jesus Christ who grants you the power to love anyone?”
Which would you rather follow?