“Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner”

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?

Comments

  1. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    … and thus I break a long period of blog silence. It has been quite a week or two, with some very difficult challenges, and some very interesting meetings, too. I’ll share more on it later.

  2. toddes

    I appreciate Abraham Mitrie Rihbany’s explaination in his book, The Syrian Christ (1916, p. 98):

    “So to us Orientals the only word which can express any cordial inclination of approval is “love.” … “Love” and “hate” are the usual terms by which to express approval and disapproval, as well as real love and hatred.”

    Those who say that it is difficult or even impossible to “Love the sinner yet hate the sin” suffer from, as you explain above, a misunderstanding or ignorance of the subject. They reveal their own bigotry against GOD and His Word. They desire and sin in the same way as Adam and Eve by trying to replace the wisdom of GOD with their own and thereby take the place of GOD.

    By giving approval to sinful behavior we do not love the sinner by only expedite their condemnation and our own. We love them by showing them the reality of their sin and helping them to turn back to GOD’s will.

  3. brgulker

    In theory, I completely agree. For me, it is really hard not to hate “Wall Street” (and often, I simply give in).

    In practice, though, this remains very, very hard. I have met very few people with the capacity to do it consistently, myself included.

  4. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    brgulker,

    It is only by God’s power. No one does it consistently, but it’s not impossible to move toward it, as I’m sure you agree.

  5. BillT

    The problem with “hate the sin, love the sinner” isn’t the “love the sinner” part. Christ’s call for us to love our enemies is a challenge for us, as you said, to claim His power in and for our lives. Not easy but certainly possible.

    The problem for me is “hate the sin”. To point at someone else and call him sinner! Just where in the Bible are we called to do that? Those who struggle with gender identity issues do so because they too live in a broken world and that is one of the manifestations of that broken world, as is all sin. So when I am confronted with someone who struggles with that I don’t think “sinner”, I think there for the grace of God go I.

    The Christian community has put itself in a difficult position for having pointed at someone else and said “sinner”. The implication being the those people are sinners but we aren’t. The reality is, of course, that we are every bit the sinners anyone else is that should be front and center.

    Tom, I know this is a bit off topic. However, the “hate the sin, love the sinner” has for me been a sore point of modern Cristian “churchspeak”. It has done far more harm than good and I think misrepresents Christian beliefs.

  6. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Very insightful, BillT. But where then is the problem? I see it in two places: one is in pointing at someone and saying, “you sinner!” without recognizing that we too are sinners. For the Bible certainly calls us to be honest with each other about the fact that the term “sinner” applies to all. Christ washes away sin from those who trust him to do so; that is the only difference. So if we imply that others are sinners and that Christians are not, that is indeed wrong and offensive, just as you have said.

    I think the problem may also lie in this way of looking at it:

    The problem for me is “hate the sin”. To point at someone else and call him sinner!

    There is a leap there that I hope we do not make. To hate sin is not to point at someone and call him sinner. It is to point at sin (in ourselves, too!) and call it what it is, which is a deadly rebelliousness toward the loving God who created us.

    Maybe you’re right that “hate the sin but love the sinner” has become a sore point of churchspeak. If so, I don’t think it’s because its meaning properly understood is wrong, but because its proper meaning has become submerged or distorted because of perceived self-righteousness on Christians’ part.

    So maybe we should drop that phrase—but not the concept it is properly trying to communicate: that some things people do (including ourselves) are truly wrong and hateful, and it is proper to regard those hateful actions as such; but that every person is nevertheless worthy of God’s love and of ours as well.

  7. ordinary seeker

    I don’t think this is difficult at all. If everyone “sins,” then everyone who is loved is loved in spite of his or her “sin”–what’s the big deal? What you really seem to be saying is that loving the homosexual is more difficult because you find the “sin” more offensive personally.

  8. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    os,

    You’re exactly right, except the last sentence. No one here has begun to suggest it is harder to love homosexuals than other sinners. The message of the OP is that homosexuals have said it can’t be done in their case, which of course is false. That’s the only reason I’ve even brought it up.

  9. Kid Charlemagne

    Hi Tom

    A thoughtful and measured post. I’d like to extend the olive branch and calm down the rhetoric. My intention with the original post was to provoke thought not to upset or to hurt anyone’s feelings.

    Peace.
    KC

  10. Post
    Author

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