AN UPDATE: 3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin

 

In October 2013, I wrote an essay titled 3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin. In it, I ask my fellow Christians to stop using that phrase. Because UGH. And ACK. And has there ever been a phrase less symbolic of a Jesus who welcomed outcasts to his table, and who discarded rules in favor of mercy every time? Has there ever been a phrase quite like ‘Love the Sinner and Hate the Sin,’ intended to express love, that falls so dramatically short of its goal?

Now, a  year and a half later, 3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin is seeing an online resurgence. Over 100,000 people have viewed it in the last two weeks. Granted, that’s not the 750,000 who’ve read The Day I Pooped My Closet, but there’s no accounting for taste, friends, and if you look at both posts together it becomes very clear, very quickly that we humans sure do like reading about THE MESS, don’t we? The mess in the closet. The mess in our hearts. The mess in our church. The mess in the ways we communicate.

It’s OK, though! This is a messy space. We welcome the mess here, always.

And a mess it has been. Very, VERY messy, in fact, because 3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin has made some of my fellow Christians Very, VERY angry. And, while some have expressed their consternation kindly and rebuked me with obvious love, some have called me Heretic and False Teacher, A Disgrace to the Faith and a Liar.

Now, as this post has surged, I’ve left it alone, intentionally commenting very little because I think a) it’s important to have a healthy dialogue which only happens when we allow other people their say, and b) we welcome all comers to this space. That’s what we do here. It’s who we are. We welcome people.

There comes a point, though, if I continue not to comment, where I end up creating confusion or, at the very least, a one-sided conversation where I’ve lobbed the first ball, you hit it back, and then I refuse to continue… and, well, that’s not very helpful of me, is it? At the end of 3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin, I asked for your agreements and disagreements, and then I zipped my lips.

Here I am, unzipping my lips. Because it’s time. And because it’s important to clarify a thing or two.

If you need to read 3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin first, head on over. We’ll wait.

Ready? Here we go.

What 3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin IS Saying and Also What It’s NOT:

To be crystal clear, 3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin is talking about the PHRASE ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’ and why we should discard it. It’s a post about our Christian lexicon and the ways we need to evaluate our words. That’s what the essay IS.

As far as what it ISN’T, you don’t need to scroll far through the comments on that original post to see that some of my fellow Christians are very dismayed by this essay. They think I’m saying a) that sin doesn’t exist and b) even if it does, we should ignore it and let everyone blithely go on sinning… like, WHEEEE!

To those people, I say, maturely, “Am not.” I am saying neither that sin doesn’t exist nor that we should ignore it, though I AM saying that it’s rarely our role to confront it, that we’ve grossly mistaken “confronting sin” for loving our neighbors — exactly the opposite of Jesus’ example and words — and, finally, that we ought to be EXTREMELY, EXTRAORDINARILY cautious about the whole “calling out sin” thing. We have, in other words, gotten the whole Jesus message dreadfully wrong, and we owe it to people to humbly apologize and ask their forgiveness. More about that in a minute.

Sin, Crime and Injustice

Another confusion I found in the comments is in our collective understanding of sin, crime and injustice, which became obvious in comments like “so you think what Hilter did was AWESOME” and “so when your kid is abused, you’ll just congratulate the abuser.” For the record, I’m going with no on both of those.

“Sin,” by definition, means “a transgression against divine law.” “Sin” should not be confused with “crime” which is “a transgression against the law of the land.” Crimes must be reported, friends. Nor should “sin” be confused with “injustice” which means “a lack of fairness or equity.” We — Christians and NonChristians alike — must report crimes and work toward fairness and equity for all people.

It’s not that sin, crime and injustice don’t overlap. They do. Often. Abuse, for example, is certainly a transgression against divine law. So it’s a sin, right? But it’s also crime and needs to be handled by the law, folks; the Church has gotten itself into a world of hurt by trying to “hate the sin” out of abusers, overstepping the bounds of what the Church is and is not equipped to handle.

Instead, the word sin refers in the context of this essay to immorality. A transgression against divine law. And this is exactly the connection I tried to make in 3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin. We Christians are eager to point out immorality. Spend any time at all on Facebook and that’s obvious. And this is the message we’re getting SO WRONG, folks. We decry sins like promiscuity, adultery, intoxication, and so many more, focusing in ways Jesus never did on others’ outward actions, all the while ignoring our own sins of the heart — the sins on which Jesus did focus — like pettiness, cruelty, harshness, rage, greed, and hatred.

Imagine this, though. Imagine a Church that LOVES OTHERS. A Church that welcomes the stranger. A Church that LETS EVERYONE IN, not to change them, but to ADORE them. A Church that seeks, not to reform others or call them to repentance, but seeks to reform ourselves. To repent for the ways we’ve lacked mercy. To ask for forgiveness for all the finger-pointing. To act like Jesus came to set us free, not trap or trick us. To humbly admit our fear and our pride and our anger. To work to grow and change.

Over and over, Jesus’ lessons to us were about the ways we are unkind, uncharitable, unmerciful, unloving. Those are what I see as our deep sin. As MY deep sin. And that’s what I wish we’d correct. Together.

We Really Do Need to Stop Using That Phrase, Friends

In the words of my brother Jeff, we can debate between the “Love/Don’t Judge” verses (Matt. 22:37-39, Matt. 7:1-5, Luke 6:37, John 8:7, 1 Cor. 4:5, etc.) and the “Accountability/Live Holy Lives” verses (James 5:20, Rev. 2:6, 1 Cor. 5, etc.) forever. FOREVER AND EVER. This is complex and takes the most learned theologians LIFETIMES to suss out and, even then, they don’t all agree with each other. I think, then, we can probably agree that a six-word phrase — ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’ — does not do justice to that complexity. And in over-simplifying, it devalues and hurts people.

HOW we confront each other or hold people accountable MATTERS. And uniformly, the people who have been on the receiving end of ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin’ report it as hurtful. If you’re using this language with people, it hurts them. Please stop.

With love (and hatred for our sins)(ha!),

Signature

 

 

 

P.S. I don’t actually know if any of that makes sense, but it’s 10:30pm and I’m stuck sitting criss-cross with my laptop on a bed in between two sweet, smelly, sleeping 8-year-olds, so I’m hitting publish so I can try to extricate myself from this position before my legs crap up. I hope you understand.

P.P.S. I meant to write, “cramp” up in that first P.S., but I didn’t do it right. I’m leaving it because it’s symbolic. Sometimes when I try to write one thing, crap comes out, instead. I hope you understand.

P.P.P.S. Before you criticize my theology, I’d like to give you more to criticize. Not really; I’m actually not interested in more criticism, though I understand it’s part of the gig and likely to continue, so whatever. I do think it’s helpful, though, when you have a more complete picture. In addition to the “Faith and Doubt” section you can find at the top of this page on the left sidebar, I’d encourage you to read Sanctuary, The Real Reason I Still Go to Church, and especially On Parenting, Faith and Imperfection. I hope you understand.

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
187 comments
  1. I’ve been following you lately and am also in the middle of reading “the Great Spiritual Migration” by Brian McLaren. I read this article on the same day I read his discussion about the same phrase in his book. Is God trying to tell me something? yikes!
    All I know is that I see a movement of many Christians realizing that loving your neighbor and loving God are really all that is required of us. Thanks for writing this and also addressing the “go and sin no more” justification–I now have a REAL answer for my Mom, who has been disagreeing with me about this very thing. thanks!

  2. a description of sin and repentance that not only made the most sense ever but went through me was that to sin is to forget who you are to repent is to remember. most American evangelical churches think that the Bible starts at the fall of Adam and Eve not with God (Jesus) calling everything he created good. those of you who enjoy this blog should do your self a favor and read listen to and watch the works of Rob Bell. lastly Beth you’re on fire girl! keep up the good work!

  3. Sin is not just a failure to obey a set of rules. Sin is the failure of love. The Law is love. It’s what love looks like if you have it in your heart, what you will look like if you have it in your heart. It’s not just a set of rules, but an understanding of the heart.

    Jesus did speak directly of loving the sinner and hating the sin. He said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, as well as his own life, he can’t be my disciple”. You surely can’t understand this if you don’t hate the sin within yourself. I understand, and to my amazement that sin has somehow not prevented His hand on me. He comforts me, even in my failures. Therefore, His tangible presence in my life teaches me about grace. If He can hold out grace for a sinner like me, how can I deny grace to anyone else who says “I love Him”, no matter what their struggle or failure that I perceive? I hate sin, wherever it lives, because I love Him. And I love you, certain that you face struggle against sin also, and certain that there are sins you fail to overcome or even grasp as sin. I’m sure of it and neither have I escaped. He has taught me that sin cannot overcome love and that grace remains the hope of every one of us. He has enabled me (and you) to see beyond this life and the flesh will one day have vultures gathered around it.

    Very good article. Reading it, I do not doubt your faith or love for Him for one second. Thank you.

  4. I agree with your stance on Love. However, one little thing you said stood out. When you said “The Church” should not call people to repentance. Well, I thought that is the gospel story, I thought it is indeed the job of “The Church”, not as individual specifically, but the body of Christ to call for repentance. The Bible says Confess your sins, repent and be baptized, repentance is required for salvation. Is it our job to convict? No! Is it our job to share the gospel? Yes! I am definitely not disagreeing with your main point. I agree that it is used in a way to allow us room to be hateful. However, I believe the church does have a duty to preach repentance.

  5. I am not a Christian, but I appreciate this message.

    The message of loving people without judgement is how I live my life as an atheist. The measure of a person is how they treat those who are ‘other’ to them. “Is it kind?” is the question I was taught by my family to ask myself before making a personal remark or a silent judgement towards somebody else. The truth is that love and acceptance are mighty Unifiers and, I think – as a person who has studied the bible from a hobby-academic standpoint – the very message that Jesus in the bible made clear through his words and actions. The words we say matter. How we act on our beliefs matters. Being open to hearing the viewpoint of somebody in a position entirely foreign to us matters. Kindness goes far.

  6. Here is a great and better explanation. YES. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” IS in the Bible, everywhere! Just not in that grammatical formation. And not, it is not a lie, it is not disingenuous, it is not a hurtful phrase at all. I completely disagree. However, I agree that many people see it that way. That makes me sad, that anyone would read into this phrase anything but an aspiration, invitation, and inspiration for becoming better. Christ loved the sinners. Christ hated the sins. In fact, He stated that He will allow no unclean (sinful) thing into His kingdom. How’s that for non-PC? Someone can read Christ’s words and say He’s hateful, for He, in essence, says: Do as I say and you can get into heaven, if you don’t, you won’t. The End. Yet, that is not how I see Christ behaving. Instead I see this glorious plan He and His Father laid out before the world was, and told us we’d come to earth to learn and grow and be proven in all things to see if we would choose for ourselves to follow Them. We would sin, and therefore a Savior would be provided for. If we repent and turn to Him, and call upon His name and believe in Him we can be forgiven and He will make us equal to the task and worthy of salvation. They gave us a map to follow and live by, the scriptures/His word. The map is laid out to show us the safest passage back to Him after this life. It warns us of pitfalls and temptations and tricks the adversary will use against us to get us to leave the path. They also gave us two great commandments, which encompass all others: Love God will all our heart and love others (even though all others are sinners) as we love ourselves. They also warn us multiple times to stay away from sin, eschew it, put it away from us. So the great question, then, is how do we love another person who is sinning? Taking the Lord’s name in vain is sinning. Do we stop hanging out with people who take His name in vain? No. Living a homosexual lifestyle is sinning. Do we stop hanging out with people who live a homosexual lifestyle? No. Do we hate these people? No. Do we love them? Yes. Does loving them mean telling them it’s ok for them to take the Lord’s name in vain or to live a homosexual lifestyle? No. Does loving them mean that we continue to love them, but we also continue to set a good example for them of what Christ has asked us all to do. To not take His name in vain. To not live a homosexual lifestyle. The rest – the judging part – is in Christ’s hands. Not ours. THAT is how we love the sinner but hate the sin. We do not condone the sin. We do not ever say it’s ok and not a big a deal. We do not ever welcome it with open arms. But the PERSON we love, we welcome with open arms, we do not condemn, and we set a good example for. THAT is what the phrase means. Here’s an article by an author replying to this article above:

    http://lds-studies.blogspot.com/2015/07/love-sinner-hate-sin.html

  7. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Rev. 2:6 So we don’t hate sin? We hate the destruction ALL sin causes even if it is legal? I have to hate sin when I see unborn babies destroyed in the womb or a family broke up due to unfaithfulness, and I have to hate sin when I see people in bondage to substance so much that they are homeless and want to blame God, though it is their choices. God does hate sin…but loves the sinners…I really don’t get this message. It is a way to express that we never hate the people but the sin that is destroying lives everyday…how can we not hate murder? Doesn’t matter if it is legal…some murder is…but it is SIN!

  8. Suss is a funny word.

  9. I just read the original essay & I get it…..thanks for writing it & don’t let the critics squelch you!

  10. Thank you. For the original post and this update, both of which are tremendously valuable. Thank you.

  11. I very much appreciate your post. I grew up in the church, and remember hearing this phrase in the context of showing love and compassion to non-believers… and to believers whose behavior is running afoul of biblical teaching. The idea was, one should embrace and show compassion to all people, regardless of their sins. However, as you say, the phrase is clearly misused. It is often marched out when Christians are confronting strangers about their sins or lifestyle choices AS OPPOSED TO showing love to those strangers despite their sins. As such, the focus is on the wrong part of the sentence: on the “sin” part and on the part that is hateful, rather than on the “sinner” and the part that is loving. You are spot on when you say that it is hurtful and alienating to the target of this message.

    I am no longer associated with a church or religion. However, I can say that the Christians in my life who have had the biggest positive impact on me are never the ones who spend energy rebuking others, but are instead focused on how they can more fully embody Christ and be examples of love. Its an extremely powerful way to evangelize by example, and it is to these people I am drawn to discuss my own personal journey/difficulties with faith.

  12. It’s tough not to say something when there is an obvious “sin” going on.. Hard enough when it’s a friend. Try it when it’s your own children.. I have 11 and some of them have gotten off the path ( having been reared in a very disciplined-in a good way- missionary life style as children) and now seem to be throwing the baby out with the water.. I often feel,”well, I’m their parent, it’s my job/duty to teach them, even now when they’re older”, the youngest is 29. but will they listen to their father? I have tried everything, letters, going the extra mile for them, phone calls, prayer, everything, and yet some follow the same path..as you say, only God can really get thru to them, in His own way and in His divine timing..

  13. THANK YOU.
    I’ve read the original and now this update.
    THANK YOU.
    I come from a tradition that doesn’t “usually” use this phrase, but I sometimes hear it. And it makes me say, “um – NO.” But I didn’t have all of these thoughts so well put together AND I didn’t have it in my background. Hearing your voice with your background adds depth of authority.
    This is REALLY helpful to me.
    Now – when someone uses that phrase, I can say, “I invite you to look here…”
    Peace.

    1. I totally agree. The phrase has always made me queasy, and anytime anyone has ever said it around me, I would usually say something like, –Actually, I do not use this phrase; I don’t like calling people sinners. Sin is about separation from God, and that is all of us. And you gave very good examples and clarified just why I had the queasiness. We are living in a confusing world where we need to speak out about some issues, but if not done in love we end up making things worse. Thanks for putting the thoughts so clearly.

  14. Or you could just go to the most logical conclusion – t’s all a lie. The Christian religion really does teach that homosexuals are deviants and the practice is to be shunned. You can preach love, tolerance and acceptance all you want but you still can’t get past the cognitive dissonance of Paul’s teachings regarding this. It’s wonderful that you’ve learned to be accepting of this. I applaud you. Why not just give yourself the credit since that’s really where the compassion is coming from? Paul’s words should still echo in your mind if you really believe in the Bible and its teachings. How do you still reconcile your beliefs against those teachings? Any attempt to do so is just a gross manipulation and completely disingenuous.

    1. They’re called Christians, not Paulines.

  15. I’m afraid that in clarifying things, it got kind of muddy. First, love the sinner, hate the sin is not in the bible anywhere. Second, people who use this cute little phrase obviously don’t read their bible, If they did, they would quote Jesus, who made his point very clear with parables and applications that demonstrate what love is. Jesus clarified what love means by the examples that he used when he talked about it, something missing in the cute little quote and in your long, extrabiblical explanations. Even the references to scripture above, don’t give any guidance to the listener (or reader). In fact, love is demonstrated by preaching against sin, as Jesus did, in an effort to convict people of their sin, and warning them that persistence in it will result in their destruction. Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends, which He did, but that salvation was not available to anyone who didn’t repent, and believe in him. That is the missing element in the cute little phrase, so it will never be a satisfactory substitute for the Gospel of salvation. I think that people often go to these trite phrases because they don’t know the scriptures, and what the scriptures mean, leaving them unable to witness. Remember, we are to preach the Gospel, and the Gospel is in the words of Jesus Christ, written in the scriptures for us so we can carry it to the world. If we aren’t sharing what is in the scriptures, we aren’t sharing the Gospel of Christ at all.

  16. I’m grateful for your words (in the original and the updated articles). Our pastor did a series on “Dumb Things Christians Say” and this would fall right into that.

    Now to comment on how to “show love” to someone when you so brightly see a sinful behavior:

    I think one of the hardest cases is when a believing friend that I feel close to chooses a public sinful behavior that surprises me and I truly want her to repent and make a different choice. If I love her well, and she already knows I disapprove of her choice, then I choose to continue friendship, and not make it all about this sin. She knows I don’t think it’s right. She’s not even acting as though I need to change my view. She knows what God said in the Bible. And we are still genuine friends. Sometimes my pride wells up and I feel like telling her to stop, and pointing out why, etc. Then I weigh that choice against showing her grace and love and asking The Holy Spirit to do the convicting. She’s not leading others down her destructive path. I’m gonna stick to loving her and praying fervently that the Lord continue to speak to her. He’s really the only one that can convict anyone anyway right?

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