Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
May 8, 2016
Matthew 7: 1-5 (CEB)
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. 2You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. 3Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? 5You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.
Today, we finish up our series, “Bible or Not.” Over the last five weeks, we have been taking a look at some different phrases that are often said by Christians which sound Biblical, but really are not. These phrases may contain some truth, but they don’t tell the whole story. And often, the use of these phrases can be hurtful, even if the intention is to offer help and support. We saw that early on as we talked about the statements, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God helps those who help themselves.” Two weeks ago, we talked about how the phrase, “Money is the root of all evil” is misleading because it’s not money, but the love of money that stands at the heart of much evil. Then, last week, we considered the problem of a sort of shallow faith that doesn’t embrace the complexity of God’s revelation to us, and instead says, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” And today, we finish up with the phrase, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” In my experience, this phrase is used pretty regularly by a lot of Christians, perhaps more than any other that we have talked about, except maybe “Everything happens for a reason.” I’ll be honest in telling you that the widespread use of this phrase made me a little hesitant to address it, but at the same time, that’s all the more reason to talk about the truth and the untruth behind this sort of command, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
So, obviously, as any of us who have heard or used this phrase know, we say this when we are trying to kind of hold people accountable; to say, in essence, your behavior is not okay, but I love you anyway. In theory, this is really good. I mean, this is basically how we deal with our children’s misbehaviors, right? We do our best to teach them right from wrong, to hold them accountable to those standards and to love them through it all. The problem is, it never quite works out the same way when our approach is first the “sinner” and “sin.”
Let me give you an example. I was having a conversation with my one of my colleagues a few years ago. We were talking about sin, the problem of sin, how different people view different sins, and so on. My colleague, who I very much admire and respect, was talking about a certain category of sins and how terrible it is that people commit these awful acts. At one point, I remember, I just looked at him and asked, “But you still love these folks the same as everybody else, right?” He seemed a little caught off guard, and it took him a few moments to answer, but after a few moments, he looked back at me with sort of a sad expression on his face and he shook his head. He said, “I’m supposed to, but I just don’t; it’s not the same.” Now, I’m not telling you that to try and say that I do love everybody the same. The truth of the matter is that none of us do, and we all have a lot harder time loving people who sin, especially when they sin against us. I tell you that story because my colleague acknowledged a truth that we often don’t acknowledge. It’s very easy to say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” But in reality, most of us don’t really “love the sinner” the way we are supposed to, the way Christ instructs us to.
So why is that? Why is it difficult for us to truly “love the sinner, and hate the sin?” Well, here’s the thing, when we are busy hating someone’s sin, it’s quite difficult to love that person because our primary approach is a negative one—hate, not love. In the same way, because of that negative approach and because of our tendency to judge the wrongdoings of others, it’s hard for the sinner to feel loved by those who are judging their sin. This is where Paul’s wisdom from Romans that we heard earlier in the service becomes so important. Paul writes to Christians in Rome, “But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God.”
Here’s the thing; we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. So, it makes no sense that we would choose to judge the sins of others as if we are somehow better than so-and-so person because at least we don’t do THAT! What’s really ironic though is that most of us, while trying to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” end up doing something which one of my Facebook friends identified a few weeks ago. We “hate the sinner and love the sin.” Friends, there is no escaping the simple fact that, we do things we shouldn’t do, too; judging our neighbor being one, being consumed with pride is certainly another! “Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?”
But still, we say, our sin is not as bad as that other person’s sin, which brings us to this interesting question about how God views sin. It’s often stated that God views or judges all sin equally. I’d be interested to take a little poll. Without naming any specific sins, I just wonder, who believes that God judges all sins equally? And who thinks that God sees some sins as worse than others? The truth of the matter is, none of us really knows how God judges sin, but the Bible would seem to indicate that some sins are worse than others. The root meaning of sin is “to miss the mark.” So our mark is God’s will for us, and if we miss the mark, we stray from God’s will. All sins separate us from God, but sometimes that sin send us farther off God’s path for us. Similarly, there are times when sin might just hurt us, but at other times, our sin might harm other people as well. So, if we are gluttonous and eat a dozen doughnuts in one sitting, we are the ones who are going to suffer the consequences of that action. But if we go and cheat on our spouse, we are causing someone else to suffer to.
So it could be said that some sins are worse than others, but ultimately, we are not the ones to decide the degree of sin. We are not the ones who can say we are not “missing the mark” as bad as some other person is “missing the mark.” I think Jesus understood that humans would judge one another. He saw how we set ourselves up as moral guardians and critics of one another. When Jesus tells us not to judge, I don’t think he means that we shouldn’t have high standards of behavior for ourselves and our world, but that the temptation to look down on others for their moral failings is itself a temptation to play god, and thus to lose touch with the true Lord of our lives.
Are you beginning to see why this phrase is so problematic? As soon as we set ourselves on a path of judging the sins of another person, we automatically diminish that person in our thoughts, and maybe even in our words and actions. We rarely acknowledge our own weaknesses or shortcomings, and pointing out the same in others boosts our pride and makes us feel like we are better, superior. But as they say, “Pride goeth before the fall.” We are really fooling ourselves to think that we could “hate” or judge the sins of others while at the same time loving them in the way Christ calls us to love others. To love another means that your regard that person at least as much as your regard yourself; and so it’s nearly impossible to love the sinner and hate the sin. Jesus didn’t teach us to “love the sinner,” and he didn’t need to because by telling us to love our neighbor and even our enemy, that pretty much covers everybody.
Then, we have the other part of this phrase, “hate the sin.” So let’s think specifically about that for a minute. You know, what’s really interesting to consider is the fact that Jesus never really teaches us to hate anything. The one exception being that moment when he said that “whoever…doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple.” Yet even here, it’s not that Jesus is saying that we should hate our family, but that God has to be first in our lives. So even when Jesus says “hate,” he doesn’t mean it in the way we think about that word.
And just think about the way Jesus lived his life. On a regular basis, Christ spent time with drunkards, prostitutes, thieves, adulterers, traitors, and countless people who undoubtedly had impure thoughts, cheated on their taxes, and committed a variety of crimes. But never once does Jesus speak about hating the sins of these people. You never hear Jesus say, “I love you, but I hate your sin.” Some might say the one exception to that is the fact that Jesus seems to hate the sin of the religious leaders…guess I better straighten up and fly right!
In all seriousness, there are sins we must hate and denounce—sins that harm or oppress others; child abuse, spousal abuse, racism, injustice, the fact that people die of starvation in a world of plenty. It is appropriate that we would be righteously indignant of such actions in our world, but generally when we say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” these are not the kinds of sins we are referring to. Instead, we tend to focus on the individual acts of another—his tattoo or body piercing, her smoking habit, their living together before marriage. The list could go on and on.
Undoubtedly, it is basically impossible to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” But there is still some truth to this statement. In fact, I am willing to say that this phrase is 100% true if we stop at the first word, “Love.” Pure love is what Christ showed us through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Love is what Jesus commanded of his followers. Love captures the defining characteristic of the Christian life.
I want to tell you that one of my greatest hopes for Christians, myself included, is that we will start focusing more on how we love one another and less on how we judge one another. I certainly have a long way to go myself, but I’d like to see us all grow in our Christ-like love.