You've probably heard it said that you should
"Love the sinner; hate the sin."

In fact, you've probably heard it said a lot

The colorful backdrops we claim are not necessarily the face being shown to the world around us.   Art by  Tomas Brechler

The colorful backdrops we claim are not necessarily the face being shown to the world around us. 
Art by Tomas Brechler

…But is it possible that this saying has outworn its usefulness? Is it possible that it has become just one of many destructive religious clichés that continue to be repeated without question by those who hear them? This phrase, so often echoed – from pulpits to coffee shop tables to living room couches to street corners – is it possible that it actually does damage to our perspectives, attitudes and actions? Could it be just one in a long line of religious platitudes which we hide behind… in this case, one which enables us to justify our carving out room for an unwillingness to practice basic human kindness and decency to those we find ourselves in moral disagreement with? Could it be a smokescreen – meant to conceal the truth of its ultimate result, even as the second phrase (“hate the sin”) undermines the first (“love the sinner”)... to the point where “love” itself is too watered down to have any real potency?

Is “love the sinner; hate the sin” really just a way for us to conveniently maintain that,

“In my ‘heart,’ where you can neither see, nor feel, nor experience, I really ‘love you’ [brother/sister]… BUT I HATE WHAT YOU'RE DOING IN THIS ONE AREA, AND THAT’S ALL YOU'RE GOING TO KNOW OF ME FROM THE WAY I TREAT YOU… But that’s okay, because I know the magic excuse that makes it so: ‘Love the sinner; hate the sin.’”

Far too often, the above example is what I see this common expression unwrapped to mean. Not because we say it that way, but because we live it out in that way. And for that reason, I think we'd do well to strip down these particular words, simplifying them to be more in line with Jesus' expectation and instruction - which should be worth taking to heart no matter how much it stings…

What might happen if we were to replace the usual cliché with a more Jesus-based alternative? So, instead of "Love the sinner; hate the sin," we might end up with something that looks more like this...

"Love the sinner."

That’s all.

Love the sinner.

Love anyone broken or imperfect (which is to say, everyone).

That’s it.

Love the sinner.

Love your sisters and brothers. Love your family and friends. Love your neighbor. Love the global community. Love yourself. And love your enemies while you're at it.

Just love the sinner.

You don't need to add to Jesus’ command and remind yourself to hate something you disagree with. You don't need to invent ways to reserve yourself a place for judging those who do not share your beliefs. You don't need to be rude and think of it as "righteous.” Don't think for a second that “witnessing” consists of holding people to personal-moral standards they never claimed to be keeping or to even agree with. Stop withholding your heart from people because of whatever pet issue you're hung up on. Stop deluding yourself into thinking that people can experience the heart of God through your disdain toward them and separation from them. Stop pretending that your condescending glances and patronizing words are communicating anything other than superiority and unlove. Stop acting as though your absence from real nearness to people could ever serve to help draw them into the presence of God or to a place of Divine intimacy. Stop refusing to be counted as “one of them” for the sake of your reputation, as though Jesus - who made himself of no reputation - ever put forth that example to be followed.

Stop all of that stuff.

Just. love. the. sinner.

All of them.

I mean, should we even need this reminder?

didn't Jesus already deal with this poison compromise of love
in a "You have heard it said" of his own?

On a separate topic (but still very true to the subject), James said, "A spring does not pour out fresh water and bitter water from the same opening, does it? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a vine produce figs? Neither can a salt water spring produce fresh water."  Art by  Tomas Brechler

On a separate topic (but still very true to the subject), James said, "A spring does not pour out fresh water and bitter water from the same opening, does it? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a vine produce figs? Neither can a salt water spring produce fresh water."
Art by Tomas Brechler

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven…” [Mt. 5:43-45a]

Neither there nor in his repeated commands to "love one another" as the sign of the new covenant (John chapters 13-15) does Jesus ever saddle the call to love with a reminder to hate. But I suppose there are many of us who are unwilling to embrace that for what it is, so we keep regurgitating and spreading this “love the sinner; hate the sin” cliché as though it came from Jesus himself...

“Now I love you, but…”

The rest of whatever follows that “but” becomes the primary focus of our conversations and dealings, and its prominence soon communicates the truth of the matter: Our reality is one in which we are unable to separate the inherent beauty and value of a person from whatever we see as their blemish. So we're uncomfortable with "them" and how they differ from "us", and we're insecure in what it would mean for us to be close to them apart from them first conforming to our standards and expectations...

Essentially, we're not making it our aim to see them as God does… so love is lost in the process.

If we allow hate to sit alongside love, thinking we can perfectly compartmentalize the two, we will inevitably find that it does not work. Hate trumps love, because love will not share its bed and sell out. Love will not be bullied or compromised or mistaken. Love will not be treated as secondary to its exact opposite. And we should not be surprised at how easy it is for us to relinquish the place of love in our hearts when we’re so hung up on keeping room for hate in there. Hate, as it turns out, is a lot like that little pinch of yeast which spreads throughout an entire mass of dough. However small it begins, it works its way into everything when it's given the chance.

…But love will wait.

It will wait until we Are ready to yield its full and true place in the core of our being. It will wait until we stop evading it and guarding ourselves from it.

"Love is patient" like that.

We cannot continue expecting this to happen.   Art by  Tomas Brechler

We cannot continue expecting this to happen. 
Art by Tomas Brechler

It’s one thing to have a personal burden for any particular issue of human brokenness as an isolated thing in and of itself. (I'm not suggesting otherwise.) The problem is, as soon as we bind such a thing together with any person we engage, it begins to define them to us. And often that issue then dominates our interaction with them, rather than the simple call to love them. We can become more focused on whatever thing we see wrong with a person than we are on simply knowing them, enjoying them, and being an example of Jesus’ character to them... When this is the case, we are not known by our love, as we were commanded.

We are seen, rather (accurately), as a people who are more interested in proving to others what’s wrong with them than we are in showing them what is right with Jesus.

While we're given a love mandate, we go looking to preserve a hate mandate as well. And while love applies to all and never sets itself against what's best for someone, hate is typically misguided and wrong. Many people go off hating the "sin" in arenas they have no business even being so certain or definitive in in the first place. They assume much and are sure of much without any reason beyond what's fed to them by culture, tradition, and the misuse of scripture. They will not admit that they have unflinching moral stances in matters where scripture is silent, nor will they yield to any degree of grace in allowing for mystery and uncertainty in the aspects of life and morality where those things are called for.

They see black and white where there is not only gray, but a full spectrum of color...

And they don't embrace the beautiful truth that, while their hate can do a great deal of harm, LOVE never has that problem.  

Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. 
Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.
Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.



Continue to Part II


Featured art in this entry is by Tomas Brechler. You can see more of his work and order prints here