“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a phrase repeated so often within Christian circles, one might mistakenly believe Jesus said it. However, Jesus did not say it. Neither did the Bible.
Where did the phrase come from?
In A.D. 423, St. Augustine wrote a passage in a letter which translated into, “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.” Since then, modern Christian authors have continued to adapt this phrase into their own work.
While many today identify Mahatma Gandhi as one who made the phrase popular, Gandhi actually didn’t approve of the phrase.
“Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which though easy enough to understand is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Life can be confusing, thus we as humans like to find ways to simplify the world around us. As Gandhi points out, the logic behind the phrase is well recognized, but is an oversimplification of a complex issue. The sin and sinner are so intertwined, they are literally impossible to separate.
Breaking it down
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is fundamentally flawed, in both portions of the phrase.
First, in order to love the sinner, one must first place themselves above another to make a sinner diagnosis.
“I think Jesus knew that if he commanded his disciples to ‘love the sinner,’ they would begin looking at other people more as sinners than neighbors. And that, inevitably, would lead to judgment. If I love you more as a sinner than as my neighbor, then I am bound to focus more on your sin. I will start looking for all the things that are wrong with you.” – Adam Hamilton
Second, we are encouraged to hate sin.
Choosing not to hate sin is not to condone it. We all recognize what is identified as sin and what is not, choosing to feel hate is not a necessary component.
God doesn’t want us to hate anything. Hate, in any form or usage, is not of God. We are not licensed to hate simply because we proclaim we are doing it in the name of God. Hate is an emotion which even the best of humanity and the best of intentions are not able to control.
When encouraging us to hate sin, rarely does the phrase remind us to be concerned with our personal sins. More commonly, the phrase gives excuse for one to worry about the sins of others. In this sense, Mark Lowry had a humorous take:
At what cost?
The phrase has done far more harm than good in our society. For those on the receiving end of this phrase, love is rarely felt but hate and disdain are frequently absorbed, the pain of which can’t be tracked or calculated.
Although used in a variety of contexts and situations, it’s best known for being used in discussions surrounding LGBT-related topics. Mean-spirited remarks and discrimination directed at the LGBT community has been a staple of these discussions.
In addition, the phrase is even misapplied to individuals in the LGBT community. For example, being gay is not a sin. The Mormon church now has an official stance that individuals can be born gay and have same-sex attraction towards others. However, many members of the LGBT community continue to have their “sin” pointed out to them by others when no such sin even exists.
Does the phrase honestly show love?
When used, the phrase is never mentioned within the primary context of loving the sinner. Rather, it is only used in situations with an emphasis of hating the sin. Hating the sin is often cherry-picked out of the phrase when there is literally no intention to show love, yet many people hide behind the first portion to justify this hate in front of others and to ease their conscience. Perhaps this is one of many reasons why love is rarely (if ever) felt by those on the receiving end of the message.
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Throughout the years, I’ve seen countless examples of individuals who muster up endless energy in focusing on someone’s sin, then never go back to that person to show them acts of love and kindness. If we truly love someone, we need to spend all our energy on letting them know.
A culture which focuses more on sin than love places labels on people and allows those labels to define who they are. I was recently playing sports with members at a ward activity. Other people being discussed in a group conversation were being identified as drinkers and smokers, as if that summarized who these people were and what their future potential entailed. Wouldn’t it be better to call these people a father, a mother, an entrepreneur, a pilot, an artist, a police officer, a returned missionary, a doctor, a business owner or a musician?
Most people don’t identify someone else as a friend who drinks coffee or a friend who swears. A normal person talking about their neighbor might say, “John, my neighbor, is putting new shingles on his roof this weekend.” From a Mormon, it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear, “John, my coffee-drinking neighbor, is putting shingles on his roof this weekend.” This kind of language only serves to dehumanize others and doesn’t help them or ourselves grow closer to Christ.
One commonly named justification for using the phrase is when one says they truly do feel love for the sinner, but fear they wouldn’t be showing the individual love if they didn’t point out how a sinful behavior might be harmful to them.
In the case of a LGBT individual, do they already know what the church teaches about those topics? Yes. So proclaiming a sinful behavior to them isn’t actually teaching, it ends up as no more than pointing out a sin. I once heard someone say something to the effect of, “If that’s the only way you know how to show love to me, I don’t need your love.”
Replacing the phrase
Unfortunately, the phrase is so engraved into our culture, it will take years to be removed entirely. To some, it has somehow become equated as doctrine.
No defense or justification exists for using this toxic phrase. Although Christians may use the phrase, the phrase is not Christian. For those of us who have come to this realization, we have a responsibility to not use the phrase ourselves and encourage others around us to not use it either. The time has passed for us retire it and move forward to a more wholesome way of interacting with one another. Rather than loving sinners, we need to love our neighbors.
Braden Jenks is studying addiction counseling at Minot State University and Rio Salado College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This post was originally published at BradenJenks.com and has been reprinted here with permission*
Photo credit: Drrissamp and Marrionn. Photopin.com.