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Love the sinner, hate the sin

27 July 2017

I was once chatting with a couple of friends, two of us were Christians, and the third was a catechumen, exploring the Christian faith for the first time, and she had lots of questions. She had been told that Christians should give thanks to God for everything and in all circumstances, and that puzzled her.

“How can you give thanks to God for Mr Vorster?” she asked.

Without thinking, I replied, “You can thank God for giving you Mr Vorster to love.”

And immediately I wondered, where did that come from? Why did I say that? Did I really say that?

I thought perhaps it may have been the Holy Spirit, what St Paul calls “a word of wisdom” (λόγος σοφίας) in I Corinthians 12:8. It was directed to me as much as to my friend.

Back then, in 1965, Balthazar Johannes Vorster was the South African Minister of Justice, and he was responsible for the repressive legislation that was turning South Africa into a police state. He was responsible for a great deal of evil — how could one love him? And yet, in putting those words in my mouth, God was telling me that I must.

And the answer could be summed up in the aphorism, Love the sinner, hate the sin.

Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Judge not, and ye be not judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned” (Luke 6:37). Clearly, he was speaking there of judging and condemning people, not actions, for he also said “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgement” (John 7:24).

If we were to judge with righteous judgment, then Mr Vorster’s actions were undoubtedly evil, but it was not our task to judge Mr Vorster. “‘Vengeance is mine’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay'” (Rom 12:19), and St Paul urged “Bless those who persecute you, bless and curse not” (Rom 12:14).

If we are to judge with righteous judgment, then the important question to ask is not who is wrong, but what is wrong. We are to love our enemies, even Mr Vorster.

And when I became Orthodox this was stressed even more strongly: before receiving holy communion, one must forgive everyone. We pray to our Lord Jesus Christ “who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first”. If we think that other people deserve condemnation for their sins, then we’ve missed the point: we need to begin with ourselves.

But then a friend referred to the following article. I normally try to avoid stuff on the Patheos web site, but this one, whose conclusion counters everything I’ve learned over the last 50 years and more, caught my attention.

Let’s Be Honest… “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” is Really Just Hate

Ask anyone on the receiving end of being loved while their sin is hated. They will tell you it’s the same as being hated – for the exact reasons Gandhi wrote: because it’s virtually impossible to love someone but hate their sin.

We get caught up in judging them, and we feel self-righteous compared to them, we won’t just let the issue be, leave the issue between them and God, but continue to bring it up and try to change it… and so the poison of hatred spreads in the world – just as Gandhi said.

I read it, and it struck me that what it said was evil, very evil indeed. There is so much magnificent truth wrapped up in such appalling falsehoods that it smacks of perversity even to attack its perverseness.[1] And the conclusion is altogether evil.

If one takes that article at face value, then it means that:

  • One cannot love a corrupt politician without loving corruption too
  • One cannot love a police torturer without loving torture too
  • One cannot love a rapist without loving rape too

And going back to the 1960s and 1970s there were lots of people who argued in that way. When people spoke of the injustices done in the name of the government policy of apartheid, some said that yes, justice is important, but we must have reconciliation too. By this they often meant that those who supported apartheid and those who opposed it needed to be reconciled and therefore good and evil needed to be reconciled.

In 1965, when we had the discussion I referred to above, we were members of an Anglican church in Pietermaritzburg (where we were then students), and one of the priests (who eventually baptised my catechumen friend) used to read from a book, The will and the way by Harry Blamires, which he used to point out the errors of such behaviour. He pointed out that for many Christians the Christian God had been replaced by the god of twentieth-century sentimental theology:

Are we faced with evil whose roots reach down to the depths where angels and demons are locked in mortal combat? Don’t worry, a word of prayer to the god of sentimental theology and we shall be granted the dubious capacity to meet all comers, friend and foe, with the same inscrutably acquiescent grin.

No, saying that “‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ is really just hate” is thoroughly dishonest, and thoroughly evil.

It seems to belong in the same category of other weird American ideas that lack all logic and indicate a broken moral compass as those who say that saying “All lives matter” is evil and racist. But I’ve discussed that in another article here: How antiracism became racist: all lives matter.

No, if we are Christians we must love the sinner but hate the sin.

We must

  • Love the oppressor but hate oppression
  • Love the corrupt politician and businessman, but hate corruption
  • Love the warmonger but hate war
  • Love the exploiter but hate exploitation

If we hate the people, we will become like them. And if we love the deeds, we will also become like them.

 

 

 


Notes & References

[1] Blamires, Harry. 1957. The Will and the Way. London: SPCK.

About 30 years ago I lent my copy to someone who never returned it, so all quotations are from memory.

PS

This also works the other way round.

When people say good things, it doesn’t really matter who said them, but what they say is more important. The saying “Live the sinner, hate the sin” has been attributed to St Augustine of Hippo and Mahatma Gandhi. That doesn’t matter so much — what’s said is more important than who said it, and it succinctly expresses an important aspect of Christian ethics.

The other quote, in the graphic is attributed to a guy called Phil Robertson. I know nothing about him, but I suspect that he may be a character in a US TV show where the characters look a bit like monks but aren’t. But even if he isn’t a monk, it’s the kind of thing a monk could have said.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Zee M. permalink
    27 July 2017 9:36 am

    May the Lord increase our Faith! This is a difficult teaching whichever way one looks at it.

  2. 27 July 2017 7:39 pm

    Yes, this is another “weird American idea” like the “All lives matter” controversy. The problem is, there’s an unwritten rule in American Evangelicalism that words are more important than deeds. There’s a pervasive idea that if I can affirm, “All lives matter,” then I don’t have to behave as though black lives matter. Or if I can say, “love the sinner but hate the sin,” I don’t have to actually love the sinner. But I can hate their sin more than I hate my own.

    As an example, the Patheos blog you linked to is written by a mother of a gay son, who is responding to statements from organizations like the Family Research Council, which exist primarily to denounce homosexuality and promote the military. In American Evangelical subculture, “love the sinner, hate the sin” has become a euphemism for wanting to pass restrictive laws regarding homosexual behavior.

    But you’re absolutely right that it’s not the words that are the problem here. It’s the misuse of those words. And you’ve also convinced me that merely denouncing the words is not a solution. (I’m not yet to the point where I can agree with you that “saying that ‘”Love the sinner, hate the sin” is really just hate’ is thoroughly dishonest, and thoroughly evil.” Within a particular context, I’m not so sure it is.)

    But again you’re right that we genuinely need to love sinners (even our enemies) and hate sin (even our own). That’s a lot harder to do than just saying the words, but it’s what God calls all of us to do.

    • 28 July 2017 4:46 am

      There are other ways of dealing with it. .

      One would be to denounce the hypocrisy of saying the words and not meaning them, noting that they are more honoured in the breach than in the observance. That’s OK, but I’d better begin by acknowledging my own hypocrisy in that regard, rather than dwelling on the hypocrisy of others.

      But saying that the right thing becomes wrong because people say the right thing for the wrong reason is as evil as the other: more so, because it is making a general rule from a particular instance,and saying the original rule is a lie: Calling good evil and evil good, is worse, in my view, than acknowledging that good is good but I fail to do the good.

      Perhaps it can become clearer if you substitute a different, but related particular instance for the general statement.

      Let’s Be Honest… “Hate homophobia, Love the homophobe” is Really Just Hate

      How does that look?

      • Rangjan permalink
        14 August 2017 7:56 pm

        I agree with Bruce is that the problem is that people twist “love the sinner, hate the sin” in a way that gives them licence to judge others and what others do. I tend to think that while something can be morally and factually correct in abstract, it can become “immortal and incorrect” when misused or used in the wrong context.

  3. 27 July 2017 11:51 pm

    Steve,

    Phil Robertson (and family) are the subjects of a “reality TV” show called “Duck Dynasty.” You can read about them on Wikipedia, and probably get a sample of the show via YouTube. They hold the typical Evangelical Protestant beliefs of the rural southern US states. Their TV show was very popular for a long time, especially among their demographic. They were also ridiculed by some of those who couldn’t countenance their beliefs and Southern rural sensibilities – notwithstanding that they’re fairly well educated in comparison to most people in the rural South.

    Dana

    • 28 July 2017 5:08 am

      Thanks, Dana. My main point in mentioning that I was not familiar with the background is that I believe the words in the graphic are true, even if I’ve taken them out of context, because I’m not aware of the context. They may have been spoken by him as a character in a fictional drama, or they may have been spoken by himself as himself, but it doesn’t matter, because the words are true, regardless of context.

      Here’s some advice about not associating with people of a particular lifestyle: “Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh:” (Proverbs 23:20). But in the gospels we read that Jesus associated with such people and was criticised for doing so. The original article makes much of the fact that the words “Hate the sin but love the sinner” are not in the Bible, but they aptly describe what Jesus did. “The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! ” (Luke 7:34).

  4. 28 July 2017 1:11 am

    A really interesting post. Perhaps the focus/thought should be love the sinner and forgive the sin…

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