Have you ever heard a Christian say, “love the sinner, hate the sin”? We hear that all the time. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. On the surface it sounds really good. We should be a people that love others no matter who they are. What could be wrong with that? If that was all it was, focusing on love, then there would be nothing wrong with this phrase. It would all just be love, and we would be showering love on people.
The problem enters with that word “hate.” Here’s why. I’m not saying that we should be OK with or approving of sin. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Unless it was a once and done slip up, which often times is not the case, a person’s sin is usually inextricably bound up in who they are. So when we say, “hate the sin” what they actually hear is “you hate me.” It doesn’t matter that we also said, love the sinner. They hear “you hate me”.
Also, notice the “love the sinner” part. Both parts of this phrase are exceedingly negative and confrontational. The “hate the sin” part can easily be heard as “you hate me” and then the “love the sinner” part can easily be heard as “you are defining me as a sinner.”
Is that the message of Jesus to people? “You hate me and you are defining me as a sinner”?
Now you may be thinking, “but that is not at all what we mean when say ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’.” We actually mean something totally positive and encouraging. I mean, that word “Love” is front and center, right?
But have you ever been on the receiving end of the comment? Think about it. Put yourself in the shoes of a person who is being told that comment about themselves. It might not be so easy to take. We always hear the negative way more than the positive. We fixate on the negative. That’s why it is said that for every negative comment you should say 10 positive statements to counteract that one negative. In “love the sinner, hate the sin,” yes, there is love, but then what comes next? Sinner, hate, sin. It is 3 to 1 in favor of the negatives.
Let’s step back a minute and analyze the motivation for this statement. What are we really hoping to communicate to people? What should we want to say to people? In trying to answer that question, it would be helpful to ask, how and what did Jesus communicate to people?
In Luke 5:17, Jesus heals a man whose friends lowered him down through the roof to get him close to where Jesus was inside a house. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are surprising. You’d think he’d say, “Who are you?” Or “What is going on here?” Or at least, “you are healed.” But instead, you know what he says? “Your sins are forgiven.” It pretty much shocked everyone there too. Jesus’ point, he goes on to say, is that he has the power to forgive sin. Interesting, isn’t it, that he focuses on the forgiveness part! But that is who he is
In John 5:1-17 he meets another man who needs healing, and Jesus tells him to get up and walk. The man is healed, and later when they meet up again, Jesus says to him, “don’t sin anymore so that it will go well with you.”
So Jesus is forgiving, and he addresses the sin, asking people to stop the sin.
Back in Luke 5, Jesus calls a tax collector named Levi to follow him, and Levi agrees to become one of his disciples. Levi is elated about his new life of following Jesus, so he throws a big party at his house, and invites his friends. Tax collectors were pretty edgy people, hanging with a rough crowd, and Levi invites them all to the party. Do you think Jesus says, “Uh sorry, Levi, there’s no way I’m sullying my reputation by getting involved with these sinners!”? Nope, Jesus parties it up. Well the Pharisees and teachers of the law spy on him, and they start accusing him of hanging with sinners. And guess what Jesus says! This tells us so much about his approach to sin. He says, “I came for sinners.”
Jesus brings life and hope and forgiveness for those in sin. He is merciful to them. He loves them. But in his mercy, he calls them to a better future. He does not want them to stay in sin. He calls them to stop the sin and follow his new way.
It reminds me of a story I heard. In college a young man had gone to a campus ministry, but he was just going through the motions, and only went to the campus ministry because he thought it would please his grandfather. He eventually stopped attending because his heart wasn’t it in. Then he gave up on school too, dropped out of college, got a job, and started hanging out at bars almost every night. He got wrapped up in selfish relationships, with no boundaries, as well as pornography. A couple years went by, and he knew he needed to finish his college degree to advance his career, and he re-enrolled. During that process another student invited him to go to the college ministry again. He said “yeah” but again he really wasn’t interested. He said he would go just because he is a people-pleaser. Figuring that the guy wouldn’t follow up on him, and he would be off the hook, he made plans to head out to the bar. But right at the time they agreed on, the guy called, and the campus ministry visit was back on. So he reluctantly went to the campus ministry. During the meeting a girl shared her story, emotionally describing numerous self-destructive behaviors she had been involved in, and how Jesus had forgiven her and she was now following his way of life. The guy thought, “that’s all stuff that I do regularly…and she is talking about it like it was wrong.” And right then and there, he broke down and repented of his sin and decided to follow Jesus’ way. This was just like Jesus’ own conversations with people: repent, stop sinning, receive forgiveness, and follow him. He is a gracious forgiving God, and his way of living is so much better than we could ever imagine.
What about you? Do you need to stop sinning, receive Jesus’ forgiveness and follow his way? He came for you!