Should We Love the Sinner and Hate the Sin?
I’ve often heard church leaders say, “We need to love the sinner and hate the sin.” This phrase has been repeated so often it’s become a mantra that many of us recite without considering where it came from or what it actually means.
It’s not easy to determine exactly where this saying originated. It’s not found anywhere in the Bible (as far as I can tell). In modern times, it’s been attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, but its origin seems to go further back. It appears to be based on something St. Augustine wrote: “cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum,” which translates to “with love for mankind and hatred of sins.” The modern translation “love the sinner, hate the sin” would have us focus our hatred upon the sins of others, which is ironic because Augustine wasn’t referring to the sins of others when he penned these words. He was lamenting his own sins, which he describes in Confessions.
Jesus taught often about how we ought to view sin: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off… If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Who can forget His admonition to remove the log from our own eye before helping our neighbor remove the splinter from his? When He was asked how we should view the sins of others, He would inevitably steer the conversation back to the sins of the person asking the question. He allowed little, if any room for us to comment on the sins of others, except that we ought to continually forgive them. If He had left us with a quote on this subject it may have sounded something like, “Love the sinner and hate your own sin.”
And yet, we have embedded in our culture this idea that we’re allowed—even encouraged—to hate the sins of others. I think there are a couple of reasons why we might feel this way. Here’s a situation that illustrates one of them:
When I post a message on social media asking believers to show love toward someone who has been deemed a sinner, I often receive inquiries from friends asking if I endorse their sinful behavior. It’s common to assume that if someone feels an individual is worth loving, it must also be an endorsement of their lifestyle. And if you don’t want people thinking you’re endorsing sinful behavior, you might be tempted to withdraw your support of these people. Fear of what others think of us is one reason why we sometimes hesitate to do what we know is right. Jesus had an interesting prescription for this kind of fear.
In the mind of a religious person, you either hang out with those who are righteous, or you prefer the company of sinners and no self-respecting scribe or pharisee would have been caught dead in the company of an adulterer. The group you associate with is supposed to reveal your true spirituality, and religious people prefer the company of those who—at least outwardly—have their behavior under control. Yet Jesus preferred the company of sinners and because He associated with them, He was accused of endorsing their sins. He could have responded to such fear by keeping them at a distance, but He knew His mission was too important to be hindered by what religious people thought of Him. He befriended those who were called sinners and defended them against those who would have killed them—a decision that ultimately cost Him His life. (This is as clear a demonstration as you’ll find of what it looks like to show love to sinners.)
Most of us have no problem showing love to people who are full of good works, but extending that same love to people we see as sinful isn’t as easy. It isn’t in our nature to show love toward people who do things we despise. This is particularly true if their sins have wounded us, personally. The most difficult thing in the world is showing kindness to those who treat us like dirt. It’s our nature to treat them the same way they treat us—with hatred and disdain. If we’re able to muster up a bit of self-control, we might be able to treat them with indifference, but seldom are we able to show them love. And yet, we have the command from Jesus to love them. To love them as we would love our own child or spouse.
No believer wants to be disobedient to this command. But when we look at them, we sometimes see more of their sinful behavior than we do the person God loves, and that makes it hard for us to love them. When our actions are not loving, and someone points this out to us, we can excuse our behavior by saying, “It’s not them that I hate. I actually love the sinner—it’s their sin that I hate.” But the truth is, more often than not, it is the sinner we hate. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to show unconditional love toward people who do things we detest or to those who abuse us. Without the empowerment of God, it’s impossible. But since we have the empowerment of God working in us through His Spirit, and since Jesus demonstrated how to love these people unconditionally and He asked us to do likewise, we are without excuse. Recently, the Lord showed me how this divine empowerment works.
If you’ve read any of my stories where I’ve prayed with drug addicts or alcoholics, you’ll remember that I don’t have a strong natural affection for these people. Yet, when God wants me to pray with them for healing or when He wants me to give them a prophetic word (acts of unconditional love) He’ll allow me to feel in my soul an intense compassion and love for them that I would never have felt on my own. (Jesse Birkey shares similar stories.) When God’s love and compassion are made manifest in the soul of man, the sins of others become irrelevant. We no longer see the sinner or their sins. In that moment, the only thing we see is a lost child who is having their heart transformed by the overwhelming love of their heavenly Father. And it is this love that we display toward sinners that leads them to repentance.
We have a choice to make. We can continue excusing our unloving treatment of sinners by telling ourselves it’s really their sin that we hate, or we can permit God to let us feel His love for them, which empowers us to love them the way He does.
“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”