taking the words of Jesus seriously


Last week my post Love the Sinner Hate the Sin, Really? generated a lot of discussion on RLC. One point that kept coming up was the need to be able to communicate to people what is good and loving and what is bad and hurtful. I agree that this is important, and so wanted to clarify that I am not proposing an “I’m okay, you’re okay” approach. The reality is that all of us have stuff that is messed up and broken in our lives. All of us need to grow in love. The question is: What is the best way to do that?


Let’s say, for example, that we have a friend who is an alcoholic. We can agree that alcoholism is a serious problem that can devastate a person’s life. I don’t “love” alcoholism or addiction. I don’t love hurt. So the point is not that we should “love sin.” Of course we shouldn’t. The point is also not that we should just ignore when a person is hurting us or themselves. If we care about them, we should care about that. 


The problem is that when we actually tell someone that what they are doing is wrong or damaging, what often happens is that they deny it. We say, for instance, “Hey, you have a problem with drinking.” But instead of saying, “Yes, I know, how can I get help?” they will instead say, “No I don’t! I’m just having fun. And who are you to tell me how to live my life!” 


And here’s the crazy thing: They probably know they have a problem. So why then are they denying it? What’s going on?


The big reason that “love the sinner, hate the sin” does not work–even in the context of a personal relationship–is that it is virtually impossible for people to separate their actions from themselves. So when someone criticizes what you do, you feel personally attacked. That’s just human nature. If I said to my wife, “Honey I love you, I just think your cooking sucks” that would not go well. If you tell a kid “good job, ” they beam with pride. We connect what we do with our worth. We all do.


That’s the reason people get defensive. When their actions are called out, they feel that they are being rejected as a person. I feel this, you feel it, we all do (which is also why the comment sections here can get so hostile!). So when a person says “I don’t have a problem, and who cares anyway!” what’s going on underneath that angry response is the fear of being devalued as a person. It’s about feeling rejected. That makes us get defensive and put up walls.


So when a person thinks their therapist or pastor disapproves of their drinking (to stick with that example), they will try to hide or minimize the problem in order to gain their approval. The sin does not stop, it just gets pushed into the dark in order to maintain the human connection. 


But happens if a person instead gets the message that our love is unconditional? What happens when they understand that we will not reject them no matter how messed up they turn out to be? What would happen if you knew someone would stand by you, even if they knew about all the dark and messed up parts of your life? 


Now, that’s liberating.


Being loved unconditionally like that allows people to open up. It allows them to put down their guard and be vulnerable, to admit their real struggles and wounds. It allows people to bring their problems into the light rather than hide them and pretend everything is fine. 


The reason that “love the sinner, hate the sin” simply does not work is because it results in pushing the person away and causing them to cover up their sin rather than facing it. What we need to instead communicate is love the sinner, despite the sin. Because the only way we can confront our sin is by facing it with love. That’s how you need to face your demons, and that’s how I need to face mine. 


So if you really want to see people healthy and whole, I want you try this experiment: don’t tell them about their faults and failings at all. Instead, go out of your way to communicate unconditional love.


We might fear that if we did this that people would see it as a license to sin, but actually just the opposite happens. People will come to you and tell you about their struggles on their own, opening up their hearts because they feel safe. When people feel safe and accepted, it opens the door for them to be real. 


Try it and see. Love works. Love leads us to repentance. Love moves us towards healing and wholeness. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love never fails.


About The Author


Derek Flood is the author of Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did He is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post, Sojourners, here at Red Letter Christians, as well as writing regularly at his website. A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice.

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