taking the words of Jesus seriously


“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I’m sure you have heard the phrase a million times. Some attribute it to Augustine. Those who use it view it as a generous position to take. But many “sinners” are protesting and saying that they find it unhelpful and even arrogant. So maybe it’s time to take a look at love the sinner, hate the sin.



The first thing we need to consider is the context: Who are we addressing when we say this? The way we answer that question makes a huge difference.



If we are speaking to people who feel wronged, wounded, hurt, by others–addressing people who are struggling with loving and forgiving those who have deeply hurt them–then “love the sinner, hate the sin” can be a powerful push towards recognizing the humanity in another and thus taking a step towards looking to mend the relationship. In this context “love the sinner, hate the sin” is about recognizing the humanity of the other. It moves the one who hates to instead learn to love in the face of hurt with the hope that love can act to mend the wrong.



However, much of the time when people say “love the sinner, hate the sin” the focus is not on helping another move away from hate and towards compassion, but rather it is more of a political statement, a way of saying publicly “I’m a compassionate guy, but let me make clear that I don’t approve of this!” It’s motivated by concern for our own good reputation–not wanting to be associated with those of questionable morals.



This is a focus that is primarily concerned with self-protection, with preserving one’s own good name, as opposed to a focus on the needs of the one who is accused and condemned. This is the focus of PR firms, advertising companies, and those concerned with the “bottom line” of public image and money.



It is decidedly not the focus of Jesus, who had a reputation of being a “friend of sinners” (not a compliment) and was judged by the religious people of his day as a sinner himself. Hear me when I say this:



Jesus didn’t give a damn about his reputation in the eyes of self-righteous religious leaders.



What he cared about were those in need–the poor, the disenfranchised, the neglected, the condemned, the forgotten. That’s who we should care about if we truly care about the things Jesus did.



This brings me to the third focus of “love the sinner, hate the sin” which is when it is addressed to the sinner. In this context it sounds arrogant, patronizing. This is because people recognize that the real focus is not on them and their welfare, but on making a public statement to protect the speaker’s reputation. People recognize that the statement is self-focused and that the professed care for them is disingenuous. 



If our desire is truly focused on helping people move away from hurtful behavior then we need to realize that saying  “love the sinner, hate the sin” simply does not lead to change in a person’s life. In fact, it acts to push them in the opposite direction. Let me explain why:



When someone tells you what you are doing is wrong, your natural reaction is to become defensive. This is about self-preservation, and we all do it. What we need to instead communicate to a person is that we care about them, that we value them. When people feel safe–that is, when they know they are unconditionally accepted–this safety creates the possibility for vulnerability and reflection and openness.



Now, we may think that having a non-judgmental environment would be promoting sin, but actually the opposite is the case: When a person feels shame, they tend to hide the behavior. Defensive walls go up, things are covered up. If you want to see change, then what is needed is honesty and reflection–in other words, an atmosphere where things can be brought into the light, rather than hidden in the dark–and that requires a non-judgmental environment where a person feels secure and accepted.



That unconditional acceptance, rather than promoting sin, creates the setting where people can actually be real, where they can face the dark and broken places we all have. In that place we can own up to our weaknesses, to the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of and hide from.



It’s beautiful when this happens, but I need to add a word of caution: be careful who you open your heart to. If we are vulnerable like that in a place where we are not in fact secure–where the love and acceptance is conditional–then that vulnerability can be dangerous, leading to condemnation and rejection. That of course can deeply wound us.



Behind that condemnation and rejection is fear, wrapping itself in a religious mantle. The Bible says that “love casts out fear” but the reverse is equally true: Fear casts out love. Many Christians are sadly driven by fear instead of love. They do not stay with God in response to love, but because they fear punishment. Take away the threat, and they will leave. Because they never really loved.



Love works. Love leads us to repentance. Love moves us towards healing and wholeness. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love always protects, always trusts, always perseveres. Love never fails. 



So I hope you stay because of love. I hope you can find a place where you are loved unconditionally and experience how that makes you come alive. I hope you find a place you can really be real, where you can admit your struggles and failures and hurts, and hear those two powerful words: Me too.


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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