Part 2: Beyond Proof-Texting
In this part I want to offer more of my own reflections on this attitude of “hate the sin and love the sinner,” and do so in light of what I believe are the New Testament messages underpinning Christian ethics:
- Love God with all that we are.
- Love others as ourselves, and even as Christ in their forms.
- Because God’s love for humans is a matter of grace, not of merit, we cannot judge anyone’s worthiness of love.
In this context, loving the sinner while hating the sin seems possible and even praiseworthy. Most of us know very well that we can truly love someone while strongly disliking and disapproving of some attitude or action from that person. We recognize that occasional sinful acts can be severely hated, yet even when added together not be enough to warrant our utter hatred for a person who’s character is basically good. In fact, we might even more strongly hate the sin because of our love for the sinner. Yet, while there are other merits to this saying, this line of reasoning reveals its shortcomings as a guide for Christian ethics. It falls short because it does not mirror the unconditional nature of Divine Love. “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” continues to be based upon human judgment and limited ideas about the nature of love.
These obstacles are understandable because human beings seem to rarely express the transcendent unconditional love that is the Divine Love of God’s grace. Furthermore, we usually have some sort of social and moral grading for portioning out our love, and thus our love is often a commodity that we trade with some degree of judgment. Most of us even routinely speak of love and hate as if they are opposites, as if there really is no such thing as a love that hate cannot match or even outweigh.
It would be unreasonable to expect ourselves to be anything but human, and thus we can accept that our love will sometimes be conditional. We will sometimes miss the mark by judging how others might miss the mark with God. We will overlook the logs in our own eyes as we become obsessed with splinters in the eyes of others. We will often put our faith in our own judgment of sin, and in lesser forms of love, rather than completely trust in Divine Wisdom and Love.
In these moments, it is helpful to have a guide for opening as much as possible to unconditional love. Surely this is the best intention behind “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” However, given the very human tendencies we’ve reviewed, as well as the difficulty in mentally separating the sin from the person who commits it, we can see how “hate the sin, but love the sinner” could actually encourage us to keep hate in our hearts and hold it against our love for the person.
Yet we are challenged to allow God’s unconditional love to shine through us as best we can, and so there must be other options for tenets that can carry us further in that direction. I want to offer this as one possibility:
Let go of the judgment of sin, and love the soul.
In one sense, this statement is an affirmation to help with releasing the tendency to judge sin. It acknowledges the possibility of being judgmental, but it does not promote an unrealistic expectation of some idealized perfection. It is also a guide for our attitudes and actions whenever we awaken to the fact that we are judging what we consider to be the sins of another. Its aims are also served by not using the word “sinner,” and instead using the word “soul.” In this way, we have a reminder that the other is not only more than a sinner, but also more than a person we know in this world (person comes from the Greek prosopon, meaning “mask”). It reminds us that this soul, this whole being with depths and dimensions we cannot see, is a child of God.
In Part 3, we’ll review issues where “hate the sin, but love the sinner” is often applied, and some detriments of doing so. We’ll also reflect on how the proposed alternative could produce attitudes, actions, and effects more in line with the core ethics of the Good News.