A popular saying in Christian churches tells us that we should “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” But does this jibe with how Christians are really supposed to treat others?
If you had asked me a while back what my favorite Bible story is, you’d have received two answers. The first would have been a degree of angst from me about the great struggle to choose one story as standing out beyond the rest, since there are so many valuable stories to be found within its pages.
The second answer, once I’d thought about it, might have been the story of Abraham. I think many of us have felt a call to make a new direction, even if we figure out fairly quickly that such a change won’t come as quickly as we may want it to.
In the past few years, another story, at least as well-known, if not better known, has eclipsed poor Abraham.
My Favorite Bible Story…For Real
It’s the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who is brought before Jesus by an eager crowd ready to stone her for her sin.
The story is the center of some degree of controversy, because some believe that while it appears in the Book of John, it reads in a manner that indicates it wasn’t originally part of John’s writings. Some scholars believe it belongs more in the Book of Luke. Bible Gateway does point out, however, that most Christian scholars generally recognizes that the story “describes an event from the life of Christ”.
In the story, Pharisees brought the adulteress in front of Jesus and pointed out that Mosaic Law ordered that such a sin should be punished by stoning. Then they look at Jesus and ask, “What do you say?”
Jesus bent down and begins to write with his finger in the dirt. Though the Bible doesn’t tell us what was write, some have theorized that He was writing the specific sins the Pharisees themselves had committed, an idea that, when one thinks about it, seems to fall into place nicely based on what happens next.
After the Pharisees continue to badger him for an answer, Jesus rises and tells them that whoever among them is without sin should be the one to throw the first stone.
Talk about a party pooper! The Pharisees are shamed by the remark and quietly file away, frustrated that they hadn’t trapped Jesus to bring charges against him. Jesus turns to the woman and asks her where her accusers are. She answers that they have gone. He tells her that He doesn’t condemn her either, and that she should go on her way and sin no more.
In short, Jesus accomplishes two things: first, He makes it clear that calling sin a sin for the sport of it, or for reasons other than the love of the person being corrected, is something He isn’t willing to tolerate. The crowd, after all, cared nothing about the woman, and didn’t seem to care about the moral question of adultery; they wanted to trap Jesus so they could execute him and decided the woman would be merely a prop in their scheme.
Hate the sin? They certainly acted like they did, because it served their purposes at that moment. But love the sinner? No sign of that here.
Second, Jesus demonstrates His mercy towards us. Jesus steps between the woman and the punishment the Pharisees were eager to bestow, just as His death on the cross stands between believers and the punishment they might otherwise deserve.
Jesus’s command that she should “sin no more” is a bit ironic: because we’re not perfect and will forever fall short, it’s not possible that we won’t sin sooner or later. (And often.) Still, Jesus is there, ready to protect us from what we might deserve with a level of love and compassion we can’t possibly deserve.
Even if adultery isn’t your sin, you can relate that metaphor to whatever sin you’re willing to acknowledge you’ve committed.
Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin
Jesus clearly loved this embarrassed, humiliated sinner. And his admonishment indicates that He didn’t approve of her sin. So when we say, “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin,” it sounds like we’re right in line with the point of the story.
We know that God hates sin because it separates us from Him. And He was willing to bridge that distance by sending His Son to die for us.
But there’s a major snag here.
While God is certainly able to effectively love the sinner and hate the sin, we imperfect humans aren’t. Too often, like those Pharisees, we focus so much on the hatred of sin that we fail to convey the fact that we love the sinner at all. Just ask someone who’s felt victimized or ostracized by a church over one failure or another how much love they felt from people who were vocal in their hatred of the sin.
For a lot of people, some of whom have severed all ties to the church, the answer to that question is that all they felt was the hate, a cold, heartless treatment from people who should know better.
And that’s our fault. Because we’re the sinners, too. It’s not “we” vs. “they”. We all have that imperfection in common.
Like the Pharisees, we can fall into the trap of wanting to make ourselves look good, wanting to show that we have the right answer with one sin or another, that we forget that behind that sin we’re so eager to “call out,” there’s a human being hurting, in pain, isolated, in despair.
And in need of compassion just as much as the rest of us are.
A Different Approach
Pastor Larry Shallenberger writes about a view he heard on a podcast featuring author and sociologist Tony Campolo. He proposed an edit to that mantra:
Love the sinner, hate your own sin.
Shallenberger responds, based on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus presses us to love our enemies, focus our moral scrutiny inward rather than outward, and watch that we stay on the right path. He points out the parable of the plank and the speck, which tells us that before we criticize someone who has a speck in their eye, we should first remove the plank in our own:
“Jesus tells us that if moral failure is like a wood chip then each of us has a lumberyard in our own life.”
This isn’t an invitation to ignore moral failure. Quite the opposite: it’s a major challenge to be an example rather than simply a detractor:
Want to convince someone that “holy living” is a good goal? Try practicing it in your own life. If it ends up being a beautiful and attractive thing, you’ll inspire others to follow suite. Nagging is not an effective strategy.”
It comes down to a seemingly-ancient piece of advice in writing: show don’t tell. Its meaning is simple: don’t walk around telling us every detail, but rather set the scene by the details we allow the reader to see. In our spiritual walk, we can convince those around us who we are by how we treat people much more effectively than we can by just talking.
As a Christian, I don’t want to be all talk and no action. Being all action, on the other hand, may well do the talking for us.
I’m not that interested in “calling a sin a sin”. Frankly, most of the people who are in some form of sin, on one level or another, already know it. I’d rather help them find a way out rather than pointing out the obvious.
Doesn’t that sound like a much more effective strategy?