Why Hate the Sin and Love the Sinner Doesn’t Work

It surprises many to learn that the phrase hate the sin and love the sinner is not in the Bible. This idea seems to have originated with St. Augustine (c.424) in one of his letters when he used the phrase "Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum" that translates as "with love for mankind and hatred of sins."   The phase as we know it today was popularized in Mohandas Gandhi's 1929 autobiography.

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Before we go much further,  I want to say that sin is serious.  Sin hurts us and others, and it diminishes our capacity to be truly human as image bearers of God. God hates the plague of sin, and God would be neither just or loving if He didn't deal with the plague that is ravaging His good creation.  God has dealt with the plague of sin in Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ. This is good news!   Be assured that the Father has and is decisively dealing with that which plagues creation and is uniquely capable of doing so and still loving at the same time.  This is key.  The Father who loves perfectly, who can see perfectly and can judge perfectly can judge and love at the same time.  It is appropriate for us to hate sin and its carnage.  Our difficulty comes when trying to separate the sin from the person, and most often we end up hating both the sin and the person.

Our Difficulty

For humans, hating the sin and loving the sinner isn't so easy. From a psychological perspective, it is quite difficult because disgust / hate is a strong, unpleasant reaction to something that we perceive as offensive, gross or revolting and once disgust is formed it provides a formidable emotional basis for judgment.  This is why we cannot hate the sin and love the sinner, as we cannot love people who disgust us.  To be disgusted or revolted is the opposite of love.*

[To take sin seriously, we must avoid superficial thinking about sin. The truth is the typical sins we think about are those things that don’t actually disgust us; we don’t actually hate them. Disgust is a strong universal emotion, but the objects of disgust are not. This means the things we find disgusting are heavily influenced by our culture. Consider how we emotionally respond to someone stealing stationery from the office compared to someone murdering and cannibalizing another.  It is also common to suspend disgust when the issue involves our spouse, children, and friends. When we are talking about “hating sin”, we are talking about a deep sense of disgust.]

Not an Affirmation of Sin

Our inner psychology will always influence the appeal (or the lack of appeal) of a theological perspective, but this doesn't guarantee the theological position is a healthy one. For us to learn to love authentically, our desire to love, to embrace, engage and care for another must always precede judgment.* Resisting the temptation to judge good or evil is not an affirmation of the behavior,  it is simply suspending our judgment for love's sake.  To love then, we need to wade into our own sense of socio-moral disgust and recognize it for what it is.  When we deal with our sense of disgust, we are freed up to be truly able to love with more integrity.

Jesus Didn't

Jesus didn't teach "hate the sin and love the sinner" either, and he seemed to take a different approach.  Jesus spent a great deal of His time with people of all kinds, many of dubious reputation, and he called them his friends.    He never applied the term "sinners" to them.  It was the religious folks of the day who called them sinners. In fact, the religious folks of the day used his relationships with these kinds of people to discredit him and accuse Him of being "soft on sin.".

There is an important practical implication – it sets up an immediate division, a "us – them" relationship.  Instead of "just people" like us, they are somehow other.  This creates an imbalance of power and an inherent self-righteousness.  When we try to love from this posture, we tend to make others a project.  We are relating (if we relate at all) for the purpose of changing them and this screams "I'm better than you!"  People clue into this very quickly.  This is not love.

Jesus never said anything like "hate the sin and love the sinner" but he did say do not judge.  He also said the measure with which you judge is the measure by which you will be judged.  Jesus did say to deal with the log in your own eye, and when you have done so you can help another.  He also said love as I have loved you.

We Get the Lesser with the Greater

I suppose Jesus really did know what he was talking about; the authenticity in the way he loved all people was indeed restorative and transformative.  Jesus understood something that often seems  so elusive for us; that love produces abundant life.  The heart of the Gospel is Jesus and His life-changing life, death and resurrection.  Jesus is the Gospel focus, not sin.  When we focus on Jesus, we will naturally leave sin behind.  The cure for sin is authentic love, a love that reconciles us to the source of love itself – the Father.
* Fitch, Peter. "Learning to Interpret Toward Love: Actually Embracing People of Different Sexuality (in the Kinds of Churches Where They Haven't Been)" Chapter: 4 Kindle edition. Referencing Richard Beck in his book  Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Morality.

D'Amato, Erik.  Mystery of Disgust. published on January 01, 1998 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012. Psychology Today.com http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200909/mystery-disgust


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