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" which translates as "with love for mankind and hatred of sins." The term 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, diminishing our capacity to be genuinely human. It inhibits our ability to love well.
Depending on your faith perspective, you may be familiar with the idea that sin has to be punished to appease an offended god for our sake. This is not satisfying for me (see Quick notes below).
Some may see sin like a plague, a sickness that needs to be healed. While this is certainly a more appealing and workable perspective, I am given to thinking of sin from an evolutionary perspective. Instead of something to be punished or healed from, sin is something that we are, as a species, maturing out of. This maturity or evolution, if you will, is in the loooong process through relationship with the God-who-is-love, each other and the planet.
God's nature/essence is Love. Every other aspect of God (justice, sovereignty, etc.) flows from and expresses God's unControlling Love. Even when God judges, its fountainhead is God's self-emptying Love. This is how God Loves, and God's heart breaks when we live in such a way that hurts and diminishes us, others and the rest of creation.
Hating sin and loving the sinner isn't so easy for humans. From a psychological perspective, it is pretty difficult because disgust/hate is a strong, unpleasant reaction to something that we perceive as offensive, gross or revolting. 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.*[Disgust is a strong universal emotion, but the objects of disgust are not. This means our culture heavily influences the things we find disgusting.]
Not an Affirmation of Sin
Our inner psychology will always influence a theological perspective's appeal (or lack of appeal), but this doesn't guarantee the theological position is healthy. 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 behaviour. It is simply suspending our judgment for Love's sake. To Love then, we need to wade into our 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 more able to Love with more integrity.
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, an "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 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
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 God-who-is-love.
Article originally from March 2014. Updated April 13, 2022
* = Quick note:
- Sin is its own punishment.
- Punishment serves to the degree that it reforms and brings about healthy change. Punishment in itself never satisfies justice.
- Penal Substitutionary to deal with sin inadvertently makes God our enemy instead of sin, death and the 'devil.'
** 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