Hate the Sin?
“Things Jesus Didn’t Say: Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”
A Sermon on Matthew 7:1-5
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
July 28, 2019 – 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
Back when I still got a newspaper every day, I’d read it with my breakfast. And since headlines tend to get me worried, I am not ashamed to say that I always started with the comics. It was just a good way to start the day! And my favorite comic of all time, no questions, is “Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson. Often, in these comics, Calvin would use the front yard as a way to communicate with his dad as he came home from work, either by posting signs or building descriptive snowmen. My favorite of these is the one where the dad is getting out of the car, greeted by a nervously smiling Calvin holding a sign that says “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Dad’s response is just “Uh oh…”
We’re continuing our sermon series on “Things Jesus Didn’t Say,” and I hope you know that the Bible never tell us to “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” as popular as that saying may be. Of all the misstatements we’ll talk about this summer, this is the one that I really struggle with, and we’ll talk about the goodness in this phrase. But we’ll also talk about how it can lead us astray and why I believe that we should, ultimately, change that phrase from now on.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a well-intentioned phrase, and it has some truth to it. The first half, especially, seems to be fairly true. We should always love sinners. We are all sinners, and we are meant to love one another. In the Gospel of John, just after the Last Supper, Jesus says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[i] Love is at the core of God’s being, and at the core of Christian action. We should always love.
But, we also know that sin is very real. People make mistakes, people intentionally do wrong, and that often makes us sad or angry or confused in such a way that we feel compelled to react. “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” then, is a way for us to separate disagreeing with someone’s behavior while still loving them as Christ commanded us. And I gotta be honest – if “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is the best you can do at any given moment, I’ll take it. Sometimes it’s the best I can do. You can absolutely care about someone and still think their behavior is wrong.
The problem comes when we get to the “hate the sin” part. It’s unfortunately a very slippery slope, friends. When we start thinking about our fellow human beings in terms of their sins, we get really judge-y really quickly. Because we are sinners, too, sometimes we get carried away judging other people. And that’s a sin in and of itself. Jesus tells us in our passage today that we have a tendency to point out the speck in a friend’s eye while ignoring an entire log in our own. And so when we start labeling each other as sinners and hating their sin…it’s not hard to start being hateful toward people themselves, even unintentionally.
In his 1927 autobiography, Mahatma Gandi said that “Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which, through easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”[ii] A lot of times, we use “Love the sinner, hate the sin” as a coping mechanism to care about the individual people in front of us, while still being unkind to groups of people “out there” – faceless people we’d never met. And that’s not genuinely love, friends.
I’ll give you an example. For years, Christians have employed a “Love the sinner, hate the sin” philosophy when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. We rationalized that it was ok to love our gay family, friends, and acquaintances while still calling them sinful and “disagreeing with their lifestyle.” With this in mind, we were kind to and even tolerant of the gay people in our lives, yet supported systems that hurt them – we withheld marriage, adoption, and ordination from them – among many things. We were suddenly voiceless when others used violence against them. We coerced many of them into silence, which led many to isolation, depression, and even suicide. And let me be clear, when I say “we” did it to them, I count myself among the “we,” and am working to be better. And when I say we did it to “them,” I realize that some of you may identify as LGBTQ+. The church treated you this way. If no one has ever apologized to you, then let me be the first – I’m sorry. It was wrong of us. The sin was ours in judging you and thinking we were better.
Because we’ve learned over the years that the Bible doesn’t say what we used to think it said about same sex relationships[iii] (If this piques your interest, I would be delighted to discuss it with you in person and will be in the office all week for you to drop by – I’d love to talk the theology of sexuality with you. Seriously). We’ve noticed, finally, that Jesus never once spoke against being gay. We’ve seen the damage that “hating the sin” has done to human beings made in the image of God, and we are beginning to repent of that. So, if “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is the best you can do with our brothers and sisters who are LGBTQ+, then ok. But know that not all Christians believe that being gay is a sin. And when we spend so much of our time hating sin, real or perceived, we almost always end up harming the person we’ve identified as the sinner. And that, friends, is a sin. It’s walking around with logs in our eyes.
When we start pointing to other’s sins, we usually end up sinning ourselves. We fall into legalism and judgement. And Jesus never said “Love the sinner,” he said “Love your neighbor.”[iv] And the Bibles tells us that “all have sinned and fall short.”[v] The Bible tells us that “love covers a multitude of sins.”[vi] Most importantly of all, the Bible says “God is love.”[vii]
God is love. If we spend our time focusing on that, on loving our neighbors, on tending to the logs in our own eyes and hearts, then we will run out of time to hate sins or even call people sinners rather than neighbors. Billy Graham once told his daughter that "It's God's job to judge; and it's our job to love."”[viii]
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is well intentioned, but it leads us places where God does not lead us. I’d suggest, then, that we permanently edit this six word saying, and we just cross out the last five words. Let’s just leave it at “love,” and leave the rest to God. I think that’s enough for one human lifetime. We can have convictions, we can stand up against injustice, and we can disagree – but let’s do it with love and no trace of hatred. That takes work, friends. That takes a lot of examining the logs in our own eyes. It takes being willing to admit that we might not be judge and jury on every sin, no matter how much we might want to be. That means listening to people whose experiences are different than ours and learning to understand rather than just argue. It takes a lot of work to love. But remember that one of Jesus’ last commandments to his disciples was to “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] John 13:34-35
[ii] An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth by M.K. Gandhi, trans. Mahadev Desai.
[iii] “Has ‘Homosexual’ always been in the Bible?” Forge Online, March 21, 2019.
[iv] Mark 12:31
[v] Romans 3:23
[vi] I Peter 4:8
[vii] I John 4:8
[viii] “Billy Graham: A Faithful Witness” by Sandra Chambers in Charisma magazine, 2005.