“Love the sinner, but hate the sin” is right up there with “everything happens for a reason,” and “he/she is in a better place now” when it comes to church phrases that are likely to annoy more than they help. The motivation behind these kinds of clichés is usually benign. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is meant to convey a serious regard for Christian morality, while also expressing love for people. Unfortunately, this phrase can push both of those goals farther out of reach.
Sin is not an identity
The first problem I have with the phrase “love the sinner, but hate the sin” is that it characterizes people as sinners first. In this formulation, “sinner” is our primary identity. Now, I can hear the objections, straight out of Romans chapter 3: “no one is righteous, not even one.” I hear you, but I’d like to counter with the first description of humans given in Genesis 1:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Before we are sinners, we are humans, created in the image of God, who called everything that he had made “very good.” Goodness, not sinfulness, is central to our design and our identity, and the work of redemption is to repair the harmful effects of sin and restore us to that original goodness. It’s a return to our true, shining selves. But if who we are, at our core, is a sinner, redemption must seem like a total loss of identity.
“Sin” can be hard to separate from the “sinner.”
What if the “sin” in question is something specific or central to a person’s identity. Isn’t that an appropriate time to “love the sinner and hate the sin?” I don’t think so.
It’s all well and good to say you can look past someone’s behavior to see the person beneath, but when we label the person by that behavior, it’s much more difficult to ignore the behavior in favor of the human.
And that labeling problem becomes worse when we’ve already identified a particular behavior as a “sin” that we “hate.” Who could blame a “sinner” in those circumstances for thinking Christians hate them? After all, you can’t spell sinner without sin.
In my experience, the people that have been most harmed by this cliché are those in the LGBTQ community. My whole life, I’ve heard Christians apply this phrase to them. But when those Christians say, “love the sinner and hate the sin” they don’t mean “hate greed” or “hate pridefulness.” When we single out a specific thing to “hate,” how can we come across as anything but hateful and judgmental to the people we claim to love?
Love people, hate sin
I suggest a new phrase: love people, hate sin. This way, we affirm personhood first while still hating the way sin skews our desires and leads us into destructive patterns. I can very much hate the presence of sin in the world and in humanity, bear witness to all that is unhealthy and destructive, and still love another person as the unique individual who God made them to be. Plus, removing the definite article “the” from the word “sin” keeps me from the prideful assumption that I know exactly what God would and would not call sinful. After all, reasonable, devoted Christians disagree on plenty of these issues.
Fred Rogers once said, “To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” I fear that many Christians would hear Rogers’ statement as a false love that doesn’t acknowledge sin. But people are not sin, nor can they be reduced to their choices and behaviors. And who they are “right here and now” may change tomorrow.
Some argue that the best way to love others is to hate their sin. In some cases, particularly when addiction and highly destructive behaviors are involved, that is probably true. But I still believe the phrase “love the sinner and hate the sin” has done more harm than good. Instead of pushing us to greater love, it has often pushed us into greater judgment.
Let us love people and hate sin, accepting each unique human for exactly who they are, while still hoping and praying that they may grow ever closer to the best versions of themselves.
Christine Hand Jones is a singer-songwriter, a professor of English and songwriting, and has served as a worship leader and church music director. She has a PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned, in large measure, by listening to the collected works of Bob Dylan and writing about what she heard. When she's not playing music or fascinating her students with stunning lectures over comma splices, Christine can be found drinking coffee, playing devoted cat mom to Desmond and Molly, and roaming the shelves of Half-Price Books.