Friday, July 31, 2020

Examining "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin"

Throughout Church history the maxim "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" has served as a general principle from which to understand the Christian's obligation to love people while detesting the sins those people may commit. Many erroneously think the quote is from the Bible; in fact, it comes from a letter of St. Augustine of Hippo in which he says "Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum", which literally means "With love for mankind and hatred of sins" (Letter 211).

Even if it is not strictly biblical, the proverb is a more or less accurate summary of biblical teaching. There are many examples we could cite where we are commanded to love sinners. By way of example, let us look at 1 John 1:9-11, which clearly teaches we are to love others:

"He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes"

And later in 1 John 4:21, it says, "And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also." So, we are to love one another if we claim to love God. We could cite many other passages that command us to love our neighbor, but I do not think this is necessary. This principle is without dispute.

However, we are also to hate sin. This, too, is indisputable. Ephesians 5:11 tells us, "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them." Sin is to be exposed; it is a corruption and contamination (Tit. 1:15; 2 Cor. 7:1). It separates us from God and grieves the Holy Spirit (Isa. 59:2, Eph. 4:30). This is why we are told to hate it; Psalm 97:10 enjoins us, "Let those who love the Lord hate evil." The Psalms also tell us that God hates the company of sinners (Ps. 26:5). A hatred of sin is a necessary precondition to a healthy reverence for God: 'The fear of the Lord is to hate evil" (Prov. 8:13).

I think, however, the biblical verse which best joins these principles together is Leviticus 19:17, which says:
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him."
Here we see the obligation to love our brother and refrain from hating him, with the corresponding obligation to "reason" with him if we see him sinning, not only because of the obvious reason that sin is destructive, but because there is a real danger that we will bear guilt for that person's sin if we make no effort to turn them from their vice (cf. Ezekiel 33).

Thus, a Christian cannot be supportive or even indifferent to the sins of another. That doesn't mean we must be judgmental or prying
but it does mean our fundamental orientation must always be towards identifying sin, working to overcome it, and helping others do the same. We do not settle with sin. We do not make truces with it. We do not manage it. We work to eliminate it through the grace of God. This is why the traditional Catholic Act of Condition says "I detest all my sins." Sin is to be the object of detestation. It separates us from God and makes true happiness impossible.

Ergo, we hate sin, but we love the sinner.

It seems simple. Perhaps not always easy to practice, but it's not a difficult concept to grasp.

Nevertheless, the principle has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. If you Google "love the sinner hate the sin", some of the top articles that come up are pieces arguing that the concept is unworkable and that Christians should retire the saying. And in my recent article on the reasons people leave the Church, the persons in question who had left the Church cited "love the sinner, hate the sin" as an unworkable proposition.

For example, this article "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin? Why Christians Should Retire Their Favorite Phrase." In this piece, the author (apparently some sort of progressive Protestant) argues that the principle "love the sinner, hate the sin" is manipulative and meant to make the "lover" feel morally superior to the sinner by allowing them to express negative judgment whilst maintaining the facade that they are "loving."

The central critique in this article is that the principle is transactional
—forgiveness is "exchanged" for amendment of life, which causes love to be viewed as something reserved for those who are "good enough." Love, the article says, must accept uncritically. "To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” 

He also argues that "love the sinner, hate the sin" can be used to justify judgmentalism "associated with bigotry and intolerance." It enables the "lover" to condemn the "sinner" while still feeling like they are a loving person because their judgmentalism is actually "love."

As we can see, at its core, there is a redefinition of values: "Love" is redefined as uncritical acceptance. And w
e can see that this concept of love is detached from any notion of the good. It does not consist in willing someone to attain their highest good, but in merely extending uncritical acceptance. It is not fundamentally transformative.

But there is also an essential confusion of terms. He says "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is unworkable and then critiques persons who refuse to extend forgiveness unless someone makes an amendment of life first. These are two radically different ideas. Christians are always enjoined to forgive, and to do so regardless of whether the sinner has repented. This is the example Christ gave us on the cross: "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do"  (Luke 23:34). A Christian who refuses to forgive someone on the premise that their penitence isn't sufficient isn't practicing "Love the sinner, hate the sin"; they are simply not exercising Christian forgiveness. "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is not about forgiveness for past sins; it is about how we exercise ongoing love towards people in our lives who are sinning in the present.

Furthermore, even if the definition of love as uncritical acceptance of a person "exactly the way he or she is, right here and now" is deficient, "uncritical acceptance" is not contrary to "Love the sinner, hate the sin." We can absolutely accept people as they are, right here and now, with full empathy while still hating their sin. Have any of you dealt with an addict close to you? Maybe a brother or sister? You always, always accept and love that person. The more you love them, the more you accept them in their brokenness. But do you love your sister's alcoholism? Do you love your brother's heroin addiction? Do you love your son's gaming addiction that keeps him locked in a basement in front of a screen 17 hours a day?

Of course not. You hate these things. What's more, you hate them to the degree that you love your sibling. Those who have had relatives or close friends suffer through addiction understand this. So ultimately, the article above is creating a straw man by saying, "You must forgive without condition and accept people where they are at" as if that proves anything. All Catholics should agree that we forgive without condition and accept people where they are at. But "Love the sinner, hate the sin" does not preclude us from doing either of those things. It does mean that we have to love the person whilst understanding that that person may struggle with certain vices or behaviors that are inimical to their authentic good. These we must not accept. In fact, to accept them would be to enable that person in their problems, to make them worse...and ultimately not love them.

We will have more to say on this, but I want to look at a second article, this one from Psychology Today entitled "Why Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin Doesn't Work by Dr. Gordon Hodson. Dr. Hodson says that the principle is
ultimately about allowing us psychological justification that "enables some people to maintain their negative attitudes without feeling like a prejudiced person." To that end, "Love the sinner, hate the sin" actually is a vehicle of promoting hate, especially towards groups Dr. Hodson defines as "sexual minorities."

This article is full of problems. It reduces the idea of "sin" to focus specifically on so-called "culture war" issues and offers no comment on how the principle applies to, say, gossip, drunkenness, pride, or other such vices. He seems to infer that Christians do not take these sins seriously anyway.

Second, in assuring us that the principle "doesn't work", we might except some definition of what constitutes "working"? How are we judging whether such a principle succeeds or fails? The article assures us that "Love the sinner, hate the sin" fails precisely because it "promotes hate" and engenders a sense of moral superiority. However, when we look at what Dr. Hodson means by "promoting hate", we see that he defines hate as having "negative attitudes" about sexual minorities. Now we can see the real nature of the argument: "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is not problematic because it doesn't help us love the sinner, but because it enjoins we should hate the sin. The only viable solution is "Love the sinner, affirm the sin." The reason it "doesn't work" isn't because it fails as a mechanism to help love people despite their flaws, but because it isn't Woke to view certain behaviors negatively.

So, to wrap this up, I want to turn this on its head. Instead of looking at critiques of "Love the sinner, hate the sin," I want to critique the critiques and demonstrate why they don't hold water:

1. The Sinner is Identified with His Sins

This is honestly the biggest problem with these critiques and is ultimately behind every criticism of "Love the sinner, hate the sin." One of the most revolutionary ideas in Christianity is the notion that a man is not the sum of his sins—a man's worth or value is not determined by the sins he commits, but by the price that was paid for his redemption by the blood of Christ. Every human being has tremendous value as someone redeemed by Christ. God wants to take our sins and throw them behind His back (Isa. 38:17). We are not our sins, we are not defined by our sins, and our sins are not our personhood.

Secular people, however, ultimately define themselves based on their sins. Identity politics has morphed into a broad identitarianism where people are totally identified by their sins—especially the things they do with their genitals. For seculars, what you do with your genitals is who you are. There is no intellectual space for anything like, "I love you even though I disagree with your behavior," because in their mind, if you loved, you would affirm the behavior as well, because the behavior is the person.

Without going down a rabbit-hole on the subject, it is sufficient to say a Christian ought to reject any sort of anthropology that tends to identify people solely by their sins. Obviously we are all sinners; obviously we struggle with specific sins. But to bind up my essential personhood with those sins is an idea is profoundly anti-Christian. Yet all of these critiques presume that the person is essentially the sum of their behaviors, whether they acknowledge them as sinful or not.

2. No Concept of the Good

These objections to "Love the sinner, hate the sin" often do by jettisoning the concept of individual good from their considerations. We never see any discussion over whether it is good that so-and-so is living a sinful lifestyle, or what constitutes the highest good for a person struggling with habitual sin. There is seldom any consideration given to "How do I actually help so-and-so overcome this sin?" These sorts of considerations are abandoned in favor of helping the sinner to feel good about about where he is currently at. Good becomes a feeling instead to be experienced here and now rather than an objective state to be strove for. Hence they can never actually deal with objective questions of morality.

3. Affirmation = Love

Speaking of love, those who object to "Love the sinner, hate the sin" generally have a hard time disentangling love from affirmation. Love, in its most general definition, is sincerely willing the good for any person. That may or may not always be affirming, however. Love often requires the telling of "hard truths" or expressing disagreement about a person's decisions. This should never be an excuse for coldness, uncharity, or a lack of empathy—and honestly, I think traditional Catholics can do better in this regard, as there is a tendency to think that so long as we are speaking the truth it doesn't matter how much of an assface we are whilst speaking it.

Even so, there is this idea that love should never be confrontational, that it should never make a person "feel bad." Bad feelings mean one is not being affirmed, and if one is not feeling affirmed then one is not feeling loved, because love is a feeling of affirmation. This idea is so inimical to the Christian faith, I am surprised so many Christians fall for it. The very beginning of conversion is a feeling of discomfort or disquietude with our current condition that reaches a critical point and causes us to cry out to God for change. Why is it always assumed that a person ought never to feel bad about themselves or their situation? Feeling bad about where one is at is the genesis of change.

We also must keep in mind, when we truly love someone, it is possible for them to still feel affirmed in as a person while confronting them about their behavior. Any teacher knows how to do this. Any good parent or boss knows how to do this. It's the technique that is at the heart of "Love the sinner, hate the sin." It's mystifying that some people can't grasp this.

4. Doesn't Deal With Actual Bible Verses

We will also notice that these people and articles who disapprove of "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" very rarely deal with the actual Bible verses in question. Sure, they might talk about Jesus's dialogue with the woman at the well—and of course "judge not" and "love your neighbor" get trotted out—but they never deal with the plethora of Scripture passages that teach hatred of sin. This is a common problem you run across with people who want to make Christianity a series of platitudes: sketching out very vague, general principles ostensibly based on the Bible while passing entirely over scores of Bible verses that contradict said platitude. It's fine and good to talk about Christians being a force for positive change in the world, but what does the Bible actually say about a Christian's relationship with the world? Or the touchy subject of shunning. "Shunning people is mean and unchristian, mkay?" Alright...but what do the Scriptures actually say about shunning?

These moralizers don't care what the Bible actually says so long as they can take the moral high ground with their obnoxious platitudes. Similarly, people who say "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" isn't a Christian response to sin have not sufficiently studied what the Scriptures say on the subject. They simply toss a Gospel story out there and interpret it via some milquetoast hermeneutic without the context of the rest of the Scriptures. As an exercise in biblical exegesis, critiques of "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" fail miserably.

As always, there's more we could say. Of course, the most important sin we have to hate is our own. We are called to love ourselves and hate our own sin first of all. Needless to say, our attempts to implement the principle when it comes to our brethren work best when we have mastered it in our own lives.

Drop a comment below if you have anything to add, either in support or critique. Even if I hate your comment, I will still love you anyway.


Marissa said...

This is a good analysis of the issue (which I was not aware of but it doesn't surprise me). I know people don't like the phrase, I didn't realize they were writing essays against it.

God is our Father, he thinks of us the way a parent thinks of his children. When I think of my children sinning (like lying or fighting with siblings) I certainly don't want to affirm them in their sin, I want them to change and correct them in a gentle manner which is what love is. I think it would be helpful if those who oppose the phrase thought it this perspective. There's not much more horrifying than thinking of your children sinning in the future (and how it's partly your fault). Thunkimg of it that way, how can you not hate the sin?

Ibelin said...

I heard a homily by a priest who have fantastic sermons on the historical and cultural significance of certain stories in the Gospel during the time Jesus was on earth.

One thing that stuck out to me was that he made the point that a lot of popular stories and sayings like "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" was somehow a call for people to not judge the actions of others at all but that's not even close to what Jesus was actually saying.

To put it plainly the Bible has been watered down to such a basic level that it only serves a general philosophical guide rather than a deep, complex book that must be examined spiritually as well as historically.

Jim said...

On the "Let he without sin cast the first stone" is against hypocrisy. The Pharisees who brought the woman to Jesus were trying to trap Him, not enforce the Law. They also "forgot" to bring the man. There was nothing just in what the Pharisees did.

Jack said...

I don't think it's just modern seculars who define themselves by their sins. This is something humanity has done since time immemorial. It's the mark of Cain. "Fornicator" or "adulterer" were public identities of shame in past societies, just as "bigot" or "racist" are in ours. What I think this is about is Law and Grace. It's the Law that sears our conscience and brands us with sin, printing a mark of shame upon us that follows us everywhere. Regardless of whether it's the civil law, divine law, natural law, ecclesiastical law, whatever. Even just peer pressure and clique customs function as a kind of law separating the righteous from the guilty, like heavy metallers excluding members as "posers" or "sell-outs". I think the reason why "love the sinner, hate the sin" often does not work, is that according to the law it is utterly impracticable. According to the law, people are their sins and that's the end of it. Now since Christians have a very developed understanding of the law and a sensitive conscience towards it, the temptation to live by the law rather than by grace is very great. It's only with the eyes of grace that we can see Jesus in the souls of every human being, and separate their identity from their sin and sinful living. So the correct formulation is, "love Jesus in the sinner, hate the sin like a wound needing to be healed." We can't love sinners as sinners, because sin in itself is detestable. We can only love sinners - including our very own selves, since we are sinners - as images of God under the redemptive ministry of Christ. When Jesus loved a sinner like Magdalene, it was the world and the law which knew her as a "sinner" ; Jesus knew her more personally and intimately as Magdalene, the one to be redeemed.

Marissa said...

It's difficult to use Mary Magdalene as an example because she's already penitent when we meet her in Scripture, whereas we're dealing with people who at present love their sin and often identify with it.

Jim said...

I'm also pretty sure Magdalene is a another person entirely.

Marissa said...

Sorry, I dont understand your comment, Jim. A different person from whom?

Noucvnt said...

St Mary Magdalene is regarded by some as the adulterous woman about to be stoned that is saved and forgiven by Jesus, others disagree.

at any rate, the point is the same, Jesus wanted justice done. and justice was offering forgiveness to the woman and all sinners, which in this case saved her life as no one was sinless enough to stone her. also, the adulterous man was not brought out with her, which shows some foul play was going on. even disregarding his absence, she was condemned unjustly due to her supposedly helplessly sinful nature as an adulterer, which Jesus redeemed; rather than as retributive justice for taking a life, which can be applied even as redemption is carried out. Jesus forgave the good thief, but didn't stop his execution miraculously or anything, as even the good thief admits he deserves his punishment. the pro-love-sin peeps would argue that any criticism, much less punishment, is akin to pelting stones; quite the contrary, the criticism of the sin, so long as it's done patiently and lovingly, will save sinners from the eternal stoning if we heed the warnings. even in the temporal world, heeding the warnings results in learning to convert sincerely. while of course, one should not overdo the guilt or scruples, some sincere feeling of sorrow for sins should be felt, else why would one repent and reunite with Christ?