“Hate the sin, love the sinner” has become a cliche in the evangelical world, especially when dealing with the homosexuality issue. It is probably said more often and practiced less than almost anything else Christians say.
So let me lay out some practical principles for how one can actually practice the idea of “hate the sin, love the sinner” with authenticity:
1. START WITH SELF
Jesus teaches this principle in the Sermon on the Mount:
“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:2-4)
The principle is simple in our context: make sure you hate your own sin, before you begin to try and hate someone else’s. In other words, we need to do a ruthless self-reflection of our sin first. We also need to fully understand God’s love and grace for us despite our own sinfulness. If you are really committed to “hating the sin and loving the sinner”, start with yourself first — and only then graduate to others.
2. DO WHAT JESUS DID
Jesus is our model. While we can’t perfectly emulate him, the goal of Christian discipleship is to become more like Jesus. That is what we strive for. So how did Jesus “hate sin and love the sinner?” He spent a lot of time hanging out with “sinners” on their turf — so much so that he was accused of being a drunkard and worse. Jesus knew that the universal love language is time. Time spent with people. Jesus also challenges people with the truth — and he does so unapologetically. But he does so with sympathy, compassion, and love. (Matthew 9:12-13, John 4, John 8, Luke 5:27-32, Luke 7:36-50, and many more).
3. SHOW THE SAME PATIENCE AS THE FATHER
Luke 15, the Parable of Prodigal God (Tim Keller’s phrase) as well as the preceding two parables (lost sheep… lost coin) all speak to the Father’s unquenchable, irrational and unstoppable love for people — especially lost people. And in the Gospels, “lost people” pretty much means “sinners” and those far from God. These parables reveal a Father who searches, but also one who is patient (re-read Luke 15:11-32). Notice that He has less patience for the self-satisfied older son, than he does for the very lost and sinful younger son. So often, we become the older son when God calls us to love the younger son. Also, in terms of patience, note what Peter writes about God:
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
We ought to be as patient as God with people… love is patient and perseveres.
4. TRUST THE HOLY SPIRIT
It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of sin (John 16:8-11). It is not our job. Our job is pretty clear. We are commanded to love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-39), we are to be disciple-makers (Matthew 28:18-20), and we are to seek justice and live with compassion (Matthew 25:31-46). We are also to love each other as a witness to the reality of Jesus Christ (John 13:33-35) and maintain unity in the church (Ephesians 4:2-4). We should focus on what Jesus asks us to do, and let the Holy Spirit do what the Holy Spirit does.
5. FOLLOW THE BIBLICAL MODEL FOR LOVE
The scriptures offer us a pretty clear definition and picture of what love looks like. It comes in 1 Corinthians 13, a passage that we often think of in terms of weddings and marriage. But the context of the passage is really about how to love in a very dysfunctional Christian community. Here is what Paul says:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Simply put, when the New Testament talks about love, this is what it is talking about. We can have all the right theology, hate all the right sins — but if lack love, it is worthless. I think one of the keys to really learning to hate sin while loving the sinner is to focus first on loving the sinner as Jesus would (or Paul would tell us to)… because out of deep, authentic love will come an appropriate holy hatred of sin… and one that will be understood in light of the authentic love we have for the person. Because when we deeply love, we can’t stand to see people suffer in their own sin. But it always starts with deep love.
I think Paul expresses this kind of love in his personal life in Romans 9-11, when he talks about his passion and love for his fellow Jews who do not believe in Jesus.
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I think if you strive to live out those five principles, you will be in a pretty good place in terms of “hate the sin, love the sinner.” If not, may I humbly suggest you need to focus first on learning to love before becoming an outspoken judge of others. For as St. Paul reminds us: love is patient, kind, never rude nor easily angered… it holds no records of wrong.
CONCLUSION: Start with authentic Jesus-styled love and I think the rest will follow. Until you learn to love like Jesus, I would be careful being too bold in the “hate” category… and unless you really hate your own sin, I would leave other people alone. Start in the Jesus school… and eventually you will learn to love (and hate) like him.
(Tomorrow, I will offer some more very practical tips on how to actually live these things out… in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts, stories — of it done well and not done well — and comments.)