Monday, October 6, 2008

What it means to love the sinner and hate the sin

My daughter wrote on the sofa the other day. It wasn’t an accident-- it was a letter “p” and a little design beside it. When Marcie and I discovered it, we were naturally upset. We asked her about it, and she said she did it “because she wanted to.” She confirmed that she knew she wasn’t supposed to do this sort of thing. So we disciplined her for it, and talked with her about how writing on anything other than paper is very bad behavior.

But here’s the thing: throughout the discussion and discipline, I noted in my head how many times we also affirmed that we loved her so much, unconditionally, and no amount of disobedience would cause us to stop loving her. After the discipline was done, she wanted to snuggle, and though she cried for a moment she did not withdraw her affection or affirmation that she trusted our love deeply.

I read something not long ago surrounding a discussion of how the church treats homosexuals. This particular comment came from someone who professed saving faith in Jesus Christ, and who also stated their inclination toward homosexuality. It was clear from his comment that he had been treated with varying degrees of “badly” over the years, particularly by the church.

The discussion they were participating in focused on how the church
ought to treat those who are homosexuals, or who are inclined toward homosexuality. One phrase that kept coming up was the old standby: “love the sinner, hate the sin.” This fellow, though, responded strongly to that, saying, “I hate ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ If you hate my sin of homosexuality, then you hate me.”

I can understand how he might have arrived at this conclusion. Chances are good that some of those who he had encountered in the past had done a poor job of loving the sinner while hating his sin-- it probably didn’t feel much like love OR a differentiation between the sinner and his sin.

But, just as we faced when we disciplined our daughter for her sin, it is possible to love the sinner deeply, forgivingly, even unconditionally, while despising their sin and its effect. Had we overlooked Molly’s sin and disobedience-- had we simply said, “that is no big deal” and not addressed it at all-- we would have loved her
less, not more. I think we instinctively know this about parenting; often, the judgments that are waged against “bad parents” are focused on their willingness or ability to discipline their children.

But we don’t seem to instinctively know this in other relationships. Somehow, loving another in a non-parental relationship implies that we overlook their sin and error more than we address it. In fact, the precedent suggested by this hurting young man creates an environment where it is impossible to love someone AND keep them accountable.

Luke 6:41-42 is often invoked in defense of that view. How dare we discuss the speck in our brother’s eye? Of course we must deal with the log in our own eye first. But a more careful reading of Luke 6:42 reveals that, in the end, both the log in my eye and the speck in yours are removed.

What would it look like to love those who’s sins are highlighted in our Christian culture? How do we love the sinner and hate the sin, when the sin is child abuse or molestation, or adultery, or homosexuality? And are we right to elevate those sins above the others as sins we hate?

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