Hate the Sin, Flatter the Sinner?

Christ promised his Church that the world would hate us on his account. That hatred seldom becomes clearer than when obvious sin goes mainstream. And by obvious sin, I mean sin that is clearly condemned in the Bible–so clearly that you can’t sideline the condemnation without also sidelining Scripture. While that poses no difficulty for theological liberals and others who already live and breathe the obfuscation of God’s Word, it’s another matter for Bible-believing Christians. When sins like fornication, homosexuality, or contempt for family become fashionable, faithful Christians are quickly going to earn the world’s ire when they confess Christ’s teachings.

The way we react to that hatred makes all the difference in the world. Jesus’ instructions on the matter are clear: our response should be to rejoice! Not only is our reward in heaven great, but it puts us in the company of the prophets, the Apostles, and Christ himself. But that is, admittedly, easier said than done, because that hatred has real consequences for our lives here and provokes real suffering among the persecuted. Most of us in America have only experienced this hatred in very mild ways, but even then, if the suffering weren’t real, it wouldn’t be such a real temptation to try and avoid it.

And we do try to avoid it. We would much rather be liked than hated–or at least left alone. Unfortunately, we’ve developed any number of rationalizations to assist that avoidance. For example, “Hate the sin; Love the sinner” is an extremely common motto among Christians who want to hold to Scripture while we stand accused of hating one identity group or another. “No, no, no,” we explain, “we don’t hate you, we just hate something you happen to be doing. We love you.” Like any functional rationalization, it has a ring of truth to it. After all, Christ does teach us to love sinners, just as he did. When we give a reason for the hope that we have, we do so with gentleness and respect. We really should hate sins. We really should love sinners.

The problem is not so much in the rationalization’s content as in its context. When its a response to the world’s hatred, our motivation in saying “hate the sin; love the sinner” is not to love but to be seen as loving. In other words, we’re less interested in loving them than we are in them liking us. And, of course, the motto doesn’t accomplish much in this regard. When sins become lifestyles and identities, the participants don’t really see much of a distinction between the sin and themselves. And on the Christian end, there isn’t really as much of a distinction as we’d like to think. Sin is death. Sin is uncreation. In reality, hating the sin is loving the sinner. They aren’t two separate endeavors that need to be balanced with one another as the motto implies. Our true endeavor is to proclaim Law and Gospel–hatred and foolishness respectively in the world’s eyes.

The upshot is that when we embrace that motto out of fear, we end up twisting our own practice. Instead of loving the sinner, our goal becomes to flatter the sinner until he feels loved. And as we fail in that ill-conceived goal, we try to double-down by separating hating the sin from loving the sinner and attempting to balance them against one another. In this way, we work to soften our hatred of sin to facilitate our flattery of the sinner.

You can see this at work everywhere among conservative Christians in America. In the face of rampant fornication and illegitimacy, we flatter the single moms (while condemning the Christian men who are hesitant about marrying them.) In the face of divorce, we flatter the perpetrators (while going on and on about what the victims did to deserve it.) Both of these, of course, are tied to our overall reaction to feminist rebellion–we flatter women and denigrate men because we don’t want to be seen as misogynistic. And the result has been feminism becoming ubiquitous in American churches. But it’s not stopping there.

Having tired of being called homophobic, there are increasing efforts to rationalize homosexuality as holy and God-pleasing–with specific acts of sodomy just being an unfortunate side-effect of a fallen world. Consider the following contention from a gay man:

“Is it too dangerous, too unorthodox, to believe that I am uniquely designed to reflect the glory of God? That my orientation, before the fall, was meant to be a gift in appreciating the beauty of my own sex as I celebrated the friendship of the opposite sex?”

Normally, speculation like that would be recognized as a pretty transparent rationalization–akin to a pornography addict speaking of his superior God-given ability to appreciate sexuality and the female body. But when we possess a fear of the world and a desperate desire to be seen as loving, a rationalization like that can be perceived by Christians as a lifeline–a way to finally be seen as gay-affirming without overtly giving up on Scripture.

It’s a rather cunning strategy to neutralize conservative Christians on the subject. Once we try to balance flattery for an identity group against the proclamation of the law, the former is always going to win out. Despite what we’d like to believe, there is no amount of care and sensitivity that will prevent the world’s hatred. Once we commit ourselves to that desire, the only way out is to slowly discard Christ as we hope that just a little more flattery will finally work.  But it won’t.  Sinners’ pain will remain, and they shall continue to blame us for it.

And while I stand by calling it a “strategy,” make no mistake: there is also very real pain in knowing oneself to be broken from the inside by something that you can never change no matter how hard you try. It’s natural to want to avoid that pain oneself and for Christians to try and help those who are experiencing it. But the Church has something better to offer than lipstick for our pigs–pandering, self-justifying attempts to say that our brokenness is really some heretofore unknown aspect of God’s perfect design before the Fall. Instead, we have this:

Oh, almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.

I said this almost every week in church growing up. There is something about publicly & repeatedly identifying as “a poor, miserable sinner” that undercuts the impulse to justify yourself by saying that your actions, impulses, proclivities, and nature are actually Very Good. It reveals the falsity of the entire self-righteous endeavor and upon taking away the illusion, it grants a tremendous liberty. Yes, I am broken–irrevocably. Beyond my own power to fix. Beyond the power of human society to fix. But Christ has died for me regardless and welcomes me to newness of life in the new creation where I shall not be broken anymore. And when Christ absolves me through my Pastor’s declaration of His grace, I know that I am absolved at my worst instead of as I would like to imagine myself.

It’s the Truth that will set us free. When the world rages, the Church should concern herself more with delivering that Truth than with our reputation.

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6 Responses to Hate the Sin, Flatter the Sinner?

  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s rather ironic in my case. I know someone very close, a family member, who is homosexual and has begun to practice. As a firm LCMS member and hopeful future pastor. I told them I hate their sin but love them. I truly despise homosexuality as it is not God’s design and I pray that God would turn my family who is struggling. I later heard through the grapevine that my family member hated that sentiment. I also later saw while crawling on the Internet that some people regard this adage as hate speech. Thoughts?

    • Matt says:

      I’m not surprised about that reaction to the hate the sin/love the sinner sentiment. When you base your identity around a specific sin–or even when you base any kind of long-term relationship around a specific sin–you tend to see the sin/sinner distinction as splitting hairs at best and sophistry at worst. And they’re not exactly wrong to think so. They’re wrong in failing to recognize the sin. They’re also wrong in adopting their “orientation” as their identity. But once those bridges are crossed… the sin/sinner distinction just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in that context. If you really want to understand the other side of an issue like this, you have to understand why the error makes so much sense to them–not just why it’s an error.

      As for the rest, I’m not anonymous so I won’t give details, but I do sympathize with your situation. All I can really say there is remain patient, remain calm, and remain faithful. Whatever the outcome, you’re probably going to be in it for the long haul, but remember that the buck stops with God, not with you. Ours is to carry out the vocations he’s given us as best we can.

      And speaking of vocations, may God bless you in your pursuit of the pastoral office.

  2. Andrew says:

    Thank you! I’ve always accepted this phrase as being a biblical approach to loving people but really struggled in the actually living it out. The catch has always been when loved ones have felt anything but loved by me if I hold to what Scripture teaches about the sin their trying to also …hold to.

    No matter how much I try to avoid the subject, it is unavoidable too. Some version of, “You really think I’m a sinner don’t you?”is hashed out, and even the most humble attempts, to relate how I am a sinner too, don’t help. Simply put, I’m calling their good – evil. Consequently, they think I’m hateful. This, despite the multitude of exhausting ways I’d overcompensate to prove to them how much I genuinely care.

    If you think the phrase, “love the sinner but hate the sin”, is thoroughly biblical, then you’re crushed by your failure to prove to them how much you love them. I can understand why family members or the church would be tempted towards flattery or accommodation at this point. The relationship reaches a kind of impasse. Either you love them on their terms, or you are considered hateful and the relationship will suffer.

    We could use more teaching in the church on how to deal with this impasse. What do you do when your family member does something as audacious as say, “give me my inheritance now”, as if to say, I really value the life I want to live over my relationship with you. I’m almost embarrassed to admit in the church that I’ve had to let go of some of the people close to me, but I’m not sure what else to do. They don’t want to be in a relationship with someone like me.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Andrew

      Well, step one in teaching the church how to deal with the impasse is teaching us to expect it–not as something that happened back in the 1st Century or happens today in North Korea or the Middle East, but as an expected reality in the West today. Jesus said that he came to divide family members from one another, but also that we should rejoice when people hate us for his sake. If we taught those things as a normal part of the Christian life, I think people would be less embarrassed to admit it’s happened to them and more inclined to seek comfort in fellowship with other Christians.

      And that comfort is often the bigger part of what we need. In broad strokes, there’s not always anything to “do” in those circumstances–at least not in terms of fixing or maintaining the relationship. By the very nature of relationships, in the long run, one person can’t maintain a relationship alone.
      When Jesus says that “anyone who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” it makes it pretty clear that we always need to be willing to let go when the cost of maintaining the relationship is Christ Himself.

      We continue to pray for them, of course. We continue to love them–even if necessity makes that look more like remaining ready to forgive, welcome, and show kindness towards them because you don’t have many opportunities to actually carry that into execution. And we work to avoid harboring resentment towards them–mainly by considering what time and fellowship we have with them as a gift rather than as something they owe us. Most importantly, we trust God–both to supply our loved one with everything they need to return to Him, and to forgive us for any ways we’ve failed to love (and to help us be satisfied with that forgiveness.)

      There’s nothing particularly remarkable in all that–nothing most Christians don’t already know. But as these situations become more and more normal among Christians, it does us good to be regularly reminded of it. It helps to comfort us from those “maybe there’s something else I could have done” doubts that always plague those of us in these situations.

  3. Kreemer says:

    Hi there.

    The trouble is – many homosexuals do indeed say this prayer everyday. And in the beginning, it does include being homosexual. So much so that the cup has got to be taken away or life cannot continue.

    And the thing is – gay remains.

    And so we continually come to God and comes off our sins and leave them there – but we no longer do this with our sexuality.

    It is not possible to live a life unforgiven for who we are.

    And this is the thing – I hear a lot of Christians say, don’t identify with your sin… it’s not who you are.

    There is no way to be not Homosexual sorry if throwing yourself in front of a bus – or forcing a life of celibacy.

    So – we accept.

    We accept who we are, what we were given and we come to the cross everyday with our burden and we live.

    We live for Christian lives, we speak with Jesus every morning and every evening – and we hear the young man of the cross whisper, this way. Carry on. I’m here – I will not leave you. Listen carefully. Fix your gaze on me. You are ok. I see you. I will be there when you die. Follow my command. Do not let this – or others blind you – come to me.

    You can continue to speak for God how you want.

    It’s alright – you are doing the best with what you have.

    Jesus didn’t come and say sin is no longer sin, and he didn’t come and tell homosexuals that Homosexuality is sin.

    Here is sin:

    This is sin:

    • …Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers…

    • …Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents…

    • etc

    You start there and keep going.

    I am not going anywhere.

    Carry on.

    • Matt says:

      Why should it be a trouble that homosexuals pray it every day? On the contrary, that’s precisely how it should be, for we are all poor miserable sinners–whether or not those sins include sodomy. Would that every Christian realized he needs to pray it every day! Beating on our breasts and saying “God be merciful to me, a sinner” isn’t a one-time event in our lives.

      Why should continuing in such prayer demand living an unforgiven life? On the contrary, it’s part of our litury for confession and absolution. The very next line is “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Never think that an inability to escape your besetting sins is synonymous with being unforgiven. It is precisely the sick who need a physician.

      The problem is that you speak of bearing a cross, but insist that any cross homesexuals receive must meet your specifications–that it’s not allowed to involve struggling with indefinite celibacy, the recognition of sin in what you’ve claimed as your very identity, or even despairing of life itself. It doesn’t work that way. God lays our crosses on us according to His own wisdom. You’re hardly the first Christian to think carrying his cross will surely kill him; in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Curse God for your cross all you like–God knows I’ve done plenty of that, and for less reason than most people have. But when you’re done cursing, believe his promise that his grace is sufficient for you and keep carrying it. We lay our crosses down precisely when we embrace sin as our escape and call God a liar, saying that our most coveted trangressions are actually pure and good for us.

      Some people overcome their homosexual desires and go on to chaste marriages; many do not. Some overcome their addictions; many do not. Some survive their cancer and heal; many waste away. Some get to watch their children grow up and thrive; many have to watch them die slowly. I communed for years alongside a convicted pedophile who never stopped struggling with those desires, but he *is* forgiven. We don’t always experience victory over our sins and struggles in this life. But the true victory for all of us is in Christ, so we keep trudging and stumbling to him.

      So by all means, carry on running to Christ and laying your sins at his feet, for that is precisely where you find life and forgiveness. But don’t subject his Word to your own standards of approval, for then you run the risk of finding yourself at an altogether different altar and leading others to the same.

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