How We Misunderstand ÔLove the Sinner, Hate the SinÕ
There's a difference between loving people and accepting their harmful behaviors.
A while back, an old friend of mine sat down across the table from me and looked up with the biggest smile on her face. “We finally had sex,” she said. “And it has changed everything. We are so much closer now. It’s like all of our problems just disappeared!”
Now, our culture would insist that I be happy for my friend and her boyfriend. After all, she was happy with her actions, and that’s all that matters, right? That’s what I believed at the time, so I took the easy way out and put on a smile for my friend, fake though it was.
We are becoming more and more interested in the idea of acceptance. For the most part, this is a great thing. The old, ugly theology of using love as a way to disguise judgement and hatred has given way to a warmer, healthier Christian community.
But, as with many cultural shifts, there is a balance to keep in mind. In our efforts to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” we often find it easier to ignore the sin altogether, and confuse blind acceptance with genuine love.
And in a lot of ways that’s a good thing—we should humble ourselves to listen to, love and accept others. But in a culture where “Only God can judge me” is a common phrase heard among believers and non-believers alike, it’s easy to wonder: Are we getting love and acceptance all wrong?
The Harsh Reality
The word “acceptance” as seen in our world today is really just a flowery covering for another not so beautiful word that none of us really wants to say: superficiality. Nobody wants to be or have a fake friend, and yet we’re all buying into a mindset that does nothing but foster surface level relationships.
So, when a friend has a real problem—perhaps an unhealthy addiction, a prideful attitude or even a problem with judging others—we’re tempted to leave them be. We don’t want to come across as unloving, so we use love as an excuse to avoid difficult conversations.
I’m guilty of it too. In the aforementioned conversation, in my effort to be accepting of whatever made my friend happy, I was straying further and further away from the type of friend God calls us to be. In spite of what the world tells me, the Bible tells me that I am to hold my brothers and sisters accountable. This doesn’t mean I should have shamed my friend or launched into a lecture about purity, but given our level of friendship, I could have asked some questions or voiced loving concern.
True friendship, especially among believers, means we don’t just look the other way when a friend is doing something that may be harmful in the long run. Saying, “Yes you are sinning, but it’s making you happy. So just keep sinning!” may be easier and a lot less messy than the alternative, but it is ultimately destructive. So while you may think that just accepting someone’s sinful behavior makes you a good friend, the harsh reality is that it actually makes you a selfish one.
Love vs. Acceptance
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” has meant different things to different generations. Sometimes, it’s been used as an excuse to essentially ostracize people we view as “sinners” from the Church. But I often see our generation leaning too far the other direction: most of us take the phrase to mean, “Accept the sinner and their sinful behaviors, and just secretly hate the sin.”
The truth is, love and acceptance are not the same thing. The even bigger truth is that love is messy and hard, while acceptance is clean and easy. Love says, “Your actions are hurting you. And because I love you, I am going to hold you accountable.”
Love sometimes means telling your friends they’re wrong. It sometimes means calling them out on their behavior. Love sometimes means disagreements and arguments, but those ultimately lead to personal and spiritual growth.
The alternative would be allowing your friends to participate in behavior that is harmful to them and their salvation. I think we often forget the reality of Romans 6:23, which says that the consequence of sin is death. It is very straightforward and clear about that. It then goes onto say that in spite of this, our gift from God is eternal life. I say that acceptance of a friend’s sin is allowing them to go down a destructive path because of this truth spoken in Romans. The continuation of sinful behavior results in death. The acceptance of Christ—that is, leaving your earthly desires behind to pick up your cross and follow Him—leads to eternal life.
True love does not simply accept sin, because true love wants the best for our brothers and sisters. True love doesn’t just accept because true love cannot accept death for our brothers and sisters. So yes, love can get messy. It can be painful because it makes for more vulnerable relationships. But these are the relationships that are real. These are the relationships that encourage change and foster growth through the promotion of truth.
Grace on Grace on Grace
The thing about love is that it is so tightly tied to grace. Because real love is vulnerable and sometimes painful, grace is always necessary on both sides. Grace is necessary when a friend calls out your sinful behavior. We are all sinners in need of accountability, so there will inevitably be times when our own sins will be brought to light. Grace in these moments is realizing that you are being called out because you are being loved.
And on the other end, grace is necessary when calling out a brother or sister. Grace in this situation is also realizing that we are all sinful—no one person more sinful than the other—and in that, we should be coming from a place of love, rather than judgment or condescension. This practicing of grace on grace on grace over and over again is the key to the growth and change that happens in real relationships. Grace is what makes us. It is what shapes us. And through Christ’s death on the cross and in our day-to-day relationships, grace is what saves us.
It is important to love all of God’s children. From the tax collectors to the Pharisees to the priests, we are all sinners.
Christian love says, “I love you for the broken, sinful person that you are. And because I love you, I will encourage you to be the man or woman you are called to be in Christ.”
Don’t just take the easy way out by condoning the continuation of sin, but rather, speak the truth in love and see real change and growth happen.