“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” — On Moving Past Bifurcated Thinking.

Be friends with me long enough and you’ll discover just how deeply I detest Christian-y jargon.

calvinandhobbesWell-meaning, genuinely Jesus-loving people confuse these Christian-y platitudes and bromides with the Gospel of Jesus, and then actually forget the Gospel of Jesus because the platitudes and bromides are simpler to understand. These platitudes and bromides bifurcate the world and people into simple black/white, right/wrong, good/bad, you/me terms which tell us all who’s in and who’s out and, frankly, are much to be preferred to Jesus who was confusing and convoluted and nuance-y, who told parables that made everyone wonder if he was daft and shared table fellowship with the wrong people and had terrible boundaries with sinful, long-haired womenfolk.

I’ve been thinking about bromides because one of the Big Ones made the rounds this week, all because a man kissed another man on television — because OMG people, television, now that is sacred space and who knows what will happen if we start allowing SIN on television, let alone the NFL draft!

Hell, meet hand basket.

But I digress.

This is not a post about gay rights, or about whether homosexuality is a sin. It is a post about the bromide: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

As bromides go, it’s quite good. We can say, “I love Mr. Soandso, even though I hate the sinful things he does,” and never actually ponder whether we actually do love Mr. Soandso and what that love would look like should we actually possess it. Plus, we get the added benefit that the bromide functions rhetorically as code and so announces to all the important people we need to be in good standing with that We Are In The Club.

My least favorite mega-church pastor would say something like “I love you enough to tell you that you are going to hell,” and LORD knows I’m tempted to say, “Right back at ya, Preacher Man.” But I don’t, because honestly, I don’t understand love couched in these terms (I love you so much that I will judge your eternal destiny having never actually met you and based only on the actions I see in the present moment?) and I really don’t presume to know what role Mr. Preacher Man has to play in God’s eventual Kingdom, when shalom will cover the whole earth. I hope, like me, he finds compassion in the face of Jesus; he needs it as much as I do.

On the one hand, as Christians, we ought to hate sin because God hates sin. God hates sin because it destroys people and creation, and God loves people and all of His creation so very, very much. So we discover in the pages of the Bible, from word one in Genesis to the final word in Revelation, that God is in the business of destroying sin and its consequence, death, and restoring humanity right along with the rest of creation to a place of shalom, God dwelling among us once again.

On the other hand, usually the people this bromide is launched at don’t see their actions as sin. They see their actions (or choices, emotions, whatever) as normal, or even healthy, and feel “who are you to tell me otherwise?” Too many times this bromide is used as a weapon to whack a non-Christian over the head with their (perceived-by-us) moral failings. This must stop, and this is why the bromide doesn’t work: because nobody — not me or you — and certainly not a bromide, can convince a person of their sin. Only God can do that. Only God has the right to do that, because you and me, we don’t see the heart of any other person and usually we don’t even see our own very well. We do not know what a person’s story is, why they choose the way they do, what it feels like to be in their skin, doing their best with the cards they’ve been dealt.

No, I am not saying that our circumstances affect whether something is actually sin or not; I’m saying Let God Figure That Out.

You and me, Christian, we don’t have to sort everyone out. We especially don’t have to sort out all the good folks out there who do not profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior the way you and I do. Let the Spirit of God do that, in God’s timing, in God’s way. Our mandate from Scripture is not to convict people of sin or win the culture wars or establish a theocracy. Our mandate is to deliver — in person — the good news that Jesus won, death is dead, God’s kingdom is here, there are already thin places where heaven and earth touch, shalom is spreading, and all are invited to the table.

So, if we break apart the bifurcated thinking of “sinner / sin” where do we land? In a word, compassion. We seek to look deeper, to ask to hear other’s stories. We sit awhile with the person we are tempted to reduce down to meaningless terms and instead hear what their life has been like, forge a wider place for the tension of their lives to expand, not constrict. What moves them? What frightens them? What is their greatest hope? What is the moment of their deepest shame? If you really want to try on compassion, go the extra mile and seek to give them a stage to tell their story and have their experience validated, to experience acceptance no matter what their past, their present or their future portends.

Compassion seeks to make shared space with another, to refuse to let the wreckage of life define us. Compassion insists on rejecting these stupid bifurcations of reality, insists that the Gospel of Jesus is incarnational and can’t be communicated in bromides or platitudes or even Bible verses ripped out of context for the purpose of theological or cultural warmongering.

Instead of bromides, how about something more like this:

“I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery. ” ― Brennan Manning

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