For many years Christians have loved saying, “I hate the sin, but I love the sinner” when it comes to what other people do and to social issues in general. Obviously, there is truth in this statement, and it is often a heartfelt expression of how we feel—or at least how we want to feel. But I have resolved to avoid this phrase as much as possible for three reasons:
1. Love should be more evident by our actions than our words.
Most of us understand the biblical mandate to be a people of love. Jesus told us this is the greatest commandment, and He said that people would know we are His disciples by our love. But, let’s be honest, it is not easy to practice love. It is easier to talk about it. That is why the apostle John said, “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18). In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul added, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
Oftentimes we want to express our faith in truth, zeal, passion, and boldness. There is a place for those things, of course, but our faith needs to be modeled in loving actions and words that have genuine grace and compassion behind them. Too often we talk about loving the sinner, but our actions contradict our words. In contrast, Jesus rarely had to tell people He loved them, yet He had sinners flocking to Him because His love and compassion were evident, while people sometimes run from us because we talk about love without truly modeling it.
2. It sounds condescending.
Jesus once told a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector who came to the temple to pray. The Pharisee looked up to heaven and said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). That Pharisee may have been sincere, but his words came across as arrogant and uncompassionate. Jesus said his words did not reflect the truth of God, and the tax collector—who prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—was actually closer to God’s heart than the Pharisee.
In our zeal to protect the truth, our attitude and tone can come across as condescending. Much like the Pharisees, who were blind to their blindness, we are unaware of how arrogant and judgmental our words often sound. When we say to people, “I hate the sin, but I love the sinner,” our motive may be good, but we look and sound more like a Pharisee than Jesus.
3. It’s better to say, “I love the sinner, and I hate MY sin.”
Jesus said that the one who has been forgiven much loves much and the one who has been forgiven little loves little (Luke 7:47). I think part of the reason many evangelical Christians are not defined by love is because we do not believe we have been forgiven much. We believe grace is necessary for salvation, and many of us remember the sins of our past that God has forgiven, but when it comes to our present state of brokenness, we are blind, calloused, and in denial. We generalize and diminish the deeper sins of the heart, like pride, fear, unbelief, envy, greed, internal lust, and gossip, by saying things like, “I know I’m not perfect, but…”
When we are truly walking in an awareness of our sin, we realize how far from Jesus we are, even if we are living good, moral, devoted lives. This awareness makes us humble and compassionate toward those far from God because we aren’t deceived into believing we are more righteous than we really are. However, when we have no awareness of our sin, we have little grace and love for people who are living in blatant disobedience. So we need to spend more time searching our hearts and repenting of our own sin and less time trying to correct the world by telling them how wrong they are and how much we love them.
These are the reasons I want to avoid the mantra “Hate the sin; love the sinner” as much as possible. Instead, I want to walk in perpetual awareness of the state of my heart and my desperate need for Jesus, not only because of my past sins but also out of my present brokenness. I also hope to carry myself in such a way that my actions and the tone of my voice actually show the love of Jesus rather than just talking about it. For, while we must hold to the standards and convictions we believe represent God’s will, if we did so with greater amounts of love and grace, we would be much better witnesses for Christ to a hurting and disobedient world.