Michael burst into my office. As he came in I noticed that his eyes were bloodshot and stains from his tears marked his face. He sat down in a chair across from my desk, buried his face in the palms of his hands, and began sobbing.
He was a sophomore in a nearby university and had moved to the LA area from Northern California. He was a part of the college ministry that I was leading at the time. Michael was always a little more quiet, but was very active in our church. I quickly came from around the desk and sat next to him.
“What’s going on bro?” I asked with my hand on his shoulder.
No reply, just more crying. I thought that maybe one of his friends died, a parent had cancer, or something like that. A couple of minutes later he still hadn't said anything and was still crying. I consider myself somewhat compassionate, but it was time for him to start spilling his guts.
“Michael, tell me what happened.”
He removed his face from his hands, looked at me, and said, “I’m a sinner and my parents hate me!”
“Huh?” I replied. “We’re all sinners. Why would your parents hate you for that?”
He told me that he'd just come out to his very conservative Christian parents. I always wondered if Michael was same-sex attracted, but he'd never come out to me. Apparently he chose to tell his parents over the phone (instead of in person) and their response was less than what he'd hoped for (putting it mildly). Inappropriate and unintentional words were exchanged as the conversation grew more tense. However, one phrase from his parents really offended him. And I don't blame Michael for feeling offended. If I were him, I'd feel offended by this phrase too. Here's the phrase...
Love the sinner, hate the sin.
Even typing the phrase gets me worked up. If only I could delete this phrase from our society. It's damaged relationships, divided families, sabotaged emotions, and so much more. This phrase mishandles the emotions of the individual saying it, the person receiving the words, and God who is represented by the phrase. Consider the phrase from 2 different perspectives.
I understand the theological idea that the phrase tries to convey, but it fails miserably. Scripturally, sin is tied to us personally. In the Bible, God deals personally with people's sin because sin is personal to Him. Sin flows from our heart, is manifested in our actions, destroys our life, hurts others, separates us from God, etc. If there's anyone that can really separate the sin from the sinner, it’s Jesus. Whereas sin separates us from God, Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection abolished sin's eternal consequences so we can have an everlasting relationship with God. Love the sinner, hate the sin is something that only God can completely understand and do with perfect love.
The Listener’s Perspective
Think about Michael who heard his parents tell him: love the sinner, hate the sin. Michael didn’t think attraction to the same gender was is a sin (because it isn't a sin) and he wasn't sure what he believed about having an intimate relationship with another guy. However, when his parents said "love the sinner hate the sin" he heard and felt the following:
You've been reduced to a phrase
On the one hand, yes, Michael is a sinner. On the other hand, no one is as simple as the phrase makes them sound. Love the sinner, hate the sin doesn’t resolve any tension, but it transforms tension into toxic conflict. Many who relate in some way as LGBTQ see it as a part of who they are, not the sum of who they are. Everyone is a mosaic of experiences, joys, upbringings, failures, relationships, and so on. One phrase doesn't to justice to who someone truly is.
You're a worse sinner than we are
Sins have different consequences. Punching someone is dealt with in a certain way and killing someone is handled differently. While different sins carry varying consequences, all sin is equal in the ultimate result it brings: separation from God. The ultimate result of sin (separation from God) puts all of us on the same level. Even unintentionally implying that someone is a "worse sinner" is actually shows a misunderstanding of self and of God's grace. I don't believe that any human can actually separate sin from the "sinner" in their thinking. Michael was already finding it difficult to keep his attraction from being the basis for his main identity. The phrase from his parents didn't help.
A Better Response
Maybe instead of trying to resolve the tension of truth and grace with a single phrase, we should let the tension remain. I’m not saying that loving people requires us to ignore what the Bible says about holy living or vice versa. You can't be loving while withholding truth. We HAVE to be truthful. But I am saying that it would be good to listen, be a good friend (or family member), continue building a relationship, use our words intentionally, and wait for God to open doors for conversations on life. It could be that we can't see how God is working in their hearts. Trying to resolve the tension of grace and truth with a single phrase creates unneeded pain for everyone involved. There’s just too much baggage with this phrase (love the sinner, hate the sin)… so let’s just drop it. Instead, say things like:
God loves you and so do I.
I love you no matter what.
I’m in your corner and praying for you.
Thank you for sharing this with me. I'm here for you.
Let’s just love people the way Jesus did: listen, be fully present, be the best friend we can, be intentional with our words, and wait for God to open doors for needed conversations. Such an approach would've helped Michael. It will definitely help you and your future conversations.