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Beyond "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin"
October 24, 2012
Love the sinner, hate the sin.” That’s a well-worn Christian mantra, an expression of conviction that even while we stand firm on what constitutes right and wrong, we will continue to love those who do what is sinful. We use the expression to affirm love for others even while expressing that their sin is really, truly wrong.
The expression works in many contexts. I can love the alcoholic even while hating the alcoholism or, more rightly, hating the episodes of binging and acting out. “I love you. I really do. But I hate that you continue to indulge in these episodes of binge drinking and I hate the way you behave when you’re drunk.” This is the stuff of Intervention, the stuff of Dr. Phil. I can love the thief even while hating that he imperils his safety and freedom by taking what is not his. “I love you, but I hate that you keep stealing from people.” Non-Christians look at things much the same way, though they do not frame it with the word “sin.” We all know that there are times when we can disapprove of a person’s actions even while continuing to love and value that person.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” works in many contexts, but Christians are learning that there is one context, one very important context, in which it does not work quite so well. Some things that the Bible says are sin are very closely tied to a person’s identity, to their very understanding of who they are. There are not a lot of alcoholics who say, “I was born an alcoholic and will always be one. At heart, that’s who I am.” There are not a lot of thieves who declare that theft is an integral part of their identity and who celebrate it as the deepest part of their self-understanding. There are not parades to celebrate alcoholism and thievery. These are sins to be sure, but they are not the kinds of sins by which people identify themselves. Even those who do these things tend to acknowledge that they are wrong and try to clean themselves up by moving past them.
But other sins are very closely tied to identity. The Bible is clear that homosexuality is sin. As the designer of humanity, as the designer of gender, God has both the ability and the right to tell us what is consistent with his will and what is radically inconsistent. Homosexuality is inconsistent with his will and, therefore, sinful. Christians have long held this and have sought to hate the sin even while loving the sinner. Those words may help the Christian as he thinks about that particular sin, calling him to affirm the wrongness of the sin and at the same time to affirm the value of the person who commits that sin. But this phrase brings no comfort to the homosexual; because his sexuality is so closely tied to his identity, it is nearly impossible to believe that I can truly love him, even while I reject his sexuality. My words in effect say, “I love you; I hate you.”
A growing number of Christians are calling on us to understand that we’ve made this whole issue a little bit too simplistic. We’ve made it a little bit too neat and tidy and haven’t really pushed ourselves to look at homosexuality in light of culture’s celebration of it. They are by no means calling on us to abandon what we believe or to reject what the Bible says. Rather, they are helping us see it from a clearer, more realistic, more helpful perspective.
I am grateful for several recent books that address this issue well and from an insider’s perspective—from Christians who used to identify as homosexual or from Christians who in some way still do (even while they do not practice). With this issue so prevalent in society today, with the increasing juxtaposition between culture and the Bible, I think every Christian can benefit from reading at least one of them and making the effort to think about the issues. Here are a few suggestions.
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield. Butterfield was living a good life. She had a tenured position at a large university in a field for which she cared deeply. She owned two homes with her partner and provided hospitality to students and activists. She was heavily involved in the community around her. She was well respected in the academy. And then, in the late 30’s, her world was turned completely upside down when she encountered the Bible and, through the Bible, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Today she is a homeschooling mother and the wife of a pastor of a Reformed Presbyterian Church. That is a story that just has to be told. Her book is little-known but very deep and very important and absolutely fascinating. Of particular importance are her thoughts on how the gay community is in some ways so much safer and more welcoming than the church community.
Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill. I have previously reviewed this book, so let me quote an excerpt of that review: “It may be that this book’s greatest strength is its ability to take us deep inside the struggle. Those of us who have never struggled with this sin have probably never considered all of the difficulties that come with it—all of the feelings of guilt and shame, remorse and hopelessness. 1 Corinthians tells us that when one member of Christ’s body suffers, all suffer together. This book invites us into the suffering experienced by some of our brothers and sisters. There are things I wish Hill had done better, times I think he could have addressed issues differently, but his book remains powerful, always looking to Scripture, always seeking God’s will.”
Out of a Far Country by Christopher & Angela Yuan. “Christopher Yuan, the son of Chinese immigrants, discovered at an early age that he was different. He was attracted to other boys. As he grew into adulthood, his mother, Angela, hoped to control the situation. Instead, she found that her son and her life were spiraling out of control. Years of heartbreak, confusion, and prayer followed before the Yuans found a place of complete surrender, which is God’s desire for all families. Their amazing story, told from the perspectives of both mother and son, offers hope for anyone affected by homosexuality. God calls all who are lost to come home to him. Casting a compelling vision for holy sexuality, Out of a Far Country speaks to prodigals, parents of prodigals, and those wanting to minister to the gay community.”