There was a time I accepted the phrase “Love the sinner; hate the sin,” but I always felt uncomfortable using it. Eventually, I started giving the expression second thought, and I realized the parallelism of the phrase suggests a balance between the ideas of love and hate. But love and hate don’t balance one another. Just as light cannot be where there is darkness, love cannot be where there is hate.
Of course, once I became aware of this difficult dichotomy, that voice of contrariness we probably all know popped into my head, insisting it is possible to love a person and, at the same time, hate what that person does. But is it?
I often find my way to understanding abstract ideas by considering how the idea plays out concretely in my own life. I asked myself if I’ve ever experienced someone who claims to love me, but hates something I do. I tossed aside the little, irrelevant things, like that my children love me, but hate when I do x, y, or z. Instead, I looked for times when a habitual behavior of mine was hated in the name of someone else’s righteousness. That lead to an easy epiphany.
I am a Latter-day Saint, but I chose my religion as an older teen. At the time, some family, friends, and associates considered my new affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sinful, or a fall from grace. Some felt I’d turned my heart over to Satan. These people viewed me through the lens of their own righteousness, or rightness, depending on their degree of faith interest. Furthermore, because I’ve lived most of my adult life in the Bible belt, many of the evangelical Christians around me consider me deceived and call me to repentance over my devotion to Mormonism. It doesn’t matter that I assure these people my spiritual self is healthy and happy. They say I sin by worshiping a false God, following a false prophet, or by participating in pagan-like rituals in the temple, and so on. They say they love me, but hate what they consider to be my sin.
Of course, I don’t see being LDS as a sin. That doesn’t change the fact that others outside Mormonism consider it sinful and use the Bible to prove this to themselves. Likewise, many people I know don’t see living together before marriage, or drinking on the occasional Saturday night as sin*, even though the devoutly religious around them can use the scriptures to prove these things are wrong.
Here’s the rub. I can’t have a healthy relationship with someone who focuses on how I’m screwing up my life. I can’t be open with them. I can’t be me. If I can’t be me, they can’t know me. If they don’t know me, they can’t love me. Trust always withers and dies when there is that thing between people, especially when that thing insists one is superior to the other. “Love the sinner; hate the sin” erects a barrier between people, a barrier the accused has no power to tear down because it is someone else’s property. In other words, “Love the sinner; hate the sin” is an attitude that has potential to inflict great harm on the relationships we care most about.
“But sin is sin,” some will say, “and God doesn’t look upon sin with any degree of allowance. This means we shouldn’t either. After all, we are commanded to be like God.”
To this I respond: Let me know when you become God.
As for me, unless a sin is one of those that threatens the well-being (like domestic violence or abuse), I’m looking away from the sin and directly at the heart, the goodness, and the value of the human being. Why? Because my relationship with that person needs balance–not the false balance of love and hate, but of mutual respect. I choose this because I know what it feels like to be cast as the sinner.
Recently, my husband shared this story with me. I may not know its origin, but I know it speaks wisdom.
In a certain village, when a man commits a wrong-doing, he is brought to the center of that village and encircled by the people. Each villager is called forward to face the wrong-doer — not to malign or assault him, but to remind him of a charitable act he has done in the past. Once each villager has had their opportunity to speak in this manner, they all return home, never to talk of the wrong-doing again.
This is, essentially, what Christ taught us when he told the crowd to drop the stones they’d gathered to pelt the woman who had been caught in sin. If a sin exists, it exists as a private matter between the individual and the Savior. The rest of us should turn away from the spectacle, should focus only on expanding the kind of love that creates relationships that will bridge mortality and eternity.
It will be all right. God is bigger than any of us can imagine.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. John 14: 27
*Many consider addiction a sin when it may be more properly classed as a mental health and/or medical condition. If you have a loved one who is caught in addiction, please review the Addiction Recovery program, sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and seek professional help and advice.
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