I’m not going to use this phrase anymore: Love the sinner and hate the sin. In our current mission context, it has lost whatever insight and help it might once have offered. In fact, to use the phrase and try to guide ministry with it in mind may actually subvert the mission.
I don’t quarrel with either loving sinners or hating sin. God does both and so should all who love God. But trying to love the sinner, while keeping in mind a concern to make sure “we hate the sin,” whatever we understand that to mean, leads to failure in my judgment. There are reasons why I say this. Most of us find it hard to focus on more than one thing primarily. Actually, by definition it is not even possible. Whatever you focus on primarily requires you to focus less on everything else. Thus in this case we feel obliged to choose—either we focus on loving (the sinner) or hating (the sin). When you put it that way it seems fairly obvious that we ought to choose lovingover hating. That is, we want to be like Jesus, which means that people would know us primarily because they catch us and feel us loving, not hating. This doesn’t mean we never hate anything; it just means we’re not primarily found hating.
But often we do or try to do exactly that which by definition is not really possible—to focus primarily on both loving (the sinner) and hating (the sin). And because it cannot be done, we do not succeed. We end up doing only one thing primarily. Sadly, for most of us and the people Jesus wants us to reach, we end up hating (the sin) primarily. We wouldn’t want anyone to think that we are soft on sin, or that in loving others we’re simply indulging them or their sin. So, as it seems, in the interest of assuring that we’re really getting love right and correct—often we call it “tough love”—it appears right to focus more or primarily or first on hating (the sin).
Yet, in fact, this is not right, or not as right as we think when we do this. And, it could be that in focusing primarily on hating (the sin) we not only fail actually to love (the sinner) but also miss the mark in properly hating (the sin). Let me say more.
I am convinced that we should simply follow Jesus and focus on loving period, loving all that Jesus loves in the way that Jesus loves. To illustrate, recall the famous case-study of the “woman taken/caught in adultery” (John 7:53-8:11). It serves as perhaps one of the most celebrated examples of the pure and radical love of Jesus for the sinner. Ironically (or maybe not), it is also cited by those who want to make sure that in loving the sinner we do not inadvertently go soft on sin, because Jesus commands the woman: “Go and sin no more!”
In this episode, Jesus is teaching in the Temple when he is interrupted by a squad of Scribes and Pharisees who thrust a woman into the midst of Teacher and students. They explain by saying that the woman had been caught in the very act of adultery. Now, will Jesus prove soft on sin and disobey the “clear teaching” of the scriptures? They fake an interest in knowing, though in fact they already know all they need to know. They know that Jesus is “soft” on sin. It is because they know this that they stage the dramatic “test” of Jesus’ holiness. In effect, “This is what God says Jesus—stone her! Now, what do you say?”
We like to jump to the end of the story quickly to note that Jesus tells the woman to go and sin no more, as evidence that Jesus did love (the sinner) and hate (the sin). Thus, we conclude: Jesus did both and so should we.
I am not disputing that Jesus did both. But I am insisting that still Jesus primarily loved (the sinners). His focus was first and foremost on love. Jesus was not soft on sin. He knew all about the sin in the crowd that day. Jesus knew about the set-up involved in apparently catching only the woman in the very act and not the man. Jesus knew about the hypocrisy and deceit in the crowd since no one among them that day “obeyed” this Mosaic command. Jesus knew about their motives in calling attention to this sin in order to justify other sins and eventually the ultimate sin of murdering God’s son. Jesus knew about all the wrong in all the lives of all the people there. Jesus always came “armed” with such intel on everyone around him, for he knew what was in the human heart (and what was not). And, in this episode, Jesus was utterly confident that there was no one there among the accusers without sin. He knew that if he consented to obey the Mosaic command on condition that the first stone came from the sinless one the woman would not end her life condemned but loved all the way to a new life. Jesus knew that by loving her—and also every Scribe and Pharisee friend there—new life could come. Jesus loved the sinners and that, in turn, turned them away from their sin, if anything could, at least for a season.
Most of us who have endeavored to love (sinners) while hating (their sins) have cited Jesus’ admonition to the woman to go and stop sinning. But we fail to observe when Jesus says this, a failure with potentially devastating consequences. Jesus does not begin the conversation with such a statement, not with this woman and not with anyone else we know about. No, Jesus primarily loves her and does what love does in relation to her. As love will do, he refuses to condemn her, certainly at first and even later. He refuses to participate in public humiliation and shame. He protects her from abuse and the manipulation of others. He defends her against the crowd that only wants to destroy her for the sake of their cause. Jesus loves her in all these ways before he says anything about her sins. In fact, it is only after the woman has been spared from condemnation—only after she has been “saved”—that Jesus says, “Go and sin no more.”
Jesus primarily loved the sinners and, by pursuing love, sin came into the light and more than met its match. We would be wise to follow Jesus. That’s what I want to do more than ever.
Afterward: some of us will not be persuaded by what I am suggesting. Some will insist that it is important to take a stand against sin and will insist there must be a way to do so while genuinely loving sinners. I will not say they or you are wrong.
But here is the counsel I would give. Let’s start by hating our own sin first. If the sinners we would love are murderers, let’s start by hating the anger and rage that may lurk in our hearts. If the sinners are wonton pleasure seekers, let’s start by hating any self-preoccupations that may drive our lives. If the sinners are sexual transgressors, let’s start by hating the lust in our own hearts and any little lapses of integrity there may be in relation to others. If the sinners are enslaved to drugs or sex, let’s start by hating all of the compulsions and unhealthy pressures pushing us away from the best God shows us in the way of Jesus. In other words, let’s love other sinners and ourselves enough to invite any who are drawn to us to join us in “going and sinning no more.” I think that is really what Jesus did, except unlike us he had no sin to stop.