Half Truths: Love the sinner. Hate the sin.

From August 13, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

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We’re on our final week of our Half-Truths series. This series is based on a book by Rev. Adam Hamilton called Half-Truths. In this series we are looking at common sayings that are often associated with Christianity and said by many Christians. And at first, they may sound OK, and we often mean well when we say them. But when we look a little closer we realize that these sayings aren’t as true or as Christian as we first might have thought.  The final saying we are looking at today is “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.”

This weekend, as I watched the news out of Charlottesville, I debated writing a completely different sermon for this morning. When neo-Nazis and KKK members are marching in broad daylight on the streets of America, their words and actions filled with hatred and racism, then there is the need for the word of God to be heard.  When people are killed and injured by an act of domestic terrorism for the world to see on TV. The church should not remain silent.

So yesterday, I wrestled with whether I should throw out what I had written and instead devote this sermon solely to what is taking place in Charlottesville, and what it says about what is taking place all over America. But in the end, I decided to mostly remain with my original sermon. I did this for two reasons.

First, I was unsure that I could come up with the words needed to theologically address the events taking place in Charlottesville. Like many of you, I am still trying to make sense of what has taken place, and how God is calling us to actively engage in opposition to hate, racism and white supremacy. The second reason that I stuck with this sermon is because I think it does speak, in several important ways, to the events of this weekend.  We need to be talking about love. We need to be talking about sin. We need to be talking about hate.  And it’s more important than ever, that we speak loudly of love and tread carefully when talking about hate, sin and sinners.

Love the sinner. Hate the sin.  It sounds Ok, on first read.  How can it be bad to love anybody?  And doesn’t it sound really Christ-like to love sinners? And shouldn’t we hate sin? Especially if we think of sin as things that we do that hurt ourselves, others, or hurt God.

The phrase is not in the Bible, though.  It is thought to have originated with St. Augustineseveral hundred years after Jesus.  In one of his letters he called for early Christians to have a “love for mankind and a hatred of sins.”  Over the ages, this saying has appeared in various forms, but they all mean basically the same thing.  If we know of someone who is sinning, we should continue to love them as a sinner, but hate and condemn the sinful actions they do.  And this does sound true, right?

Never stop loving someone no matter what horrible things they’ve done.  But here’s the catch. Rarely, are we ever able to contain our hatred only to the sin. Ghandi once spoke about this saying: “Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”

Love the sinner. Hate the sin. If we practice this, we end up focusing much more on sin and the label of sinner, much more than we focus on love.  Jesus never said love the sinner. Jesus said love your neighbor.  Jesus knew that if he commanded people to love the sinner, they would begin looking people more as sinners than neighbor.

Think about it. If I said to you right now, I want you to love everyone sitting here in the congregation today, especially those who have been recently diagnosed with a highly contagious form of smallpox. Are you going to focus on loving your neighbor, or on who looks a little under the weather today.

Love the sinner. Hate the sin, doesn’t lead us to love, instead it leads us immediately to a place of judging who is a sinner and what sins are they guilty of.  Love the sinner. Hate the sin, is often used as code for saying “I judge you. You are a sinner, you should be ashamed that you do _____, but even though I am better than you, I will love you anyway.”

This is a good time to read our second scripture this morning. Because it addresses this very topic.

Luke 18: 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

In Jesus day, the Pharisees were Jewish authorities, who by all accounts, should be considered as righteous. They strictly lived their lives according to proper Jewish laws. And to many who first head Jesus tell this story, they would probably agree with the Pharisee’s self-assessment. He was a righteous man, especially when compared with the tax-collector.  The tax-collector would have even agreed that the Pharisee was more righteous than he was.

But in a twist at the end of the story it is the tax collector who is justified by God, and not the righteous Pharisee.  Seminary professor, David Lose says this about the story:

Here is the essential contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord's benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn't so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.”

What matters to God in this story, and in our own lives, is not who is righteous, but who is judgmental and who is not. Not who lives a so-called perfect life, but who realizes their dependence on God and that righteousness is a gift from God and not our own doing.

So coming back to Love the sinner. Hate the sin. The problem with this saying is that it focuses us on the sins of others, on judgment of others, rather than on our own sin and being honest about where we are with God.  Love the Sinner. Hate the sin, at its heart focuses on the sins of others and our judgment of them.

In the Half-Truths book, Adam Hamilton tells this story about Billy Graham:

Some time ago I read an interview with Billy Graham’s eldest daughter, Gigi. She was her father’s date to Time magazine’s seventy-fifth anniversary party, a banquet in Washington, DC. President Bill Clinton spoke at the event. He had just been impeached by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice. The charge of perjury involved what President Clinton had said, under oath, about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. At the banquet, her father sat with President and Mrs. Clinton. He was warm and gracious to them. After the dinner ended and Graham and Gigi were riding back to their hotel, the two discussed difficulties the president and First Lady were going through with so many people gossiping and judging. Gigi said her father’s simple comment was, “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict; it’s God’s job to judge; and it’s our job to love.”

It is our job to love. Not to judge. It is our job to love.  When we label someone as sinner, we stop seeing the person and we start seeing the sin. Our job is not to convict but to love.

Should we keep silent about the problem of sin? Of course not. There are absolutely times when Christians must stand up and name sin and evil for what it is.  This moment in the life of our country is one of those times.  We must name hatred, racism, white supremacy, and the failure to condemn them as sin.  Any Christian who engages in actions or rhetoric motivated by hate or racism, has ceased to represent Christ. Any Christian who remains silent in the face of racism and hatred, will have to answer to God for their complicity.

But we must resist the urge to judge and label those protestors in Charlottesville simply as sinners or to think of them as lesser people, not as holy and righteous as we are.  Our job is not to convict but to love. In fact, Adam Hamilton says:

The truth in “Love the sinner, hate the sin” stops with the first word: Love.

Let me ask you this. Where have you most often heard the phrase Love the Sinner, hate the sin, used? I have most often heard it used in terms of homosexuality. For those Christians, who believe that Bible says that homosexuality is sinful, this verse has been used to explain how someone can condemn a large part of someone’s identity while still claiming to love that person. Ask someone who is gay, ask someone who is transgender, ask them if they feel loved by people who say love the sinner, hate the sin.

When we use this saying we are first and foremost defining that person as a sinner, rather than as someone we love. Furthermore, as you heard Kelsey read from Matthew, we should not be judging other people, we have enough sin in our own lives that makes us liable to judgement.  The only person we should label as sinner is ourselves. Love the sinner, hate the sin should be rewritten and we should instead be saying, I love you, even despite the fact that I am a sinner.

·         Everything happens for a reason.

·         God helps those who help themselves.

·         God wont’ give you more than you can handle.

·         God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

·         Love the sinner. Hate the sin.

Five half-truths. So if I have done my math correctly, that makes 2.5 whole truths. And isn’t that better than no truth?  If there is some truth to these why do we really need to be worried about saying these things? If we mean well, isn’t that enough. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. The reality is these half-truths can hurt people who need hope and healing. These half-truths can be destructive to someone in a time of need. These half-truths can discourage people and turn people away from God and Christianity.

And even more importantly, why would we give someone a half-truth when we could give them the whole truth of a God who loves them and is there to support and guide them every step of the way.

I am indebted to Rev. Adam Hamilton and his Church in Kansas that made the inspiration for this sermon series available to other churches and preachers, and so I’d like to close with his words today:

I’d like remind you of the “whole truths” we found behind the half truths we have rejected. We reject the idea that everything that happens is God’s will. Instead we say that whatever happens, God is able to able to work through it, to redeem it, and to bring good from it.

We reject the idea that God only helps those who help themselves. We recognize that God expects us to do what we can to help ourselves. We pray and we work. But ultimately the very definition of grace and mercy is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

We reject the idea that God won’t give us more than we can handle. This is partly because we reject the idea that whatever adversity we face is given to us by God. What we do believe is that God will help us handle all the adversity life will give us.

We reject the idea that every verse of Scripture should be read, out of context, as the literal words of God. Instead we recognize that the biblical authors were people, influenced by God but not merely stenographers. Like all of us they were shaped by, and responded to, the historical circumstances in which they lived. And thus we believe that, when they are rightly interpreted, God speaks through the words of Scripture in order to teach, guide, shape, and encourage us.

Finally, we reject the notion that God calls upon Christians to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” When we choose to focus on the sins of others and speak of hating their sin, we violate the words and spirit of Jesus. Paul calls us to hate our sins, and Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, all of whom are sinners. When we demonstrate love and not judgment, we draw people to Christ rather than repel them from him.