“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a phrase that has been tossed about so often, that many people think it is a biblical quotation. Using the search feature on my bible software on 16 different versions of the Bible turned up: “There were no results for this search.” A search of the internet pointed to a possibility that it may have been a paraphrase of St Augustine of Hippo who said in Latin, Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, or “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.” So why do we as Christians use this phrase so often?
It may be because the sentiment it expresses is one found in Scripture. After all Paul reminds Timothy that, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15). Jesus certainly went out of his way to reach the lost, and became known as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). Then we have that famous story of the woman caught in adultery. As we all know, the story ends with him saying to this poor dis-graced person, “Neither do I condemn you... Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
However, in my experience, as good and biblical as this phrase sounds, it is for all intents and purposes a human impossibility. As depraved creatures, we do neither well. Our “love” is incomplete at best, or hypocritical at its worst. And our “hate” is qualified. We “hate” the sin that is not our own. More importantly, we cannot for all our efforts keep that fine line between the “sin” and the “sinner”.
I have never heard a person once utter with great conviction, “That pastor really hates my sin, but I am convinced that he absolutely loves me!” Instead, what I have come across many times are people who has been so battered and bruised by other Christians, because of the callous judgement, and angry rhetoric, that they despaired of ever finding healing in the church. I am reminded of the story that Philip Yancey tells in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? He speaks to a prostitute who is desperate, advising her to go to the neighbourhood church to find help. She replies, “Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They'd just make me feel worse."
So what are we to do? In my opinion, the greater problem we have in the church (or our tradition) right now is that we are far too Pharisaical in tone, and not sufficiently loving to sinners. How can we change that? Do we even want to? Don’t get me wrong. We must never deny the reality of sin in the life of the person. But most who come to us are “sick” people, in need of healing. What we cannot do is turn them away, just because they are unwell. After all, what kind of hospital would we be if we only allow healthy people to enter?
Even more important though is how we see ourselves. At times we think of ourselves as health care workers, when in reality we are the patients who are in various stages of recovery, but in desperate need of healing too! It is so easy for us to see “them” as sinners, forgetting our own condition. That is why Jesus was insistent that we deal with the log in our eyes, and not obsess over the splinters in the eye of another. So we are called to be loving sinners who love fellow sinners. And together we look to Dr. Jesus who alone can cure sin!