Love the sinner – hate the sin. All Christians I’ve ever met have said this, and some of us have even believed it, as if it were even possible. I think I probably once did, but I don’t think it any more. Oh, you can think you’re loving people whilst hating the things you think they’ve done wrong, but what you’re doing isn’t what you think you’re doing. Here’s why.
Christians are not the boss of deciding what’s sin and what isn’t. Even if the thing we’re calling sin is in the Bible as we claim, we are not the police of sin. As if we all weren’t sinners in the first place anyway. I think most Christians struggle with knowing what sin even is – our thinking we get to label people as sinners, well that’s just arrogant. You think you can tell me categorically what counts as sin? Tell me - is cigarette smoking a sin? When you’ve worked that one out, come see me and I’ll give you a harder one.
Jesus didn’t emotionally blackmail people with his affections. One of the things I love most about Jesus was that he came across sinners all the time, (funnily enough) but never said anything that might lead them to think he was doing them a huge favour by being with them. I can’t imagine Jesus chatting to people with that wan, barely-tolerant expression on his face that we Christians sometimes have, especially when someone who we don’t usually hang out with mentions something that confuses and confronts us, like their being gay. In fact, Jesus often let people know straight up that he understood exactly what they were all about but never made out like he was just dying to get home to clean their atmosphere off his body. In fact, he talked about people, and to people, as if all the aspects of their being and existence were not going to be a problem for him, even if they had been a problem for them. Now wouldn’t that be refreshing? No wonder those who knew they really needed help, salvation and forgiveness just loved Jesus, and those other people who stood to lose something should the kingdom of God turn out to be an equal playing ground just couldn’t wait to get rid of him.
We belong to God – He doesn’t belong to us. I’m curious…just who exactly made us Christians the gatekeepers to God? It must be very painful and frustrating for people who are trying to reach out to God with their whole being to be blocked by smarmy, self-important Christians who feel they get to decide who may get close and who may not. How very capricious of us. On the one hand we preach a God of acceptance and love, and yet on the other we continue to patronise and marginalise the very ones who probably need Him the most. Maybe even more than we do, but perhaps not for the reasons we think.
The reason they need Him more than we do may not be because they need to be “cured” of some depravity we’ve judged they have, but perhaps more likely because they have been subjected to horrible and abject prejudices all their lives, and perhaps even traumatised by those. They appreciate that only God can heal this kind of hurt, because they know He made them, and He loves them. The people I know who have been marginalised by Christians really do get that Christians cannot bring themselves to love them properly, or just do not want to. But for His sake I think we ought to get out of the damn way and just let God do what God does best, which incidentally, may not actually turn out to be burn up all the people we don’t like or are afraid of in a big bonfire we get to dance around.
Real friendship transcends differences – not barely tolerates them. Having someone reserve the right to think you’re disgusting while they carry on like your friend doesn’t feel very good. It doesn’t feel like friendship, and it certainly doesn’t feel like love. It feels at best like pity. At worst, actually also like pity. If you had been on the receiving end of this kind of “love”, you would never, ever dish it out to someone else. Knowing that the person you are with has performed enormous gyrations of their personal morality and sense of propriety to be in your presence, for which they expect to be rewarded by God at some later stage, diminishes your dignity, and fractures all real hope of true fellowship. Finding out you are someones special Christian “love” project is far from humbling or pleasurable – its deeply mortifying. Take it from me.
All that really separates you and the person who makes you feel disgusted is in reality not their sin which you’ve decided you simply can’t ignore, but is in fact your own inflated sense of self-righteousness, and probably a deep suspicion that despite everything you’ve done, God is still somehow mad at you for something. If you truly knew His love for you, and understood the depth and breadth of His love for others, you wouldn’t find it as hard to be sweet to unChristians as you do. Laying down your personal sense of superiority is not a favour you are doing others – it’s actually a huge favour you are doing yourself.
God forgives and forgets sin – so why do you get to record and remember them? Someone important in a church I belonged to once called me a “trophy of grace”. I sort of knew she meant it as a compliment, but it always had the effect of letting me know that while I was included in church life, it would always be despite both me and my past. My presence served to remind people just how incredibly powerful grace truly was, because everyone knew the level of depravity I’d proven myself capable of. Lucky me. I always wondered when people were going to let me leave behind my “before” picture forever, but it never happened. Wondering why people leave your church? Maybe it’s because they’re sick up to here of being reminded what a huge leap it is for you to forget where they came from and what they did before you knew them in church.
In the end, it’s got to be about economy as well. Who’s got time for all this crap? I actually have enough trouble working out what qualifies as sin just for me, I have neither the time or the energy to be working it out for others. In fact, I haven’t got so many friends that I think I can pick and choose the less sinful ones out from the rest. I am friendly back to anyone nice enough to be friendly to me. Funnily enough, this seems to work great.
Every time I hear the expression “hate the sin, love the sinner”, I think of Jesus at the well talking to the Samaritan woman. “Give me a drink.” He says, breaking with all social convention and religious tradition (she was a woman, and a Samaritan – two reasons he had no business to be dealing with her). “Why are you talking to me?” she says, realising fully that he extends that which she has no right to demand or expect. Jesus goes on to explain not what a great favour he is doing her, but what he has to offer her, without judgement, without expectation. He knows full well she is a woman who has broken laws and transgressed her religion, but her life neither surprises nor elicits any judgement from him. In His eyes, she is not what she has done. “I know who you are – and I also know that you need what I have to give you.” he says. Beguiling, this Jesus. He is right, of course, and in the end, it’s his willingness to let go of his right to judge her in order that he may genuinely commune with her that wins her. Wins her so convincingly, that many come to follow Jesus because of her, and the things she says about Him. (John 4:3-42)
Jesus reveals what he knows about the woman at the well not so he can impress, frighten or coerce her, but in order to earn her trust. When He says “I know all about you.” it isn’t to elevate Himself with moral or religious connotations of superiority – it’s to show her that who and what she is is secondary to who and what He is. He is the Christ, and with that comes the mercy, the love and the purpose she has been looking for her whole life.
I think it’s impossible to hate what you see as the sin of someone and also claim to love them. Any relationship between you will always be on your terms, because you will always hold them apart, deeming them morally and spiritually defective. There is an alternative, and it’s actually much simpler than you think. Like Jesus did, don’t see people as if they were what you think they’ve done wrong. It could turn out that what you think they’ve done wrong isn’t actually wrong after all, or isn’t as wrong as what you’ve been doing to all the people you think you’re better than.
We see things – and people – as we are, not as they are. If you are a person who sees all people as being the things they have done, just remember that one of the things you have done is to judge all other people as sinners unworthy of your authentic love. Stop it, now, or, in the words of Jesus, something worse may happen to you. As if there were something worse than only having the friends you think are good enough for you. I’m sure you and your cat will be very happy.
(I know I promised in the title some other incredible Christian feats, but this one is actually pretty big. If you get this one sorted out, and want to get back to me about it, maybe do so on the smoking thing at the same time. Cheers.)