The Problem with “Hate the sin but love the sinner”

Great Lent

orthodox prostration

The Eastern Orthodox Church is in the season of Great Lent since our Pascha (Easter) isn’t until May 5th this year (it’s late!). Great Lent is a very purposeful time of repentance. We are called to spend time in introspection, to see our own sins, and to repent for them. It is also a time of paying special attention to the needy in our communities. In the Western Church, Lent is looked upon as a time of giving up something such as coffee or Facebook. In the Eastern Church, it is taught that we fast in order to submit our body to our spirit’s will, and also to save money by buying less food so that we can give to the needy.

There is a prayer by St. Ephraim the Syrian that we frequently recite with prostrations during this season:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.”
[Prostration]

“But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Your servant.”
[Prostration]

“O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.”
[Prostration]

The popular catchphrase

So, going back to the title of this blog, why do I have a problem with “Hate the sin but love the sinner”? Because it always seems to apply to the “other,” aka, not us. If we realized the extent of the horror of our own sins, we wouldn’t have the audacity to focus our hate on other people’s sins. We would instead be focused on the life-long process of removing the plank from our own eye.

When a young aspiring monk came to St Macarius the Great, seeking how he might find salvation, Macarius informed him to go to his cell and stay there weeping for his sins.

Dr.-Phil-Youre-Fat1So, the primary reason that popular catchphrase bothers me is because it can potentially take my focus off of my own sins, if understood in the wrong way.

Secondly, nearly every time I hear this phrase it is applied to situations where the sin is culturally unacceptable or for sins in which most of us are not tempted. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard people talking about obese or overweight Christians saying, “We just need to hate the gluttony, but love the sinner.”

Nor have I seen someone go up to a fellow brother in Christ at an all-you-can-eat-buffet and say, “Hey bro, you know that I love you and want to see you saved. But I hate your gluttony. You’ve got to put that third plate down so you don’t burn in hell.”

Instead, we pick on people who sin differently than us.

Let us spend this Lenten season with our hearts broken by our own shortcomings that we may rise up in the glorious resurrection of our Lord and the hope that is here now and is to come.

~~~UPDATE~~~

There are several places in the writings of the Orthodox fathers where I have come across something similar to the sentiment of “hate the sin, love the sinner.”  If practiced in purity, it is very good advice.  As I wrote above though, we, or perhaps I should say “I”, tend to be a hypocrite and find it much easier to hate other people’s sins more than I hate my own.  That is a big problem.  It is that problem I am attempting to address in this blog.

Someone brought this video to my attention a little after I wrote the above post:

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Jeremiah

Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

7 thoughts on “The Problem with “Hate the sin but love the sinner””

  1. An interesting perspective on fasting…submitting the body to the spirit’s will, and using the money to buy food for others instead. You’re right on about “hate the sin, love the sinner…” we should be hating our own sin…that should take up plenty of our time. (and…Dr. Phil….. 😀 that totally made my life….)

  2. I love that prayer!

    Interesting. I never understood why people use this saying all the time about homosexuality, but in some other cases I don’t see how you can do otherwise than hate the sin if you really love the sinner. If my friend has a drinking problem which is destroying him for example, how can I not hate that? And how can I not hate the sins that destroy people and this planet, even though I love the people who are part of the sinful system?
    But I do agree that I use another angle on sin then than most people who employ the saying do!

    1. I think hate is like justice. We humans don’t handle either of those very well. Our agendas and motives creep in and sometimes it is difficult to keep either from mixing with anger. Yes, we can hate self-destructive tendencies we see in others because we care about them. But we are treading a fine line there. It is easy to allow our emotions to play on us.

      The Church fathers tell us to avoid hating the sin of others…for the sake of our own salvation. It is too easy to get caught up in spiritual pride, or to secretly view those who are struggling with a particular sin or addiction as being less spiritual than ourselves.

      A desire for justice is much the same. Anger and vengeance often become the driving force; though they are often well-masked as a rightful yearning for justice.

      We humans were created for one thing: love. When we start doing that really well, then we can begin to consider things like hate and justice.

  3. You need be convicted of your own sin and broken before the Lord so that you may be an encouragement to your brother who is also caught in sin. I think we we’re create for more than love, Jeremiah. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We fall so short of that, thus Jesus’ great intercession on our behalf. Peace and “social justice” are ridiculous if there is not a contrite heart behind it. Great line from a Michael W Smith song….”you can entertain compassion to a world in need of care; but the road of good intentions doesn’t lead do anywhere…because love isn’t love, until you give it away.”

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Tom. I disagree with you on what our “chief end” is. From an Orthodox perspective –which I believe is Truth– there’s no way to get around the fact that the consummation, the epitome, the fulfillment of humanity is theosis, which is a complete and total union with the energies of God (including His love, grace, and mercy). This has been the teaching of the Church for the past 2,000 years.

      God is love. To state that we were created for more than love is to state that God is not enough, that we were made for something more than Him. It reveals in us a lack of understanding of the depth and the mystery of love (which, I’m sure you would agree, is far more than caring for someone or having warm fuzzies).

      Uniting to His divine energies is the purpose of every human’s life; and so we move from glory to glory, working in synchronized harmony with the beautiful Spirit of grace, mercy, and love.

  4. I’ve always experienced this phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin”, as a means to specifically take stock of my own inventory. It’s as if whenever this phrase comes to mind that I begin to very realistically contemplate a perspective that embraces “but for the grace of God, there go I”. Too many catchphrases and cliches, I know. But in all honesty, when I begin to put into practice love the sinner, hate the sin, I am more acutely aware of how much work still is needed on my own bag of tricks. I believe this is primarily because the first part takes precedence. Namely, I need to love the sinner. Some of the responses/comments above point directly to the problem of trying to love a sinner when I’m trapped by my own enslavement to the passions. Then it becomes apparent that without attempting to remove the plank from my own eye, I’m going to be little or no help to the person I have in mind who is caught up in a similar or even completely different passion. And I further experience a heightened intensity of conscience during the Lenten Journey with respect to this saying (love the sinner, hate the sin), because it seems that most of the brothers and sisters of my parish community and I are perpetually asking for one another’s forgiveness. In turn we ask God’s forgiveness, and we see that even though we all are struggling in unique ways, we all really are on the same team. Not sure if this comment of mine is helpful in any way (especially since it appears this article was written some time ago, but if it helps someone else out who reads all this, then glory to God!

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Fr Nicholas. I think you’re understanding of the phrase in question is a good and healthy one. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with “love the sinner hate the sin,” it’s our attitudes that are frequently wrong.

      An example that someone else touched in the comments above: if we have a dear friend who is an alcoholic, we may hate the alcoholism that is destroying his life and family, but we still love him dearly and would do anything to help him. In this regard, we hate the disease of sin that is literally killing our friend, but we don’t judge the person. The problem is when we use the catch-phrase to masquerade self-righteousness. That is mainly what I was getting at when I posted this blog. But you’re right, we must be working through our own passions and continually seeking forgiveness from one another.

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