On loving sinners

The Rectory, June 1996

I experience a distinct sense of unease whenever I hear someone use the catch phrase: hate the sin but love the sinner. When I read it in a book or article, or more usually when I hear it in a sermon, I feel disturbed and suspicious. I've been asking myself "why?", when it seems at first sight a most reasonable and Christian attitude to adopt.

I suppose, in the first place, that I am not sure why the phrase has to be introduced at all. It surely presupposes that judgements are being made about others and these must be qualified by an intention to, nevertheless, try and love such people. That puts us in the position of dangerous presumption. The gospel reveals to us the true nature and vocation of humanity as we see what we truly are in Jesus. In the light of this we see our own falling short and the need for grace and forgiveness. But it does not encourage us to stand over against others and judge them. The danger is we adopt a superior attitude towards them and indeed reinforce this by our claim to still love them despite what they are!

Secondly, the phrase seems to set me apart from sinners when, in fact, I have less excuse for sin than most because I have known the love of God and seek his grace. Yet still I pursue my own advantage time and again. The habit of the saints of the church was to regard themselves as the greatest of sinners because they had seen the full glory of God and of humanity and were still faint hearted, fearful for themselves and lacking in trust. The grace of God does not make me better than other people but helps me to understand myself as part of fallen humanity. Grace produces not superiority but solidarity. The difference it makes is that I know, and draw on, the love of God for myself and for the sake of others.

I wonder also if it is possible to make a clear cut distinction between the sin and the sinner. The more we learn about our human nature the more aware we are that we are not machines who may make occasional errors but developing persons who grow through making choices and through the things that happen to us. Sin and goodness, failure and loving, selfishness and self-giving, are usually all mixed up together in us. The same person can reveal the glory of being human and the folly almost at the same time. That is why we have to be careful in making judgements about people and in trying to make simplistic distinctions between the sin and the sinner. The woman of ill repute who washed Jesus' feet with her tears shocked the respectable, but Jesus discerned in her action a heart of compassion and love which he had not discerned in the more particular and religious people whose supper he was at. He did not bother to say, of course "I hate her sin but love the sinner", but unequivocally praised the depth of feeling and love in her that had risked much to come into so judgmental a household to offer a small act of service to Jesus. He did not deny that sin was part of her life but rejoiced in the love alive in her which could transform even her actions and lifestyle.

God's love for humanity is unequivocal. He loves us in our fallenness. Jesus came to be one with us by the most gracious act of humility in choosing to be baptised as if he were a sinner. His love led him to be identified with us in all the complexity of our fallen and confused condition. Love does not make distinctions between the sin and the sinner but weeps for the pain and suffering that hurts and degrades all human life and persons, and prays for the incarnating of the love of God over and over again.

Leslie Morley


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St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997