Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Love the Sinner...

There's that old saying that gets thrown around whenever people have trouble understanding each other. Love the Sinner; Hate the Sin. Theologically, I'd say that's how God interacts with Creation. It's not as though the saying itself is wrong in some way. I think people get the gist of it.

The real problem, as I see it, is the way we embody it.

Often it becomes intertwined with the scriptural pronouncement to "speak the truth in love." Many have argued that it's unloving to avoid pointing out sin in someone's life if you see it. The reasoning behind this is that such sin will inevitably lead to problems in the person's life and perhaps affect their eternal destiny. The other analogy is "if I saw someone walking towards the edge of a cliff, I'd let them know they were in danger."

Again, in theory, all of this makes sense. If you really feel like someone's life choices are going to hurt them, you shouldn't keep quiet about it. You also shouldn't make those objections the primary basis of communicative interaction between the two of you. I've seen plenty of people who make loving truth-telling their only means of "loving the sinner."

Sometimes we forget that there needs to be a relationship before we can speak into someone's life that way. You can't just walk up to strangers and tell them what they're doing is wrong - at least you can't do that if you also expect them to respect your opinion. Those drive by condemnations, while, I guess, morally upstanding, are (literally) practically useless.

The reason is, for there to be any real consideration, any dialog, any hope for people to change their behavior (if that's even necessary), is for people to have an understanding of how the other person thinks and what they believe.

I hear, "hate the sin; love the sinner" all the time in situations where the parties do not agree on the definition of sin.

That's sort of a key ingredient. If you're going to tell someone they should stop "sinning," it might be helpful to first check and see if they believe what they're doing is somehow sinful. For this to be a productive engagement, we have to have the same understanding of sin, the same rule of life. Is killing in war a sin? Lots of people read the same passages and come to different conclusions. It's not so easy as pointing things out. We don't always agree.

Now it's a different story if you both know something is wrong, of course. Then you're on the same team - you're both hating the sin even as one of you (and maybe both) are doing it. There's a relationship there and a real benefit to loving someone struggling to stop something they don't want to do.

That doesn't help when there's no agreement. It just makes people mad and defensive. Any chance you have of actually convincing someone of your point of view goes out the window when you call theirs wrong out of hand. Even if it is wrong. It's just bad form to say so.

I've found things are much more helpful when you speak only for yourself. "I couldn't justify doing that and here's why." Then you invite the "other" into a conversation about beliefs and perspectives and you can walk together through the thought processes that bring you to your respective conclusions.

It's a sign of respect. Not presuming to know more than someone else, especially when it's an action or belief they have.

Here's where we make the digression to post-modern conceptions of truth. The obvious retort is that truth is truth, sin is sin and there's no reason beating around the bush. You can't allow people to believe in something that's wrong. It's unloving.

I make no bones about it. I believe Truth is a person, Jesus Christ. After that, I'd say truth can be pretty relative, given the situation, since we're all just trying to figure out what to do based on our perspective on truth. Truth isn't a concept or a proposition. It's a relationship you can only approach gradually (or, in scriptural language, something you see as through a glass, dimly).

It certainly can be unloving to avoid speaking of sin in someone's life, but it's just as unloving trying to force someone to accept your definition of sin at the point of a gun, an argument, or through guilt.

Most of the time, if you've got a relationship with someone, they know where you stand on things. If they don't, it's not inappropriate to tell them. But I'm just saying, if you want to really love someone, sinner or not, let them make their own deductions about what constitutes good and bad behavior.

Speak for yourself, be open about your reasons and thought processes, genuinely seek to understand the other. And, perhaps, enter into conversations with a real commitment to change your mind, should it all of sudden make sense to do so. That's what you're asking of the other person.

And, hey, I might be totally wrong about this, but in the end, I'm quite thankful for those who've loved me despite my arrogance and uncharitable disposition. They've really shown me what it means to love the sinner.

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