Jerks, Sinners, Disgust, Sin, and Love

After our week break, we decided to tackle a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in Christian circles: Love the sinner, hate the sin.

This is perhaps a phrase you have heard before, but I think it is one which gets used a lot without much critical thought.

ravenyanastyTo un-pack this idea, we are going to do some psychology today. (Ready your fart noises for the indulgent PhD student.) Later this week, Allen is going to talk out the implications.

First, the psychology of disgust. Allen talked about this idea from Richard Beck a few weeks back, and I encourage you to go back and read his post. What we see is that loving the sinner and hating the sin is almost psychologically impossible.

Because when someone engages in a behavior we deem “disgusting” (or wrong, or sinful, or whatever word you want to use here), it requires very specific conditions for us to be able to psychologically separate the person and the disgusting act.

I listened to a talk from Beck recently where he talked about asking people for examples of when they “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Almost exclusively the responses were: I have this brother… or sister.. or cousin…

In order for people to really truly mean this phrase, they had to have some sort of relationship that ran deeper than the disapproval.

Beck’s argument is this: We are ok with a certain amount of disgust in ourselves. We have to be, human beings are disgusting (my argument haha). So the only way to get over our disgust of other people is to incorporate them into ourselves. We expand the circle of the self to include others, and that is what motivates us to get over our disgust.

We aren’t psychologically capable of getting over disgust unless we TRULY love someone. In order to love someone who does something that we find disgusting, we have to see them as human, valuable, and meaningful to us personally.

Psychological factor number 2: The Fundamental Attribution Error. The example I have seen used is this:

If someone cuts you off in traffic, your immediate thought is: What a jerk. You don’t take time to think about (and you probably don’t care) why this person cut you off. You just see a behavior that bothers you, and you assume that the person is, at a core level, a jerk.

Now if you cut someone off, you will probably justify it by saying you were in a hurry or were lost and needed over. You aren’t a jerk. But the person you cut off doesn’t care because you cut them off and you are a jerk.

jerksSt.1This is the Fundamental Attribution Error. You don’t care about the context of someone’s behavior, but you attribute a negative identity to a person who behaves in a way that displeases you.

So now that you are overloaded with psychological terms you probably don’t care about… let’s talk about what this means for loving the sinner and hating the sin.

First, it is almost impossible to really do this. When people do things we don’t like, unless we have a deep meaningful relationship with them, we will assume they are bad/disgusting people.

Even the way this phrase is used often proves that we don’t have meaningful relationships with the people we use it about.

If your brother or sister or spouse is doing something you disagree with or is destructive, do you typically use language like that? Do you typically refer to this person as “the sinner” and their behavior as “the sin.”

No. You use their name and you name an issue. Both the person and the issue have depth and complexity to them and you are invested in the outcome of whatever happens.

If you were to come close to this language, it might go like this: “I love you, but I don’t like the way you are behaving right now.” I. You. You are talking personally to a human being you care about. And because you know this person, you probably know there are things going on which contribute to the behavior.

You want to know the real issue. You want to know this person’s heart. If you don’t know the deeper roots of the problem behavior, you talk about it so you can discover the deeper roots.

Second, when we use this phrase, we actually use it backwards.

In my experience, people use the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” as an entry point for telling you how evil a particular behavior is.

Christians tend to spend so much time making sure everyone in the world knows what we disapprove of. We make sure we hate the sin FIRST. Only when you know that I hate what you do (which for many means I hate what you are), THEN I tell you Jesus loves you in spite of that.

But what a few simple insights from psychology teach us is that this is pretty close to impossible to do (and gives people a bad picture of God). What we can learn from our thoughts today is that inclusion, acceptance, empathy, concern, and love have to PRECEDE how we deal with “disgusting” behaviors in people’s lives.

Which opens up a whole host of implications and questions.

But I will leave that to Allen.

4 thoughts on “Jerks, Sinners, Disgust, Sin, and Love

  1. Great post. I find it interesting that I have heard this term almost exclusively used to denigrate homosexual people. What I find so difficult about accepting this phrase, is the way it completely misses the complexity of what is being “hated”.

    I can’t imagine someone telling me that the way I connect with my wife is sinful. That they hate the way I love her, but that they love me in spite of my relationship with her. How could people see the best thing in my life as something so vile.

    When we use phrases like this it creates an intellectual out from having to think deeply and introspectively about how our world view really affects those around us. A belief that can be summed up in a catch phrase is not one worth having.

  2. Thanks Phil! One of the big motivations for thinking through this is I get tired of people who do that very thing – they assume something is true because they have seen it a lot and disconnect their ideas/beliefs/theology/morals from actual human beings.

  3. I think you’re right, Phil. I think one of the telling signs that the phrase falls short is the feeling of it being directed at you. I wouldn’t like it. I doubt others understand it either.

    That’s why we have to be careful when using a phrase like this. Especially when it comes to something like sexuality. Sexual identity – gay, straight, bi – is actually a fairly recent phenomenon in history. In past ages, sexuality was something you DID, but our culture talks about it as something you ARE. And regardless whether you agree with these categories, it’s how people approach it. So I cannot imaging anyone reacting well to someone telling them they “hate” something they are. And I don’t think it’s what is usually meant when the phrase is said (at least I hope not).

    This is all so complicated and we have to be very careful with the words we toss around. They have the power to create or destroy. Ultimately this, like so many other situations, is best dealt with in relationship. And I pray that Christians are people who are always striving to develop relationship with others, because that’s who our God is.

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