During a conversation last week, a friend used an expression I’ve heard Christians say my entire life: “We’re called to love the sinner but hate the sin.”  I confess that I’m deeply uncomfortable with this saying.  It strikes me as unchristian – if not in the absolute sense, then in the way that it’s usually deployed.

When my friend talked about the imperative to “love the sinner but hate the sin,”  I wanted to ask her what she hated about her children; what she despised about her spouse; what she loathed about her parents and her best friend.  My sense is that the question would have appalled her, and rightly so.  The concept of hating anything about our children and those closest to us is – and should be – deeply disturbing.

And yet, aren’t they sinners?  If we believe that we are to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” shouldn’t something inside us burn with hatred against the sin in their lives?  Why do we never talk about “loving the sinner but hating the sin” of those closest to us?  If we’re “called” to do it, aren’t we displeasing God by failing to muster up sufficient hate?

The answer, of course, is that we do not – cannot – hate them because we are in deep relationship with them.  We see them as fully human.  Usually when I hear someone talk about loving the sinner but hating the sin, this phrase is used in reference to “the gays” or “the Muslims” or something of the sort – not actual people we’ve sought to understand; not precious creations of God who worry and fear and hope just like we do.  We apply this idea to people we’ve reduced to concepts, people as abstracts, people whom we identify solely by what we find objectionable about them.  We may even pray for them, but it’s a prayer of judgment that God would take away their sin (the only thing we know about them), and not the kind of prayers we pray for our children: That God would give them the deepest desires of their hearts, that God would prosper them and make their lives happy.

This kind of love – love from a distance, love in the abstract, love without being in relationship with those we claim to love – is no love at all.  It is love in theory only, or self-righteousness masquerading as love.  Christ calls us to love one another as he loves us.  That means emulating a man who touched lepers and consorted with prostitutes, who washed the feet of the man who betrayed him and threw his arms around one who denied knowing him.  It is impossible to love as Christ loved from afar.

You might say: “Yes, but what about sin?  No one disputes that Christ calls us to love our neighbors, but how are we as Christians supposed to address the very real problem of sin in the world?”  Fair question.  In focusing on the love of Christ, of course, I don’t mean to diminish the reality or power of sin, or to minimize the absolute necessity of repentance to Christian discipleship.

We find an answer to this question in the gospel story of the woman caught in the act of adultery.  She was brought to Jesus while he was teaching in the temple, by a crowd that was ready to stone her to death. (John 8:2-11)

The Pharisees demanded that Christ condemn the woman – and reasonably so, we might add, since the law required that adulterers be put to death. (Lev. 20:10)  Remember: This wasn’t merely Jewish tradition or man-made law; it was a holy commandment spoken directly by God to the Israelites. It was no coincidence that Jesus was confronted with this dilemma while he was teaching at the Temple.  It was posed as a test of his faithfulness to God’s law.

Jesus responded by reminding those in attendance of their own sin, of the universal and pervasive nature of our frailty and brokenness. Frankly, he demanded a little humility.  Called upon to “hate the sin,” Jesus refused to condemn the woman, but chose to pardon her instead.

“But,” you might argue, “he didn’t excuse her sinfulness.  He commanded her to ‘go and leave [her] life of sin.’”  That is, of course, absolutely correct.

But notice:

Before Jesus told her to leave her life of sin, he stood up for her in the most humiliating moment of her life.  He put his body between her and the angry crowd.  He took her side.  He saved her life.

By choosing to stand with her, he risked his own reputation.  He risked his authority as a teacher of the law.  He risked his own life; after all, those stones could just as easily be thrown at a heretic as an adulterer.

Before Jesus addressed the woman’s sin, he made it unmistakably clear that he loved her – and not in some detached, abstract way, but through a radical act of deep sacrifice and compassion.  Moreover, his call to repentance wasn’t shouted from the crowd, but whispered in a quiet moment when they were alone.  Jesus stood beside her with his arm around her, not at a distance, staring her down.

This, to me, is the problem with “love the sinner but hate the sin”: Most of us (myself definitely included) seem incapable of doing both things fully and simultaneously.  Unable to do both, we nevertheless give free rein to the “hate the sin” side of the equation, and convince ourselves that simply not professing hatred for our brother is the same as loving him.  It is not.

Perhaps it is possible for us to love the sinner and hate the sin in a way that Jesus would recognize.  Perhaps.  But doing so requires as a prerequisite that we love our fellow sinners as desperately as Jesus loves us; it requires that we demonstrate that love to them in a way they feel and understand; and it requires us to treat them not as the “other,” but as beloved brothers and sisters.  That’s the price of admission.

Only when we love as Christ loves should we dare to speak on Christ’s behalf.