Two sayings broken beyond repair

penWhen I was a boy and something broke, I’d take it to my dad. In my mind, he could fix anything. We’d go down in the basement to his work bench where we’d poke around in some of the boxes and containers. One tube of epoxy glue, one vice and 24 hours of patience later, whatever had been broken was as good as new.

Sometimes it’s not just objects that are broken. Sayings can be broken, too. Sometimes they can be fixed; other times, they’re beyond repair.

One of Israel’s favorite proverbs was broken and could not be fixed:

What do you mean by this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: ‘When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer’? As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! (Ezekiel 18:2-3, CEB).

The proverb had become an excuse to shift blame. The rest of chapter 18 drives home the point that we must not blame our sins on those who came before us. Each of us is morally responsible before God as individuals.

Could what was true in Ezekiel’s day be true in ours? Is God asking us to jettison some sayings that have become counterproductive? Here are two that – like a dusty can of corn whose expiration date has passed – should be tossed in the trash, no longer fit for human consumption.

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”

God’s grace is an amazing thing! Without it, we would be lost (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11). But in practice, we don’t read all the way to the end of the sentence. We get bogged down in the first four words, putting a full-stop where it doesn’t belong: “I’m just a sinner.”

The result is a sinning religion, a Christianity full of forgiveness but devoid of Christlikeness. We “get saved,” meaning that we’ve tucked our ticket for heaven in our wallet or purse for safekeeping. Now – so we think – we can do what we please. In theological terms, we may have been justified but we’ve stopped short of sanctification. The summit of the mountain lies ahead, but we’re satisified to camp out in the foothills.

Yet God invites us to climb higher. The lowlands of sin are behind us and there’s no turning back. Paul reminds the Corinthians that – while sin was a part of their past – it is no longer what they are about (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). And because of this, Peter insists: “You will be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, CEB). 

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace” can be an entry ramp to the highway of spiritual compromise. It’s the travel companion of similar sayings like “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” It rationalizes our sinful ways by conditioning us to live with a divided heart, forgetting that those who are double-minded are “unstable in all their ways” (James 1:8, CEB). Yet Christ calls us to a deeper life, one characterized by joyfully living into the ways of God. John Wesley called it “holiness of heart and life,” understanding that the very essence of holiness is love for God and others (Mark 12:28-34).

“Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

If love is the very essence of holiness, then we must address a second saying that claims to be loving. But is it?

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

The saying at a certain level sounds like Paul: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9, NIV). But can we ignore the repulsive effect that the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb has upon listeners? It is often in social media conversations around sexuality that well-intentioned Christians trot out the proverb, thinking all the while that they’re being graceful in doing so. But any communication has two parties, a transmitter and a receiver. Effective communication only happens when the message transmitted is accurately decoded by the listener in the way that the sender intended.  And it is here that the breakdown occurs. The first phrase – “Hate the sin” – begins with the imperative, “Hate.” Like a flash-bang grenade tossed into the conversation, it deafens the listener to any words that follow. They never hear “love the sinner” because the only message they’ve received is that they are “the sinner” who is hated. If our objective is an evangelistic conversation, has the door just slammed shut? 

Some have suggested reversing the words so that the saying becomes: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” At least we then lead with love, not judgment. This seems closer to Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). First, he pronounced words of love to her: “Neither do I condemn you” (11a, CEB). Then, he instructed her to abandon her wrongdoing: “Go, and from now on, don’t sin any more” (11b). 

But I still wonder if the saying is beyond repair. Even if we lead with love by frontloading the words “love the sinner,” the proverb still has a whiff of smug judgmentalism about it. Phylicia Masonheimer asks:

Do we actually hate sin, or do we simply love judgment?

In “hate the sin, love the sinner,” the couplet “the sinner” comes across as clinical, like a medical journal article discussing “the patient.” It’s cold, aloof, and off-putting, like when a man talks publicly about “the wife.” What listener wants to have the verbal label “the sinner” taped on their chest? While it is theologically correct as a description of those who have not yet come to Christ (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:10), we need God’s wisdom to know when is the right time as a relationship develops to speak of sin and its meaning. In our social media interactions, we forget that often we have not yet earned the right to speak at that deeper level, that many of our readers are still ripening to God through the action of prevenient grace. Our words will either stir up that grace or douse it. Experience tells us that whatever our intentions, the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb pushes people away.  Isn’t it time for it to go?

Summing it all up

My dad was gifted at fixing broken objects. Sometimes when sayings are broken, they, too, can be mended. But there are other times when it’s best to just throw them out. The expressions “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” and “Hate the sin, love the sinner” are two such popular sayings, well-intended but counteproductive. May the Holy Spirit help us to be sensitive to these and other sayings that produce negative effects.

 

 

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