Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sin and Sinner

Sin and sinner - how are we to deal with them?

We're told, "Hate the sin, love the sinner." Is it really that easy? And more - is it even possible?

I'd like to propose that this is misguided teaching, and that from a technical standpoint, it's not even possible to divide a person and his or her actions quite so easily.

Let's begin with what we read in Scripture. First, a passage from Psalm 139:21-22 (ESV):

21  Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22  I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.

It would seem on face value that we are to despise those who sin against the Lord. The psalm concludes:

23  Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!
24  And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

There's a lot of confidence there. Is it warranted?

The Apostle Paul, in Romans 3:9 and beyond, quotes Psalms 14 and 53 and other passages, to explore just how fragile that confidence might be:

For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips." "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." "Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known." "There is no fear of God before their eyes."

So, here's a quandary - if on the one hand the psalmist considers himself worthy of G-d's approval, and on the other hand, Paul says there's no one righteous, which passage should we believe?

And it gets even thornier. Here's a passage from Luke 6:

"If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

"Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you."

He also told them a parable: "Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye."

It seems confirmed that the psalmist is over-confident in his own sanctity. But the puzzle is nearer to being solved. We're told to love our enemies, because that will build up for us treasure in heaven. If we're all sinners, as Paul asserts, then we're doing nothing exceptional if we love those around us, and that's what we're called to do. As for the psalmist, I wonder if this psalm isn't placed in the Psalms to give us a reality check, to cause us to wonder at his certainty and examine our own, in light of what Jesus has said, and Paul expanded on.

"Hate the sin, love the sinner." Is this possible? Isn't our sin a quality of who we are? Sin has been defined as open rebellion against G-d. Doesn't that describe each of us, as Paul states? Even if we're saved, justified, we still come before G-d again, and again, and again, to ask for his forgiveness and mercy. As the prophet Micah says (6:8 ESV), "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

I'd like to offer a different take on this love/hate relationship we have with our fellow sinners. I'd say it like this: Love the sinners, your brothers and sisters, and forgive their sins.

There's no room for hate, because we are sinners also, recipients of an undeserved grace, the gift of divine forgiveness ourselves. If we don't forgive, the forgiveness of G-d is not ours to be had. Our rebellion fires up every day, and we must come before the throne to acknowledge it and ask for it to be taken from us. If we hate the sin, then we're hating a quality of ourselves that will only be completely removed when we stand en masse before the Lord at the end of time, the beginning of eternity. Can we hate and forgive at the same time? I can't imagine that works well.

What do you think? Can you love and hate the person and his actions separately, or do you have to love and let the fruit of that love, your forgiveness, become your response to the failures of those around us? Hard question - hard action - nothing's as easy as it could be, I guess.

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