There’s a popular notion that one can “love the sinner but hate the sin.” If properly applied, sure, that makes sense. But is it properly applied? Not much. Here’s a good context for how to apply that bit of wisdom:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

That’s the Jesus Prayer, an ancient prayer taken from the words of the tax collector on whom God had mercy. It has been used in prayer disciplines by Christians for centuries, for instance, along with prayer ropes. It’s used to cultivate humility.

"Have fire within yourselves, but be at peace with one another."

“Have fire within yourselves, but be at peace with one another.”

What has that got to do with anything? Well, the only time we have business judging sin is within ourselves, and then only when we’re asking for mercy. Because we only know our own sin in the light of the  love of God that calls us into fullness and makes our sins show up for what they are – paltry imitations of reality. Maybe we’re starving and started eating poison because we had grown desperate or we were just too stupid to know better. Okay. So we hate the poison. We ask for God’s help so we can eat things that are good for us instead. Maybe we want human company and connection, but in despair we turn to different types of self abuse and distorted versions of the image of God. We can hate the abuse and the distortions as sin, and accept the love and grace and wisdom of God to look and act in better directions.

What I’m saying, all too awkwardly, is that we are the sinners. I am the sinner. If I am called to hate sin, it is within myself. If I am called to love myself, it is as God loves me. I don’t love my neighbor by trying to be his or her judge.

When the desert fathers wanted to help a brother out of a sticky situation of sin, they didn’t arm themselves with the trite clause – love the sinner, hate the sin – and march off to tell their brethren what for. No, they clothed themselves in humility like their Lord, and went and confessed their weakness and the grace of God to their brother.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the phrase – love the sinner, hate the sin – is intended as a sincere approach to Christian community at all levels. How would its application look for a common sin, like, say, cussing?

I happen to struggle a great deal with cussing, especially when I am very sad or anxious. Ramp up the fear or grief, and I spout blue air. Now, if you decided that it was your personal job to tell me that I was a bad person for cussing in those circumstances, the only thing you would accomplish is losing my trust entirely for priggishly misunderstanding me. However, let’s say I was very sad or scared, and I dropped a bowl on my foot or just couldn’t stop crying, and one way or another, there I go, bleeping away about my circumstances or dropping colorful adjectives into my speech. And you said, “Hey, it’s going to be okay, Summer.” And when I apologized for cussing – which is sort of like stuttering for me – you would say to me, “I cuss sometimes, too. But by God’s grace, I hope to say good things.” Then you have joined me in the ranks of sinners asking for mercy and also given me an opportunity to receive grace. By coming alongside me, you would have extended the love of God; if you had stood above me to judge me, you would only have crushed me further into despair.

The only one, according to Jesus, who can convict and convince of sin is the Holy Spirit. It’s only by acting like the Paraklete – the one who comes alongside – that we stand any chance of truly loving each other or together becoming holy.