A Christian One-Liner

The other day I was involved in one of those controversial Christian conversations.  As our discussion was wrapping up this person said to me, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin."  Then we hugged and went our separate ways.  This one-liner was not new to me.  As a matter of fact I have heard and used the exact same phase for years. I have probably even uttered it from the pulpit. This time the conversation was a tough one and the phrase did not sound so spiritual.  You see it was the first time I had ever been the target of the line.  To him I was the sinner that needed loving and my prayerfully considered convictions were the sin that needed hating.  Quite frankly it did not feel good to be on the receiving end.  I had been judged to be a sinner.  His love for me, in spite of my sin, did not make me feel any better, respected, or accepted.  I would not be whole until I quit sinning.

I have done a lot of thinking about loving the sinner and hating the sin.  It is one of those statements that sounds good; so good that many of us might even wonder why Jesus didn’t have the wisdom to use it himself.  I could just imagine Jesus as he looked a Peter after the third denial, shrugging his shoulders and muttering to himself, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin.”

The problem with loving the sinner and hating the sin is that it shifts power.  It is an attempt at becoming God.  When I say love the sinner, hate the sin in essence I am saying that I have God knowledge.  I have the ability to name who sinners are and what sin is.  Granted there are times when this seems obvious to all.  Pedophiles and murders are two groups of people that come to mind.  However, most of us live in a world that is much less stark.  As much as many of us would like Scripture to be crystal clear on issues of war, patriotism, sexual orientation, speaking in tongues, hell, heaven, and many others, it isn’t clear.

When believers differ from each other it is tempting to name that difference as sin.  The temptation is especially strong when we believe that we have Scripture on our side.

I remember going to church and being told that drums were a sign of the Devil and that women were not gifted in leadership.  These opinions were held fervently, leaders believed they had God and Scripture backing up their beliefs.  I am glad that the church had the courage to grow beyond those convictions.

I do not know where we are going to end up with the big discussions of today, but I do know that if we keep naming those who are different than us sinners we won’t have the opportunity to see where the spirit of God is leading us.

Unfinished

I like Jonah.  A grumpy Old Testament prophet – he was asked by God to speak to his enemy.  Jonah didn’t like the idea so he runs (sails) in the opposite direction.  God sends a storm and transportation (belly of a fish) back to Nineveh.  Jonah preaches a short sermon, the enemy responds, God forgives and Jonah is upset, mostly with God for being so forgiving. I like the messiness of this story.  The anger and frustration directed at God is almost comforting.  Jonah is 100% human.  He helps me to feel less guilty when I get mad at God.

The best part of this story is not “the miracle in the fish” but rather that it is an unfinished story.  We are never told what happens to Jonah.  Does he turn into a bitter grumpy prophet or does his heart soften?  Did Jonah and God make-up?

Like Jonah, we are also unfinished stories.  In this there is hope.  Tragedy is not a forgone conclusion; triumph is still possible.

Jonah helps us to understand what it means to be a Christian.  People who define themselves as Christian must respect the “unfinishedness” of other people.  As long as someone is unfinished there is the possibility for the story to end well.

There is a sense in which Christians are called to be eternal optimists.  Writing people off as too lost, evil or sinful cannot be a Christian option.  Yes, this has political implications.  When leaders use “enemy” as a way to define persons or countries they are acting in ways that are anti-Christian.

Jonah closes with a grumpy prophet sitting outside the gates of the city, waiting for God to finally understand that some people are so bad that they are beyond forgiveness.  I wonder who won that discussion?