Love the Sinner, Forgive the Sin

And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the paralytic — “Rise, take up your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
— Matthew 9:2-8

The letters I receive all start about the same: “I don’t hate you, in fact, I love you. I just hate the sin of homosexuality.”

It’s the old battle cry of conservative Christians: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Every single letter writer who has, in one form or another, written these words to me, seems to believe that if these are not the actual words of Jesus somewhere in the Bible, they certainly come close to expressing what Jesus was all about. I strongly disagree. In fact, I don’t think that the concept of “love the sinner, hate the sin” would be something that Jesus would even recognize. From my study of the Bible, and how Jesus dealt with sin and sinners, I believe Jesus’ underlying message was, “love the sinner, forgive the sin.” I believe that is what we are also called to do.

Already, I hear the protest, “But, that was Jesus. He had the power to forgive sins. I’m not Jesus, therefore, I cannot forgive the sins of another.” Jesus, in the passage from Matthew quoted at the beginning of this essay, shows us otherwise. We do possess the power to forgive the sins of others — what’s more, Jesus has commanded us to forgive the sins of others!

For the moment, let us lay aside the old, tired argument over whether or not homosexuality, in and of itself, is a sin. Obviously, I believe it is not. This magazine is a testament to that belief. I do believe, however, that, as a homosexual, I can sin. I believe that cheap, meaningless sex between two people of the same sex who are not in a committed relationship is a sinful use of homosexual sex. I believe that gay and lesbian partners who cheat on one another sexually with someone of the same gender commit a sin. Yes, homosexuals can use their sexuality in sinful ways, just as heterosexual people can. My reading of the Bible shows quite plainly, to me, that all sexual conduct between two people that uses or abuses the people involved in the act is sinful, be it a heterosexual or homosexual act. But, let us suffice to say at this point in the essay, that whatever you feel is a sin that another person is committing Jesus’ lesson on loving the sinner and forgiving the sin applies equally, even if the “sin” is in dispute.

The Power to Forgive

In the story about Jesus healing the paralytic, several things are taking place at once. As with most stories about Jesus there is more to the story than just the action that is taking place. The healing of the paralytic is not the true miracle in this story. The true miracle is that Jesus reveals the special power that we have — as human beings — to forgive the sins of another.

The orthodox reading of this passage interprets the story as Jesus displaying his power — as the human incarnation of God — to forgive sins, since the scribes proclaim that only God has such power. (For my take on Jesus’ divinity, please refer to my essay: Daring to be a Heretical Follower of Christ.) In our traditional reading, we side with the scribes. Only God can forgive sins, we exclaim, not us mere mortals! But, what does Jesus call this kind of thinking? Evil! He asked the scribes, quite pointedly, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” According to Jesus, it’s evil to think that only God can forgive sins!

But, our traditional interpretation protests, Jesus says, quite plainly that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” In this phrase, the traditional argument says, Jesus is quite clearly setting himself apart from the rest of us mere mortals. Jesus is something special. He’s “the Son of Man” who has the direct power from God to forgive sins that we, as mere mortals, do not have! That interpretation is only partly right. Let’s explore the phrase “Son of Man” a bit closer.

Jesus uses this phrase to describe himself in one of three ways: as a final judge, as in Matthew 24:30-31:

” … then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

This passage can be seen as the Gospel writer’s way of fulfilling the prophecy in Daniel 7:13 which predicts the coming of one who is like “the son of man.” This “human being,” according the NRSV Study Bible, “symbolizes a new, everlasting kingdom.”

Jesus also speaks of the “Son of Man” as one who must suffer and die. Jesus makes this prediction about himself on several occasions in Mark and in Matthew 7:12. In these two ways, Jesus is clearly set apart from us as “mere mortals.” We are not the final judge, nor the extraordinary human being that symbolizes a new and everlasting kingdom.

Jesus’ third way of talking about himself as the “Son of Man” is, however, the most revealing for our purposes. Here, the phrase, the NRSV Study Bible says, “is from an Aramaic idiom for speaking about oneself as human, perhaps with humility and modesty.”

This interpretation is borne out when we look specifically at the Greek words used for “Son of Man” in the Matthew passage. The Greek word huios, used in this passage, means “son” or “child” and the Greek word anthropos means “man” or “mortal” or simply “humankind.” So, when Jesus joins the two words together in this passage, by “Son of Man,” he is not referring to himself as a final judge or the human arbiter of an eternal kingdom. Instead, he, quite clearly, means “humankind” or “mortal.”

What Jesus is telling us, then, is that “humankind (the Son of Man) has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Even the crowds realized this as they went away “filled with awe,” that God “had given such authority to human beings.” What a miracle! What a gift! Jesus has revealed to us that it is not just God who has the power to forgive sins — we, as humans, as children of God, have that same power. We, just like Jesus, can forgive sins!

What a blessing!

What a curse …

Because, just as Jesus reveals to us that we have this amazing power to forgive sins, he brings with him an example of how, exactly, we are to go about exercising this power.

“For which is easier,” he asks the scribes, “to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” To show us our incredible power as human beings to forgive sins, Jesus commands the paralytic to stand up and walk. What is Jesus trying to tell us here?

The message is plain when we look closely at the passage. Which is easier? To say that we forgive someone, or to actually do it? Jesus is showing us that anyone can say, “you are forgiven” but meaning it, putting it into action — saying “stand up and walk!” — is much harder. With true forgiveness comes freedom! The paralytic can walk! The dumb talk! The blind see! When you truly forgive someone, they are freed from the bondage of sin.

This is the test of true forgiveness. Every time we truly forgive someone’s sins we tell them to “stand up and walk!” If the person who is the object of our forgiveness is still paralyzed, you have not truly forgiven them.

Let us apply this in a real life situation. Conservative Christians, who use the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” when it comes to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people show clearly that they have not yet come to a place of forgiveness for GLBT people. They are still “hating the sin” instead of exercising their power to forgive what they perceive as a “sin.”

If they truly came to a place of “forgiveness” about homosexuality, then they would work toward full social equality for GLBT people. The fact that they say that they “love” the “homosexual sinner” and then work to exclude GLBT people from many of the civil and social rights that they as “heterosexual sinners” enjoy, shows the hypocrisy of their “love.” If they took an attitude of “forgiveness” of the “sin” then, by their actions, they would free GLBT people to be fully human — fully actualized and equal in society — no longer paralyzed by inequality.

That’s not to say that the conservative Christians would have to renounce their belief that homosexuality is a sin. They are still welcome to believe such a thing. Equal rights, however, should not turn on whether or not someone is perceived as a “sinner.” If that were the case, none of us would deserve equal rights, since Christianity teaches that we are all sinners who fall short of God’s glory.

Jesus shows us that true forgiveness of sin results in freedom. It results in life abundant, which is what Jesus came to give us. If we truly forgive then we free others to live fully. We cannot say we offer forgiveness, or “love,” with one hand while denying justice with the other. That is not true forgiveness. The paralytic cannot stand up and walk when love and justice, or forgiveness and mercy, are separated. This is exactly why the phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin” rings so hollow — and so often translates into hating the sinner just as much as the sin.

The Imperative to Forgive

Continuing in a mindset of “love the sinner, hate the sin” is, in itself, sinful. It denies our power as human beings to forgive the sins of others that Jesus has so plainly revealed in the story of the paralytic. We must come to a place where we can live by the rule, “love the sinner, forgive the sin” for this is the place Jesus calls us to live.

Time after time we see Jesus forgiving the people around him — even those who finally persecuted and killed him. How much clearer could Jesus make his call to us to exercise our God-given power to forgive? Nowhere in the gospels do we find Jesus hating anyone for anything — instead, we find him forgiving everyone, even his executioners. This is not a model of “loving the sinner and hating the sin.” Indeed, this is a model of “loving the sinner and forgiving the sin.”

In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples forgiveness is key. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). If the phrase isn’t clear enough, Jesus expounds upon the directive in verses 14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Parent will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Parent forgive your trespasses.”

How could Jesus be clearer on our purpose? Our goal is to forgive, not once but “seventy times seven,” (Matthew 18:22) if necessary.

Do not think, however, that forgiveness means forgetting or condoning sin. It does not mean that at all. Forgiveness is not about forgetting. Trespasses against us hurt and often leave deep and lasting scars. We tend to nurse these scars, these grudges, holding on to them sometimes for an entire lifetime. Often we’ve been hurt so deeply by the sins of others that even the idea of forgiveness seems laughable. Forget about forgiving the “sin” of homosexuality. Who could forgive a murderer? Who could forgive a rapist? These are serious trespasses that leave a lasting impact on us — and they are hard to overcome.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean our hurting will stop. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we will ever forget the offense or pretend that the offense never happened. Forgiveness, as Richard Foster so eloquently writes in his book, Prayer, “means that we will no longer use the offense to drive a wedge between us, hurting and injuring one another. Forgiveness means that the power of love that holds us together is greater than the offense that separates us. … In forgiveness we are releasing our offenders so they are no longer bound to us. In a very real sense we are freeing them to receive God’s grace.”

In a very real sense, we are telling the paralytic to take up his mat and walk home. We release our offenders from the binds that, more often than not, we have placed on them by our unwillingness to forgive.

Conservative Christians do not need to stop believing homosexuality is a sin to release homosexuals from the bondage they have placed them in by “hating the sin.” Forgiveness means that the wedge between heterosexuals and homosexuals is removed. We no longer hurt and injure one another. In forgiveness, conservative Christians no longer seek to use the rule of law to exclude and make one group of people second class citizens because of a “sin” they have yet to forgive. In forgiveness, conservative Christians would acknowledge the power of love to overcome their hurts and fears. In forgiveness, conservative Christians would release those who they see as “sinners” to receive God’s grace — freeing GLBT people from their paralysis so they can “stand up and walk.”

Forgiveness Made Easy

But, we have so many excuses to avoid forgiveness. We want to believe that forgiving others is hard. Our grudges are so cozy and familiar — like an old friend, always there for us, assuring us that we’ve been wronged and we’re right to withhold our forgiveness.

Book after book has been written about the process of forgiveness. We’re even warned that forgiveness doesn’t come immediately, that it might take awhile, maybe even a lifetime to achieve. Author and lecturer Wayne W. Dyer in his book, Wisdom of the Ages, disagrees with that assessment. Instead, he suggests that “forgiveness is joyful, easy, and most of all, exceedingly freeing. It relieves us of burdens of resentment and past grievances and is just another word for simply letting go.”

Here Dyer agrees with Jesus. The Greek word used most often when Jesus speaks about “forgiveness” is aphiemi which means to “leave” or “abandon.” In Luke 6:37, when Jesus says, “forgive and you will be forgiven,” the word used is apolyo which means to “release,” “divorce,” or simply, “let go.”

Forgiving means to “let go.” We simply let go of the past hurts. We simply let go of our fears. We simply let go of our grudges. We simply let go of our hatred and anger. And, in our act of forgiving, Jesus assures us that we are forgiven as well.

Dyer writes about his deadbeat and drunken father who left his family when he was but an infant. He talks about how he held such a grudge against his father and hated him for his absence. But, one day he went to his father’s grave and quoting poet Langston Hughes said, “I take my curses back.” In that instant, he forgave his father for every real, and imagined, slights he had suffered because of his father’s actions. Afterward he said his life was transformed. “My writing began to click, my approach to my health improved significantly, my relationships shifted away from hostility and toward spiritual partnerships, and most of all, I felt free from the burden of having that venom pumping through my veins.” In short, in his act of forgiveness, he also experienced forgiveness.

In the end, what I am suggesting is that people who subscribe to the slogan of “love the sinner, hate the sin” have not truly heard Jesus’ call to forgive. We do not have to like everything that everyone does, but we are not called to hate anything about that person, be it the person themselves or their actions. Instead, we are called to forgive, and in that forgiveness, experience God’s grace and forgiveness in our own lives.

If conservative Christians would closely examine their “love the sinner, hate the sin” philosophy and see it for the security blanket it really is for their own fears and prejudices, then they might discover that if they “let go” and forgive that they themselves will be able to “stand up and walk” — freed from their own bondage to sin.