Can You Love the Sinner and Hate the Sin?

This article first appeared in The Good Men Project February 15, 2015

LoveTheSinner

A pithy Christian statement creates walls with the LGBT community and loves no one.

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As a former leader in ex-gay ministry (reparative therapy), I had honed the art of loving the sinner and hating the sin, or so I thought. It took on the appearance of tough love. “God loves you too much to leave you that way,” was my mantra. I’m not a co-dependent person by nature. In fact, I’m often referred to by my family and friends as Sheldon Cooper, the mildly autistic and emotionally detached scientist from the Big Bang Theory. As a Christian, however, I felt it was my loving duty to steer people toward the inerrant Word of God, which clearly told them how to live.

When someone in our ministry would “fall,” meaning they had a sexual encounter, I would pray with them and quote Scriptures that I thought would help. Sometimes those Scriptures were comforting and sometimes they were warnings about the wages of sin. After a few of those falls I would lose patience with the individual and determine that he really didn’t want help in the first place. If he left the church, I would let him go. No reaching out. No questions about how he was doing. As far as I was concerned, he decided to leave God and “follow his fleshly desires.”

I called my actions love.

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Looking back, I’m embarrassed on a number of levels: the arrogance, the pride, the audacity to believe that only my way was right, the callousness, the lack of humanity, and the disgusting representation of God I thought I was.

What I called love, was a thinly veiled attempt at hiding the fear I felt about being dragged away into deception and sin, and away from God.

Crossing over from an ex-gay leader and conservative Christian minister to LGBT advocate was a long, painful journey. I see things much differently now and interpret the actions, behaviors and words of anti-gay Christians through a new lens. What I called love, was a thinly veiled attempt at hiding the fear I felt about being dragged away into deception and sin, and away from God. In fact, nearly all of my life of faith was really a life of fear. I couldn’t see it and no one could convince me otherwise. I adamantly argued I was not homophobic, or narrow-minded, I was simply living by Christian principles and in a deep relationship I shared with Jesus.

I’ve interviewed many former ex-gay leaders and talked to some of the founders of the ex-gay movement. I’ve asked them, like I’ve asked myself, “What were you thinking?” I’ve received many of the same responses: “I thought I was ‘doing the right thing’.” “I thought it was sad that people chose to leave, but that was their problem.”

And then the tables turned on us.

It’s an odd position to find oneself in, especially after years of being in the “in crowd” of church leadership, standing on the platform and sharing from the pulpit. Suddenly, the people with whom you’ve built what felt like family relationships, no longer call. You hear that they are having the same conversations about you that you had about others. “Did you hear about Tim? It’s so sad. Let’s pray for him. He’s been deceived by the devil.”

I changed my point of view because I was wrong…I was wrong about what it means to love others.

Of course, on this side, I’m wondering why they aren’t putting the pieces together. I changed my point of view because I was wrong. I was wrong about people, about God, about science and about the Bible. I was wrong about what it means to love others.

I recently had a conversation with a psychologist and asked him how it was possible for people to simply quit loving someone with whom they disagreed. I discovered there is a name for it. It’s called “the shutting off of affective bonds.” He stated that it is a common feature of high control groups. In other words, we love people with such stringent conditions, that if those conditions aren’t met, we emotionally disconnect.

I see this a lot from Christian parents of gay kids who kick their children out of their homes. 20-40% of homeless youth are LGBT kidsSeveral studies show that LGBT kids are much more likely to attempt suicide when they do not come from, or have, a supportive family environment. It’s a far cry from the grace of the Gospel many so valiantly claim to be a part of as Christians.

As a father of two teenage daughters, I love my children fiercely. There is nothing they could do or say that will change how I feel about them. We don’t always agree, but when I think of my children I don’t think about what we disagree on, I think about why I love them. As they’ve grown up I’ve stopped looking for ways to fix or change who they are, and now ask, “How can I support you in reaching your goals?” I try to parent out of love, not out of fear.

That type of “love” requires no faith, arrogantly assumes to have all the answers, preposterously assumes to speak for a supposedly almighty, all-powerful God…

When we love out of fear, our minds are filled with “what if’s.” What if someone doesn’t make the right decision? If we allow them to live with what we deem a sinful life, they could bring sin into the church, into our lives, unleash the wrath of God and ultimately (as many TRULY believe) destroy our nation. That type of “love” requires no faith, arrogantly assumes to have all the answers, preposterously assumes to speak for a supposedly almighty, all-powerful God, and let’s face it, gives a lot of power to one person, or one group of people. How big is God anyway? He can’t handle it? Or he’s got such a temper he’ll destroy everyone because we decided to just love people?

I’ve learned that loving people where they are releases my expectations on them to become what I think they should be, and allows them to become the person that they are supposed to be. As a Christian, that means allowing people to make their own decisions, come up with their own interpretation of the Bible (there are over 34,000 Christian denominations) and live their lives with all the grace that the Christian Gospel represents. It is TRULY a life of faith and uncertainty, but most definitely a life of love.

♦◊♦

In my experience, many Christians are preoccupied with sin – defining it, labeling it, and trying to avoid it. In fact, I attended a Wednesday night meeting a few months ago where the congregants confronted their pastor for not preaching enough about sin. He wisely asked, “Whose sin? Yours or someone else’s?”

It’s difficult to love people when all we see is who we don’t want them to be, or we define them by a behavior, which they may or may not even be doing. No quality relationship works like that. I have often said, when I’m speaking in churches, before you try out those pithy statements on people you don’t know try them out at home. “Honey, I love you, but not your sin.” Now see how far your relationship can go from there.

Photo/Flickr – A.Shazly

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