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Why You Can’t Love the Sinner but Hate the Sin – Part 1

Islamophobia is on the rise.

Over the last decade, hate crimes against Muslims have increased at an alarming rate. That is, more and more Muslims around the world are being targeted simply for identifying with Islam.

This is not referring to Muslims who are complicit in terrorist activities. The harassments in question are those against Muslim bystanders who, more often than not, are innocent spectators who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

There are mixed attitudes toward Muslims amid this wave of anti-Islam.

On one side, there are people who only speak horror stories about Muslims and refuse to acknowledge diversity or any good in Islam. To them, Muslims are not true Muslims until they are pure evildoers.

On the other side, there are people who deny that faith has any link to violence committed in the name of Islam. These people will go to great lengths to show that context provides the ultimate explanation. Faced with the same situation, they reason, a Muslim will behave the same as a non-Muslim.

I believe both of these positions are simplistic and damaging to Christian-Muslim relations.

What I find most concerning though is the attitude of some gospel-believing Christians.

They believe they are called to love everybody but are perturbed by the violence committed by some Muslim groups, especially against other Christians.

They want to love their Muslim neighbors but find it difficult to do so in the age of ISIS.

They imagine behind every Muslim is an intolerant combatant that wants to force his will on them. They want to love their Muslim neighbors but stumble over what (they think) their neighbors believe.

Effectively, they do not see a person. They see a religion, a defective religion. And to reconcile between their attitude and their faith, they claim to love the sinner but hate the sin.

That statement – “love the sinner but hate the sin” – has become a Christian cliché. In some circles, it is erroneously invoked as uttered by God.

At the face of it, the message is virtuous. It means love people, but do not tolerate their sin, just as God does not. No disagreement there.

However, I have witnessed that statement being hurled around with different connotations.

The ulterior meaning goes something along these lines: “Love the sinner, but when you find it difficult to do so, it is because of their sin, which makes them unbearable. Do not let them off easily. Tell them how ugly their sin is, and how much you, just like God, hate it.”

The idea buried there is that unless sinners repent and come clean, we cannot love them.

Notwithstanding what people really mean, I find applying the principle of “love the sinner but hate the sin” to be generally problematic.

As sinners being regenerated, we have limited love. We cannot intuitively disconnect sin from the sinner. We do not always love sinners despite their sins.

Only God is capable of perfectly untangling sin from the sinner because God is the only one without sin. Only God cannot be confounded by sin because God is the only one in a position to judge sin.

Thus, only God can love the sinner but hate the sin, and God does so consistently and resolutely. We should refrain from turning a truth about God into a descriptive claim about us.

When it comes to applying the “love the sinner, but hate the sin” principle to Islam, I think it is dangerous to parade behind the “love Muslims but hate Islam” banner.

I do not think we can isolate people from their chosen identity because people do not generally do that to themselves.

Our identities constitute who we are in complex and untraceable ways. They inform our decisions and guide our actions.

Accordingly, your Muslim neighbors’ faith makes them who they are. It frames their behavior. You do not have to love their worldview, but if you hate it, I think you jeopardize loving them genuinely.

While Christians are called and expected to love everyone, including their enemies, they can only do so by God’s grace and by looking beyond people’s chosen identities, not by sifting through them.

They view people from God’s perspective, as human beings created in the image of God, and who need saving from their sins.

That is the only inalienable identity we all share, and the basis on which we should approach others.

Furthermore, it is confusing to equate sin to a system of thoughts or beliefs. For instance, it is meaningless to describe capitalism or belief in extraterrestrial life as sin.

Sin is the act of disobeying God’s will. Thoughts and beliefs are ideational constructs. They become sinful when they are adopted and put to practice in a manner that violate God’s will.

Still, God does not judge sinful thoughts abstractly. God judges people who, willingly or not, commit sin by engaging in these rebellious thoughts and beliefs. Put differently, God does not judge murder or idolatry, but murderers and idolaters.

The point I want to make here is that it is unhelpful to speak of Islam as sin because that packages Islam as an object of God’s wrath, while God’s wrath is declared “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (and women) who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18, emphasis added).

In other words, sinful people are the subject of God’s wrath, regardless of which value system they subscribe to.

By targeting Islam and insisting that it is sin, which, as I explained is irrational, we somehow insinuate that Muslims are extra sinful.

As a result, we indirectly excuse some hatred toward them, or at least justify not loving them wholeheartedly.

To be clear, we are all equally sinful, and we all desperately need redemption. If we discriminate against Muslims because we think their sins are more egregious than ours, we are guilty of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Part two is available here. A version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies’ blog. It is used with permission.

Elias Ghazal

Elias Ghazal is executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Association for Theological Education (MENATE).