Christians who want us to be angry at sin.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 October 2022

“Doesn’t this make you angry? Well it should! It’s sinful, and it’s an abomination, an outrage, to God. It should be an abomination, an outrage, to you too. Don’t just tolerate it. Get angry!”

Betcha you’ve heard this statement, or something like it, before. Hopefully not from your pastor, from the pulpit, as part of the official messages and teachings of your church. God forbid. But I know churches where it doesn’t just slip into the messages; it’s the message. They feel it’s every Christian’s duty to hate sin. It needs to offend you so much, you’ll stay away from it. If you don’t do this, falling into sin is inevitable; if you won’t do this, it’s like you’re inviting sin into your life, and they want nothing to do with you.

It’s a pervasive teaching in some denominations. They think it’s how we achieve holiness, which they’ve confounded with goodness. To their minds if we’re gonna be holy, we gotta love what’s good—and hate what’s evil. Isn’t that how it’s done?

It might not be how your denomination thinks; your bishops, pastors, and presbyters may know better. But I guarantee you there are always gonna be some people who were exposed to one of those sin-hating churches, who consider it a mandatory Christian discipline… and who are regularly outraged it’s not taught as one in your church! (It’s one of many things they’re angry about, y’notice.) Lots of ’em will take it upon themselves to make sure it gets taught. They’ll promote it in the small group meetings, the Sunday school classes, the bible studies, the prayer groups, or simply the conversations individual Christians will have with one another.

These’d be the folks who preach, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” and spend 99 percent of their efforts hating the sin. They insist Christians have to hate the sin; hate it with the very same white-hot intensity God hates it. Shun it. Ban it. Vote for politicians who will outlaw it. Kick anyone who does it, out of our churches till they repent. It’s how we stay pure—pure as that white-hot hatred we’re supposed to have.

Um… what’s with all this hatred? Aren’t enmity and anger works of the flesh? Even if we should avoid sinning whenever we can, isn’t this emphasis on hating sin gonna drive us to unintentionally hate sinners, and drive them away from Jesus?

I’ve brought this fact up quite a few times to Christians who claim we gotta be angry at sin. Their usual responses are to

  • accuse me of compromise, or of secretly committing such sins myself: “Are you saying we should tolerate sin? You realize God’s gonna judge all the nations which tolerate sin.”
  • be okay with hating sinners: “Those people hate God, as you can tell by their bad fruit. They’re destined for hell. Why waste time and effort on people who hate God?”
  • claim it’s actually easy to do both: “People can both hate sin and love sinners. I can absolutely hate when my kid lies to me, but still totally love my kid.” (Sure; I get that. But now try again with someone whom you don’t unconditionally love. Say, a coworker who constantly lies to you. Or a politician from the opposition party.)

In general, the thinking is we Christians have to be angry at sin… because if sin enrages us, if we absolutely hate it, we won’t commit it. It’ll repel us, and we won’t sin.

It’s a useful trick to help us resist temptation. Does it work? Not at all. Didn’t for Paul of Tarsus.

Romans 7.15 NRSVue
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Paul sinned, same as every human. And Paul knew better than to sin, and didn’t wanna sin… but he did. He blamed his body, his “flesh,” for having sin embedded in it, and doing what he didn’t want.

Romans 7.22-23 NRSVue
22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched person that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Well, Jesus. Ro 7.25 But rather than trust Christ Jesus, a whole lot of Christians have adopted the “useful trick” of trying to get us to be angry at sin. Since it’s already quite easy to get people angry, may as well put that anger to good use, yeah? Get ’em angry at evil.

Selfishness and sin.

Paul suffered, same as we all do, from the common human problem of having an innate sinful nature. I know, I know: Plenty of people think we have no such thing. Babies, they claim, are born innocent; they have no sins on their soul; they’re pure; they learn sin.

It’s rubbish, because babies are inherently selfish. As they need to be! It’s the human self-preservation instinct. It’s hard-wired into every human… because if, by some fluke, a baby isn’t born with it, that baby’s gonna die. Babies have to communicate they have needs (typically by crying) because parents simply can’t know what the kid needs from instant to instant.

So babies have to scream their tiny heads off whenever they need food, or need their diaper changed, or are too cold, or have gas, or don’t like that particular onesie you put ’em in, or are tired yet can’t fall asleep, or anything. Which results in parents figuring out what their kid needs and helping… and which sometimes results in frustrated parents who can’t figure out the problem, trying their darnedest to get the kid to shut up already without duct-taping all their holes closed. Not that they will! Well, most of ’em.

Thing is, babies never actually outgrow selfishness. Some of us might learn to be unselfish more often than selfish… but there’s always gonna be just a bit of that selfishness in us.

See, the human self-preservation instinct doesn’t just protect us from harm. It’s cranked way too high, and selfishly protects us from everything we don’t like. Even if, ironically enough, such behavior is harmful to ourselves! But more often it’s harmful to others. And we may recognize this, and hate this about ourselves… but we still do it, and hate ourselves for doing it.

Hence the popular Christian trick to lean in to the hate. Get angry at sin. Get angry at your sinful tendencies, and fight ’em. Hate them with righteous hate, and the theory is you’ll sin less.

Of course, this advice is about as stupid as using a shotgun to get rid of houseflies. There are valid uses for a shotgun, and this definitely isn’t one of them.

Same with anger. Anger’s a deadly weapon. But if you’re teaching Christians to use it on sin… well you do remember “Hate the sin, love the sinner” tends to result in people spending way too much time hating the sin. And these people also tend to nevertheless hate the sinner.

Now if they’re the sinner in question… well you do realize more than a few Christians practice regular self-harm because they’re furious at themselves over their own sins? They punish themselves. Often emotionally; sometimes physically. Some have even killed themselves over it—despite believing, as many have wrongly taught, that suicide sends you to hell. They hated sin, as they were taught; they grew to hate themselves, then off themselves.

Teaching people to get angry at sin has some mighty toxic side effects. People are angry enough as it is, but hating sin gives ’em license to be angry at sinners, and hate pagans—the very people we need to be gracious and generous towards, so we can win ’em over and lead them to Jesus. But because so many Christians demonstrate neither generosity nor grace—nothing but anger and outrage towards other people—these pagans might actually think Jesus is awesome, but want nothing to do with Christians.

Can’t say I blame ’em.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Back to this slogan. In my experience, those who quote it most, do it to justify all sorts of hateful behaviors towards sinners, while insisting, “No it’s not the sinners; it’s actually sin.” They’re blasting holes in the ceiling while trying to shoot a fly, because they’re too nearsighted to notice the ceiling.

Some Christians have tried to rebut this slogan by saying instead, “Love the sinner, hate your own sin.” But you read the previous section; this ain’t an improvement! Hating your own sins leads to hating yourself. And a lot of the time, when we’re angry with ourselves, our good ol’ haywire self-preservation instinct kicks in, and we project our anger towards other people. People who are angry with themselves have a lot of anger to spare. Spills over all the time.

So. How about we do as Jesus does, and be gracious towards ourselves?

Yes, I’m aware this practice can also go haywire. Humans are creatures of extremes, and plenty of Christians are so gracious towards ourselves, we dismiss all the awful things we’re doing to another people. Which is an entirely different category of Christian jerk, and you don’t wanna be that guy either.

Still, I’m gonna recommend we share Jesus’s mindset. Grace towards sinners. Definitely resist temptation as hard as you can, but hating the things which tempt us isn’t gonna help us resist; it’s gonna derail our spiritual battles and teach us to hate more. Hate less. Get rid of that anger.