Do We See the Sin, or the Sinner?

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I can’t tell you how many times I have heard it: “I have no interest in God, because of how Christians treat me.”

The sad thing is… in many ways, it’s true. I get it. The Church is built up of fallible people. We have human emotions. We treat each other like crap. We’re the first ones to take the self-righteous high ground, to stand in judgment of one another (and everyone not up to “our level” of morality), and to kick someone when they’re down. And the sad thing is… in that moment, we’re not truly Christians, but we’re slandering Christ’s name all the same.

I grew up a moralistic, self-righteous hypocrite who could throw Bible verses around like the worst of them. I stood in judgment of every action that everyone else ever took that I didn’t agree with, or that violated my view of morality. I was an unequivocal pain in the ass of the variety that gives Christians a bad name, and I pray to God that I didn’t turn anyone away from His Kingdom thanks to my behavior. Then, I got saved. I realized that I’m no better than anyone else, and worse than some, because under that mask of self-righteousness was a heart cold toward other human beings.

Being a “Christian” is easy; following Christ is hard. Following Christ, means taking his teachings to heart. Who did Jesus get angry at? It wasn’t the sinners, it was the self-righteous, people-hating hypocrites who ran the temple. Jesus didn’t shy away from asking others to own up to their sin, but he also didn’t judge them for it. He loved them anyway. He healed people who came to him, regardless of who they are, because they had faith. What did He tell us? Love the Lord, and love one another as we love ourselves.

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Yesterday, I watched The Invisible Woman, a film about the extramarital affair Charles Dickens had with Nellie Turner. The old me would have put on her moral hat and hated it, stood in judgment of both of them, and prided myself on being so much more holy because I would never do such a thing! Instead, I decided to take off the morality hat and look at them as people. It changed my view of them because I pushed aside my prejudices and let them tell me their story. I saw them not as adulterers, but as Dickens and Nellie, as people… as damaged, conflicted people. Rather than being moralistically angry over their behavior, it made me sad because of the impact it had not only on their lives, but on Dickens’ family as well. You can’t be angry at someone when you have immense compassion for their plight.

Jesus got angry at the Pharisees because they did not see people anymore; they saw groups, and titles, and descriptions: they saw cripples, and whores, and adulterers, and tax collectors, and gentiles. Jesus looked past their actions, and saw them as individuals. He saw past Matthew’s actions to his heart, just as he looks past our actions into our hearts. That is the true calling of Christians – to look past actions and mistakes, and see people as human beings worthy of our compassion. We know we are no more righteous than they are, because we too are fallen, imperfect, and make bad decisions. We must learn to put aside our own moral objections and listen to their side to truly see them.

Paul called us to be “set apart” from the world, so others will know our Savior through us. What does that mean, exactly? It means we differ from the world; we do not stand above it, but in it, offering something other people do not offer – the willingness to see people as human beings, to listen to them without judgment, have compassion for them even if their situation is self-inflicted, and to love them even when we don’t agree with their actions.

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Throughout the story, Nellie tries to come to terms with her relationship with Dickens. The local minister senses she’s troubled and offers to listen to her story without condemnation. Rather than looking at her as an adulterer, he looks on her as a person. He senses the truth and doesn’t shun her for it — instead, he offers her friendship and a listening ear when she needs it. Through his great compassion, he quietly but steadily points her toward a future free of the guilt and shame of her past. When she does confide in him, his response isn’t to lecture her but help her see the potential of a future no longer overshadowed by her youthful choices. The conclusion of the story is Nellie finding the strength to leave Dickens’ memory behind, and strive toward happiness with her husband.

If every Christian stopped seeing the people around them as behaviors and started seeing them as individuals, not only would sin diminish in our own lives (it’s hard to sin against someone when you truly love them), our world would be a much better place… and I would never have to hear again those heartbreaking words: “I have no interest in God, because of how Christians treat me.”

20 Replies to “Do We See the Sin, or the Sinner?”

  1. This is an excellent point. In a sense I struggled with stories like this, because for a time (less so now) my mom believed that certain things shouldn’t be put in stories, like dark magic and bad examples–it was something she was confused about–but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize the only real story has those elements–the elements of bad choices. They give a real example, or reflection of what kind of life we have made for ourselves. I’ve never been an overly judgmental person, but I have had times where I’ve woken up and smelled the roses–or the stink of my own hypocrisy, so to speak. And I am grateful for that, because hypocritical Christians are the best weapons in Satan’s arsenal. Nothing turns away better than the appearance of a lie. It makes me sad to think of all the people out there–the church as a whole at times–that give people such bad examples. Such snottiness, such lax morality.

    It is a very good quote–“To be Christian is easy, to follow Christ is hard.” This message of this post itself is a good argument for explaining the truth of Christianity to unbelievers. Excellent work!

    And now I’ll have to check out that movie….

    1. I think it’s all right to cast a light into dark corners, so long as the story doesn’t glorify the bad behavior. This tale doesn’t, because it wreaks havoc on Nellie’s life and shows the sadness that Dickens puts his wife through. It’s not one of those, “Oh, well his wife is a nasty old shrew, so I’m glad he found a nice young woman to sleep with!” tales. And, of course, I think that showing sin should be accompanied with tact — something most movies don’t have. This one could have easily been a PG rating with a couple of minor tweaks.

      That aside… hypocrites are indeed the worst threat to the church, not merely due to their behavior but their total unawareness of their own hypocrisy. What you fail to understand about yourself you cannot change. But the world watches us who call ourselves Christians… what does it see?

  2. My compassion may be tested fairly soon. A friend is thinking of linking herself with a guy whose entire family smokes pot, and a part of me thinks she’s crazy. But the other half, the larger half, isn’t willing to sacrifice the friendship, even though I can never approve of the match, if she does, in fact, make it.

    I worked in a secular organization for 8 years. Believe me, I know how hard it can be to love the sinner, but we’re called to do it anyway. The hard thing is still letting that person know what I believe about a certain choice or situation without causing a rift. Speaking in love is not easy and before we say anything, we have to consider our motivations. Because if there’s even a hint of judgement and self-righteousness, the conversation won’t work. If it’s concern and love, people will be much more receptive. Loving the sinner really is a tough road to walk, and I hope my empathy doesn’t diminish by working for a Christian organization. It’s a weird thing to say, but my interaction with unbelievers is down a whole lot, and while I want the company to change me in good ways, I don’t want to lose my empathy for sinners. It’s a pickle.

    1. Smoking pot is a lot better than a lot of things they could be doing, I suppose. Knocking banks over comes to mind. 😉

      I sometimes wonder if we even need to say anything about disapproving of a lifestyle or a choice. That’s a hard thing to know — at what point do we state our opinion? And what are our motives in stating our opinion? That’s an area I constantly fail at — either my silence gives consent or my speaking up vindicates my selfish need to be heard. It’s a shame Jesus doesn’t put a sign in front of me with neon, blinking lights that says, “Here is when to speak up, and here is when to stay silent!” Even when I do speak up and “warn” someone in love, they often still don’t want to hear it and it drives a rift between us.

      Start by having empathy for those who call themselves Christians. If you can manage that (and that isn’t easy!! take it from someone who struggles every minute of every day not to be a judgmental, self-righteous prat) it won’t be too much harder to look on all the rest.

      1. Maybe. Both are illegal activities, but what ticks me off about the pot-smoking thing is that his family has smoked it since he was young. So, the kids started young, and way back before it was legalized in Colorado. It’s insane.

        I think a lot of the time I keep silent out of fear when it comes to telling people they’re in the wrong. We don’t want conflict, but shouldn’t somebody say something? A lot of teens go wild because their parents never reprimand or restrict them. It’s such a fine line to walk, and I would give anything for that neon sign you described. It would make life so much easier!

        Ahh, empathy for Christians, yeah. Even today I overheard a conversation that got the Steve Rogers in me a little hot under the collar because they were discussing going against the rules, or bending the system to suit them. Didn’t make me happy, but I didn’t say anything because it wasn’t my place and it didn’t have anything to do with work. Still, the Steve in me wanted to speak up, but it’s a good thing I didn’t because i was extremely tired and would have turned the situation bad in a hurry. Sometimes keeping quiet keeps the peace, especially when it has to do with a person and their own conscience and nothing to do with how my life intersects with theirs. It was lesson in patience.

        1. Oh, well. You can’t fix it. All you can do is sit in judgment and when it falls apart, say, “I told you so!” … wait, that’s not how we’re supposed to act, right? Darn, because that response is my default function! 😉

          The problem is, some teens rebel even more against restrictive parents. So either you let them do whatever they want and they go wild, or they completely buck your authority and go wild anyway. Two different causes, same result. But parenting is different than being friends. They have a responsibility to protect their children. The line we walk is much grayer — how much is it our responsibility to correct our friends?

          I’m sorry. (( hugs ))

  3. You’re preaching to the choir on this one when it comes to be judgmental. Unfortunately my judgmental phase started when I was a new Christian and continued on for awhile after. Rather than leading people to Him, I know that my words and behavior did alienate people from Christ.
    I can only hope that the ones I chased away came across a fellow believer who was far more loving.
    As for “The Invisible Woman,” I am not a Dickens fan, though I do want to see it. Love movies about writers. Maybe it will give me a new perception of him.

    1. I think being judgmental is a natural part of my personality, and when infused with moral indignation thanks to faith not rooted in reality (that I’m a sinner too), it kind of… took off on its own wings. It’s not easy shutting it off, either. I have to catch myself being judgmental and superior all the time.

      Dickens was a brilliant but flawed man. He could be wonderfully inventive and entertaining and also quite cruel when it came to showing his wife where she stood in terms of their relationship. It’s… sad.

  4. I really appreciated this! One thing that stood out to me in particular was what you said about how you can’t be angry at someone toward whom you have immense compassion. Thanks for posting!

  5. LOVED THIS.

    First off, want to see The Invisible Woman SO bad, as Dickens is my favorite author.

    Second, this is like, the story of my life! Super-legalistic-hypocrite and TOTAL pain in the butt. Within the past two years I’ve totally turned my views around and it has changed SO much of my life. Anyway. This just spoke to me! I’ve been amazed how much it has affected the way that I look at people now. God has given me (or I’ve accepted what he’s offered all along) so much more compassion and understanding instead of blind judgement.

    Anyway. Great post!

    1. It’s a haunting film. I don’t know that I would say it’s “good” — because it’s hard for a movie to be “good” about such an controversial time in a man’s life, but… I enjoyed it. Hopefully you will as well. It’s now out on DVD and easy to rent! (Plus, the new Great Expectations with Ralph Fiennnes in it is also out! It’s fantastic.)

      My views are slowly changing — it’s been a combination of my salvation, learning personality types (subjective/objective values), and having God work on my judgmental little heart. It’s going to be HARD to look at people and see people first, views/opinions/actions/sins second, but I’m willing to try. I don’t want to be that person who drives someone away from God, because I sat in judgment.

  6. The state of the church is sad, and perhaps this should make us want to be better in some ways so that maybe anyone who doubts can see Him through us. Interesting post that is well thought out, Charity. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I don’t know that this is a nationwide statistic, but where I live, less then 10% of the population ever attends church. The only Jesus they see is in the Christians they interact with… so we’d better make darn sure it’s the right Jesus!

  7. Great post, Charity. 🙂 I wish more “Christians” would have this “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” attitude.

    It seems that you and I have similar pasts…I was a self-righteous jerk for many years, especially towards celebrities and similar folk. Two things changed my attitude: 1) I wrote a novel right after high school, which gave me the habit of looking for the motive behind a person’s actions, and 2) I became a traveling representative for my college while still a student. Being in such an exalted position (within my collegiate social sphere, anyway) put a lot of pressure on me, as I held up as an example for others and was always in the limelight. It made me realize, in a small way, what tremendous pressure those in exalted positions–whether they be movie stars, musicians, or politicians–must be going through. No wonder they do some crazy stuff.

    1. I think it’s hard for us to separate the sin from the sinner, because… how do you do that, exactly? How much tolerance is too much tolerance? Any disapproval at all and the other party pulls away from you. What’s the difference between loving in spite of, and condoning? I can’t answer that!

      You’re fortunate you sought to look behind actions for motives so soon! I managed to hold on to my “judge first, ask questions later” throughout my writing career. =P

      You bring up another important thing to remember — the higher up someone is, particularly someone of faith, the more public their humiliation and the harder they fall. Satan loves nothing more than to hit believers in high places, because their failure or sin is so public. If anything, we should have even more compassion for them.

  8. Wonderful post * claps *

    I had been thinking of something vaguely related recently–while reading about classic hollywood stars, I’ll see reactions like “Sure, ___ was a womanizer, but looking like that–who can blame the ol’ rascal when he knew he could get away with it!” or “I used to be a huge fan of ____ , but after her racist statements came to light, I completely lost all respect for her.”

    People seem to range from wanting to completely justify/ignore a sin or to be willing to dismiss a person completely because a certain sin strikes them as particularly awful. Yes, this reaction is human, and understandable–but as Christians we’re asked to be “better” than human, well, better than human because we’re getting a boost from God right? 😉

    Sin is bad, but I sometimes think Christians forget about how much of the Bible is focused on moving past sin, instead we tend to focus on trying to punish sin. When actually–this isn’t really our job, but God’s. Yes, human societies do need laws of some sort to discourage or penalize people from committing some of the worst sins, but actually, “enforcing” morality is not our job. (Although obviously I don’t think we should be actively “encouraging” immorality either)

    This is making me think also–of some rather…snide remarks you hear about how Christians are “obsessed” with sexual sin. Now as irritating as this is–they have a point, I’d often found myself stewing over this too, until I read an article that summed it up (unfortunately I can’t find the link offhand) Basically it said, sexual immorality is “quantifiable”, it’s an obvious “you did or you didn’t”, unlike the more gray, vague concepts like feeling a flash of jealousy or bitterness. Things are that so hard to pin down, that you can’t see in others, and you can easily ignore in yourself. Furthermore, unlike murder, theft, etc; sexual immorality tends to go unpunished by the legal system, so we as Christians feel it’s our “duty” to step in and issue condemnations.

    So what are Christians supposed to do, issue congratulations? Well, yes and no–I remember hearing a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about Mother Theresa declining the offer to attend an “anti-war” demonstration, saying she would only go when they became a “peace” rally. Yes, sometimes as Christians we should speak out against bad things, but we tend to lose sight of going out and doing GOOD things. I found myself thinking one day that I could wake up and see plenty of headlines about Christians protesting things like the newest “offensive” blockbuster, or gay marriage. But how many headlines would you see about Christians going out and donating their belongings to people desperately in need. Christians spending as much time organizing a fun outing for disadvantaged children as they did engaging in pointless debates (on and offline) with people we don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of convincing anyway? The trap of focusing on the evils we oppose, rather than the goodness we’re meant to nourish. What happened to spreading the love of God by doing LOVING things?

    You’ve never struck me as cold-hearted * hugs * though I suppose one could argue that some parts of all our hearts are cold from time to time, hence so many reminders from Christ to be compassionate.

    I think this is one of the best posts you’ve written to date–I’ll be bookmarking this one (and passing it on to some of my friends!)

    1. I think we tend to measure sins – which is normal, since that’s always been the case. Even the Bible has different levels of punishment for different levels of sin. The challenge when dealing with sin, at least in a believer’s life, is… how DO you approach it? How HARD do you approach it? You can’t let a believer continue openly sinning, but you don’t want to be THAT PERSON who drives them out of the church either. But… that’s a different topic than dealing with nonbelievers.
      You’re right, we’re not the morality police, although that’s a position most of us gravitate toward. The problem with that is it again rises us to that level of “I’m better than you, so I can point out your faults.” And that is neither true nor helpful. Dealing with sexual sins is… tricky. Within the church, we can’t just give it a pass, because believers are supposed to be faithful to Christ’s teachings. (Even so, angry confrontations never work. If someone changes, it must be their choice and a reflection of their own conviction.) But outside the church? It’s really none of our business.
      It’s very easy for people to think I’m warmer than I am, because the internet allows me to hide my true self and filter my opinions. I’m much more frank and brutally appraising in real life. But… I’m working on it.

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