Monday, February 15, 2010

Cliche Theology

I recently took part in a Bible study in which the well-worn phrase "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" came up.  Something about this phrase has always grated on me, in part because I'm more than a little suspicious of Christian cliches, and in part because it seems to contradict much of what is written in Scripture about the relationship between God and sinners.  So, giving in to my well-documented penchant for provocation, I plucked out a few verses from Psalm 139 and tossed them carelessly into the middle of the room:
 If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
       Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!

 They speak of you with evil intent;
       your adversaries misuse your name.

 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,
       and abhor those who rise up against you?

 I have nothing but hatred for them;
       I count them my enemies. 
Objective achieved ... NOT!  Rather than a lively discussion, I merely provoked confusion, and quickly retired the question ... not because it is an unimportant one, but rather because I approached a serious issue haphazardly and without a good idea of where I wanted to lead the discussion.  Memo to Jailer:  not all provocation is good all the time.

Even so, I remain intrigued by this question of whether "God hates the sin but loves the sinner." 

In some ways, this phrase seems to work quite well as a simple way to understand that God must punish sin but takes no pleasure in pouring out his wrath on mankind.  Indeed, God's saving love for "the world" as expressed in John 3:16 is probably Scripture's best known truth. Moreover, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Yes, God hates my sin, but thankfully loved me, the sinner.

On the flip side, serious people need to recognize that this phrase marks the beginning of the theological discussion, not its culmination.  It is the very epitome of a cliche:  "a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse."

What's more, in many ways the import of the phrase is to answer the question, "Can God love me, a sinner"?  Where it loses its impact is in modern Western thought, in which the core assumption that God (where He is recognized at all) is really compelled to love everyone.  In that sense, grace is not really so amazing ... it's just part of God's obligation as a father.  Ho hum.

The problem with cliches, by definition, is that they quickly lose "originality, ingenuity, and impact" because we try to make them more than they are.  Does God hate sin?  Undeniably.  Does God love sinners?  Certainly, else we would all be lost.  But what's missing is an honest discussion about wrath--a word that appears 190 times in Scripture (NIV), as in:  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

Of course, when our culture (and an increasing number of Christians) believe that our core problem is that we've got a misplaced sense of self-worth and a dysfunctional relationship with our Father, this language about "godlessness and wickedness" seems harsh, unnecessary, even archaic.  Let us woo the lost with uplifting sermons and sincerity!  After all, God loves the sinner ... it's just that nasty sin problem we have to take care of.  A quick sinner's prayer and a baptism thrown in for good measure should take care of it.

Alas, this is where our cliches run dry, and where our easy converts quickly revert to worldliness when things get a little tough.  Grace means little to them, because sin means little.  God didn't save a wretch like me; he ran a wayward child through the Sin-B-Gone and hung an air freshener from my mirror.

Of course, that's not the Gospel.  We don't just have a sin problem ... we are the problem!  Scripture describes us as God's enemies--by nature objects of wrath before the searing holiness of His presence.  It is for good reason that the Apostle Paul begins his epistle to the Romans with a discussion about His wrath upon our wickedness before he unpacks the astoundingly great news that He has redeemed us from our hopeless condition.  It is only when I truly appreciate my shocking condition before Him that I truly appreciate the glory of His grace.

This is not advanced theology, this is the foundation of our faith ... and many our churches are filled with people who have little concept of it.  They know little more than our cliches.