Loving the Sinner, Not the Sin

Doctrine: Agency is sacred and we should not attempt to manipulate or control it. We must view others as moral agents and treat them as moral agents. Love should not be used to exercise unrighteous dominion. The Savior, Jesus Christ, is the best example of treating others as moral agents.

One of the hardest things any sincere Christian will ever have to do is learn how to love a sinner without condoning the sin. The sinners we face on a day to day basis include: spouses, children, extended family, close friends, acquaintances, and everyday people out in the world. Whether it’s a small sin or a large one, we all struggle with the balance of loving without condoning sin.

It seems to be this big issue facing us every moment we are interacting with others. We devote a major portion of our brain power, when we are with them, to thinking, “How can I get them to change? How can I get them to repent and want to get back on the right path?”

Whether you’re a Christian parent struggling with a willful teenager or a Christian commercial baker wondering what to do with a client who wants a cake for their same-sex marriage reception, your struggle is identical. The person, or persons, you encounter who are sinning in ways you feel hurt or offended by can be anyone—even yourself.

As I have pondered this topic, I have come to the conclusion that it would be unwise to provide detailed, generalized scenarios. It is not my role or responsibility to tell anyone how to interpret their personal situations. I can, however, present the doctrines that underlay this issue. Then, as each of you ponders these doctrines, I am absolutely certain—if your heart is open—you will be inspired to know what to do for your personal struggles on this issue.

This blog will be broken up into a few different headings. I suggest that as you read you ponder each section before proceeding to the next.

Who is a Moral Agent?

The answer to loving the sinner and not the sin is to view them and to treat them as a moral agent. To do this we must first understand what a moral agent is and the power of personal choice and external influence.

At a high level, moral agents:

  • are old enough to not only receive instruction but to understand it and realistically apply it

  • have been sufficiently instructed to know the basics of right and wrong

  • are capable of reading and/or hearing and understanding the written and spoken word of God

  • are within a range of minimally accepted mental functioning that allows them to be rational and capable of independent, reasonable thought and action

(Note: This is a generalized list. It is meant to illustrate a point, not to be comprehensive or detailed)

You Can’t Control a Moral Agent

One of the first struggles we all have is our desire to come up with the right words or actions that we can do to get others to change. This, is the wrong attitude and view to have. It is not our job to get people to change. Since Christians are commanded to spread God’s word, this may not make immediate sense. However, God has asked us to “invite” others to repent not to “make them” repent. This minor difference in meaning makes all the difference.

We cannot force people to make choices. God’s plan is set up in such a way that free will/moral agency is paramount. The atonement of Jesus Christ is what makes this agency possible. Christ overcame physical death, physical and psychological ailments, and of course sin and its effects. Therefore, Christ has power over life and salvation. If we mess up and then sincerely repent—which is the condition He has set—He can forgive, and fix (whether now or in the next life) anything we do wrong, or any damage we inflict upon others. He can even accept us back into His presence based upon this use of our agency to repent. If, and when, we die, He has—through the power of the resurrection—already ensured that at some future point our bodies will be perfected and restored to us and that we will never die again.

Therefore, because of the atonement of Christ, there isn’t any threat or violence anyone can subject us to that removes our ability to choose. This is because they can’t take anything from us that God can’t restore. However, though the atonement provides mercy to those who meet the conditions, it doesn’t remove Justice. So, for those who refuse to repent—who willingly use their agency to ignore the atonement of Christ—they do not reap the benefits of salvation. So Justice will be served upon them for their actions, whether in this life or the next. Justice has to be met. And it will—in God’s own time.

So, even if we, or our family, are threatened with death unless we do something for someone, it cannot remove our ability to choose otherwise, and be accountable for our choices. All that matters is that we choose what is right. We have no excuse. There is no caveat or fine print that overrides our ability to choose and to be accountable for our choices.

However, while we can’t truly force people to do what we want, or control them, we can exert significant influence. We can invite, entice, persuade, coerce, instruct, or even threaten. Yet, it is how we use our influence that determines whether we are loving the sinner and not the sin.

Love is an Incredible Influential Force

Love can be given or withheld. In both cases, it is a powerful influence. How it is offered, shown, or removed and denied, can impact those on the receiving end in deeply spiritual, emotional, and psychological ways. It is, in fact, likely the most powerful influencer of moral agency that exists.

It is how love is offered and shown that is key to understanding how to treat others as moral agents.

It is often common for pious Christians to define/label an individual by their most heinous sin(s). That sin somehow clouds out all other perspectives of the individual. Therefore, the individual is then treated from that perspective. Which is an incorrect perspective. It is focusing on the beam while we have a mote (Luke 6:42).

For example, Joan sees that her good friend Jesse is struggling with a nicotine addiction. Therefore, whenever she interacts with Jesse, she chooses to refrain from praising him for the other good things he is involved in; or if she does offer a compliment it’s clearly not sincere or has a hint of restraint. And she does so with the underlying intent that her disappointment and displeasure will be felt—even if only in a tiny way. She’s afraid that if she fails to show her disappointment and displeasure in some way that Jesse will somehow think it’s okay to smoke and won’t try to quit. She’s also afraid that if Jesse doesn’t feel her displeasure in some way every time they’re together that he will think she’s okay with him smoking; and she really doesn’t want that. Then, during a longer visit, when Jesse asks where to go to smoke in or around her house, Joan tells him that smoking isn’t allowed and that if he wants to smoke, he’ll have to leave.

Similar to this above example, it is the tendency of many good people to believe that 1) they are responsible to fix others who are sinning, and 2) that focusing on the sin and communicating ongoing displeasure with the sinner is the only way the sinner will somehow realize they need to change.

 Ponder these questions for yourself:

  • If you sin, do you know it? Yes, or No. If yes, how do you know you’ve sinned?

  • If you are struggling with a sin/weakness and others focus on it, or define you by it, how do you feel?

  • If God refused to bless you and pour out His love upon you for the commandments you did keep simply because you hadn’t yet mastered others, or had a few sins you were struggling with, how would you feel about Him?

  • Are you solely defined by your sins? Yes or No. If no, then what are you defined by? Who are you?

As Latter-day Saints we preach, rather ceremoniously, that we are all children of God. And yet, we often treat sinners as though their identity is in their sin, not in their divine parentage.

Good and evil come with their own side effects and consequences (Doctrine & Covenants 93:2). We do not need to remind people that they are sinning. We do not need to use every interaction we have with them to express (whether subtly or openly) our displeasure. They know they’re sinning, or on the wrong track. Whether they choose to acknowledge it, every man and woman born to this earth has the light of Christ. Latter-day Saints have been given the gift of the Holy Ghost. They can’t go against that light without experiencing certain effects. God has seen to that. It is in His hands. And yet, we act as though we have to take over the role of subjecting sinners to guilt, ridicule, and displeasure—just in case they aren’t feeling it strongly enough from God.

All the withholding of love and kindness does to sinners is make them feel that we, who claim to be Christians, are hypocrites. We preach love and spread guilt. We preach grace and dish out condemnation and judgment—which authority we do not have. As well, this misuse of love as an influencer is a form of unrighteous dominion. It does not have its source in Christ. So, why do we do it, either on purpose or accidentally?

Well, we love God. We love His truths and we honor His laws and commands. We have received personal witnesses of them. So, when those we love or respect willfully rebel against the God we love, or try to ignore His will for them, we are hurt. We are also hurt because it also feels like a purposeful jab at us and the bond we share with them through these beliefs. So, we react to the hurt instead of stepping back to look at this person (or people) as God sees them. We want them to feel the lack of love so that they will be coerced into changing by added misery. I say “added misery” because sin, in and of itself, always naturally brings about misery. So, we are trying to add to it, or to make the misery more acute, or to have the misery show up sooner just in case the misery from their sin has been delayed.

Sometimes we may also gloat or have a “told you so” attitude when the misery and consequences do come. This is a terrible breach in the command to love others. This is not love. This is pride.

So many good Christians misuse love, or withhold love in a negative way to influence the actions of others. They use it as a bargaining chip. They  do not respect other’s moral agency and they do not encourage them to act on their own free will. They try to manipulate and control it.

Another way people often misuse the influence of love upon a moral agent is using that love as a justification to deny others the ability to suffer the consequences for their choices. We use love to justify protecting them from consequences of poor choices, when what we are really doing is prolonging their ability to understand the weight of their choices and actions. We are prolonging their ability to find the power to change—which consequences grant. At some point the people we love will get beyond our protective reach; and when they do is when they finally learn. This is why kids grow up and leave home. This is why God sent us to this earth. For a moral agent to act we have to also allow them to reap the consequences of those actions.

Treating Others as Moral Agents

So, how do we treat others as moral agents? How do we use love, the greatest influencer, to invite them to repent and come unto Christ?

  1. We must respect their agency and power to choose (2 Nephi 2:27).

  2. We must never withhold love to manipulate other’s feelings in an attempt to coerce them into repentance (Doctrine & Covenants 121:36-37, 39, 41-45).

  3. We must create opportunities for others to feel our love and God’s love based on their divine identity (Matthew 25:40; Mark 2:16-17).

  4. We must not try to replace God in passing judgment (Romans 14:10).

  5. We must not try to assist, add to, or replace the natural order of guilt that follows all sin put in place by God (Lamentation 1:12-16).

  6. When opportunities come to teach those who need to repent, we must do so with pure doctrine, understanding, love, support, and by the guidance of the Spirit (for if receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach—Doctrine and Covenants 42:14).

  7. We must love others sincerely; because we see them as God sees them; because we want to develop charity; not because we want to make them change; and even if they do not change.

Treating others as moral agents is using our interactions with them as opportunities to get them to think for themselves, feel for themselves, and choose for themselves. It’s the proper use of love. This is rarely outright preaching and testimony. It is most often giving sincere genuine service in the hopes that these children of God will feel both our love and God’s love whether or not it leads them to change or repent. It is being a good example in a genuine and loving way—without ulterior motives. It is inviting these children of God to be a part of the events in our lives where we know the Spirit will be present so that they have the opportunity to be taught by Him, not us. Our job is to love and invite, not to manipulate, judge, or coerce.

How do I know if my actions are condoning their sins?

Consider the following questions (regarding the people with whom you struggle to love despite their sin):

  1. Do they know your beliefs? Yes or No.

    1. Yes – How?

      1. My life is an example of what I believe

      2. I am always preaching what I believe to them, so they should know

      3. Others have told them my beliefs

    2. No. – Why not?

      1. My life is not necessarily the perfect example of what I believe

      2. I haven’t really come out and stated my beliefs in a kind manner

      3. I’m waiting for others to tell them

  2. When people are kind to you, do nice things for you, compliment you, and serve you, how does it make you feel? (You may choose one, several, all, or none, of the following answers.)

    1. I feel loved and it eases some of the stress in my life

    2. It makes me want to be better

    3. It makes me want to do other things to please them

    4. I appreciate their goodness

    5. It makes me feel admiration for them

    6. It makes me trust them

    7. Other

  3. When people are unkind to you, bring up faults or problems whether past or present, insult you, refuse to be genuine with you, and refuse to serve you, how does it make you feel? (You may choose one, several, all, or none, of the following answers.)

    1. I feel hurt and it adds to the stress in my life

    2. It makes me feel terrible

    3. It makes me feel like I can’t do better or that even if I do no one will notice or care

    4. It angers me so that I sometimes want to do other things to annoy or hurt them

    5. I resent their judgment and unkindness

    6. It makes me not trust them

    7. Other

If the people you struggle to love know your beliefs, then acts of service are not going to lead them to believe you are condoning their sins. Your acts of service will serve to strengthen the love they feel from you despite your disparate views on a sin/commandment. They will be more inclined to trust you, watch you, learn from you, and will have more opportunities to be invited by the Spirit to repent. Yet, they still have the power to choose not to repent, and you must respect that.

Showing genuine, sincere love is never condoning sin. However, this does not mean that there are never conditions to be met in order to receive certain blessings. Christ loves and serves us all. He performed the atonement for all. Yet, access to the atonement for spiritual rebirth is conditional upon our faith, repentance, and efforts to be better. Christ will not forgive sins we do not repent of. He cannot. He will not. And, many of God’s blessings are conditionally based upon our good works (Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21).

In summary, love is not a tool to manipulate the agency of others. Love is a trait we seek to create opportunities for divine influence no matter if a person chooses to repent or not.


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