Hating the sin: how I balance friendship and faith

The stereotypical behaviour of students is often incompatible with Catholic morality. If you believe that getting drunk, taking recreational drugs, and any kind of pre-marital sex are all morally unacceptable (which, admittedly, not all Catholics do) you are probably in the minority. The conduct of people around me – people I genuinely like and respect – often conflicts with this idea of what is moral. However, my response to such behaviour is influenced both by my belief in tolerance and self-expression, and my Christian duty to uphold the teachings of Christ as expressed in the Bible – even though these may seem incompatible.

It is difficult to stand up for Christ and always has been.

There is a well-known phrase: ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’. An equivalent might be, as my parents told me when I was younger: ‘I love you, but I don’t like your behaviour right now’. These are nice soundbites, and consistent with the Bible. But applying them practically can be hard. How can you hate the sin without alienating the sinner? What if the ‘sin’ is an expression of someone’s fundamental view of themselves? What if they view your moral code as the artificial creation of an oppressive institution?

I think a lot of religious students (myself included) sometimes choose silence over confrontation. There are times when, to avoid causing offence, I do very little to indicate that I disagree with my friends’ choices. I would rather fail my God and my friends by facilitating their sin than bear witness to the truth and so lose their friendship. It is difficult to stand up for Christ, and always has been – and perhaps difficult to stand up for any moral code derived from something higher than humanity.

Not joining in with the behaviour can be a start – especially if you explain that you will not participate because of faithfulness to God. This has allowed me to discuss my beliefs with friends, to answer some of the questions they have had about my God, and show how faith can work in a modern world. Leading by example is valuable, and respects people’s right to choose for themselves whether or not to follow God. Though I think that supporting your friends is also important; friendship and religion are not mutually exclusive, but inherently linked. As their friend I should be there for them, and even more so as a Christian friend. I must not encourage their sin, but I can sit with them at midnight when everything has gone south and they need to cry it out. I can clean up their chunder and help them get to bed. I can thank God when they are happy, even if I also pray that they start looking for happiness in God. Supporting them is about showing in a real way that disagreeing with their behaviour does not mean shunning them or leaving them to the consequences of their sin; St. Paul tells us ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’. For me, morality must be based in love, not judgment, or it is pointless.

Morality must be based in love, not judgement, or it is pointless.

I have not perfected this. Sometimes I do think less of others for their decisions but that is my failing and not theirs. They, in and of themselves, are no lesser than I. We are all made in the image of God; He has plans for everyone; and all are offered His forgiveness and love equally. This cannot justify sin but stumbling from (or even shunning) the right path cannot destroy this inherent value. Even if it did I could not justify myself in thinking less of others, because I also fall woefully short every day. My parish priest used to say that when you raise your hand to point at another in accusation, your other three fingers are pointing straight back at you. I may not be having sex or getting drunk, but I am often prideful, selfish, judgmental, and in many other ways far less than Christ-like. I need God’s forgiveness and grace as much as my friends do. Perhaps I try harder to follow Him – though probably not since many of my friends are Christians – but that is of little merit. Faith is a gift and a blessing, not a ground for superiority.

This informs how I should respond to sin in others, and summarises what ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’ is about, even if I don’t always manage it. You must acknowledge that the behaviour is wrong, or you will fail your friend, yourself, and God; but you must also recognise that your friend is as (un)worthy of forgiveness and grace as you are, that you are just as sinful as them, and that they are therefore equally deserving of love and support. We are called to love those around us, even as we ‘hate’ their sin.