“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” and Other Spiritual Clichés

As the saying goes (get it?), every cliché became clichéd for a reason.

We use them to teach, communicate at work, share in solidarity, reference favorite movies. It’s a perfectly fine way to contribute to a conversation in many settings.

The risk, though, is treating clichés as if they have finality. Clichés can help us connect with others or articulate a relatable thought, but they should never be a conclusion—because the only thing a cliché proves is its own popularity. That isn’t the kind of evidence you need in a debate.

When it comes to faith and morality, clichéd thinking is an especially important fallacy to avoid. Discussions on these topics may be heated. Sometimes, a person will want to engage on them because they are in crisis. The issues on the table are critical, and they are complicated. A proper conversation should involve a lot of thought and evidence. But too often, the same oft-cited clichés are treated as if they can stand in as a final word.

They can’t. Clichés may not be untrue, but they aren’t the whole truth, and when you’re talking about something as nuanced as faith or policy, that’s an important distinction.

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”

We hear this so much in today’s world. And it’s an important reminder to check our biases and offer forgiveness. None of us can judge the state of another’s soul. None of us can see the interior of another’s heart. It is essential that we know our place in this way.

However, this concept of Christian compassion isn’t an open door to relativism. We can never damn another person, or purport to know how God sees them (except to rest assured that they, as are we all, His beloved children). But this doesn’t mean we must support everything they do or say when we believe those words or actions to be wrong. It’s okay to call out wrongdoing. In fact, it is imperative. And to be shut down with this cliché in response is not to be beaten.

Remember, though, that we are not here to change hearts. Only God can do that. We can (and must) share truth, and live a good example that shows kindness, meekness, and penance—but that’s all we can do.

“Let Go and Let God” (Or Its Cousins, “God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle” and “Everything Happens for a Reason”)

And on speaking of what we cannot do—there’s quite a lot of it. Of course there is. Of course we can’t change the world all on our own, or single-handedly save our country, or even, frankly, guide the precise path of our own lives.

In this way, it’s important to give over our worries and anxieties to God and trust in His care for us. He is our Father, and He will carry us through it all—either on this earth or to salvation—if we let Him.

But we can control our own behavior. We are entirely responsible for the way we live our lives, even if we can’t foresee all of the outcomes of our behavior. So yes, we should be letting God “take control of our lives.” But no, this is not a reason to set aside hard work, or attempt to convince ourselves that deeply important issues are not worth examining and stressing over.

Sometimes we need that stress to remind ourselves of our roles and how we can better help our neighbors, as well as ourselves. And sometimes, if someone is suffering, we need to acknowledge their pain instead of brushing it off as something God will remove from them if only they believe hard enough.

Pain can be cleansing. So can hard work.

“Actions Speak Louder Than Words” and “You Can’t Have it Both Ways”

This is one you might hear often in partisan debates: “If you say you believe in x, you’ve sure failed to show it with real action!” That impulsive response to a difficult statement, or one that appears contradictory, is understandable. It’s so hard to wrap our minds around some of the issues we face in public policy today, and how all of those issues intersect and interact (spoiler alert: neither major American party gets everything right).

But Catholicism is a “both/and” faith. So much of what we believe might appear confusing, but nuances often reveal that there is no contradiction when two things—like rejecting abortion and rejecting birth control—appear to be discordant.

The proper thing to do isn’t to accuse someone of failing to act on their beliefs. Instead, ask how they have, or how you might go about doing the same. Better yet, ask why and how they believe those two things at once.

What to Say Instead

People don’t come away from difficult conversations feeling like they’ve learned something if they’ve heard too many platitudes.

That said, we’re not all incredible orators. It’s hard to come up with the right answer to a tough question when put on the spot.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself falling back to clichés when I’m just not sure how to articulate more detail. I grasp for something relatable and recognizable, and want to offer that to “prove my point” by way of helping someone understand where my head is at. But that’s not the way to teach someone something. And it can be a dangerous cop-out—because, if I feel like I’ve expressed myself in an “easy” way and the other person “just doesn’t get it,” neither of us is challenged to dig deeper and discover something important.

So, if you want to say something but aren’t quite sure how to say it well—don’t take the easy way out. Instead, be honest: “You know, I’m not precisely sure how to give you the best answer for that right now. Let me look into it a little bit more and get back to you with better insights.” Then, actually do that research and follow up as promised.

That is a difficult thing to do, especially if the conversation is heated or it feels like something huge is at stake. But you know what? That’s humility. Humility is objectively good. It’s also so impactful, because it shows people that you are aware of your own limitations and respectful of their time and attention. It also means you can extend the conversation and treat the subject with the care it deserves—and, if necessary, take a pause so everyone can catch their breath and return to the discussion with more information.

Whether you’re talking politics, faith, or ethics (or all three), remember that you are not responsible for having an astute, complete answer to every question. No one should expect that of you—and neither should you expect it of yourself. Check your pride. Be a good listener and a steady speaker. Above all, be open to learning. That’s how we grow.

Challenge is good. Tough conversations can be stressful, but they can also be incredibly productive—not just in influencing others, but in growing our own intellect. Give them the time and attentiveness they deserve instead of bandaging incomplete thoughts with relatable but empty banalities. St. John Chrysostom, patron of orators, pray for us.

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