Tolerance is the Virtue of the Uncaring
We are callled to Love not Tolerate.
I was driving on the way to church when I noticed the bumper sticker on the car in front of me. You have seen it. It contained the word “Tolerance”. It was much more than the word by itself. It spelled out the word using symbols of some of the major religions and world views from across the globe. The cross of Jesus became a “T” with a peace symbol “O” and a Native American Shamanism “L” and so on to spell out this earthly virtue. “Believe in it” was the motto underneath. This sticker echoes the rallying cry of secular morality.
“We must be tolerant!”
“We need laws against intolerance!”
The owner of the car in front of me did not mean to be insulting as they displayed this anthem. Those who preach it are likely also not intending to be offensive. They don’t intend to say:
“These religions and views cause each other intense pain, but they should endure each other like a soldier suffering through a battle wound.”
Yet, this is the actual meaning of the word. Tolerance is all about dealing with something offensive. It not a positive thing. A thing tolerated is assumed to be offensive and bad.
Tolerance is not a celebration of differences. It is a painful endurance of a wrong.
You can hate something and still tolerate it. You may thing something is terrible and still tolerate it. You can know it will destroy another person and still endure it. You cannot express love for something and tolerate it. Love demands action.
Tolerance is not loving, it is suffering through. This is never Jesus’ way. It is not Christianity. The faith of Jesus’ requires love for everyone, friend or enemy, or it is not His faith. We don’t tolerate like Jesus. We love like Jesus.
We Tolerate what We Despise
There is a huge difference between tolerance and love. Love is an affirmative action. It is caring about someone and wanting good for them. It is great interest, pleasure, warmth and intimacy with someone. It is an action. Love defines Jesus’ interactions with people in the Gospels. He loved His disciples and the people of Israel. He loved the broken and the sinful. He loved the Pharisees and religious leaders so much He offers them truth and redemption. He does offend them. He often angers them. But He never simply puts up with them.
Tolerance starts from a position of negative judgment. We don’t tolerate something we enjoy, celebrate or appreciate. We never tell our beloved child “Daddy tolerates you honey!” The root of the word deals with enduring something painful. It is fortitude in the face of something agonizing. Soldiers tolerate weather while carrying out their duty. They would change it if they could. Those who implore us to choose tolerance start with an assumption of the negative. That to be endured is intensely disagreeable and will always be so. A huge amount of strength is required to choose tolerance as the offending thing or person is odious.
The message of Jesus is love the world when it disagrees with you.
The message of tolerance says you are right to hate the world but put up with it.
These are contrary world views.
God So Loved the World
Jesus says He is salvation for the Lost. God so loved the world He sent His only Son. Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The language involved indicates Jesus means the only Way, the only Truth and the only Life. No one gets to the Father, but through Him. Tolerating someone, agreeing to accept them and leave them in any condition other than with the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life is not loving. At heart, it is unkindness.
There is a wonderful moment in the Gospels when King Jesus preaches in a synagogue. He is in His home town of Nazareth and allowed to read in front of the assembled crowd. Here is the passage:
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This is a proclamation that He is the Messiah. Jesus is also quoting Isaiah’s prophecy about the role of the Messiah when He came. The Messiah would set the captives free, heal the sick and the blind, and liberate the oppressed. This is wonderful, right? It is the heart of Jesus and you see Him doing all theses things in His earthly ministry. He then punctuates this picture on the Cross. When He dies for your sins it is the ultimate expression of freeing those who are prisoners. We know from John 3:16, He does this because God so loved the world He actively intervenes in human history to get us out of jail. Nothing new here, right?
Yet, what does tolerance to do with the captives? Leave them be. Let them alone. Who are you to tell them to come out of prison?
Healing the Lepers
Leprosy was a horrible disease in the ancient world. It was a death sentence. Those afflicted were objects of scorn. They were outcasts and lived on the fringes of society. They were required to stay 100 feet from any person and annouce their uncleanness as they walked. The Jews hated them but could not go so far as kill them as it was not allowed. Lepers were a thing to be tolerated. They were an intense pain to be put up with. Then the Messiah came out of love.
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” Matthew 8
Do you see what Jesus does here?
He came down from the mountain where He explained the Kingdom of God. The Sermon on the Mount that turns the world’s idea of religion on its head was on His lips. Words about loving your enemy and blessings on the poor in spirit and meek. Jesus laying out God’s active love for the World. Directions that His followers would have that same sort of powerful love. Jesus immediately comes face to face with a man who could use a whole lot of that. The words involved indicate the man’s leprosy is well advanced. He is likely horrible to look at. He likely smells terrible and is disfigured. He has been alone and suffering for many years now since the disease is well advanced.
Society says stay away from this man and endure him from a distance. The best possible outcome is a quick death where he does not infect anyone else. The man in his desperation hopes against hope for healing. Yet, Jesus not only does that but also much more.
Jesus reaches out His hand and touches the leper. This man hasn’t been touched in years. God stretches out His holy hand in love and reassurance and cleanses him. There is no pained endurance. There is no patient suffering of something offensive.
The love of Christ demands so much more.
Leprousy is not just a physical disease in the Bible. It is a picture of man in his sinful condition. He is disfigured, in pain, and helpless to do anything to help himself. It is only God who can make a difference and free him from this prison. Love compelled Jesus to come into this world and actively do something about man’s helplessness. He could not just sit back and tolerate man until death finally came. He came to love. He came to save. Tolerance is antithetical to this mission.
Please make no mistake, there is a wonderful diversity of people within the Body of Christ. God made all different races and ethnicities. He made people to think uniquely from one another. Our cultures across the world reflect the unfathomable complexity of our Creator. The early church contained Jews, Gentiles, slave and free, man and women, Ethiopian, Egyptian and Roman. It is wonderfully varied in language and locations. These difference should be celebrated and embraced as they follow and express God’s plan. The Body of Christ should indeed be against racism, prejudice and bigotry. They make no sense according to the Bible’s view of life. Love and irrational hate or fear don’t mix in any form.
Love is still never content with just tolerance. It is not a Christian concept. Love demands the prisoners be set free, blind healed, and sinners cleansed. God loves all people. He never views us as things to be tolerated.
Jesus commands us to love the Church.
Jesus commands us to love our enemies.
Is there any room for merely tolerating someone in there?