Say you have a friend; let’s call him Robert. He’s a nice enough guy for the most part – good with kids, bad at lying, and a mediocre harmonica player – but there’s this one thing you just can’t tolerate: you’re a Republican and he’s a Democrat.
Annette, on the other hand, is great! You both prefer cats to dogs, you go to the same hair stylist, and she even likes Ken’s Steakhouse Creamy Caesar dressing on her lettuce wedges, just like you! Of course there’s that little detail about her being an atheist while you’re a Christian, but hey, you’ll graciously let that slide since that’s got to be the more loving thing to do, right?
So… are you being a better example of toleration with Robert or Annette? The answer is, NEITHER. Tolerance is not simply saying that anything is okay. It is not simply suppressing your beliefs. It is… well, this quote says it better than I can:
“A truly tolerant person does not refrain from making judgments, but rather refrains from using power to get others to change their beliefs, relying instead on persuasion. – Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult
It seems like today, toleration is held up as the supreme virtue. As a culture, America is becoming more and more “tolerant” of things that people haven’t tolerated for years. (I’m not going to go too deep into this subject, but here’s a fabulous post on that topic which you should totally check out.)
Toleration has come to mean “don’t judge me.” And the second half is usually, “…but I can judge you because you’re obviously wrong and I’m right.” But as the quote says, true tolerance doesn’t mean not holding beliefs or withholding judgment. True tolerance involves respecting and loving the person, even if you disagree with their beliefs.
For example. Shortly after getting married, my parents started going to a different church than they had gone to growing up. And not just to a different building, but to a different denomination with theology that was almost the complete opposite to what practically every person in their families and extended families held.
I can only imagine how hard that was for everyone concerned. But you know what? We still love our family very much, and our famiy still loves us! We are blessed to have a close, friendly relationship with our relatives for the most part, something for which I am extremely grateful.
I say this not to point out that we’re a perfect family (heh heh, we all know that’s impossible), or to bash one denomination or the other, but as a reminder that even when we hold different beliefs, we can still be tolerant. You can still love people who believe differently than you.
And you know what? Maybe our differences aren’t as big as we sometimes make them out to be. In our case, we’re still Christians! Our grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles… they’re still Christians! We share a common core, a common foundation, which is the love of Christ. That is the most important thing, not the way we dress or how we hold church services or what kind of hymns we sing.
Those decisions are important too, don’t get me wrong, but I think we Christians tend to argue over the details and forget the glorious big picture. We remember all too easily what we don’t have in common, and forget that we share a huge, glorious bond. Besides the fact that arguing and fighting among ourselves is not at all a winsome witness to unbelievers, this can damage our own spirits as well.
Remember that though we continue to splinter into finer and finer twigs and facets of belief, we are all growing from a common Vine, (John 15:5) nourished by the same Water of Life. (John 4:13-14)
Anyway, I think this is part of the reason why we are still so close to our family: you have to acknowledge differences, yes, but don’t dwell on them unless they are really worth it. Sometimes they will be worth it. Do not just ignore sin. But also keep in mind that picking at tiny cracks can make them chasms one day. Dwell on the similarities, and love each other well. I think that is a better attitude to have toward tolerance than a defensive “don’t judge me” attitude.
So, don’t dismiss important differences about a person in favor of superficial similarities, like we did in our example with Annette, but also don’t be so focused on one weakness or difference in opinion that you’re blind to their wonderful strengths, like we were with Robert. Robert was under-tolerated and Annette was over-tolerated. As with anything, you can fall from either side of the cliff. And neither direction shows love.
How can you fix these problems? First, if a difference is too important to ignore, present your beliefs “… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)
Secondly, be careful what you’re offended at.”If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)
You have a choice to be offended at something or to let it go. Choose wisely, for what you are offended at shows what is important to you. It’s perfectly fine to graciously disagree about things, and it’s great that we all have our own ideas, but make sure that your level of offense is equal to the value you place on that belief.
If we’re so offended by Robert’s politics but not by Annette’s entirely different worldview, what message does this send to others? If you’re really offended about something, take time to ask yourself – why is this so important to you? And should it be?
So what should we be offended at? The twisting of the gospel. Don’t just shrug your shoulders when people take out the “less palatable” parts of the gospel like the fact that we are sinners justly deserving the wrath of a holy God, in favor of the (of course still very true!) parts of the Bible such as “God is love.” If the gospel you tell non-believers isn’t offensive to them, it probably isn’t the true gospel.
We must tell all of the gospel, the easy and the difficult, for there’s no reason to run to Jesus to be washed of our sins if we don’t believe we’re dirty. If you share the gospel truly, don’t you believe God is strong enough to change that person’s heart, despite the fact that the Truth is hard to swallow sometimes?
Alright, I’m nearly done here, but I just wanted to say… this post was really hard to write. Really hard. Partly because I’m no expert in tolerance myself. In fact, often I’m downright terrible at it. It’s easy to judge others for insignificant details and hard to confront them about the larger problems. It’s hard to respect other people when we feel we can’t respect their beliefs. It’s just hard to love, isn’t it? Nevertheless, I hope that in the places where by God’s grace I may have written some truth, it could encourage you as thinking about this has encouraged me: to be truly tolerant.
My dears, in a world where there is so much to take offense at, be discerning. In a world where it is so easy to judge harshly, be gentle. In a world where it is so easy to lash out, be loving. In a world where people proudly proclaim that they’re right and everyone else is wrong, be humble about your beliefs. Be tolerant of most things, but don’t dismiss the most important things.
Be careful what you’re offended at.