Some Thoughts on Tolerance

I think today tolerance has come to mean indifference when the grander vision of humanity was never merely to tolerate, but to love, persuade and sacrifice.


Let me explain. 


Classically tolerance has been defined as respecting and honoring another’s beliefs and values without endorsing them. Recently this view of tolerance has morphed into something quite different. “Cultural tolerance” as I will call it still involves respect, honor, and acceptance but it often tends to assume all values, beliefs, and lifestyles as being equal. These days, if you were to say a belief or lifestyle is greater or less than another, you would be labeled a bigot and of course, intolerant. And no one likes that.


So the thinking goes, if each person’s beliefs are valid and true to them, no person should ever be judged or criticized… of course unless those beliefs put another in harms way. In the process we’ve made truth relative. What’s so interesting about what’s going on is that this push towards homogeneity in truth claims has not made us more tolerant (as we classically mean it) towards another's worldview, but rather has made us indifferent. 


I’ve noticed that either we aggressively fight for our own “truth" in the public square to a point that the majority of people would shy away from and would even call “unloving". All the while, for the rest of us, when we celebrate diversity and inclusion we’ve created for ourselves a blissfully ignorant state of indifference.  The reason I choose the word ignorant is because we often haven’t engaged in the hard work of really understanding someone else’s worldview. The foundational aspects of why someone does what they do and not merely what, and to question whether this is actually true. The reason I choose the word indifference is because we’re okay to end the conversation at, “I do me and you do you."

There’s this tune playing in the background of our culture that life should be as stressless as possible. Trust me it can be stressful to truly engage and hope to understand the roots of someone else’s beliefs, because fundamentally they are different from our own. It can be even more stressful to bring to question our own belief especially when our families, relationships and friendships hang in the balance. Someone once told me you don’t really own your beliefs until someone has criticized it and you’ve had to defend it. 


Interestingly enough “tolerance" in the engineering world has always meant the ability of a material to withstand stress. How well does a substance withstand the weight, cold, heat, or the pressure.




We claim to be inclusive and diverse, accepting and honoring, but I think we’re lying to ourselves... In our inclinations to gravitate towards a stress free life we’ve sacrificed truth at the alter. I hate to break it to you, but we all can’t be right. The exclusivity of truth forces us to make a choice. When we encounter a truth which contradicts our beliefs we have to choose whether to change our beliefs or deny the truth. How are we going to handle the stress of being inclusive and diverse?  If it’s not hard, and if we’re not wrestling with some deep issues, I think we are doing it wrong. 


The scriptures never once mentioned that we be "culturally tolerant" to one another. We see that, Jesus was tough in his conviction. He stuck it to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of that time, and brought to the forefront their own hypocrisy. He was not afraid to call sin what it was. Yet at the same time Jesus was soft and full of grace to those who were genuinely seeking God. All grace, all truth all the time.


More importantly, the scripture tell us to go above and beyond what we believe is classical tolerance. It tells us to love one another. It’s the supreme ethic that God showed for us in the life of Jesus. Paul tells us in Romans 5:8 ,But God demonstrates HIs love to us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Jesus was supremely tolerant in that he was willing to tolerate for our sakes: to trade riches for poverty, to have kings try to kill him, to flee persecution to a foreign land as a refugee, to have his own family think he was crazy, to be made fun of constantly, to be rejected by his own people, to be deserted by his closest friends at the time of greatest need, to be in utter anguish that he would sweat blood, to be unjustly sentenced to death, to be brutally tortured. to be stripped naked whipped and scoffed at, to endure the gloating of his enemies over his suffering, to hang on a cross with his mother watching... and to know this was always the plan from the very beginning and do it anyway.  


Jesus' very coming was an act of disagreement with us. He communicated truth, showing us that we are all sinners in need of saving. He showed how badly our lives disagreed with what he had intended. Yet, Jesus didn’t disagree with us first and then later show us love.  His sacrifice for us was the very content of his disagreement. This is the explicit gospel. 


If you are reading this and hold beliefs that differ to my own, I want you know that it's not enough to agree to disagree. I believe we owe it to ourselves to raise our objections, make criticisms, care enough to try to give the gift of truth to one another. And even if both of us are unconvinced at the end, a relationship that can withstand stress of fundamentally different worldviews clashing has always been more powerful and ultimately meaningful than one that celebrates diversity with a shiny veil of ignorance and disregard for the truth. Yes, it is possible to be loving and committed to truth at the same time. And yes, it is costly and probably stress inducing. But for the sake of the future, are we willing?


Just a few thoughts.

The Upside-Down Kingdom