The idea for this post first showed up my senior year of high school during basketball season. My team practiced in the gym of an old school where motivational posters and “Go Mustangs!” banners still plastered the walls. One practice I somehow managed to hyper-extend my ankle, so I spent the rest of that night sitting on the sidelines with my foot elevated. Here is where I would like to say that I kept my focus on my teammates and what our coach was having them do, but I didn’t. My mind was alternating between the pain in my ankle, what was happening on the court, and those banners and posters.
On the wall above me was a banner covered in all sorts of those values that adults are always trying to instill in their kids. I can’t recall any of the values now, except the one that caught my eye at the time and pushed my thought process toward this topic: tolerance. Being a home schooled evangelical, some might call my idea of the “great” values a little antiquated, but I would not put tolerance on the list. On the other hand, one value that I would put at, or at the very least near, the top of the list was absent: love. Not the ushy-gushy emotional kind of love, but the kind of love that causes a person to sacrifice his desires, needs, and even life for another.
What, exactly, is this thing known as tolerance? Merriam-Webster defines it as:
Tolerance, n. - a. sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own, b. the act of allowing something
So basically, tolerance is the philosophy of live-and-let-live. It says, “You believe this, he believes that, and you are good with your differences.” While this is the technical definition of tolerance, the word carries a little more meaning in today’s America.
The technical definition of tolerance is a relaxed, let’s-get-along kind of deal. What is really meant by most people using the word tolerance is more of a tense, we-all-have-to-walk-on-eggshells-so-we-don’t-offend-one-another thing. The idea is that, to ensure that we do not offend anyone, we never think, write, say, or do anything that could even have a remote possibility of offending someone. Could that card be construed to be a stab at Blacks? Quick, make the company get it off the shelves.
So here is the definition of tolerance I will be working with (though for the most part, the other one would work just fine):
Tolerance, n. – carefully guarding one’s thoughts and actions, so as to prevent the possibility of offending another person or people group
There you have it, my working definition of what Americans mean when they say tolerance.
Putting tolerance in a high place is not peculiar to that old school I used to practice at, or the local system of which it had been a part. In recent decades, tolerance has become a national issue, attracting media attention and government support. It, along with our economic woes and the war on terror, has become one of the defining issues of contemporary America.
The Millennial generation has been raised with the importance of tolerance being pounded into its collective heads. Even those of us raised in the church seem to have widely accepted tolerance as our way of life. We wouldn’t want to be associated with Westboro Baptist anyway. But is tolerance really what Christ asks of us?
The Opposite of Love
Before I continue with that train of thought, I need to address something. Many people seem to think that the opposite of love is hate. This answer assumes that love is just a positive feeling toward someone. I don’t hold to that idea, so we’re going to keep looking.
Some think the opposite of love is fear. While I understand the reasoning behind that, I’m not sold there either because I still think that assumes love is just a feeling. So if neither of these definitions are correct, what is the opposite of love?
First, since I’ve already told you what I think love is not, let me define love for you. Feel free to disagree, but I believe love is an attitude. It is a frame of mind we choose to have toward another person, not some warm, fuzzy feeling inside of us. True love is an attitude of selflessness toward another person. It puts the object of our love above ourselves so that we become more concerned with the well being of the other person than we are about our own.
So if love is putting another’s well being above our own, wouldn’t the opposite of love be hating them and putting their demise above our well being, or something like that? Not exactly. That would mean you stilled cared what happened to them, even if you wanted what happened to be bad.
No, the opposite of love is not caring what happens to another person. It is being so caught up in yourself that you couldn’t care less what happened to those around you. While the portion of this attitude that is pointed toward you is called selfishness, the part that deals with others is known as apathy.
Apathy, n. – Lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern
Sound familiar at all? This is what our culture is telling us our attitude toward those different than us should be. We should just let them go their way, leave them to their beliefs and lifestyles, and concern ourselves with our lives. Sounds like apathy to me.
Tolerance and Jesus
So if tolerance is apathy, and apathy is the opposite of love, how does that fit with the teachings of Christ and the Apostles? Didn’t Christ command us to love even our enemies? If we simply tolerate those different than us, are we obeying Christ?
In Matthew 5, Christ did indeed command us to love even our enemies:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” - Matthew 5:43-48
He also commanded us to love each other in John 13:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” - John 13:34-35
Part of that love includes gently confronting each other with the truth when needed:
“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” - Galatians 6:1-2
I reason that if we are commanded to gently confront each other as part of the love we are commanded to show to one another, then that carries over to the love that we are supposed to show our enemies. So if we are to love our enemies enough to let them know when they are wrong, that means we should show that love to everyone we come in contact with. Don’t we owe it to everyone we come into contact with to treat them at least as well as we treat enemies?
In light of these truths, how do we respond?
If tolerance contradicts Christ’s commands to show His love to the world, then we need a different response to those around us. However, intolerance of the kind that Westboro Baptist and others like them use is out of the question. That kind of response to a lost and broken world isn’t just cruel, it’s wrong. How can we hope to bring this world to Christ by shouting their failures in their faces and flaunting our position with God?
We need what I’m going to start calling loving intolerance. This is neither the live-and-let live apathy of postmodernism, nor the judgmental hate of modern day pharisees. It is a balance between accepting fellow human beings as image-bearers of Christ and addressing the real problem of sin that surrounds us in the fallen world. It reaches out to the lost and says, “There is healing and restoration in the arms of Christ. Come to Him and be made new. Let Him change you from the inside out and make you into who He wants you to be. It’ll be rough, because He’s not satisfied with who you are now, but I’ll be here for the duration as your brother in Him. It’ll be worth it.” That’s the Gospel.
So what does loving intolerance look like in practical application?
You know that person who you avoid because they’re just a horrible person? You wouldn’t want to be associated with them, or let them drag you down. You stay away to keep yourself and your reputation safe. Well, that person needs Christ. I’m not saying you just randomly walk up to them and say, “You’re a sinner, you need Christ.” Instead, stop avoiding them. When you come into contact with them, go out of your way to show them Christ’s love. You don’t have to start by calling them out on sin issues. In fact you probably shouldn’t, because you’ll just alienate them before they respect you enough to take what you say seriously. Build a relationship with them, which takes time, and set a good, consistent example of a Godly life. Then, when the time is right, say what needs to be said. I know this isn’t easy, but what good thing in life that is of great worth can be easily attained? This blows them all out of the water.
So that’s my challenge: to live in loving intolerance. Don’t hate on others because you’re redeemed and they’re not. Don’t just let sin slide, either. They need Christ, you need to show them love. Do it.