Thursday, March 17, 2005

Tolerance and Love

Tolerance has become one of the most popular terms when describing relationships between people and cultures. The focus of articles, conversations, sermons, and political dialogue, it has become the ideal great solution to the problems in this world. Is there division in the city? Try tolerance. Does your neighbor offend you? Use tolerance. Are you upset with the way other cultures act and react? Learn tolerance. We often sacrifice emotive responses like mercy, anger, grace, mirth, shame, forgiveness, and reconciliation in order to try to wrap our arms, minds, and hearts around the idea of tolerance.

This great dialogue about tolerance has revealed the desires in any human heart to relate rightly with friends, strangers, and even enemies. It promotes the dim reflection we all yearn to see in its fullness and grandeur—the lion laying in harmony with the lamb in a beautiful landscape that has no imperfections and is filled with happiness. Though tolerance resonates across borders and property lines for this very reason, perhaps it can produce only a limited glimpse of that picture. Does tolerance go the distance and promote sustaining change, or merely “put up with,” creating a false and short-lived sense of acceptance?

In the scope of centuries and millennia, history overflows with examples of the failure of tolerance. Since some may say that those failures were do to poor implementation and not a reflection of its true nature, an understanding of its purpose and character is vital. Tolerance exists because man is fallen and does not live in a perfect world…it is a means to fill that void and bring creation back to what it is supposed to be. It champions giving worth and value to people and promoting fairness, as well as bringing humanity to a closer knit family that can coexist and succeed.

But tolerance also revolves around the self and selfishness, even as it takes a stand for other-centeredness. It does not always presuppose moral under girding or absolute truth; instead the picture of tolerance varies from person to person, culture to culture. It is a great idea by intention on paper that plays out quite differently and poorly in practice. It promotes an endless circle that unfortunately perpetuates frustration and dissatisfaction. There is never enough tolerance, and the more it is sought, the more its need grows.

A widely held view (across cultures and worldviews) is that tolerance is the way of loving those we disagree with or don’t understand. Lived out, this idea may occasionally add a trophy to the case or give warm fuzzies, but it has no depth or substance. Tolerance can never be more than a counterfeit love, on the outside looking fine and similar, yet worth nothing in truth. It bears resemblances, and can be mistaken and accepted for the real thing. Yet it can never be love. It falls short no matter how valiant the effort.

In fact, tolerance is deadening. It does not give life to relationships, but rather confines and kills. When I tolerate someone, there is already a distinction drawn between us. We are different, maybe greatly or perhaps just in certain ways. But if I’m regarded as tolerating someone, there is work to be done. It is not validating—it is a false respect or honor of someone. Tolerance promotes loneliness in its very character. It stills the desire to build a relationship with someone, instead focusing on how to settle for one another. It is a half-love, that never allows for anything more, lest it ceases to be tolerance. If tolerance is the goal, then dissatisfaction is unavoidable. Tolerance is measured, but only in negative terms…only promoting more of it, and more terrifying effects.

Love, on the other hand, is poured out. In its nature, it cannot be confined or deadened. It breathes life into, even when applied in discipline. Love presumes that things should more closely relate, not simply coexist. Love is empowering and freeing, shedding the weight of counterfeits.

In the garden God gave a mandate to be fruitful and multiply for His kingdom’s sake. Man exists for His glory. Every aspect of life is for this purpose. We are relational people, beyond work and self…we are created to live together for His glory, otherwise He would have created Adam and said, “it is enough.” If our very essence is to relate, then love is the consummation of that mandate. It is relationship coming to fruition. Since it is ordained by Him, we find harmony and right-relationship through endurance and encouragement granted by God. Only in this way can we begin to find unity in our inherited diversity, with the goal of glorifying God with one voice. We shrug off motives of personal happiness and self-advancement for His kingdom’s sake, and simultaneously give and receive blessings beyond our imagination.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.” Notice the difference if you substitute tolerate for welcome in those words. Are we prompted to serve justice and mercy to our neighbor by tolerating them as God tolerates them? How motivating is that? This is the offering and sacrifice required of God: Not tolerance, the half-love and confiner, but acceptance and love—our very being and gift of life. We taste the kingdom to come and bring it to bear on earth.


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