Tolerance

If you google the word “tolerance” you’ll find more than 41 million hits to follow up on.  Type the same word into an online Bible index and you might come up with two or three entries, mostly in contemporary translations that have used this word instead of “forbearance” (which is closer, in my view, to the original Greek, but is a word that has gone out of fashion).

Tolerance is a highly esteemed value in our societies today, certainly in the Netherlands where I live.  But it isn’t a very Biblical concept.  In the Old Testament you won’t find much tolerance for groups or individuals whose religion, race, sexual practices, diet, or personal hygiene were at odds with those of God’s “chosen” people.  The New Testament, though providing the framework and first signs of a new way of thinking – much of which we would call tolerance – is still almost entirely devoid of the word.

The biblical literature prefers a related, but different concept: “patience”.  Patience is peppered throughout the Bible, and is much like tolerance in practice, but on closer inspection is not the same.  The goal of tolerance is that we learn to accept each other as we are. Period.  The goal of patience is that we learn to accept each other as we grow toward being who we should be.  Tolerance encourages the acceptance of the status quo; patience presupposes a quality or standard to which one aspires.

The weakness of patience is that it requires someone to set the standard.  In theory that person is God – who created us in his image and thus knows how we should best live; in reality the standard is set by the millions of interpreters of God’s words.  Experience – religious history included – has taught us that many of those would-be spokespersons are absolutely sure of the rightness of their point of view, their interpretation of God’s words.  And it probably isn’t a stretch to say that most of the evil done in the world is done by those who are absolutely convinced that their beliefs are right and who have the power to enforce their will.

Perhaps for a multi-cultural society tolerance really is the best we can do.  As limited in wisdom and insight, and as corruptible as we are, it’s probably safer for all of us.  But as an individual I’m glad God, who knows all and sees all, is patient with me; glad he is not finished forming me into something better than I was yesterday.

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