Love, Tolerance, and Repentance

After some interaction on Facebook, I thought I’d pour together my streaming thoughts about love, tolerance, and how they relate to repentance.

Tolerance is touted as today’s ultimate virtue, particularly in the West. However, Tolerance is not actually a Christian virtue. Love is. As a Christian I am called upon to love, not to tolerate. If I tolerate everything, then I’m not actually doing all that much. I’m essentially always agreeing to the status quo. But in that case, I can sometimes show myself profoundly unloving with little sense of right and wrong, and with little impetus to do right.

Now I realise that advocates of tolerance often have a good motive for advocating it. They do want to be ‘neighbourly’ and see tolerance as the basic attitude to achieve that end. However, I think more thought needs to go into it, because tolerance can sometimes have unfortunate results or is not something we actually live out in practice. How many parents, for example, tolerate their children’s misbehaviour? Does our society tolerate murder or rape? How many people cheering from the grandstand tolerate a poor performance from their team, or a bad decision by a referee? Tolerance has shortcomings in the day-to-day rough and tumble of life, and there are times when we are profoundly intolerant for good reason.

Sometimes, though, tolerance is used as a strategy for selfishness. It’s an attitude that says, ‘You should let me do whatever I want, so I’ll let you do whatever you want, and that way we can appear neighbourly, albeit in the name of me getting my wish to do as I see fit.’ But such reified individualism can be very damaging to society, because people begin battling for their so-called ‘rights’. These ‘rights’ are an idealistic expression of ‘what you owe me’, and they always tend to be directed towards the self (eg. ‘my rights’ or ‘you should stand up for your own rights’). These individual rights can end up keeping us apart rather than bringing us together with something in common. And thus, we have conflicting rights (eg. the right of gay people to marry -v- the right of children to have both a mother and father in accordance to the way the birds and the bees work). Who gets the right to have their rights prevail over the rights of another? Tolerance cannot really solve these issues.

The Christian ethic is love. To put it in other words, it’s about being other-person-centred. It’s not so much about me standing up for my rights as me looking out for your genuine good. There’s nothing really about tolerance in that attitude. There is no satisfaction with a status quo, but rather a continual search for what is objectively good for the other. Love implies that there is an ultimate good, and that we should strive for it with an attitude of self-sacrificial giving. It’s not about individualism.

God himself is not actually tolerant. He did not tolerate me, a sinner; he loved me. He gave up his apparent ‘rights’, but not so that I might continue to have my own ‘rights’ as an individual who can do what he wants, but rather to sanctify me and bestow on me the right to be called a son of God. He actively sought my own good. He did not love me for who I am; he loved me despite who I am.

God never ever tolerates my sin. In fact, he has been working throughout all of history to eradicate my sin, and this was achieved finally once and for all at the execution stake of a Jewish man in the first century: the cross of Jesus Christ. I’m not now perfect as a result of that. Far from it—I’m all too aware of my own faults. But God is patient with me. I must not, however, mistake God’s patience for tolerance. For tolerance usually has, at best, an implicit approval of what another does regardless of its moral value, or, at worst, a complete apathy about it. But God does not approve of my sin, nor is he apathetic about it. His willingness to take nails in his flesh and die a human death on my behalf speaks anything but affirmation or apathy towards my sin. Rather, it shows his unconditional love for me as he took what was due to me, a sinner. And this unconditional love shows up the emptiness of ‘tolerance’.

It is often pointed out by advocates of tolerance that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. They were so different to him, and yet he reached out to them. Shouldn’t we follow the same example? Well, yes, of course we should follow the example of Jesus in loving others. But Jesus did not affirm the tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes in their sin. Rather, he called on them to change—to go and sin no more. Repentance was his basic message (Mark 1.15). As he said, it wasn’t the healthy who needed a doctor, but the sick. And he was there to make a difference—he wasn’t just being a socialite. And it was love that impelled him the whole way—all the way to a gruesome death that paid the penalty for the sin of the tax collectors and prostitutes. You can still be someone’s friend while telling them to repent.

If Jesus can call people to repent, and he commissioned his followers to do the same, then we can and should discern between what is right and what is wrong. Some will say that it’s judgemental to demand that someone change. But there is a difference between being judgemental and being discerning. Judgement is up to God. I, a sinner, have no place judging a fellow sinner. It’s God’s prerogative as a perfect judge to vindicate or condemn people. But if I can recognise the sin in my life, I will also be able to recognise it in others, too. And if I call someone to repent, I’m not condemning them, but rather urging them to take advantage of God’s amnesty and recommended way of life for their own genuine good. Of course, sensitivity and humility are part and parcel of calling people to repentance, and nobody likes to hear from someone that they’re wrong. But if I was going astray somehow and my friends watched on in tolerance, you’d have to question their friendship, their commitment, and their love. Love reaches out to make a difference, not to tolerate.

I think what many people hear when someone calls them to change is, ‘Be more like me.’ That’s certainly not the Christian message. Unfortunately, it’s probably the message that some of us Christians put out there, but also what some people mishear Christians saying, too. Christians aren’t superior to anyone. No way! But we have been given the message of life that we want others to share in. I think the Apostle Paul captures the idea well when he tells the Corinthians that love compels him to do what he does, and on that basis, he urges them to be reconciled to God.

The message of love is not the message of tolerance. It does not say, “Be as you are and I will accept you for who you are.” The message of love is, “You don’t have to do anything to earn my love, because I will love you unconditionally. Yet, love compels me to be active in loving, and not to stand idly by when I see you going astray. So I will strive for your genuine good.”

As a dad I love my kids. I always will, no matter what. Yet it’s precisely because I love them that I do things that are for their good, though they may not understand it or agree with it, and sometimes may react hostilely to it. I do not tolerate it when they do something that harms themselves or others, or when they disobey me or their mother. Yet I still love them even in those moments. Love leads me to discipline them when it’s necessary, because I honestly believe in pursuing what is for good for them. Love also leads me to take them to the dentist when they need it, even though they protest and it might cause them pain. If I merely had an attitude of tolerance towards them, I might actually end up being profoundly unloving and let them continue doing those things that are harmful to themselves and others. Tolerance feels free to accept everything, but love reaches out to others personally and seeks out what is genuinely good. Tolerance is passive. Love is active.

Just some rambling thoughts.