Is God Tolerant? Should We Be?
If you watch the news for a little while, you’ll see that tolerance is a highly-rated value in North American society. If that’s the case, what should we be tolerant of? Should we be tolerant of all national leaders, all religions and all kinds of lifestyles that people choose? What is tolerance and intolerance anyway? Should this be a supreme cultural value? If yes, what are the measuring devices to determine what we should be tolerant or intolerant of? Should I, should Christians, be tolerant? Can you be a Christian with the claims of Christ and be tolerant, or does Christianity at its core necessitate intolerance? Is tolerance something we should aspire to as Christians? And is the God of the Bible tolerant or intolerant? That would seem important to know if one of the primary objectives of the Christian faith is to become more like God, more like Jesus.
Here are “dictionary” definitions:
Tolerant: The act or practice of tolerating. Sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from one’s own. The allowable deviation from a standard. Capacity for enduring or adapting.
Intolerant: Unable to endure. Unwilling to endure. Unwilling to grant equality, freedom, or other social rights.
I found a magazine survey that helps you determine how tolerant you are. I thought it would be fun, so I took it. A few sample questions:
- How often do you choose to socialize with people from different cultures?
- You’re waiting to board a plane at the airport when a Middle-Eastern man is called out of the line to be searched. What do you think?
- In order to marry the person you love you will have to change your religion to his or hers. Would you?
The survey was very interesting because its definition of tolerance was in flux by the very nature of the questions. Words change their meaning. This is common in linguistics. “Ground Zero” has a more diverse definition today than it did pre 9/11/2001. Being “gay” means something different today in mainstream usage than it did in the 1940s. Language is fluid and adaptable. Some words change their usage rapidly and take on multiple meanings. “The bomb” for a short period in the 1990s meant something amazing, excellent, great, and awesome. “The bomb” post-WWII was more about the atomic bomb and “the bomb” in the 2000s would often be associated with terrorism. Zoom, in August of 2019, was something you did (zoom down a water slide), not an online video gathering platform. And if you said something about social distancing in 2019 people would have looked at you as rude, but in a global pandemic it is an expectation. Words and phrases are constantly changing. This adaptation or flux is a problem with the word “tolerance.”
Tolerance (and intolerance) requires an objection to something. If you don’t object to anything, you’re not tolerant – just morally bankrupt. (If we are honest, we all object to something). I first need to have a position on something. Then, I could consider another person’s position on the same matter to be different from mine and therefore be tolerant of that position. Another aspect of tolerance is withheld power. If I want to stop something, but am powerless to do so, I am not tolerant – just helpless. Authentic tolerance means I voluntarily withhold what power I have to change someone else’s actions. By this definition, Jesus shows tolerance in Matthew 26 when the authorities come to arrest him and one of his disciples defends Jesus.
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” -Matthew 26:52-54
Jesus was being wrongly accused and arrested and had the power to do something about it but chose not to. Jesus was “tolerating” his enemies.
The problem is that tolerance and intolerance are frail words. Tolerance today has come to mean that you can’t take a stand on what you believe to be true if that stance is against what is the cultural norm (or against the person with the loudest voice). In that case you are intolerant, which has become the gravest of sins in our society. This assumes, of course, that there is anything that we can recognize as sin. If intolerance is sin, then the tolerant person is being intolerant of intolerance. This is why Christianity has often been branded with the evil “Intolerance” label when Christians quote such verses as:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” -John 14:6
Jesus makes a very exclusive statement here. Jesus is saying that truth and life and connection with the God of all creation are found exclusively through him, through Jesus Christ. This means that the Five Pillars of Islam are not the way, nor will ultimate truth be found in the Hindu Vedas, nor in the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. It is only found in Jesus. That seems very intolerant. Peter writes:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. -2 Peter 3:8-9
This verse confuses things some more. God is tolerant because he is patient, very patient, not wanting anyone to perish. But God is not tolerant because the basic truth of this passage is that even though God is very, very, very patient he is still going to allow some to perish. That is very intolerant. So, God is tolerant and intolerant. In that case, we Christians should not strive to be tolerant and we should not strive to be intolerant. Those words are just too feeble to be used for the pilgrimage of Christianity. There must be a third path, a better way, a more biblical, God-honoring scriptural way in which the follower of Jesus Christ can engage a world that has very different views about God, morality, and eternity. That is when we need to turn to Jesus Christ and see that the path for us is not tolerance or intolerance – discard those – but Truth emerging out of Love.
Before you read any further, read John 7:53-8:11. (I’m not responsible if you don’t.)
Jesus was a gifted teacher who used relevant life situations to help the people understand the very heart of God. He sat down, taking the common teaching position of a rabbi. In the middle of his teaching, the religious folk of his day barged in. These were the seminary-educated rulers of Jesus’ day – the ones who told the people what God was like and what they needed to do. The Pharisees believed that the problem with their society was too much sin in the camp. If they could just eradicate all the sin by following the Law and the laws they had created, then God would send the deliverer, the Messiah, and he would push back the Roman Empire. The occupation from the pagan, sinning, drinking, cursing, womanizing, dirty, Romans would be over!
These “holy” men dragged out a woman caught in adultery. The language used in the text is caught in the act of committing adultery. They physically took her, barged in while Jesus was teaching in the temple courts in front of a crowd, and made her stand before Jesus. This is the quintessential guide on how to shame a person. With everyone probably just a little taken aback by what they were seeing, the religious men asked Jesus a question. “Teacher,” you can always hear sarcasm in their voices, “this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The Law of Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. What do you say?”
I’ve experienced this kind of question. There are people who ask questions because they really don’t understand. They want to discover truth, they’re not sure they agree with you and they want to dissect the issue more – they are truly curious. And then there are people who ask questions to trap you, trip you, make you look foolish or just to affirm their own immovable narrow biases. We do not have to guess at the motives of these religious people. The author is clear in verse six that the question is a trap because they wanted to accuse and discredit Jesus.
We need to understand a little more about the law and the culture Jesus lived in to see how this trap was set. The Law was clear:
If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor — both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death. -Leviticus 20:10
The law is clear about the punishment for both individuals. Take note of the fact that the man is not present in the story – only the woman. It is also stated in the ancient law that two witnesses needed to be present, and that the man committing that act was not a viable witness. So, these religious leaders just happened to run into a man and woman committing adultery early in the morning and the man got away, so they dragged just the woman before Jesus. Right? This was a set up to trap Jesus.
The religious leaders knew the Law of Moses, but they also knew Roman law. Many believe that by AD 30, Rome had taken the power of capital punishment away from the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council. Rome also had their eye on the pulse of this area of their empire and grew easily tired of the uprisings of the Jewish people. No one wanted to get Rome’s attention, as Roman justice was swift and brutal. This is the trap for Jesus. If he affirms the Law, he will need to break Roman law and there is a high probability Jesus will be arrested by the Romans. If, on the other hand, he goes against the Law of Moses, he will discredit himself before the people as a rabbi and be subject to arrest by the Jewish ruling council.
Jesus, knowing the hearts of these religious people (Jesus always knows our hearts, our motives), bent down and started scribbling in the sand. This is the only record of Jesus ever writing. The men keep questioning him – they’re pushing their agenda. Jesus stands up and gives us these masterful words, “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he stoops down and writes. There is much speculation about what Jesus wrote. We just don’t know. Bummer!!
Look at the response of the leaders, from the oldest to the youngest, and you can see them dropping their stones and walking away. Jesus knew that according to the Law the witnesses and accusers are the ones that are to throw the first stones. He knows the trap. If you witnessed this and you are not guilty yourself, throw the stone. The oldest, perhaps because they are wiser or just had more time to sin, walk away and then the younger ones, and Jesus is left with the woman.
Perhaps it was Jesus’ time to be a little sarcastic. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” The word “sir”can also be translated “Lord” – it is a word that recognized the person as supreme in authority. The woman recognized the authority of Jesus’ words. That’s important. Jesus doesn’t condemn her and clearly declares, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus is calling her to repentance. To leave behind one way of living, one way of thinking, one way of acting that is not in line with God’s design and to re-orientate herself to God’s way. Turn from sin and turn to God. This is the way of Truth emerging out of Love. This is the way we must approach the world around us. Jesus authentically loved this woman. He did not affirm her sin, but he saw her as a human being created in the image of God. The religious leaders saw her as bait, meat, someone to be used and discarded.
The way of Truth emerging out of Love is seeing people as human, created by God not as things or targets or something to be manipulated. It is not seeing people and their viewpoints as something that we must have victory over – we must win and they must lose. When we are confronted with a person who practices a different religion from us, do we see them as a person whom God loves equally? A person created in the image of God and a person that God has allowed to have very different life experiences and cultural molding? What about the person who is practicing a lifestyle that we believe is against God’s scriptural mandate? How do you see them? How do you act toward them? What about a person who has a different political viewpoint?
What we see so clearly preserved in this story is that Jesus loved this woman who was obviously breaking the law of God and he was not looking to shame her. The religious people did a good enough job at that. He was not looking to beat her up with the Mosaic Law. He genuinely cared for her as a human being and because he cared for her, he knew that God’s way is the best way to live and only way to die. He doesn’t say, “Hey, you should probably consider not engaging in adultery. It’s not a good thing. It could get you killed.” No, Jesus said, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” He calls her act what it is. He is truthful, and his truth emerges out of genuine love. We don’t know who she was and what occurred, but I can imagine that the truth statement of Jesus calling her to leave her lifestyle of sin stuck with her. The words “tolerance” and “intolerance” are just too fluid and fragile to be embraced on the Christian journey. The way of God and the Christian response to the world around us is biblical Truth emerging out of genuine Love. That is the path forward.
 Chuck Colson