Cultural Tolerance Fails Us

Welcome! In this post, let’s look at the word “tolerance,” and whether society pushes its intended meaning. 

Tolerance, traditionally, is defined as respectfully acknowledging another’s subjective beliefs and opinions — without endorsing or accepting them. As Josh McDowell puts it, “…loving someone with whom you may totally disagree.”

Today, society is pressuring us to accept a new meaning: one that says to be “tolerant” of another is to accept all subjective beliefs as valid.

That each person’s dignity and self-worth actually depends on everyone else endorsing their personal “truth.” That each person has the right to a moral code so subjective that no one else can judge it, regardless of its effect on themselves or society. And that those who “judge” it, must be shouted down and silenced.

cultural tolerance

The result? Society is priming us to live in a constant state of offense. Where’s the tolerance in that? We’re being played!

As Wendy Kaminar, a lawyer and writer put it nearly a decade ago, contemporary liberalism involves a virtual embrace of censorship; a therapeutic approach to rights; very expansive definitions of ‘harm’; and hostility to freedom of speech, conscience, and belief. We are being sold the notion that “tolerance” must protect all persons from feeling “emotionally harmed.”

Thus, adds, Kaminar, the rise of advocates of “equality” and “diversity” who believe society must sacrifice First Amendment rights to guarantee a truly tolerant society. “How long,” she asks, “have we heard… ‘I don’t believe in censorship, but free speech doesn’t include the right to offend.'” This is most evident on college campuses, she adds, “where students are regularly punished for jokes, satire, insults, and political speech that is considered demeaning to some presumably vulnerable group.”

I try to picture Jesus standing before an engaged crowd with a big smile on His face as He says, “You do you, and I’ll do me. Anything and everything goes!”

But I can’t. Because that’s not the message of truth that God took on human form to teach. Yes, Jesus affirmed the inherent value of the every person as God’s created children. But He also always directed people to live to God’s standard, that they (we) might grow into their (our) best selves and honor God.

The Bible clearly shows us that love trumps all. We are to 1) love God, and 2) love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to live in peace with one another (Hebrews 12:14), and we are to quickly forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). But we also are to help each other live within God’s establish boundaries. Because God hates sin. We are to offer one another grace (tolerance), as God “cleans up the junk in our trunk.”

As Dr. Henry Cloud, the co-author of the New York Times bestselling book, Boundaries, puts it: “Truth without grace is judgement, and it can kill someone’s spirit. True love is grace and truth together. Show up with both at all times.” Just as Jesus did.

Addressing Christianity’s Intolerance

One reason the world views Christianity to be so intolerant is that too many of us make it our default to lead with judgement. And we don’t just reserve our criticism for those outside the church. Some of us think it our job to crush our Christian brothers and sisters with condemnation.

“Anyone who has been in the church for very long has been hurt by people in the church,” notes Dr. Cloud. “For in the body of Christ, we find some harsh realities: judgment, pride, self-centeredness, manipulation, abandonment, abuse, control, perfectionism, domination, and every kind of relational sin known to humankind. The walls of the church do not make it safe from sin. In fact, the church by definition is composed of sinners.”

But condemnation never leads anyone to rise to a higher standard. Our own hearts must first be tender, to effect softening the hearts of others. That’s why Jesus first showed that He cared about people’s hurts and needs before He talked about their sin. His tolerance of their humanity led them to being open to admitting the sin that was destroying their lives.

I know one Christian woman who spends most of her time pointing out how others are sinning (she even writes caustic letters to well-known pastors to tell them how they’re missing the mark). She truly is one of the unhappiest people I have known, in part because she lives in a constant state of offense, for even her own screw-ups. Grace and tolerance are, to her, foreign concepts. She has accepted only part of the Gospel message.

Where have we gotten the message that we need to judge sin before we can show love? Certainly not from Christ’s example.

Seeing How “Cultural “Tolerance” Lacks Tolerance

I do understand the fear that society is “going to hell in a hand basket,” to echo the popular phrase. When “truth” and “morality” are seen as entirely subjective, we do have cause to be concerned that society might implode. But cultural tolerance, in the way society nows defines it, is not the path of “enlightenment” it promises.

In an earlier series of blog posts we did based on Josh’s book, The Beauty of Intolerance, we highlighted three ways that cultural tolerance fails us:

FAILURE #1: Cultural tolerance promises complete moral freedom — but chains us.

Ah, the allure of empty promises! Let’s think through the consequences of an “anything goes” society. Here’s just one example: In one of those popular one-the-street interview shows, one young woman declared that she’s perfectly okay with a father and daughter having a sexual relationship, because “people should be allowed to do what they want.” Really? Yowza. She clearly hasn’t thought through the negative outcomes of society endorsing such relationships.

FAILURE #2: Cultural tolerance trains us to react to life from a fluid standard of our subjective emotions and personal life experiences. The sand will always be shifting.

Without a set moral standard, too many of us “do life” by how we feel. And boy do we open ourselves up to a whole lot of unnecessary drama. “I’m not feeling it, man” sounds reasonable — until we compare it to God’s word. I don’t feel like being patient. God tells me to be patient. I don’t feel like I have to be the first to forgive. God tells me to restore relationships before the sun sets. I don’t feel like I need to give my time. God tells me to generously serve others. It’s all about me, baby, and you can go away if you don’t like it!

FAILURE #3: Cultural tolerance uses shame to control us — while proving its own intolerance.

It hurts to be called a “bigot.” Or a “hypocrite.” Or “unloving,” “judgmental,” or a “jerk.” Because we’re hardwired for community and connection, feeling ostracized crushes us. I detest bullies — but I have to remember that many of those now screaming for subjective “truth” have been programmed in their thinking by the media, schools, and other sources that seek a post-God norm. Some of them have been bullied by messy Christians they’ve bumped into. But many have been misledto believe that Christianity has no positive effect on society, which is simply untrue.

Tolerance, Jesus Style

Friends, let’s show the world that it’s wrong about the Church only seeking to control and condemn.

Where there is yelling, let us breathe kind whispers. Where there is scorching fire, let us pour refreshing water. Where there is hate, let us reflect God’s love. Let us bring God’s unswerving truth. It’s this tolerance that Jesus modeled.

Bottom line: Christians don’t get a pass for being jerks to others. If you’ve ever told someone, “God hates you!”, please ask for forgiveness. Jesus came to show all of humanity the length He’d go to to reconcile us to Himself. Jesus died for EVERYONE. Which means God hates NO ONE. And as He invites us into daily relationship, He tolerates our moments of failing as He leads us into maturing and reflecting His character. Think about that amazing grace! Imagine how little we’d trust and love Him, if His daily response to us was heaping condemnation.

Cultural tolerance fails us. But we can show the tolerance Christ demonstrates to us, and change the world.

Catch up: The introductory post to this series. Last week’s post: Showing Christ Relevant to Our Whatever Culture

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