Gay rights activists across the country plan to descend upon Chick-fil-A this evening in response to Wednesday’s "Appreciation Day." Here will be a real-life test of tolerance for many professing Christians.
Now, as political and newsy as it may seem, the main thing to understand about tolerance is this: It is profoundly theological. Yes, tolerance is defensible on the basis of mere reason, and no, you don't have to be a Christian to practice it — or even a theist. But the firmest ground for why we would bother being tolerant goes back to God. We look to the one who has revealed himself ultimately in Jesus Christ and authoritatively in the Bible.
God is the most tolerant being ever. Not in terms of the "new tolerance," but as Don Carson points out, according to the truest and best notions of tolerance. Think about God's patience and forbearance. Carson explains that God has ordained a world in which "conflict, idolatry, confrontation, and wildly disparate systems of thought, even about God himself, persist" (Tolerance of Intolerance, 5).
In other words, God tolerates a world of bad ideas (among other things). He doesn't have to do this. It's his prerogative to shut the whole thing down anytime he wants. Yet he hasn't. He endures it. He puts up with it in his perfect timing and patience. God forbears the foolishness and restrains his wrath. And a God that holy with a world this unholy requires more tolerance than we can quantify.
But why? Why does God do this? Here are two swings, one from Scripture and one as a good and necessary consequence.
For Our Sake
First, God is tolerant for our sake. The Bible is clear: God is patient so that we sinners would repent (2 Peter 3:9). He is kind and forbearing so that we would turn to him (Romans 2:4). We still have time to believe. And there are still many who will, God willing.
With the cross in view, God is able to righteously endure the sin of his unregenerate elect (and even the indwelling sin of the regenerate). Jesus absorbed the wrath we deserved so God could stop "passing over" the former sins of his people. Our sins were atoned for, God's anger propitiated. Now, because of the cross, he is "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:24–27). He is tolerant now because he knows he doesn't have to be tolerant forever. In the end, his wrath will be satisfied, either at the cross or in the lake of fire. Jesus died, God endures, we believe — he is tolerant for our sake.
For His Glory
Secondly, God is tolerant for his glory. He tolerates "wildly disparate systems of thought" because he is seen as great when he trumps the wisdom of man (1 Corinthians 1:20). This means that if God will trump worldly wisdom, he must forbear its existence. God tolerates man's wisdom to show his foolishness is wiser; God tolerates man's strength to show his weakness is stronger (1 Corinthians 1:25).
The point is the contrast. It's one of the many ways God accommodates the knowledge of his worth to our little minds. He gets more glory in a world of differing ideas and disparate beliefs because against this background his beauty and worth is more clearly manifest. A creation full of almost innumerable ideas puts more money in the pot for that one "good idea" that outlasts the rest. And yes, there is one — one message of good news that gets God all the glory.
For our sake and his glory, no one is more truly tolerant than God.
Recent posts from Jonathan Parnell:
- Not Your Mother's Kind of Tolerance
- Who Is Your Neighbor? Well, Who Are You?
- Why You Don't Have to Fear Terror