Love Is Not Tolerant

Becca and I were in Seattle last week on vacation. While we were walking around downtown I was able to do one of my favorite activities, which is to simply observe different cultures and what messages are being sent by the world we live in. One thing that fascinated me was a sign at a bus stop near Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. It had three words on it: “Compassion. Truthfulness. Tolerance.” The sign is seemingly encouraging everyone to embody these three “virtues.” As a Christian, I do desire to embody compassion. I also desire to embody truthfulness. But I must admit, tolerance is not something I desire in my own life. I’m sure some of you are a little taken back by reading that and would say I’m not very loving. In fact, I would guess a majority of Christians today would say tolerance is something we are all called to embody because it is “loving.” I would disagree, and I think Scripture would as well. Paul does an incredible job of helping to define love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 when he says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

What is funny to me is how society has elevated tolerance as a virtue everyone should be about. New Testament scholar R.R. Reno says tolerance has been elevated to the supreme, or “executive virtue,” of our time. Reno says, “Well-socialized Americans respect the expressive rights of every person. This requires us to avoid “imposing” our own opinions on others.”[1] One of the clearest examples of where you see this in the world around us is on bumper stickers everywhere that say, “coexist.” Another example came in our office a few weeks ago. One of my beloved co-workers leaves their pod in the Keurig every time they brew coffee. Because I’m obsessive compulsive, I complain about this often. This staff person’s reply is I should tolerate this behavior because that is the loving thing to do.[2] These subtle messages are meant to tell us, “You live how you want to live, and I will live how I want to live. You believe what you want to believe, and I’ll believe what I want to believe. Our job is just to tolerate each other’s differences.” This line of thinking is more about the message culture puts out rather than what Scripture teaches.

Based on his words in 1 Corinthians 13, I think Paul would say love is patient, but not necessarily tolerant. What’s the difference? You may think this is nothing more than semantics, but I believe there is a big difference between patience and tolerance (at least when it comes to how tolerance is used in our culture today). Tolerance implies live and let live. Patience implies long suffering for a cause. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright talks about this issue and says, “I can “tolerate” you without it costing me anything very much. I can shrug my shoulders, walk away, and leave you to do your own thing. That, admittedly, is preferable to my taking you by the throat and shaking you until you agree with me. But it is certainly not love.”[3]

I believe Christians are called to love others and being loving people because God is love.[4] I believe love is patient and long-suffering. I believe love “is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” I believe, based on that definition, I’m not loving or patient with my co-worker. But I also believe tolerance is not the answer, either.

I’ll close with a few questions that will hopefully get you to think about the differences between patience and tolerance. My first question is, if you are a parent and your kid is involved in destructive behavior that will ultimately lead to his or her demise and potential death, do you think it would be loving of you to tolerate this harmful behavior? My other question is do you think God is tolerant? I’d love to hear your answers and responses in the comment section below.


[1] “In the Ruins of the Church,” Pg. 100.

[2] Yes, I got permission to put this example in the blog. And, yes, I’m highly OCD and very annoying to work with. Now you know why Becca is on the road to becoming a saint for having to live with me.

[3] “After you Believe,” Pg. 254.

[4] See 1 John 4:16

4 thoughts on “Love Is Not Tolerant”

  1. God does not tolerate sin, he despises it, but he embraces us as his children and all of these things equal His love for us.

  2. You hit the nail on the head. I have this argument all of the time with my mom and always come back to the same argument that you made about children and destructive behavior. Our culture has perverted what love really means. Some of it comes from the very liberal idea of “live and let live”, but a lot of it is simply our fear of really being “loved” by others. To allow yourself to really be “loved” means you have to be open and vulnerable enough to allow someone to speak the truth into your life. So, we keep our relationships at an arms length and hide behind phrases like “tolerance”. We don’t want “true love” because, let’s be honest, it can sometimes be hard to tolerate.

  3. Brady, you might be interested in reading Ryan Dobson’s BE INTOLERANT (2003). He writes about the way that moral relativism is a part of an epidemic of tolerance, and then he exhorts Christians to follow Jesus’ example in being intolerant through love. Pretty interesting to read considering his family focus–yes, he is the son of James Dobson–is conservative and yet he tends to be the rebel son.

  4. My take on this issue is that in the name of tolerant-love christian refuse to express their love in even witnessing for Jesus. we claim we love sinners and hate sin because God does while we also claim to be christian and believe that unsaved men are on their way to hell yet we refuse to preach Jesus to them all in the name of religious tolerance but we claim to love them. I think that is not love but self-centered : that desire for comfort rather than the salvation of hopeless sinner. Its more serious when Christians would not take stand on anything in the name of tolerant-love and so they fall for everything and the culture is decaying because the “salts” of the earth are very tolerant. A kingdom minded believer and church is loving but not necessarily tolerant as defined in this article.

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