Was Jesus Tolerant?

Reflecting on the International Day of Tolerance.


I thank God for the International Day of Tolerance recognized today, November 16. We must fight against intolerance, and for every person to have the freedom of conscience and conviction that God bestows upon them. If Jesus himself stands at the door and knocks,[i] waiting for the door to be opened, then we must never force our beliefs on anyone else but rather dignify others with an honest, caring invitation to reason together in the pursuit of truth.

However, we cannot be content with mere tolerance. Last week was my wife Jo’s birthday. Imagine if I had given her the following card:

“Dearest Jo,

Happy Birthday! On this special day, I just want to take a moment to make sure you know that you are eminently tolerable. Your humor is tolerable. Your companionship is tolerable. Conversation with you, as long as it is under ten minutes, is also tolerable.

My dear Jo, I hope you never question my tolerance for you. Although putting up with you is difficult and sometimes all I can do is grit my teeth and wish I were anywhere else, I want you to know that I will always be committed to tolerating you.

Tolerably yours,


I can tell you, this would not have gone down well. Jo wants much more from me than to be tolerated, and rightly so. Tolerance, while a necessary safeguard against injustice, is not a fundamental virtue or ultimate goal. That’s why Jesus does not tolerate people; he does not find people merely tolerable. Jesus says tolerating someone is far too low of a threshold.

Love everyone always. That is a threshold worth striving after and Jesus is the only person I know who loves like that. If we are honest, all of us exclude someone from our love. Not Jesus. Jesus is the only person whose love is one hundred percent inclusive. You don’t need to earn it, and there is nothing you can do to lose it—not a single thing.[ii]

We were created to love like God and, if you ask Him for it, God will give you that love—love for everyone, always. It’s an amazing experience to find love—not mere tolerance, but love—in your heart for the person you once found most frustrating, to find love in your heart even for your enemy.

Divine love is available to us but not forced upon us. We will love like the objects of our worship, and we all worship something. We all have something that is the driving pursuit of our lives.

Divine love is available to us but not forced upon us. We will love like the objects of our worship, and we all worship something. We all have something that is the driving pursuit of our lives.

Money only loves some people.

Happiness only loves some people.

Fame only loves some people.

Other gods only love some people.

I follow Jesus because I want to be someone who loves everyone always and Jesus is the only person I have encountered who truly loves without exception, and with the capability of doing so forever. What’s more, he is the only one powerful enough to inject that kind of love into my fickle heart. If you are committed to love—love for everyone, always—you have every reason to be committed to Jesus.

Jesus says tolerating someone is far too low of a threshold.

Jesus does not merely tolerate people. He also does not merely tolerate opposing beliefs. If you take tolerating contrary beliefs too far, then you actually wind up contradicting yourself. My colleague Abdu Murray was having a conversation with a college student one day. The student claimed that Christianity was too exclusive and the conversation proceeded as such:

Student: “I don’t think it’s my place to disagree with anyone.”

Abdu: “Sure you do.”

Student: “No, I don’t”

Abdu: “You just did.”

Do you see what happened? In philosophy we call that a self-defeating statement. The moment you say it you have already contradicted yourself.

What we sometimes fail to recognize is that every belief is exclusive of other beliefs. That is simply the nature of belief. Even the belief that my belief is not exclusive of others’ beliefs is exclusive of the belief that my belief is exclusive of others’ beliefs. I know it’s not intolerant to disagree with someone’s belief because disagreeing with the belief that it is not intolerant to disagree with someone’s belief would then also be intolerant. Make sense?

You shouldn’t feel like you are being intolerant simply because you disagree with someone. That’s just bad philosophy. But there’s a second reason to be suspicious of merely tolerating opposing beliefs: doing so is not loving.

Someone once said to me, “If you really believe Christianity, and you are not trying to persuade me to believe it, too, then you really must not care about me.” Imagine if I knew you had won tickets to any concert you wanted to go to. Front row, center aisle. And the tickets were already paid for. All you had to do was pick them up—simply receive the gift. Imagine if I knew all of this but I just couldn’t be bothered to pick up the phone to tell you. Instead your seats sat empty all night, with you sitting on the couch at home inhaling way too many Cool Ranch Doritos.

I would have to be pretty unconcerned about you to do that to you. Likewise, if I truly believe that Jesus is the greatest treasure you could ever receive and I don’t tell you about him and try to persuade you to believe in him, am I loving you?

People often say, “Well, we can just agree to disagree.” The problem with that sentiment is that agreeing to disagree is not an act of love; it actually can be an act of contempt. If we merely tolerate people then we won’t tell them about Jesus. But if we love people, we will. If you are a Christian, are you inviting people to Jesus? That will tell you something about how much you love people.

If you are reading this and you hold beliefs that differ from Christianity, I want you to know that I don’t just want to agree to disagree. I love you too much for that. Ask your questions, raise your objections, make your criticisms—write in to talk with me and to try to persuade me. Let’s care enough to try to give the gift of truth to one another.

Jesus does not merely tolerate people or opposing beliefs. In significant ways, Jesus is not tolerant. But there was one way in which he was supremely tolerant. He was supremely tolerant in what he was willing to tolerate for our sakes:

Moving to a war-torn, foreign land.

Trading riches for poverty.

Having someone powerful try to kill him.

Fleeing persecution as a refugee.

Having his family think he was out of his mind.

Made fun of constantly.

Rejected by his own people.

Deserted by his closest friends.

Experiencing such anguish that he sweat blood.

Convicted of a crime he did not commit.

Sentenced to death.

Brutally tortured.

Stripped naked and made to be a public spectacle.

Enduring his enemies gloating over his suffering.

Hanging on a cross with his mother watching.

If that is what it took to be someone’s friend, where would you draw the line and say, “Anything under this line I would not be willing to tolerate. Friendship with you would not be worth it; it would be a cost too severe to be paid”?

Jesus did not draw a line. He tolerated all of that for the sake of relationship with us. When it takes a lot to be your friend, that’s when you find out who your friends really are. In his life and death, Jesus showed us that his friendship can be trusted above all.

As today we express deep gratitude for all courageous forms of resistance to intolerance, let us also remember Jesus’ grander vision for humanity which calls us not merely to tolerate one another but to love one another, to persuade one another, and to sacrifice for one another.

[i] Revelation 3:20

[ii] Compare Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36, John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Romans 8:38-39, and Ephesians 2:8-9.

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Tolerance Without Question

Mar 08, 2017

Ravi Zacharias describes how the concept of tolerance came into being in our culture and how it actually has come to mean intolerance to people with a certain viewpoint.

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