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What Is Tolerance?

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil.
—Isaiah 5:20

In today’s world when people say, “I am tolerant,” they usually mean, “I believe that belief, behavior, or choice is just as valid as mine.” For example, if somebody says, “I am tolerant of homosexuality,” they mean that they believe homosexuality is just as valid a lifestyle choice as heterosexuality. When somebody says, “I’m tolerant of other religious beliefs,” usually they mean that they believe other religions are as valid as their own religion.

However, what our society understands tolerance to be is vastly different than what true tolerance actually is. The historic understanding of “tolerance” is best understood from “Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition,” in which tolerance is defined as “to allow or to permit, to recognize and respect others’ beliefs and practices without sharing them, to bear or put up with someone or something not necessarily liked.” Tolerance is to allow something that you do not agree with.

Here is the obvious but overlooked truth about tolerance. You can only tolerate a conduct or point of view that you disagree with, not one that you accept.

Let’s say I go to a dinner, and for dessert they serve Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, which is my favorite dessert. Afterward my wife asks me, “How did you enjoy dessert?” I answer, “Well, I tolerated it.” Would that be an apt description for my reaction when I practically licked the bowl clean? No. Now, suppose they served key lime pie, my least favorite dessert. I nibble at it a bit to be polite. My wife asks me, “Well, how did you enjoy your dessert?” I answer, “I tolerated it.” Now, that would be an accurate word to describe how I dealt with the dessert. I permitted it to be served to me; that is, I didn’t throw my plate across the room. I disliked it very much, yet I respected the person who served it to me. Tolerance is permitting or allowing something you disagree with or dislike while respecting the other person in the process.

Yet the concept of tolerance has undergone a radical transformation in our culture. Today, when people say, “You must be tolerant,” they mean you must accept all ideas, beliefs, or behaviors as equally valid. For example, Hinduism and Christianity are equally valid belief systems, the pseudo-tolerant person says. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are equally valid expressions of sexuality. Choosing to abort a child or keep a child are valid moral choices. Key lime pie and Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream are equally delicious desserts. Pseudotolerance is the belief that all things are equally valid and desirable. To suggest that one idea, belief, or choice is superior to another is to be called intolerant.

Today’s devotion is excerpted from “The Most Misunderstood Word in America” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2011.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.


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