Are You Truly Tolerant?

HAVE you ever felt incensed because of someone’s improper conduct? Are you quick to act when corrupting influences are making inroads among your close associates?

Prompt and firm action is sometimes required to stop the spread of serious sin. For example, when brazen wrongdoing threatened to defile the Israelites in the 15th century B.C.E., Aaron’s grandson Phinehas took decisive action to clear away what was bad. Jehovah God approved of what he did, saying: “Phinehas . . . has turned back my wrath from upon the sons of Israel by his tolerating no rivalry at all toward me in the midst of them.”​—Numbers 25:1-11.

Phinehas took appropriate action to halt the spread of contamination. But what about unchecked indignation at the mere human failings of others? If we were to act rashly or without just cause, we would become not so much a champion of righteousness as a figure of intolerance​—someone who makes no allowances for the imperfections of others. What can help us to avoid this pitfall?

‘Jehovah Is Forgiving All Your Error’

Jehovah is “a God who is jealous (zealous); a God not tolerating rivalry.” (Exodus 20:5, footnote) Being the Creator, he has the right to demand our exclusive devotion. (Revelation 4:11) Yet, Jehovah is tolerant of human weaknesses. Concerning him, the psalmist David therefore sang: “Jehovah is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness. He will not for all time keep finding fault . . . He has not done to us even according to our sins; nor according to our errors has he brought upon us what we deserve.” Yes, if we are repentant, God ‘is forgiving all our error.’​—Psalm 103:3, 8-10.

Because he understands the sinful nature of humans, Jehovah does not “keep finding fault” with repentant wrongdoers. (Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12) In fact, it is his purpose to eliminate sin and imperfection. Until that is fully accomplished, rather than bringing upon us “what we deserve,” God graciously extends forgiveness on the basis of Jesus Christ’s ransom sacrifice. None of us would be judged worthy of survival if Jehovah did not show mercy when appropriate. (Psalm 130:3) How grateful we can be that our heavenly Father, who rightfully demands exclusive devotion, is a merciful God!

Balance Is Needed

Since the Sovereign Lord of the universe displays tolerance in dealing with imperfect humans, should we not do the same? Tolerance has been defined as “the disposition to be patient with the opinions or practices of others.” Do we personally have such a disposition​—an inclination to exercise patience and forbearance when others say or do things that are not grossly sinful but perhaps are inappropriate in word or deed?

Of course, we need to avoid being overly tolerant. For instance, terrible damage is done when religious authorities tolerate abusive priests who persistently molest boys and girls. “Treating the children as occasions of sin,” commented one reporter in Ireland,  “the church authorities merely moved on the offending priest [to another location].”

Is just transferring such a man an example of proper tolerance? Hardly! Suppose a medical body allowed an irresponsible surgeon to continue operating, transferring him from one hospital to another, even though he was killing or maiming his patients. A mistaken sense of professional loyalty might produce such “tolerance.” But what about the victims whose lives were lost or adversely affected because of negligent or even criminal practices?

There is also a danger of showing too little tolerance. When Jesus was on the earth, some Jews known as Zealots wrongly sought to use the example of Phinehas in an attempt to justify their own activities. One extreme action of certain Zealots was “to mingle with crowds in Jerusalem during festivals and similar occasions and stab the objects of their displeasure unawares with daggers.”

As Christians, we would never go as far as the Zealots did in physically attacking those who displease us. But does a certain degree of intolerance lead us to attack in other ways those we disapprove of​—perhaps by speaking abusively of them? If we are truly tolerant, we will not resort to the use of such hurtful speech.

The first-century Pharisees were another intolerant group. They were constantly condemning others and made no allowance for human imperfection. The proud Pharisees looked down on the common folk, maligning them as “accursed people.” (John 7:49) For good reason, Jesus denounced such self-righteous men, saying: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was binding to do, yet not to disregard the other things.”​—Matthew 23:23.

In making this statement, Jesus was not downplaying the importance of keeping the Mosaic Law. He was simply showing that the “weightier,” or more important, aspects of the Law required applying it with reasonableness and mercy. How Jesus and his disciples stood out from the intolerant Pharisees and Zealots!

Neither Jehovah God nor Jesus Christ condones badness. Soon, ‘vengeance will be brought upon those who do not know God and those who do not obey the good news.’ (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10) In his zeal for righteousness, however, Jesus never fails to reflect his heavenly Father’s patient, merciful, and loving concern for all who want to do what is right. (Isaiah 42:1-3; Matthew 11:28-30; 12:18-21) What a fine example Jesus set for us!

Patiently Put Up With One Another

Though we may have great zeal for what is right, let us apply the apostle Paul’s counsel: “Continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely if anyone has a cause for complaint against another. Even as Jehovah freely forgave you, so do you also.” (Colossians 3:13; Matthew 6:14, 15) Tolerance requires putting up with one another’s shortcomings and mistakes in this imperfect world. We need to be reasonable about what we expect of others.​—Philippians 4:5.

Being tolerant does not in any way imply approval of wrongdoing or being blind to errors. Some aspect of a fellow believer’s thinking or conduct may be somewhat out of harmony with Jehovah’s standards. Though the deviation may not yet be so serious as to lead to rejection by God, it may give a warning signal indicating that some  adjustment is required. (Genesis 4:6, 7) How loving it is when those having spiritual qualifications try to readjust the erring one in a spirit of mildness! (Galatians 6:1) To succeed in this endeavor, though, it is necessary to act out of concern rather than with a critical spirit.

“With a Mild Temper and Deep Respect”

What about exercising patience toward people whose religious views differ from ours? A “General Lesson” that was posted in all the National Schools established in Ireland in 1831 reads: “Jesus Christ did not intend his religion to be forced on men by violent means. . . . Quarrelling with our neighbours and abusing them is not the way to convince them that we are in the right and they in the wrong. It is more likely to convince them that we have not a Christian spirit.”

Jesus taught and acted in a way that drew people to God’s Word, and so should we. (Mark 6:34; Luke 4:22, 32; 1 Peter 2:21) As a perfect man with special God-given insight, he could read hearts. When necessary, therefore, Jesus was able to pronounce scathing denunciations on Jehovah’s enemies. (Matthew 23:13-33) It was not intolerant for him to do this.

Unlike Jesus, we lack the ability to read hearts. Hence, we should follow the apostle Peter’s counsel: “Sanctify the Christ as Lord in your hearts, always ready to make a defense before everyone that demands of you a reason for the hope in you, but doing so together with a mild temper and deep respect.” (1 Peter 3:15) As Jehovah’s servants, we should defend what we believe because it is solidly based on God’s Word. But we need to do this in a way that shows respect for others and for their sincerely held beliefs. Paul wrote: “Let your utterance be always with graciousness, seasoned with salt, so as to know how you ought to give an answer to each one.”​—Colossians 4:6.

In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “All things . . . that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” (Matthew 7:12) So, then, let us patiently put up with one another and show respect for those to whom we preach the good news. By balancing our zeal for righteousness with Bible-based tolerance, we will please Jehovah and we will truly be tolerant.

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Avoid the intolerant attitude of the Pharisees

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Jesus reflected his Father’s tolerant spirit. Do you?