Is there a limit to tolerance? A friend of mine put that question to me this afternoon, in response to last week’s post on tolerance. My answer: No. Here’s why.
The Roots of Tolerance
Tolerance is simply the social recognition of a fundamental truth: all people are completely free to choose to believe and do whatever they want to believe and do. There are no exceptions to this principle. This truth is not dependent on whether laws and governments recognize it; this truth is simply true.
Yes, governments and societies try to constrain the behavior of the people under their power, but they cannot actually remove free choice from their people–all they can do is make it more or less likely that people freely choose this or that action.
As I argued last week, tolerance has its roots in the character of God: God created us as free creatures and allows us to exercise that freedom, for good or ill.
I don’t think there is a limit to tolerance because I don’t think there is a time when God takes away our freedom to choose.
But Actions Have Consequences
We are all free to believe and do whatever we choose, but we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions. Actions have consequences. I’m free to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, but I cannot avoid the consequences of my freely chosen actions. Actions have consequences.
Doesn’t God’s Tolerance Have a Limit?
In the Bible, we read how God eventually allowed the Israelites to be conquered by their pagan neighbors as a consequence of their continued disobedience. I don’t think this is an example of the limits of God’s tolerance, however. Rather, I think God’s tolerance never wavered: he always allowed the Israelites to freely choose to accept or reject him. But, although God’s forbearance (a synonym of tolerance) never ran out, the Israelites’ actions eventually caught up with them. Their actions led to the Exile. Certain actions lead to certain consequences, the way day inexorably follows night.
What About Human Law?
As humans, we seek to constrain certain behaviors precisely because we know that people are always free to choose. When we lock up the serial murderer, we are not suddenly denying his freedom to choose, but acknowledging it: we know that if we do not lock him up, he may very likely continue to freely choose murder. Actions have consequences and human societies impose various consequences on various behaviors, but those consequences do not change the fundamental fact on which the principle of tolerance rests, namely that people are always free to choose.
Our True Limit
God’s tolerance does not have a limit, but our lives are limited: we are limited by the choices of our actions, and we are limited by our mortality. None of us can choose to be exempt from the consequences of his choices, and none of us can choose to be exempt from death.
Sooner or later, all our actions catch up to us.
P.S. Why Does This Matter?
Tolerance recognizes that it’s never too late for anyone–all people can choose to turn towards God or away from God up until their last breath. (And maybe beyond their last breath–who knows?) Because I can’t take away someone’s free will–even by force–it means that the pressure is off: I can’t force anyone to believe what I believe. I can’t make anyone believe anything, but I can persuade her through my words and actions to freely choose the Truth I’ve chosen.
Which is a sacred privilege, when you think about it.
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