I hear a lot of people, Christian and non-Christian alike, claim that God is a tolerant God. He loves us regardless of who we are or what we do, because God is Love. He is merciful, and constantly showers us with his grace.
To discover if the above is indeed true, I decided to do some research.
But we first need to define our terms. In this case, those terms are tolerance, mercy, and grace. I focus on those three, because people seem to use those interchangeably (all definitions taken from wordnik.com):
Tolerance: 1. The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others; 2. Leeway for variation from a standard; 3.The permissible deviation from a specified value of a structural dimension, often expressed as a percent.
Mercy: 1. Compassionate treatment, especially of those under one’s power; clemency; 2. A disposition to be kind and forgiving; 3. Something for which to be thankful; a blessing; 4. Alleviation of distress; relief.
Grace: 1. A disposition to be generous or helpful; goodwill. 2. Mercy; clemency; 3. A favor rendered by one who need not do so; indulgence; 4. A temporary immunity or exemption; a reprieve.
I already see a difference in those definitions. They can’t be interchanged so easily after all.
Since we’re talking about God, though, if he was indeed tolerant as defined above, certainly we would find plenty of passages describing God thusly, wouldn’t we?
So I did a word search in my Bible. I started with “tolerate” and its derivatives. Only three came up, only two of which are remotely applicable:
1 Corinthians 5:1: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.”
Revelation 2:20: “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”
We start to see God is not so tolerant after all, especially when it comes to certain sinful behaviors (nor is it a coincidence, I think, that’s exactly the kind of tolerance we’re expected to extend, celebrate, even).
But what about eliminating “tolerance” and embracing “mercy” and “grace” instead? Wouldn’t that result in the same thing: God accepting us of who we are, who we want and claim to be, and what we do?
According to my search results, there are 187 results for “mercy,” 37 results for “merciful,” and 227 results for “grace.” That’s a lot, so I will pick only a few that have both terms:
Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’”
Psalm 103:8-11: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;”
All throughout scripture, God does indeed show mercy and grace, but there’s also a caveat or two attached as shown in the two examples above.
God forgives sin, meaning that although he acknowledges our sinfulness, he doesn’t tolerate or accept it and let us go on our merry way to keep on sinning. In all circumstances, God requires repentance and atonement and to “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11).
Because scripture has given example after example of those who refused and were invariably destroyed.
In short tolerance accepts (and even celebrates) all things no matter how wrong or sinful, whereas grace and mercy are given when undeserved and acknowledges our sin and wrongdoing instead of embracing or celebrating it.
God is indeed intolerant of our sins, and so should we be—in ourselves as much as in others. That’s not to say we are required to condemn others for their sin, but to offer them as much grace and mercy as God has given us.