Bob Tamasy: The Interesting Intolerance Of "Tolerance"

  • Thursday, September 29, 2022
  • Bob Tamasy
Bob Tamasy
Bob Tamasy

English is a very curious language. Case in point: the word “tolerance.”


Over the years I’ve had several friends that were involved in the manufacture of industrial machine parts. Regardless of the purpose or use for the parts they were making, they shared one common term of great importance to them: Tolerance.


That’s because machine parts – to work and mesh together properly – must be made to operate within a very precise, limited tolerance.

Specifications for those parts allow for little or no variance. Just one millimeter too much or too little is unacceptable. If not designed to a very rigid tolerance, the machine won’t run and the parts will wear out quickly. “That’s close enough” is a recipe for disaster.


There’s a different use for the word tolerance that we often use. We talk about people having a high or low “tolerance” for pain. In other words, an individual’s ability – or lack of same – to withstand levels of pain and discomfort. Some people have a fairly high tolerance for pain, but that doesn’t mean they like it. Even for folks capable of dealing with considerable pain, when they speak about tolerating it, it means the sooner it’s gone the better.


This is why I find it interesting how society has embraced a completely different sense of tolerance. When we typically hear people speaking about “tolerance,” they mean accepting, condoning, or even heartily approving all manner of diversity, ranging from lifestyle behaviors to differences in culture and ethnicity. This definition seems very different from the other uses of the word as cited above.


No one has approached me about being an arbiter for English word usage, but I’ve never thought tolerance is a good choice in this context. To me, being “tolerant” of people – regardless of who or what they are – sounds at best condescending, at worst insulting. I wouldn’t feel at all complimented if I heard someone say, “Oh, that’s Bob. I’m tolerant of him.” Someone declaring their tolerance for my writing isn’t likely to be one looking forward to my next column or blog post.


At the same time, when folks talk about being tolerant, it often comes across as a mandate, that one is required not just to acknowledge diversity – in whatever form it takes – but also to provide wholehearted, unquestioned approval. Ironically, they’re intolerant of those who don’t align with their idea of tolerance.


That started me wondering what God thinks of tolerance. As I’ve studied the Scriptures, it seems evident that He aligns with all three different usages. Speaking of tolerance in a very narrow, even rigid sense, Jesus Christ said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say He is one of many ways, that it’s multiple choice, or “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere.” No, Jesus declared He is THE way, adding that, “No one comes to the Father (God) except through Me.”


As for the sense of tolerance being able to withstand what we don’t like, the Scriptures repeatedly reveal God’s hatred of sin. Toward the end of the opening chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, he declares, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their own wickedness…. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God or gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:18-28).


However, the Bible also looks toward a time when acts of evil will cease, when God’s tolerance of sin will end: “A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found…. The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He knows their day is coming” (Psalm 37:10-12).


Then there’s the final understanding of tolerance, the one that seeks to embrace any and every person. Even though God has an absolute hatred of sin in its many forms, in His Word we discover how He desires to extend His love, mercy and grace to everyone willing to accept it.


In His parable showing how a good shepherd desperately cares for each of his sheep, to the point of leaving his flock to find one that has strayed, Jesus states, “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14).


Much earlier in the Scriptures we read these words of assurance: “‘As I live,’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live’” (Ezekiel 33:11). The same truth is expressed in 2 Peter 3:9, where the apostle writes, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”


So, is God tolerant? Yes, the Bible tells us over and over. Amazingly so. But He’s also intolerant, finding sin and sinners unwilling to repent and receive His gift of forgiveness and eternal life utterly repugnant.


That should give us pause, because in the timeless words of preacher Jonathan Edwards in 1741 during the First Great Awakening, we risk being “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” He’s tolerant – until the time when He won’t be.


* * *

Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, former newspaper editor and magazine editor. Bob has written, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include the newly published, ”Marketplace Ambassadors”; “Business At Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace”; “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” A weekly business meditation he edits, “Monday Manna,” is translated into more than 20 languages and sent via email around the world by CBMC International. The address for his blog is His email address is

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