Many Christians are intolerant. They are loud, obnoxious, and quick to tell people about what they are against. They imagine that they are hating the sin but loving the sinner. In The Reason for God, Tim Keller describes his experiences with intolerant Christians:
Many non-believers have friends or relatives who have become “born again” and seem to have gone off the deep end. They soon begin to express loudly their disapproval of various groups and sectors of our society—especially movies and television, the Democratic party, homosexuals, evolutionists, activist judges, members of other religions, and the values taught in public schools. When arguing for the truth of their faith they often appear intolerant and self-righteous. (p. 56)
Here, I offer two reasons why I think Christians can be intolerant. Then, I make a third point to offer a way forward.
1. Christians tend to forget that they too are sinners.
“Sinner” and “sin” are dirty words in our culture. No one wants to be called a sinner, especially not Christians. Too often Christians treat sin as something everyone else does. When the Bible speaks of sin, it means rebellion against God in our hearts, words, and deeds. Sin is not just an act; it is a state of being. To be a sinner is to fail to love God and people. This condition expresses itself as fear, hate, ignorance, and even intolerance. Intolerance itself is proof that Christians are still sinners, but many Christians are quick to deny their sin. The apostle John wrote about this:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8–10)
John teaches that Christians are to confess their sin and seek God’s cleansing from sin. This pattern of sinning, confessing sin, and seeking God’s cleansing is an ongoing pattern in Christian life. Christians aren’t better than other people. Christians are just in the process of being cleansed.
2. Christians tend to forget that Jesus came to save the world.
When we think about Jesus, one thing everyone can agree upon is that he loved people. He spent time with the dirty, the poor, the lame, the sick, and the scandalous. Jesus welcomed people. This doesn’t mean Jesus excused sin. He didn’t: he died for it. Jesus died the death that sinners deserve so that he and we could accept sinners. In the Gospel of John, Jesus taught that he came to save the world:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
What Jesus did, he did for anyone who would come to him. Jesus came to save the world from what sin ultimately leads to: death. This means that Christians should spend less time telling the world everything that it’s doing wrong and begin telling the world about everything that Jesus did right.
3. Love requires the work of the Holy Spirit.
Christians are a work in progress. To embrace people like Jesus did isn’t easy. Hate and ignorance are human problems. Love is not something Christians can force, but it is something that the Holy Spirit is supposed to produce. The problem is that Christians tend to forget the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul describes the work of the Spirit as fruit on a tree.
…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:22–23)
Paul’s point in Galatians 5 was to show that love is a work of the Holy Spirit. Love doesn’t come through trying really hard. Love happens when people trust in Jesus and begin to understand that God accepts them as sinners and promises to save them from sin. Christianity is a supernatural religion committed to a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit who slowly makes Christians more like Jesus. When Christianity ceases to be supernatural—when it becomes about human efforts at self-improvement—hypocrisy and intolerance are born. The reason why Christians can be so intolerant is because they forget that Jesus loves them and the rest of the world. They have forgotten that Jesus offers himself as savior to anyone who comes to and trusts in him.
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