Choosing Love

by Rebecca Olson

Tolerance. It’s a sticky, ambiguous word. If we are going to talk about an ambiguous word, we need to start by agreeing on a definition. There seem to be at least two distinct meanings that we can give the word tolerance. First, there is worldly tolerance, which declares truth to be subjective: I have no authority to say that what you believe is untrue; therefore I accept your belief as something that is true for you, but does not apply to me. Second, there is Biblical tolerance: that truth is absolute, and it applies to everyone, but in loving people it is necessary at times to accept the fact that they do not believe or understand the truth. For the purposes of this article, if I write “tolerance,” I am referring to Biblical tolerance. This is the tolerance I believe Paul was referring to in Ephesians 4:2 (NASB) where he instructs the church to show tolerance for each other in love; and in Romans 2:4 (NASB) when he reminds us that God has been infinitely tolerant with us as sinners.

Christians are called to tolerate sinners. Beyond that, Christians are called to love sinners. We are called to open our arms to the needy, the disgusting, and the different — the people who even our ever-accepting world is unwilling to accept. We are called to love them despite their sin, to speak the truth of God’s love to them without shaming them for the wrong things they ignorantly do again and again.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” 1 John 4:18 is one of my favorite verses. It is both a promise and a challenge — a promise that God’s love is able to cast out all our anxiety, and a challenge to love God’s people boldly.

Too often we let fear get in the way of love. It’s a message many of us have heard since we were little children: God calls you to sit with the weird kids at lunch without being afraid of what the cool kids will say. A message that seemed impossible then is no easier when you’re all grown up. It’s still hard to approach the weird ones, the ones for whom you cringe with embarrassment every time they open their mouth or post a Facebook comment, the ones who are unashamed of their sinful lifestyle, the ones who would make you look bad by association. Being wiling to approach those people with an attitude of love and tolerance is scary. It has to come from a place of huge, life-changing, agape love.

I don’t know about you, but most days I just don’t have that kind of love in me. When I’m working on page two out of 200 pages of college reading for the week, I’ve got an appointment to be at in fifteen minutes, and I haven’t eaten lunch yet —

I don’t have much tolerance for the kid who approaches my table in the library and asks if he can sit down without making eye contact. I lose my love. I let fear — that I won’t finish my work, that I’ll miss my appointment, that someone from my study group will see and ask me about him later — get in the way of God’s calling of love. It’s in those moments that I have to ask God to let His love flow through me, because I know I cannot love this boy without His help. It is those moments that remind me of 1 John 4:18. The Spirit reminds me that if I am going to let fear rule me, He cannot perfect me in His love. Sometimes I am able to let go of my fear, and sometimes I am not. But God is gracious and tolerant towards me even when I am too afraid to show that love to other people.

I believe that in situations which call for tolerance, Christians have a choice. That choice is between fear and love. It is a choice that individuals face every day in how we respond to a world that is often intolerant of the salvation message. But it is also a choice that our churches face together.

Right now, our denomination is facing a change in our Statement of Belief. I believe that this is a choice between fear and love. We are choosing between fear of legal action and opening our arms in love to sinners who are seeking answers to questions they don’t know how to ask. I pray that we choose love.

Rebecca Olson is a nursing student with a passion for reading, writing, and show tunes. Becca is a member of the Berlin, NY, Seventh Day Baptist Church, where she teaches Sabbath School and YF for K-1-2 kids.

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