Tolerance: Narcissism in Disguise

ToleranceWe live in a highly individualistic age, an age which fancies itself tolerant. The sad description of Israel under the Judges could equally well be said about our selfish generation.

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)

There are really only two options: either you live by self-chosen standards or you walk according to the Law of the Lord. Many people in our time have deliberately rejected the latter in favor of the former (though it’s impossible for us to keep God’s Law; Romans 3:19-20). To reject God’s Law, whether deliberately (outright antinomianism) or not (Romans 7:14-25), is particularly insidious for Christians, since living to please one’s self amounts to idolatry and is a rejection of Christ as King (1 Samuel 8:7).

The standards of living we set up for ourselves appear good at first, but they always end up being ruthless tyrants. Samuel warned the Israelites. He told them they would be better off with the Lord as their King. He said,

hebrew-slaves-building-pyramids-001“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel (1 Samuel 8:19). They thought they knew best. They were wrong.

Times haven’t changed. Everyone still does what is right in his own eyes. But we don’t like to hear that we are just as foolish as the primitive Israelites. We are much more sophisticated. We like to think of ourselves as enlightened. Israel may have been narcissistic and self-serving, but not us. No, we’re tolerant. That sounds much better.

SinatraBut tolerance and narcissism are very closely related. After all, we expect others to treat us as we treat them. Tolerance these days is rarely about sticking up for the marginalized. It’s a self-serving, quid pro quo arrangement. If we refrain from judging the behavior of others, what right do they have to judge ours? “Live and let live” is about securing for ourselves the right to live however we please, judgment-free.

Absolute tolerance is a myth. The unforgivable sin of postmodernity is to tell someone they’re wrong. You are free to do and believe as you please so long as it doesn’t threaten the sovereignty I exercise over my own life. That’s intolerable. Judgments undermine autonomy and strike at the very heart of narcissism, one of the most durable idols from generation to generation.

However, everyone is subject to the judgment of God—atheist, Christian, and otherwise—like it or not. The doctrine of tolerance, of living a judgment-free life, is an illusion. God is not tolerant of sin.

The rhetoric of tolerance is appealing, but it’s often just narcissism in disguise. Sin always presents itself as attractive (Genesis 3:6). Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). If we are to learn anything from the mistakes of Israel, those kings which would reign in the mortal body always turn out to be ruthless taskmasters (Romans 6:12). Even if you manage to live like a king in this world—with all the earthly riches and pleasures imaginable (Ecclesiastes 2:1–11); according to your own rules (Ol’ Blue Eyes); without suffering from any pang of conscience for 80 years or so (Luke 15:7, 18:11)—one day you will die and suffer eternal torment in Hades (Luke 16:19–31).

Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, but small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13–14). The way that leads to destruction is broad because the sinful flesh hates obedience and doesn’t want to submit to any law other than which it’s chosen for itself (Romans 7:23). Tolerance isn’t inherently evil (and we ought never be hateful), but neither is judgment. We dare not tolerate those things which God finds intolerant (Jeremiah 6:14); that’s the opposite of love (Revelation 2:4–5). The only thing to do with self-serving tolerance is to repent of it (Matthew 4:17). Repentance does not come easily to sinners, but unlike the tyrant known as Autonomy, Christ is a gracious Lord and His reign is benevolent (Exodus 34:6–7; Psalm 146; Isaiah 32:1).

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