Boundless Tolerance and the Christian’s Capacity for Suffering

Johannes Pflaum

The tolerance that dominates our society seems limitless…but it only goes one way. What does that mean for Christians?

You may be familiar with the slogan for a well-known pain reliever: “Stop pain where it starts.” We may be truly grateful for all the painkillers available today, especially those of us who struggle with severe pain. Nevertheless, we also need to recognize the danger. These treatments can gradually reduce our pain threshold. We succumb to the delusion that something like a life free from pain and suffering could actually exist. And, we’re not just led to believe this regarding our physical bodies.

Affluent society everywhere wants us to believe that a sort of perpetual wellbeing and constantly-available wellness are necessary for life. A life without stress, where wishes are immediately fulfilled, is the guiding principle. You don’t need to save your money anymore or consider whether you really need something you want to buy; you can just arrange to pay in installments. If you’re craving French fries, you don’t have to wait for your next meal; just swing by McDonald’s.

This indoctrination automatically transfers from our everyday life to our spiritual one. Here, too, everything should pass us by with as little stress and suffering as possible. Our great dilemma today is that the Scriptures say exactly the opposite about one’s spiritual life and personal discipleship (2 Cor 4:7ff.; 1 Pet 2:11). The Bible doesn’t recognize spiritual life and growth without growing pains. In John 15, the vine is pruned to produce more fruit. The Lord disciplines and chastises the ones He loves, so that we may share in His holiness (Heb 12:4-11).

There can be no discipleship without suffering and restrictions for the sake of the Lord Jesus’s will (2 Tim 3:12). Christ never promised His disciples a stress-free life. He spoke repeatedly of the cost of discipleship and the suffering which is inseparably connected with it (Matt 10:38; 16:24). Even for the apostles, suffering for the sake of Christ and His truth was part and parcel of preaching (Acts 14:22).

Our society has yet a third feature. In addition to the longing for a pain-free life and perpetual wellbeing, everyone is desperate to be recognized and regarded as an important and valuable member of society. Nobody wants to be marginalized or considered a pariah. Today’s widespread philosophy of “boundless tolerance” reinforces this desire.

Everything seems possible in our society. Nothing is considered bad anymore, unless someone claims that something is an absolute truth. Every opinion or lifestyle can be permitted, just not the idea that something is fundamentally good or evil. Instead, people follow the motto, “The most important thing is that it’s true for you.” And when there’s room for every religion and occult practice, we wrongly believe that there must also be space for the Gospel somewhere. Or we run the risk of wanting to present ourselves as somehow fitting into this pluralistic salad bowl, just so that society will at least recognize us as being equal to everyone else.

Whether or not we want to admit it, we’re all naturally afraid of suffering. Even as disciples of the Lord Jesus, we’re marked by longing for a pain-free life. And the tremendous prosperity of recent decades has further encouraged this desire for comfort and well-being. The desire to receive social recognition and honor from others is planted in all of us by our sinful nature (John 12:43). These are factors that weaken our spiritual immune system and make us vulnerable to temptation from the current tolerance ideology.

In his book The Truth War, John MacArthur observed, “The idea that the Christian message should be kept pliable and ambiguous, seems especially attractive to young people who are in tune with the culture and in love with the spirit of the age, and can’t stand to have authoritative biblical truth applied with precision as a corrective to worldly lifestyles, unholy minds, and ungodly behavior. And the poison of this perspective is being increasingly injected into the evangelical church body.” And, “In every generation across the history of the church, countless martyrs have similarly died rather than deny the truth. Were such people just fools, making too much of their own convictions? Was their absolute confidence in what they believed actually misguided zeal? Did they die needlessly? Many these days evidently think so—including some who profess faith in Christ. Living in a culture where violent persecution is almost unknown, multitudes who call themselves Christians seem to have forgotten what faithfulness to the truth often costs. Did I say ‘often’? As a matter of fact, faithfulness to the truth is always costly in some way or another.”

John Piper notes in his book The Roots of Endurance, “There is a mind-set in the prosperous West that we deserve a pain-free, trouble-free existence…This mind-set gives a trajectory to life that is almost universal—namely, away from stress and toward comfort and safety and relief. Then within that very natural trajectory some people begin to think of ministry and find ways of serving God inside the boundaries set by the aims of self-protection. Then churches grow up in this mind-set, and it never occurs to anyone in such a community of believers that choosing discomfort, stress, and danger might be the right thing—even the normal, biblical thing—to do. I have found myself in conversation with Christians for whom it is simply a given that you do not put yourself or your family at risk. The commitment to safety and comfort is an unquestioned absolute. The demands of being a Christian in the twenty-first century will probably prove to be a rude awakening for such folks.”

We shouldn’t wish for suffering, and we should be thankful for every freedom we still enjoy. But, the more the thought of boundless tolerance catches on, the more the journey will inevitably lead to suffering for those who see the Bible and Christ as absolute truth. In fact, the boundless tolerance mindset will corner us much more quickly than, say, the impending Islamization of Western society. Nobody can say for sure whether the latter will actually happen or not.

For us, culture’s one-sided tolerance mindset is precisely where the great danger lies. Out of a fear of the growing stigmatization of absolute truth and a desire to continue enjoying the benefits of a tolerance-based society, we simply begin to keep silent on certain subjects. We only stand up for our convictions within the walls of our own church or in secure surroundings. Remember the earlier quote from John Piper! We’re developing a kind of submarine Christianity, without a living testimony or profession of divine and Scriptural truth to the outside world.

But what did the apostle Peter advise the believers under increasing pressure? “Watch out, don’t talk too much about the Gospel!”? “Be careful where you say things that could be used against you!”? No, something quite different: “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15).

It’s not that we’re acting clumsy or stupid by, say, disrupting public events with heckling or inappropriate behavior. Rather, we need the courage to stand firmly on Biblical beliefs, even if we come under pressure and it costs us. False diplomacy at the expense of truth won’t just damage our testimony, but also our spiritual life. The more we start to silence ourselves, the quicker the noose of boundless tolerance will tighten around our necks.

If the truth and firm convictions are suppressed in the name of unlimited tolerance, a totalitarian dictatorship of thought and conscience will be revealed as under National Socialism (Nazism). It is arguably unique that the National Socialist dictatorship emerged from a democratic movement and was installed, in large part, through democratic elections.

How did it come about that many believers, churches, and faith and missionary organizations, were captivated by National Socialism? Why did they fail to clearly profess the Gospel and the truths of the Bible, which were obviously in opposition to this demonic ideology? We don’t in any way want to pose this question to believers accusingly or smugly. We all stand by grace. Moreover, we’re in danger today of failing at the same points, albeit under externally different circumstances. Just consider the protection of unborn human life, increasing anti-Semitism (also in the context of the matter of the nation of Israel), as well as the adaptation of biblical convictions to the neo-Marxist mainstream.

Some believers who were carried away by the tide of National Socialism, were initially able to recognize the ideological elements that contradicted biblical convictions. But under the pressure of this anti-Christian ideology, they wrongly responded with diplomacy. It was also a matter of concern for maintaining the church’s freedom of assembly. Another argument for this ill-fated diplomacy was the evangelistic possibilities: the ones willing to remain silent about this or that issue could continue to evangelize and win people for Jesus. Wasn’t that the most important thing? If the corresponding guidelines were adhered to, people were permitted to continue to gather without the threat of a ban. And so began the disastrous balance between supposedly important and unimportant convictions, until a large part of the faithful was eventually carried away by this anti-Christian ideology. The ultimate goal of all this fatal balancing was to avoid suffering.

For the steadfast of that time, there was sufficient affliction in social ostracism, the denial of opportunities for advancement in the workplace, up to and including imprisonment. And for some, faithfulness to the Lord even ended in a concentration camp, leading to martyrdom in many cases. Not all were led along the same path. But the Lord, in spite of all hardships and suffering, was with His witnesses.

Pastor Wilhelm Busch was among those who proclaimed the Gospel uncompromisingly, in spite of all the threats. He accepted the enormous risk, both for himself and for his family. He was imprisoned multiple times by the Gestapo. Later, he candidly spoke of the partially dark and discouraged hours that he’d experienced, but how his Master met him there time and again and raised him up. He stressed that he in no way wanted to be celebrated as a hero or a great resistance fighter. On the contrary. In hindsight, according to his assessment, he should have spoken up more.

Or consider Paul Schneider, the preacher of Buchenwald. The young family man was rather shy and reserved by nature. But he explicitly proclaimed the Gospel, named the dictatorship’s injustice for what it was, and landed in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Even there he didn’t back down from the confession of the truth, although he was tortured to death in the end. One morning, when thousands of prisoners had to appear for roll call, he shouted through the bars of his cell, “Jesus Christ says, ‘I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness!’” All the inmates heard these words, and Nazi henchmen immediately rushed back to his cell to torture him. Even communists who survived Buchenwald were deeply moved and impressed by this pastor’s courageous witness.

Things are still going well for us, compared with professing Christians under the Third Reich, or the unbroken witness of many martyrs in the Middle East and Asia. Our social ostracization and marginalization can’t even compare. Nevertheless, we must recognize and name the danger of the dictatorship of boundless tolerance. We must be on guard against falling into the same trap as a significant part of Christianity under the Third Reich. We can’t hide clear biblical positions while referencing supposed evangelistic opportunities or freedom of assembly. In other words, woe unto us if we deny biblical truth. The more the boundless tolerance mindset spreads all around us, the more we’ll be faced with the question of what faith and godly truth are really worth to us.

It’s not even a matter of grand theological questions like the divinity of Jesus, His bodily resurrection, or salvation by faith. Much of what boundless tolerance demands of us by acceptance and relativism is a basic attack on the truth of the Holy Scriptures. Whether it be an understanding of truth in and of itself, the Bible’s statements on the subjects of marriage, sexuality, and homosexuality, the purpose of the creation of man and woman in the context of gender issues, etc., etc.…

There are already examples of people in the West who lost jobs or career opportunities—not because of their own unmanageable behavior, but for the sake of their faith or on the grounds of their candidly professed biblical convictions. By and large, these are not isolated cases. And some of these people even chose not to file labor litigation, but kept to the word of 1 Peter 2:21-23.

Let’s not be discouraged by the conscience dictatorship of boundless tolerance. Let’s resist our innate aversion to suffering! When the cultural headwinds become more intense, let’s orient ourselves anew to what Scripture tells us about suffering for the sake of Christ and the truth. Let’s also look at the great promises that the Lord has given us. It is only Christ Himself, and His grace, that can strengthen and hold us fast. But we must be willing to fully trust Him, to accept inconvenience and difficulty, and not to let ourselves be guided by our own mentality of comfort and safety. We aren’t on our own, but belong to the Lord, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth is given.

It’s just as John MacArthur says: “But in every generation, the battle for the truth has proved ultimately unavoidable because the enemies of truth are relentless.” Therefore, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim 6:12). And, “do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim 1:8).

Midnight Call - 03/2020

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