On Tolerance – Part 3

President Boyd K. Packer has written a great deal about tolerance. I think he summarizes the issue brilliantly and simply:

The word tolerance is also invoked as though it overrules everything else. Tolerance may be a virtue, but it is not the commanding one. There is a difference between what one is and what one does. What one is may deserve unlimited tolerance; what one does, only a measured amount. A virtue when pressed to the extreme may turn into a vice. Unreasonable devotion to an ideal, without considering the practical application of it, can ruin the ideal itself.[1]

In the same vein, Elder Russell M. Nelson cautioned, “An erroneous assumption could be made that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better. Not so! Overdoses of needed medication can be toxic. Boundless mercy could oppose justice. So tolerance, without limit, could lead to spineless permissiveness.”[2]

Some people believe that they have the right not to be offended, or the right not to be told things they do not wish to hear. This is false, and absurd—if it were true, then I would have the right not to hear that people have a right not to hear things they don’t like, because I don’t like that claim. It offends me!

Contrary to popular belief, “Christian behavior” does not mean never offending anyone or causing them any distress. Elder Dallin H. Oaks observed that children who desire to commit serious sin (such as living together without being married) raise serious questions for the parents:

…if an adult child is living in cohabitation, does the seriousness of sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage require that this child feel the full weight of family disapproval by being excluded from any family contacts, or does parental love require that the fact of cohabitation be ignored? I have seen both of these extremes, and I believe that both are inappropriate.

Where do parents draw the line? That is a matter for parental wisdom, guided by the inspiration of the Lord.[3]

He notes, however, that our dedication to the truth—which must be our highest allegiance—may cause some difficulties with the wayward person.

Wherever the line is drawn between the power of love and the force of law, the breaking of commandments is certain to impact loving family relationships. Jesus taught:

“Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:

“For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.

“The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother” (Luke 12:51–53).

This sobering teaching reminds us that when family members are not united in striving to keep the commandments of God, there will be divisions. We do all that we can to avoid impairing loving relationships, but sometimes it happens after all we can do.

In the midst of such stress, we must endure the reality that the straying of our loved ones will detract from our happiness, but it should not detract from our love for one another or our patient efforts to be united in understanding God’s love and God’s laws.[4]

Thus, while we must be kind and not seek to give unintentional or unnecessary offense, we ought to consider that Jesus and the prophets did not and do not spend a lot of time making sure that no one is troubled by their words. Sometimes, if no one is at all uncomfortable, it means we are not doing our job to stand as witnesses of God and Christ “at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even unto death” (Mosiah 18:9). As President Packer observed:

I had the privilege of teaching an institute class for the students at Harvard University, These students finally discovered that when they had a conversation on the gospel and came away having irritated or agitated or discomforted somebody, they probably had accomplished a good deal more than if everybody had agreed with them. And considering the frame of mind of many with whom they conversed, if the Latter–day Saint agreed with all they said that was some indication that he was wrong.[5]

A good rule of thumb, I think, is not to focus on people but to focus on principles and doctrines. Do not say, “You are wrong to live in a same-sex relationship.” That can be construed as attacking the person. Instead, say, “Same-sex behavior is forbidden by ancient and modern prophets. I know that it will not bring lasting happiness, and it would be wrong of me to encourage it. People can choose for themselves, but I will not endorse something I believe to be wrong. Why would you ask me to betray my principles and promises to God?”

As Elder Oaks summarized:

Tolerance obviously requires a noncontentious manner of relating toward one another’s differences. But tolerance does not require abandoning one’s standards or one’s opinions on political or public policy choices. Tolerance is a way of reacting to diversity, not a command to insulate it from examination.[6]

You will note that one is not necessarily being contentious just because you refuse to stop expressing your opinion, or remain quiet about standards or matters of public importance. All disagreement is not contention. Some members of the Church who want us to wink at their behavior, or accept their views, try to paint those who disagree as stirring up “contention.”[7] Don’t fall for the trick.

[To be continued]


[1] Boyd K. Packer, “Covenants,” general conference, October 1990; reprinted in The Things of the Soul (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 83.

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Teach Us Tolerance and Love ,” general conference, April 1994.

[3] Dallin H. Oaks, “Love and Law,” general conference, October 2009.

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Love and Law,” general conference, October 2009.

[5] Boyd K. Packer, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 150.

[6] Dallin H. Oaks, “Weightier Matters,” Liahona (Mar 2000): 15; from a BYU Devotional Address on 9 Feb 1999.

[7] I described a notable example of exactly this behavior in: “Shattered Glass: The Traditions of Mormon Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Encounter Boyd K. Packer,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 61–85.

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