Tolerance: The Wedding Gift It’s Taken Me 25 Years To Unpack

Marriage author and husband on wedding day
Rather listen? Here’s the Keep On Podcast.

It was not on our gift registry. Truth be told, I thought I was a pretty “live and let live” 21 year-old bride. But like the rogue aunt who went “off-registry” and bought us the best flexible cutting boards and a silicon spatula set that now I cannot live without, God knew better.

So he gave us the gift of tolerance.

But that snowy Sunday in January as we unwrapped the pile of wedding gifts, this newlywed didn’t appreciate that gift.

Two Bears In Marriage

But I had really been tuned in, I’d have welcomed it. After all, Grandma Beth had told me. At the bridal shower, when everyone shares a nugget of advice with the bride-to-be, she’d hinted. Grandma’s advice came in one short line.

You must take two bears to live with you—Bear and Forbear.

-Grandma Beth

Bear and forbear. We don’t use those words much. To bear means to accept and to endure and to forbear means to refrain, to control oneself (Lexico).

I won’t lie. I used to think forbearance was weak and acceptance meant beat. This last line in Amy Carmichael’s poem sounded like defeat.

In acceptance lieth peace.

Unpacking Tolerance

The Bible uses the words bear and forbear. Jesus bore with faithless disciples (Matthew 17:17), Paul bore with hostile Jews (Acts 18:14), Christians bear each others’ burdens (Galatians 6:2), and our God forbears (Romans 2:4, 3:25).

But the Greek word for forbearance is also translated as—guess what?—tolerance. It means to hold oneself up against; to put up with. Synonyms are bear with, endure, forbear, suffer. In other words, we still may oppose the opinions, annoying habits and even the hurtful sins of others even as we bear with the people.

It’s only recently, that I’ve unpacked that wedding gift. For nearly 25 years, tolerance lay in a bin tucked away because I didn’t want that gift. Why? Because tolerance only had a negative ring to me.

I thought it meant one of two things. Tolerance either meant that one must agree with an opinion that one is opposed to—and how could anyone possibly do that?—or to accept all viewpoints as equally valid. Both were logically inconsistent, and unpalatable to me. 

When it came down to it, I didn’t like the gift because, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.”

And if I’m anything, I am a girl with convictions. But while tolerance can mean that, but it doesn’t always.

He Tolerates Me

Tolerate means to allow someone to do something that you do not agree with or like (Oxford Learners Dictionary). Did you catch the difference?

I used to think tolerance was all about agreeing with the idea, but it really means to abide with the person, regardless of their habits, opinions or ideas.

Jim tolerates my thinking out loud, my being late and my hogging the quilt in a sleepy frenzy in the middle of the night. He tolerates my abrasive Mrs. Business tone, my blasting backward out the driveway, and my sampling his food— no matter what he orders.

Last year I told you 10 reasons I’m glad I married Jim. Make “he tolerates me” number 11. Sometimes he makes me laugh at my annoying ways and sometimes he calls me out. But in every case he tolerates me.

The fact that despite our flaws and sins, we’re happily married after 25 years proves it.

Some of these same issues that hounded us in year one of marriage still hound us today. The same things that annoyed me about Jim when we dated, still annoy me today. In fact, they may niggle at me until we see Jesus face to face.

The Perfect Matrix

When I unpack tolerance this way it’s obvious that it grows best in a till-death-do-us-part relationship. Because anything short of that level of commitment simply does not demand it. The, If my friend (or spouse) doesn’t spark joy, I’m out of here mindset leaves no place for tolerance.

But I must add a word to my unmarried friends. Some of you are the most tolerant people I know. Tolerance can grow in so many ways, including the hard work of lifelong friendships. To flourish, tolerance requires the soil of commitment and the water of forgiveness.

Which are vital in every marriage. So it’s no surprise that master Blogger Tim Challies calls tolerance “the great challenge of every marriage.”

Like Challies, I went into marriage thinking that marriage would help him grow in holiness. He thought that confronting each other about their sin would help them grow more like Jesus (more holy). I thought of how I’d help Jim see his sin and he’d oh-so-tenderly correct me.

But I agree with Challies on how the surprising way this actually plays out. He writes, “Aileen may grow in holiness by having me confront her in her sins, but she seems to grow more in holiness by patiently tolerating my sinfulness—by loving me despite my sin and loving me as the Lord helps me progressively put that sin to death.”

Holiness By Tolerance

If we’re honest it’s often harder to tolerate a bad habit than a bad sin. Maybe only because we brush up against habits more often than sins.

It is often harder to tolerate the way your spouse chews his food or leaves her clothes on the ground than the way he sins against you or the way she remains unsanctified. And again, while Aileen might grow in her sanctification by having me formally point out a way in which she is sinful, she seems to grow more in sanctification by learning to accept and perhaps even embrace some of those non-moral but oh-so-annoying things I do—those eccentricities and matters of preference.

So perhaps the foremost way that marriage has helped make us holy is not so much in calling each of us to serve as the other’s second conscience, a junior assistant to the Holy Spirit in bringing conviction of sin. It is not in calling each of us to be a kind of moral sandpaper to actively scour off each other’s rough edges. Rather, marriage has helped make us holy by calling each of us to extend a kind of divine mercy toward the other—to simply live lovingly with someone who is prone to be sinful and just plain hard to live with.

Tim Challies, The Great Challenge of Every Marriage

Twenty-five years in and I finally see it. Tolerance is not weakness, or leaving your conviction at the door. Tolerance is the path to holiness. It is extending divine mercy to others.

It’s the mercy that the God who disapproves of my pride, envy and impatience—to take three—still shows by loving me.

Showing Tolerance…In Love

That’s the 25 year-old wedding gift, friends, and now that it’s unpacked it’s yours for the taking, whether you are married or not.

It’s to “simply live lovingly with someone who is prone to be sinful and just plain hard to live with.” It’s giving the mercy God gives us to another. It’s walking worthy of Jesus.

So help me God, I intend to use this gift. Maybe it’ll become as prized as the flexible cutting boards and silicon spatulas. Either way, I intend to make room for the two bears in our home.

What? You’ve also invited them in?

Fantastic! Now let’s watch and wait.

Because I think their friends, friends like patience and humility, holiness, tolerance and peace, will come to dwell with us too.

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:1-3 (NASB, 1995)