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I'm Okay; You're Not

"There are lots of ways to find God," Shelly blurted out.

Sitting next to her friend on the bus, Amy responded, "I don't know about that, Shelly. Jesus says he's the only way."

"How can you say that? You can't know for sure that your way is the only way! All that matters is that you find God, right?"

Amy looked at Shelly and said, "But that isn't what I believe."

"Why are you being so stubborn? My mom says Christians are so intolerant of other people because they believe their way is the only way!" accused Shelly.

The sting of those last words rang in Amy's ears as she stepped off the bus -- so intolerant! Amy walked up the stairs of her house, angry and sad at the same time. Angry that her friend wouldn't give her a chance to respond and sad that she'd been misunderstood. Mostly Amy was sad that her friend Shelly just doesn't "get it."

We've all heard the accusation before: Christians are so intolerant! At one time, tolerance would've been a great quality for any Christian to possess. Tolerance once meant to respect people who hold other beliefs, even if you didn't agree with them.

Unfortunately, over the years tolerance has evolved from the recognition and respect of another person who holds a contrary belief, value, or lifestyle to an acceptance of those beliefs, values, and lifestyles as equally valid and true. Today if you say, "Jesus is the only way," you just get labeled "intolerant."

A Historical Perspective

Let's face it. The church in general doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to communicating with those with different lifestyles or belief systems.

Historically the church has faced differing belief systems, sometimes responding by sending in a hoard of hostile warriors to beat some religious truths into our neighbors.

When a prominent church leader responds to the abortion issue, evolution theories, or sexual orientation differences with a hard line and judgmental spirit, the rest of the world wonders if all Christians believe the same way. The world assumes we're all judgmental and intolerant.

Currently, there's another problem. In a poll conducted for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly/U.S. News & World Report as to what Americans believe about their faith and about the faith of others, the survey shows that most Americans are woefully ignorant of other religious groups and report very little contact with other religious people.

Simply put, it's easier to tolerate people when you don't know their particular beliefs and practices. The poll also reveals that religion is only one of many influences that are relevant to how people lead their lives. Religiously observant Americans may be tolerant precisely because their faith is less relevant to many aspects of their lives.

This doesn't leave us with a good picture. We're either perceived as intolerant or we've become tolerant because we don't know any better! We lack an understanding of and commitment to any doctrinal truths, perhaps because we perceive that our faith is irrelevant to our lives.

A Biblical Perspective

Jesus invites us to follow him. He had an open-door policy with outsiders. He was a "come as you are" kind of guy. If we were to quickly look at the people he extended himself to, we would see him...

  • having a conversation with the woman at the well, an adulterous player from Samaria.
  • sharing dinner with Zacchaeus, a temple tax collector with an embezzlement issue.
  • calling for the children, the least of these, to come and play.
  • even extending words of comfort, grace, and forgiveness to the thief on the cross.

Was Jesus tolerant? Yes. Jesus recognized and understood other people's beliefs, values, and lifestyle choices, but then through grace and compassion he challenged them to change. That's the clearest definition of biblical tolerance!

Did he consider everyone's beliefs, values, and lifestyle as equal? Absolutely not! In fact, if we look at the account of the rich young ruler who approached Jesus for a backstage pass to heaven, we see a different outcome. No doubt Jesus loved this young man, and the young man loved Jesus, but when challenged to prioritize his values differently, to make a change reflective of his beliefs, the young man refused and walked away.

In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, the Apostle Paul describes a church member who was living in sin with his father's wife. He had no regard for the law or expectation of the community. Paul didn't suggest that the church should tolerate this behavior but insisted upon immediate discipline and dismissal from the community so the man would choose to stop sinning.

We're called to demonstrate the love of Jesus -- even to those who are involved in practices we don't approve of or that are different from ours, without losing our personal convictions and understanding of the truth.

The Challenge

Children will be exposed to true intolerance at some point in their lives. They may hear discriminatory remarks on the playground, see examples of stereotypes or prejudice in movies or on television, or pick up on intolerance in adults' behavior. If parents, teachers, and other adult leaders don't address issues of prejudice and discrimination, children may grow up believing that racial and cultural inequities are normal or that victims of discrimination deserve poor treatment because they're somehow inferior. How we address these issues is critical.

Other religions will continue to exist, and new ones will continue to emerge. There will always be misinterpretations of Scriptures. Issues such as homosexuality aren't going to go away just because we may object. Abortion and racial prejudice won't disappear just because a law is written prohibiting them.

Today's kids and youth live in a culture where many are grazing through religious institutions. Like a buffet, kids are picking out an eclectic assortment of tidbits that appeal to them -- a little Christ, a little Buddha, some Hindu, and some New Age appetizers. Create your own religion, they think. The questions they encounter in life demand more than our plateful of religious morals and feel-good answers.

Our kids will always be faced with these issues and probably even more issues in the future. It's important that we help children develop personal convictions and core beliefs based on God's truths. Otherwise they'll become the kind of people James wrote about: "like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind."

We need to help children know the truth. Read it, study it, meditate on it, pray with it, discuss it, and live it. We need to guide them to know that God doesn't promise us all the answers, but he does promise us wisdom and his full attention.

Talking About It

There's an urgent need to provide for our children the truth that'll give direction. Our relativistic culture leads them to an amoral place of "I have my truth and you have yours," but God's truth never changes. Use these principles to guide children.

  • Treat all questions with respect. Even if the question or answer is complex or inconsequential, it's important for kids to know they can ask anything. Use age-appropriate language when you're talking to children, and don't be afraid to tell them you don't know. Then take time to explore answers to their questions.
  • Discuss cultures. Understanding different groups and faiths gives kids awareness and alleviates fears. Equip kids to have a simple conversation regarding differences and similarities in family histories and customs.
  • Give perspective. Direct kids to the Scriptures so they form a biblical perspective. Kids may live in a culture of relativism and pluralistic beliefs, but they're looking to us to direct them to find God's truth.
  • Clarify misconceptions. Children will watch the differences between people, such as sexual orientation, religious choices, socioeconomic lifestyles, educational levels, special needs, and disabilities. Address kids' already-established stereotypes and oversimplified generalizations about a group of people without regard to individual differences. Watch for judgmental statements and actions.
  • Be a role model. If you want children to value diversity and respect differences, you have to model that approach to life yourself. Educate parents, teachers, and adults in your congregation that the truth this generation needs to know will only be validated through the lives the adults lead.

Kids are watching and learning from you. Will you show them the truth in the Scriptures by living out biblical tolerance? Will you model for them tolerance as Christ did through grace, compassion, and conviction? Will they know that Jesus is the only way?

Expressing Tolerance

As children's roots grow deeper into truth, they'll be given opportunities to extend compassion and grace, showing patience and true tolerance for others who disagree with them. Share these tolerance tips with kids.

  • Never argue. Arguing with people who have differing views rarely -- if ever -- works. In fact, arguments convey intolerance and alienate people.
  • Ask questions. Use Jesus' method of asking questions to help people think. For example, ask, "Why do you think God would allow his Son to die if there were other ways to get to heaven?" or "Would you be willing to explore more about what Jesus said before you totally discount that he's the only way?"
  • Quote Jesus. Tell kids to share with friends the very words that Jesus used. Say something like, "All I know is what Jesus said. He said that he is the way, the truth, and the life. And that no one comes to God but through him."
  • Love people. In the end, kids need to be taught to love and respect all people -- no matter what they believe. That's what Jesus did, and that's what he calls us to do.

Sharyn Spradlin and Cyndie Steenis are co-founders of New Re-sors-es, a Seattle, Washington, consulting and training ministry. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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