Thoughts on Community and the Virtues of Tolerance and Forgiveness
"Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity." Colossians 3:13-14Now this is just one of those tough but gorgeous passages in the New Testament. It's a snapshot of what true community looks like. Interesting that Paul (the author) begins with the assumption that there is difficulty in community, that there'll be something with which we'll need to "bear" and that there'll be a need for forgiveness, for reconciliation. Now, I say "we" with some hesitation only because we should first acknowledge that Paul wasn't writing to us. Paul was writing to a specific church with it's own specific issues. But by extension he's also speaking into our context. This passage rings true because we do have difficulty, we do need forgiveness--not only on a local church scale but on a global scale as well. We live in a world that is more in need of forgiveness than ever, more in need of tolerance and love than ever. We are desperate for this verse! We desperately need to know how to bear with one another, how to forgive with the same unrelenting forgiveness as that of Christ, and how to peruse such a community as a virtue. The thing about virtues is they take practice. They imply work and work implies direction. Are we people who run toward forgiveness, toward reconciliation, toward tolerance and love, or are we people who run toward strife and arrogance and selfishness? Which sort of community are we really practicing?
The stakes are higher now than ever. We actually have the ability to literally destroy ourselves. Not only so, but currently there are people suffering the consequences of community without tolerance, without forgiveness, without love. You see, forgiveness is the enemy of violence. We cannot kill the forgiven. We cannot peruse pain for the forgiven. Forgiveness doesn't always mean that things go back to how they used to be but it does mean that we wish for good things for those whom we have forgiven. If we cannot forgive them (whoever they may be) then indeed, as Jesus said, they cannot be forgiven for they will only receive good if we who have the power to give it to them will do so. We will only do so if we wish good for them and we will only wish good for them if we have forgiven them. Proverbs 3:27-28 says,
"Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”— when you already have it with you."We are the ones withholding good whenever we withhold forgiveness, whenever we are intolerant. We withhold good, for it is always within our power to wish someone good. Forgiveness has the power to end suffering. Forgiveness gives us the power to turn from destruction. Forgiveness is the enemy of suffering, of injustice, of sin itself.
The scale is global, indeed. But as a virtue, we cannot expect forgiveness to begin on such a scale. it must begin small, as a mustard seed, and then grow in us. Things grow when they are nurtured, when they are nourished. We mature in one direction or another. Not all maturity is good. A cancer can mature just as a flower can mature. It is for us to decide; in which direction shall we mature? "Practice makes permanence," some have said. So what are we practicing? What sort of world are we reflecting in our daily life? What are the global implications of the things we do in private, in our family, in our local church, in our community?
We don't get to choose our family. We are just born with them. So living in community with family is often difficult. Sometimes family are the hardest people for us to forgive. Unfortunately (in some ways), we have more control over choosing our church family (especially in the United States). We can just switch churches if we don't like them. Nobody's forcing us to "bear with" our church family. But that is a profoundly important community for us to practice our tolerance and our forgiveness. The question is, are we really running toward reconciliation? Is that what we are perusing? When we pick and choose our community with such discretion that we are never actually bearing with one another and forgiving one another, we are actually implying a very fragmented and closed-off world. If we're not running toward forgiveness, we're running toward destruction.
So ask yourself... are you searching for reconciliation like it's a precious stone? Are you hungry for it? It will not be easy to find. Indeed, it will mean processing the situation and doing the difficult work of dealing with the issues at hand. It will not be immediate. God's forgiveness is for everyone. That means good is due to everyone. That means that if we are to forgive as God has forgiven us, we must wish good for everyone. God's forgiveness renders everyone worthy of goodness. Are you headed in its direction? Or are you withholding good from those to whom it is due?
Clothe these virtues in love, which expands all boundaries and crosses all borders. Love binds all these things--forgiveness and tolerance--together in perfect unity. Love is that which pushes our limits. If we clothe ourselves in love, there is none who cannot be forgiven. Indeed love is what gives us a vision of a world complete in the peace of Christ.