Christ before Pilate by Mihaly Munkacsy (1844-1900, Ukraine)
“Never miss an opportunity to shut up” was a common saying in our region when I was growing up. The act of ‘shutting up’ was simply being forbearant.
Forbearance is neither a cardinal nor a theological virtue, but it is a virtue. And it sometimes seems to be in short supply in these querulous times.
Forbearance is a crucial element in another second-tier virtue: that of tolerance. Not that tolerance is not mentioned and talked about; it is. But it is all too often misunderstood or misrepresented.
To tolerate something is to think it wrong (or to be in disagreement with it) but for whatever reason or reasons, to forbear from acting on that discernment. All too often in modern discourse, tolerance practically means to adopt a previously rejected position or belief. To be considered tolerant it is sometimes not enough to avoid expressing vehement dissent; one must endorse, or appear to endorse, the thing one rejects.
Paradoxically put, the world is sometimes intolerant of old-school tolerance. The bitterness and hyper-partisan nature of our current political culture is an unhappy example of this. At our political extremes, there is no tolerance on one side without some degree of surrender from the other side.
That this is unhealthy almost everyone seems to agree. What we can do about it is less clear.
Forbearance might help. If we think about forbearance as arising from tolerance, it would seem to be too much to ask. But if we think about tolerance as being a product of forbearance, then suddenly we discover we have an active way forward to reach that goal of tolerance.
As is true of many things, forbearance is easier said than done, especially when it comes to guarding our tongues. Inertia and the general distaste most people feel for physical confrontation make it easier to forbear physically than verbally. The distance between thought and bodily movement seems greater than the distance between thought and word. A neurologist might quarrel with this, but it certainly seems that way to me.
Years ago, First Lady Nancy Reagan promoted an anti-drug program with the slogan “Just say no.” Ridiculed in some quarters, it proved relatively effective (especially when compared to “I didn’t like it and I didn’t inhale.”).
When it comes to a practical approach to forbearance, a good start is a paraphrase of the former First Lady’s advice: “Just don’t.”
Don’t say it. Don’t do it. Forbear.
There is an exception. In some cases, anger and intolerance leads us toward silence and inaction. In those cases, forbearance means we must push ourselves to greet the obnoxious party guest politely (if not necessarily cordially). We shake hands out of courtesy if not affection or friendship. In such cases, forbearance leads to courteous action.
So far I have written about human forbearance. But God is forbearing, too. In Romans 2:3-4, St. Paul writes:
Do you suppose, then, you who judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?
Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?
More than once St. Paul chides people impatient for the return of Jesus with the warning that in doing so they invite judgment on themselves sooner rather than later. Paul attributes the delay to God’s generosity and mercy in giving everyone in the world time to hear the good news and repent. This is forbearance on a grand scale indeed.
We ourselves are called to forbear on a much smaller scale, which is a great relief for me, at least.
A Fine Line
It is worth noticing that forbearance puts us in a good position to forgive. It provides a stopping point for an emotional rush to anger, resentment, and a lasting grudge. A time of forbearance can move us past a moment and into a time where a greater perspective and some emotional distance make it possible to forgive without falling into a deep pit of anger, a pit that can be difficult to climb out of once it has been occupied.
Forbearance also allows us time to consider the problem of a godly, loving reproach should the situation require it. It also allows us time to find someone to both validate our concern and to accompany us if reproach is actually called for (as described in Matthew 18:15-16).
Forbearance can almost be characterized as good manners. But it is much more than that. Classifying forbearance as merely mannerly reduces the meaning of the discipline being exercised. It also makes it more difficult to discern when and where forbearance is no longer appropriate.
We forbear from action when we decide that the results of word or deed will be more damaging than inaction. But there are times when we cannot forbear; times when we must stand and make our witness. We may be witnessing against injustice or we may be witnessing against depravity, or cruelty, or immorality, or anything which exceeds the appropriate boundaries of tolerance. We cannot allow tolerance to be weaponized for use against moral rectitude.
It can be a fine line. Even so, we must walk it as best we can. But when in doubt, “Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.”