I spent some time this week pondering the difference between tolerance and affirmation. It’s something I didn’t realize I had been affected by, but as I reflected on some conversations I realized that my experience as a woman in ministry made the difference very real.
When you tolerate someone you don’t really like what they are or do, but you put up with it. It may be that you would prefer that your pastor was a man but your church voted for a woman so you’ll have to put up with it. It’s not a very nice feeling – it’s very conditional, and not very generous.
When you affirm someone, you may also not agree with what they are or do, but you make a decision to affirm them as they are. You decide that you will acknowledge their humanity and affirm that that humanity makes them valuable. As a Christian this means that, at rock bottom, I recognize that they, like me, are made in the image of God, and that he loved them so much that he gave his only son, so that they would not die, but have eternal life. I also believe that God might also be at work in and around their lives, even if they wouldn’t call themselves Christians, doing things that are far beyond my meagre understanding.
So how does this work out in real life? I think it’s the difference between thinking of people as categories; migrant, refugee, homeless, drug addict, woman in ministry, and thinking of them as individual people; Lukas, Fatima, Jim, Maggie, Sarah! And saying “You are valuable, precious, gifted, worthwhile.” This is a much nicer feeling.