“God does not tolerate sin very well.”

If only my student had intended to be ironic here. It would be a tired pose, but at least he would have achieved his goal. The context of this statement made fairly clear, though, that yes, alas, he was being perfectly serious.

What a testy God. Not very tolerant!

But to say that God doesn’t tolerate sin “very well” is to imply that He does tolerate it a bit, sometimes, and also that when He reaches His limit, what follows is a snit of some kind—along the lines of my mother, who didn’t tolerate disobedience “very well”; when pushed too far, she would scold us, send us to our rooms, maybe ground us. Seemed pretty harsh at the time, but in retrospect, not so much.

Well, in fact God doesn’t tolerate sin very well, if the Old Testament is anything to go by, and that’s what my student was looking at: excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, in World Lit I. And the way He expresses exasperation is worlds beyond what my student’s words imply.

What are some of the ways God manifests poor tolerance in those excerpts? Oh, banishment. Toil and labor pains visited upon not only the miscreants but also all descendants of the miscreants for all time. Turning a lady to a pillar of salt. Knocking down a tower and changing everyone’s language not for defying any laws but just for building something that might encroach on His territory. Eradication of entire cities, and then that once, eradication of every living thing except the godly and provident breeders on the Ark. “THOU SHALT NOT” thunderously and unambiguously opening most of the Commandments. Eternal torment.

Even Jesus, in the Christian Bible, has His limits, and responds with rigor to transgressors. For example, he physically drives out of a temple a lot of people doing business there, including sellers of livestock and changers of money. As for the afterlife, those who set themselves up as preachers but do no good works and don’t truly love Jesus will be told in no uncertain terms, as they plead for salvation at death, “Depart from me.”

In the Bible, sin isn’t “tolerated” at all.

My student lives in a looser, more ambiguous time, an age of diminished expectations, and he expects God to share his frame of mind. He evidently thinks God is as tolerant as his English instructor, who generally expresses exasperation at late papers but accepts them with a minor downgrade, who scolds and/or expresses despair at terrible grades on the midterm exam and then goes on with the next lesson, who throws minor tantrums or gives pop quizzes when students are blatantly unprepared for class (easy enough for the minimally prepared to pass). I don’t tolerate these things very well, but I tolerate them. Pushed beyond my limit (plagiarism…), I will fail the paper; sometimes I will even permit the plagiarist to redo the assignment, if I’m convinced the cause was ignorance rather than intention; sometimes I’ll actually fail the student for the course. Only once have I recommended expulsion.

Maybe I should be more strict, less flexible. But God, being omnipotent and without equal, is in a position to enforce His rules. Believe me, when you teach part-time and have no job protection your inclination is toward the tolerant.

So for the sentence that is the subject today, my moving finger merely writes “understatement!” in the margin and then moves on.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

4 responses to ““God does not tolerate sin very well.”

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