Choose Your Battles: Why we walk away from some people who need us and even unfriend a few

When I was in seminary, a prominent Baptist leader speaking in chapel one day made a statement which brought forth a roomful of “amens” but which upon reflection I came to reject as forcefully as though it were pure heresy.

The leader of our worldwide force of missionaries announced, “Wherever there is a need, there is a mission field and the nearest Christian is the missionary.”

That sounds so good on the surface.

On closer inspection, that statement has a fatal flaw.

The principle that I am to meet every need I encounter and respond to every emergency situation that presents itself before me is disastrous. It says anyone with a problem has a claim on a Christian’s time and energy and resources.

Consider what our (ahem) Role Model–all caps–did when facing a long string of needy people waiting for Him to meet their needs–

And in the early morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place, and was praying there.

Simon and his companions hunted for Him, and they found Him, and said to Him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ (Can you hear the irritation in their voices? They’re fussing at Jesus for spending time alone praying when He should be back at the house taking care of all those problems.)

But He said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, in order that I may preach there also. For that is what I came out for.'” (Mark 1:35-38)

Jesus walked away from needy people with legitimate requests in order to stay with the Father’s agenda for His life.

Someone asked Jesus to correct an injustice and “make my brother divide the inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13)

He refused.

Jesus said, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47; also John 3:17).

In so saying, our Lord just infuriated a legion of His most devoted servants who define their ministry in life as condemning the world. (Many Christians get upset when lost people act and talk and behave as though they are lost. We rebuke them for their immoral ways and damn them to hades instead of offering the love of God and the good news of the gospel. Many preachers, I fear, get our preaching mandate from the most vocal in our congregations rather than from the Lord Himself.)

There will always be an unending supply of wrongs to be righted and unmet needs to claim the attention, energies, resources, and time of the Lord’s people if that were our task in life.

However, we are not sent to rebuke every sin, answer every question, heal every wound, address every grievance. To do so is to imitate the fellow who “got on his horse and rode off in all directions.”

To stay with the Lord’s agenda will require us to be strong in an uncommon way.

We are well-acquainted with the strength required to get down in the ditch and minister to the hurting victims. But there is another kind of strength each follower of Jesus will be needing.

That is the strength to say, “No.”

Answering “No, thank you” when asked to do something other than the Father’s will is righteous, no matter how good the project and gracious the invitation.

To walk away from a request not of His making, to pass by a wrong which needs righting but which would divert you from your mission, to ignore a sin that should be rebuked but for which doing so would send the wrong message, and to be silent about an injustice that someone should correct but not you–these will require great courage and strength.

Occasionally I will unfriend someone on Facebook.

I have unfriended people with (probably) legitimate ministries who use this social medium to bombard “rich Americans” with steady requests for money.

Someone messaged me privately that she had noticed I was commenting on a friend’s Facebook pages more often than on hers.She was offended, took it personally, and wondered why I was slighting her.

I found that incredulous. Who would possibly care about this sort of thing? And why?

When I responded in a gentle, Christlike manner–you’ll have to trust me that I did–she exploded with harshness. According to her, I was judging her, condemning her, betraying my calling.

I replied, “Goodbye,” and erased her name.

Whatever is going on with that person, I need no part in it. I do not know her, have never been her pastor, and have not acted toward her in any way other than Christlike. (I harbor no anger, but refuse to obsess over what she did or my dropping her.)

Another “unfriend” delights in finding the negative position on almost anything and arguing tiny points of history in which only he and two history majors on the planet have an interest. He has been known to fill my Facebook page taking issue with comments from my friends.  I messaged him privately that “you may comment on your own page all you please, but to dominate a friend’s page is rude.”  When he ignored this, I dropped him.

I recognize that I was exercising a privilege pastors wish they could employ concerning a few select church members: Erase them. (I’m being facetious about that, being serious when I say that retirement has its compensations. Smiley-face goes here.)

This is all a matter of focus on one’s ministry, the work given us–and perhaps to no one else–by the Lord. To do that well will require us to keep our eyes on Him, to apply ourselves to our task, and to discipline ourselves from responding to every cry for our attention, every call for our resources, every request for our time and strength.

Try saying these words, pastor: “I sincerely thank you for the invitation. But I’ll have to say no.”

Practice saying those words until they come naturally to you. Because you’re going to be needing them.

(My wife is sure that those words are not in my vocabulary, but they are. Recently, I turned down several invitations, including one to England where I really and truly want to revisit before kicking the number 2 washtub. Or bucket.)

Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ are not sent to meet every need, witness to every human we brush against, and feed every hungry person on the planet.

We are sent to obey Him.

This means He will sometimes lead us away from needs. Consider Acts 16:7.”And when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.”

He will lead us away from some needs in order to lead us to the field where He is sending us. Acts 16:8-9. “And passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas, and a vision appeared to Paul in the night….Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Each of us is not sent everywhere to everyone in every situation.  Each person is spiritually gifted by the Spirit for a task, a ministry, to which He at some point calls us. He calls us, sends us, commissions us, accompanies us, and uses us there.

Every need we find is not our personal mission field, even if events should prove that it is someone else’s assignment from the Lord.

And that’s the point. What is the Lord’s will in this situation for me?

The Lord may but does not have to send you and me to the same mission field. If you feel called to one area of the world, one type of ministry, or one unusual approach to serving, great. Good for you. But what you must not do is become resentful of others who do not go where you go, serve along with you, and support what you are doing.

Unto his own master, a servant stands or falls. (Romans 14:4)

Simon Peter grew tired of the attention he was getting from the Lord concerning his own future. He turned and pointed out the Apostle John. “Lord,” he said, “what about him? What will he do?” Jesus said, “What’s that to you? If I want him to remain until I return, it’s between us. You follow me!” (My paraphrase of John 21:19-22)

There are few joys in ministry more satisfying than knowing you are in your place doing the Father’s will. (And few feelings more disturbing than knowing you aren’t.)

6 thoughts on “Choose Your Battles: Why we walk away from some people who need us and even unfriend a few

  1. Great points! So much of our lives can be derailed by expectations God never had for us but we made up for ourselves. Especially this time of year it’s very helpful to check what expectations you have for the holidays and why?

  2. I agree with what you have written. It takes great discernment of one’s gifts and
    God’s direction to say no. Many times my assistance is sought for things that I just do not believe God is leading me to do. To continue on and provide the request takes my time and energy away from the task God has for me, and also may prevent another person from performing the task that God has for him or her. About unfriending those asking for money through Facebook: I have not unfriended anyone, but I have unsubscribed to two colleagues. One was seeking personal funds to go on a mission trip and the other was seeking funds for seminary tuition. I do not come on to Facebook to be solicited for funding and find it quite offensive. By unsubscribing, I no longer see their posts, but my name does not show up as a possible friend request, which can be difficult to explain to someone who thinks they are your fb friend.

  3. Brother Joe – I found this very interesting and helpful – frees me up physically and mentally to do what the Lord would have me to do. Thanks for your insight!!!

  4. It’s kind of amazing how relentless people can be. Point proven I guess. There comes a time in some disagreements where words cease to be effective and a wise person recognizes that time. Being accused of using “Petty Scriptures” – interesting, I am pretty sure those words never go together.

  5. Joe,
    Please keep writing. You have a gift. I enjoy your stories and insights. As a pastor myself, I identify with all the topics you post.


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