I recently had a friend tell me how distraught she was over the fact that someone she had been discipling wanted to be left alone. My friend was expressing the pain that she felt over this experience. She had poured so many hours into pursuing another with the Gospel and with Scriptural counsel, only to watch her walk away. The reality is that, at times in their Christian lives, spiritually mature believers find themselves faced with the perplexing question about when they should stop pursuing someone they have been seeking to evangelize or disciple. For many of us who were converted as adults, the difficulty is heightened. We recognize how many believers pursued us when we were in deep and dark inward or outward rebellion. Those of us who experienced that dynamic are grateful to God for continuing to send believers to call us to repent and trust in Christ. However, we must resist the urge to answer this question based on personal experience alone. The Scriptures give us quite a number of examples and guiding principles to follow as we wrestle through this thorny subject.
Jesus pursued the rich, young ruler…only to let him walk away (Mark 10:17-22). This man had approached Jesus asking how he might obtain eternal life. When Jesus pressed the demands of God’s Law on this man, in order to show him his sinfulness and need for redemption, the man went away sorrowful because he was unwilling to part with his possessions. Jesus didn’t run after him. He didn’t beg him to follow Him. He didn’t say, “Now, I was just testing you to see how you would respond. You don’t really have to give away everything to be my disciple!” Jesus didn’t try to get His disciples to surround the young ruler in order to collectively convince him to follow the Savior. Jesus let him walk away. Additionally, Jesus let a crowd of 5,000 men (perhaps upwards of 20,000 people, including women and children) walk away from Him after telling them that they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life (John 6). Jesus let a mega-church depart from Him. He walked away with the 12 disciples, but even then knew He was leaving with 11 (John 6:70).
Jesus also clearly taught that there are times when we are to stop pursuing some with the truth. He candidly told his disciples, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matt. 7:6). The Apostle Paul exemplified what this looks like when he shook his garments and told the Jews in Macedonia, who had vehemently opposed him for preaching Christ, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6).
There has to be a willingness on the part of the person we pursue to listen to the word of the God for whom we are pursuing them. That seems to be the common thread that runs through the biblical narratives. When people stop listening, they have essentially told us to stop pursuing them. This may come in many different shapes and forms. For instance, men or women may start to wallow in their misery instead of going to the Christ to whom you have repeatedly pointed them. They may be seeking to make you “the fourth person of the Godhead” instead of going to the Triune God for redemption and restoration. A constant and relentless fixation on ones problems, instead of going to Christ, is often just a way that people are saying that they refuse to listen anymore. When someone you are pursuing stops coming to worship unless you call them incessantly, you can be fairly sure that they have refused to listen. When someone you have been seeking to disciple begins to make excuses about rescheduling meetings with you, they are essentially walking away. And, as painful as it is to you (remember that Jesus “loved” the rich, young ruler in ministering to him), sometimes you have to let them walk away.
I, in no way whatsoever, want to give the impression that we do not need to walk the long, hard road of evangelism and discipleship with others. I am not suggesting that we should only pursue someone when there is tangible, evident fruit being borne in the early days of reaching out to them with the Gospel. What I am suggesting, however, is that there are times (I have known many) when we have to let others walk away. It might be that the Lord in His kindness will raise someone else up to pursue them. But, there is a stewardship principle to which each of us is to commit. We are to be good stewards of the limited time that God has given to each of us in this life. We are to pursue any who the Lord brings into our path…until they stop listening. We must learn to perceive when others have willed to walk away. It is not something that any believer enjoys doing; but, it is something that the Lord Jesus Himself experienced and taught us to do also. May God give us grace to discern when we are to let another walk away.