When to Walk Away: Follow Jesus’ Example

Jesus walked away from toxic people and let them walk away from Him. We can learn to follow His example.

INTRODUCTION

For the first fifteen years of their marriage they served the church in two dramatically different ways. Both David and Ginny had gifts for ministry, loved people, and felt honored to serve the same congregation. David was the pastor and Ginny led the music ministry and adult education. Their mission was the same, but they responded to toxic people in totally different ways.

When they started at their first church, a woman came at Ginny like a heat-seeking missile. She was clearly needy and explained to Ginny that she wanted an accountability partner, a friend, a shoulder to cry on, and someone to call (at any time, day or night) when she was in need. This woman was certain that the Lord wanted Ginny to be that person. So, Ginny made the commitment and jumped into a relationship that lasted fifteen long and painful years.

This woman demanded everything and gave nothing back. She would call at all hours and expect Ginny to drop everything, even the care of her children, to listen, pray, and help her manage whatever issue she was facing. When Ginny would try to establish barriers, the woman would declare that Ginny was not loving, not caring, and maybe not even a Christian. She would share this with anyone who would listen.

Over time, this woman began declaring to anyone who would listen that no one at the church cared about her or did anything to help her. She even wrote a letter to the church board saying that Ginny was an unkind person and should not be serving at the church until she learned how to “be more like Jesus.” Finally, this angry woman left the church. She told people, “I am going to find a church where the members actually care and where the pastor’s wife is not a hypocrite!”

During this same decade and a half, David also encountered a handful of toxic people in their church. He was kind to them but always seemed able to keep them at arm’s length. They would make demands of him and he would smile and let them know that it was not his job to be their personal counselor, to meet all of their needs, to be their best friend, or to come to every event they felt he should attend. Some of them got angry and pushed back, but other members of the church would assure David, “That guy has always been like that and everyone knows it!” They would assure him that keeping a safe distance from “that guy” was a wise decision that most of the church members would understand.

Instead of being controlled by a few super-needy, angry, and highly demanding people, David invested that time in two or three leaders each year. He would identify those who were mature leaders that needed some coaching and encouragement and he would pour into them. David also had a gift for finding younger and upcoming leaders and helping them sharpen their gifts, grow in prayer, and learn to serve Jesus in the church and the marketplace.

When David and Ginny accepted a call to move to a new church, they took time to evaluate their ministry. David was thankful that he had the honor of preaching and leading the congregation, but he told Ginny that one of his greatest joys was seeing several leaders take serious steps forward in their love for God, service in the church, and their passion for living out faith in their home and in the workplace. Ginny told David that she celebrated the growth in the music ministry and the adult classes. But, sadly, she had not really invested in developing many leaders. She said, “Most of my time for the last fifteen years has been invested in one woman, and I wonder if I made any lasting impact on her life.”

Christians have the tendency of thinking that walking away from anyone or letting anyone walk away from them is a failure on their part.

TALK ABOUT IT

If you or your group members are just getting to know one another, take a few minutes to introduce yourselves. Then, to kick things off, discuss one of the following questions:

  • What attitudes and behaviors release a person like David to be fruitful and impactful in ministry and life?

—or— 

  • What attitudes and behaviors keep a person like Ginny from a full life and ministry?

WATCH SESSION ONE:

As you watch the video teaching segment for this session, use the following outline to record any thoughts or concepts that stand out to you.

NOTES

Greg’s story… a toxic person in the workplace

An elimination diet… this is not just for food

A good offense… two keys

  • Seek first His kingdom
  • Invest in reliable people

By definition, focusing on some people requires us to occasionally walk away from others.

A good defense… know when to walk away

Defining a toxic person… let the picture come into focus

Learning from Jesus in the four Gospels… watch His example

  • Sometimes He walked away
  • He never chased those who walked away

Jesus taught His followers to flee… and not feel guilty

Esther’s story… the fruit of walking away

GROUP DISCUSSION

Take a few minutes with your group members to discuss what you just watched and explore these concepts in Scripture.

1.Tell about a toxic person who has intersected your life. (Be sensitive about using a name or recognizable details in this setting.) How has their behavior and attitudes impacted your life? Would you describe the time you spent with them as “fruitful”? Explain.

2.What is it that causes us to keep playing offense and refuse to walk away from a toxic person? How can being a Christian and looking only at the compassion of Jesus keep a person from walking away?

Sometimes walking away is the best way to defend the good work God is calling us to do.

  1. What are some of the possible consequences if we refuse to walk away from a toxic person?

Relational consequences:

Spiritual consequences:

Emotional consequences:

Physical consequences:

Tell about how you or someone close to you has faced some of these consequences.

  1. Read Matthew 6:33–34. What does it mean to seek God’s Kingdom above all else (in general and in your own life)? How can following this call of Jesus set the course of our lives (including our relational lives) on the right path?
  2. How can the behavior and expectations of a toxic person get in the way of us following this essential call of Jesus for all of His people? How have you seen the pressures of a toxic person keep a sincere Christian (yourself or someone else) from fully following the plans of Jesus?
  3. Read 2 Timothy 2:1–2. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul tells the young pastor Timothy to invest what he is learning into the lives of some reliable and qualified people. Why is it critical that all of us hear this call to invest in a few faithful and receptive people? Who is one person you feel God has placed in your life that you can invest in and help grow deeper in faith, and how can your group members pray for you as you seek to do this?

Toxic people may represent one of Satan’s most clever attacks against God’s work.

  1. Read Matthew 8:28–9:1. This crowd could have marveled at the power of Jesus. They could have fallen on their faces and worshiped the Lord of glory. Instead, they asked Him to leave their region. Why do you think they responded this way? How did Jesus respond to this request and why do you think He responded this way?

The hearts of some people were not changed by the actual Messiah when He walked on this earth… so who are we to think that our efforts can fix every broken person we encounter?

  1. Read John 8:58–59 and Matthew 12:13–15. How did Jesus respond in these conflicted and unhealthy situations? How can Jesus be our example when we are around people who are toxic and dangerous? How can walking away be the most godly and honoring thing we can do?
  2. Jesus told His followers that there were times and situations where they should flee. Tell about a life situation where you have been “hanging in there,” but you believe Jesus might be calling you to walk away. What is keeping you from walking away and what would help you take this step of faith and walk away with Jesus?

CLOSING PRAYER

Spend time in your group praying in some of the following directions:

  • Thank God for the faithful people who have taken time to invest in your spiritual journey, and also pray for those who are still cheering you on as you grow in faith.
  • Ask the Holy Spirit to help you recognize and identify people in your life (or the lives of those you love) who are truly toxic. Pray for discernment to know the difference between a difficult person who needs God’s care and toxic people who need to be avoided.
  • Ask for courage to embrace the idea that one of the godliest things you can do is walk away from toxic people, so you have the time and energy to invest in receptive and hungry people.
  • Invite your heavenly Father to comfort and care for one of your group members who shared the pain and struggle they have faced because of a toxic person in their life.

Satan knows that he can’t stop God’s fresh water from flowing through you, so he tries to get you to pour it down the drain of toxic people rather than onto the fertile fields of teachable and thirsty people.

* * * 

Your Turn

Let us know what you thought about Session One of When to Walk Away on our blog!

Gary L. Thomas

Gary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct faculty member teaching on spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Pure Pleasure, Sacred Parenting, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith.

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