Just recently I decided to do a Google search on what the Bible says about quitting. As you would expect, there were thousands of results, but all of the top ones were not about quitting. They were all about persevering in the face of hardship; about not giving up when the going gets tough; about staring defeat in the face and declaring that we are, in fact, not defeated. Why? Because God will reward your faithfulness in the midst of all the hardship, if only you continue to push on through.
None of the results dealt with actually walking away from something, or knowing when to quit.
Especially in the church, there is a tendency to elevate perseverance to the level of saintliness. Giving up in the face of hardship is considered akin to blasphemy, because, after all, Look at the example of Jesus, who died on the cross for you. Or look to Paul, who endured extensive amounts of torture and imprisonment to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to far off lands. What are our mere troubles when compared to the hardships endured by those two?
Especially when someone is staring hardships in the face, the kind of rhetoric that tells them to just persist and persevere adds to the burden the person is already carrying. It does nothing to alleviate their anxiety, their confusion, or their emotional inconsistency regarding their decision. In the face of all that they are already facing, it is simply more bad news.
The good news, though, is that the Bible actually talks about quitting, or walking away from things. One of the more recognizable stories might be when Jesus tells his disciples “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them” (Mark 6:11). Jesus was telling his disciples to walk away when it was clear that people were not going to listen to what they had to say; that the people had rejected the good news that they had proclaimed about the messiah. He wanted them to walk away when it became clear that their mission was not going to have the desired outcome. It was a command for them not to get drawn into a prolonged struggle to accomplish something that clearly would fail.
It’s always easier to quit something when you’ve only just begun, because the amount of energy you’ve sunk into something is relatively little. But when you’ve already spent an enormous amount of time on something – or somewhere – you feel like you have too much invested in it.
Several years ago, at a former job, we hired a new systems administrator. Almost immediately after being hired, he came to me to learn some web programming, and I was happy to teach him. He very rapidly took to programming, which was exciting, but he also became rather disillusioned with the job he was hired for. Since he had only been there a few months already, I told him that if he saw greater opportunities as a programmer than as a systems administrator, he should get out now, before he got locked in to a job he didn’t like. Thankfully, he took that advice, and found a job writing code for another company shortly thereafter. He now makes four times as much money as if he had remained in a job he didn’t like. But that decision was possible because of how little time he had sunk into the job.
When we make the decision to quit working on a project, follow a passion, or give up on a dream that seems to bear little fruit, we weigh several things: the time we have already put into something, the amount of opportunity we might receive when we achieve our goal versus the unrealized opportunity of doing something else. These are things that the people over at Freakonomics call “opportunity cost” and “sunk cost.”
If we look at the story of the disciples heading out two by two, Jesus has given them criteria to look for when to walk away from the opportunity of sharing the gospel with others. Their sunk cost would just have been their travel time to the city or village, and the opportunity cost would be sharing the gospel with people who had never heard it before. If it was clear that people would not listen, then they would have to weigh that opportunity cost against the opportunity of sharing it with people who would listen to what they had to say. Clearly a simple decision, and one that allowed them to “shake the dust off their feet” indicating that the people had rejected the Christ that the disciples shared.
But what if the disciples had already spent days, weeks, or even years with this group of hard-hearted people? Would they have felt the decision to be so simple? Or would they have struggled with walking away? After all, if they had spent years working with these people, they may have seen glimmers of hope, moments of softness, and fleeting possibilities of success. They would have had a very large “sunk cost.” And this would feed into a wild comparison of the opportunity of succeeding at what they had started – and spent so many years invested in – versus the opportunity of succeeding at something else entirely.
When can we know it’s time to walk away from something? Perseverance is not always a good thing, especially when reality is diametrically opposed to our stated goal. Persisting in the face of a clear failure is crazy making. Continuing to write after the inkwell has dried up accomplishes nothing.
So how can we know it’s time to walk away? Some questions might help us to determine how close we are to the end.
- Is what you are doing bearing fruit?
This one requires that we take realistic stock of our work. We may look at one or two outliers to point to our work bringing about results. But if the overwhelming evidence suggests that we are merely producing results here and there, while not seeing results for the majority of our work, then we need to consider that our work is pointless.
The problem, of course, is that we often don’t want to accept this fact that our lack of fruit far outweighs whatever results we may hope to hold on to. We tend to look at our own results through rose colored glasses because we cannot – or do not – want to accept the truth.
Because of our tendencies to overestimate our own accomplishments, we need to often turn to others to get a proper assessment of our work.
- Are other people telling you it’s time to walk away?
We, as a people, are a curious sort. We often don’t want to tell people that their work is not producing the results they believe they are – at least until we believe that it should be painfully obvious to the person in question. It’s almost like we hold off telling the person until we just want to shake them and say, “Don’t you see?”
This means that if others are telling us that it might be time to walk away, they have been thinking it for far longer. And this means that we need to listen to why they are thinking what they are saying. People will see more than we see, because their vision is not as clouded as ours.
Proverbs 11:14, Proverbs 12:15, Proverbs 15:22, Proverbs 19:20
- Do you remember why you started doing what you are doing? Do you remember what you are moving towards? Or, as Rev. Cathleen succinctly put it, “Have you lost your momentum?”
Hope is hard to maintain, and hope in the future is what keeps us motivated and moving forward toward a goal. But if we’ve lost our hope, if we’ve lost the vision of what we are trying to accomplish, then we will slowly stop pushing onward, we will slowly step back because we feel exhausted. We will begin to feel like every step requires a gargantuan amount of energy.
Rick Warren, who started Saddleback Church, recounts in his book, The Purpose Driven Church (Amazon Associate Link), how he read Proverbs 29:18 (“Where there is no vision, my people perish.” KJV), and how that prompted him to realize that unless churches have a mission or vision, they slowly fade into insignificance. Because, without direction, without a goal, people – and churches – feel like they are merely treading water.
The same is true for us as individuals. If we do not have a vision for our ministry, or even remember why we started what we started, then we too will slowly devolve into inconsequence. We too will feel like we are simply treading water to maintain the status quo.
- Are we anxious? Or full of joy?
Which leads us to recognize our emotions. We might be able to rationalize all of the discussions that we are in with other people. We might be able to rationalize their questions and comments. We might even be able to tell ourselves that we do – in fact – have a vision for our lives or ministry, and that we do remember what we are moving towards.
But one thing we cannot ignore is our feelings. Do we wake up anxious? Do we enter the day with trepidation? Or, do we wake up motivated and full of joy for the opportunities before us? These emotions will tell a different story from what we might tell ourselves, or from what we might rationalize, and we need to pay attention to them. Failing to understand anxiety can result in both mental health issues as well as physical health issues.
Just the simple fact that we might be thinking about quitting, or giving up on a vision or dream is something that should indicate that it might be time to walk away. At that point, we need to take a realistic stock of our dreams and goals, consider our sunk costs, and weigh out our opportunity costs for something new.
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.