Sunday, May 17, 2015
Pastor Joe Wittwer
#6—Know When to Say When



We are talking about fixing broken relationships, and I can’t deal with this subject with integrity without telling you that sometimes you can’t fix a relationship. There are some relationships that can’t be fixed now—some, maybe ever. And you have got to know when to say when.

ILL: When my oldest son Andy was in the first grade, he had a classmate who decided that she didn’t like him. And she let him know it on a daily basis. How could you not love a face like this? Each day she would make fun of him, and he would come home in tears. We tried reason, and that didn’t work—we’re dealing with a first grader. We tried kindness—to no avail. I thought about violence—“Just punch her cute little nose, son.” But Laina ruled that out. Finally I told Andy, “Just avoid her and ignore her. Stay away. It’s her problem. Be kind to her but stay away from her.” Basically, I was telling him that enough was enough. He had tried, now it was time to just step away and do something else. First grade—and he had to know when to say when.

You have to know when to step away from a relationship for a season, let it go and let God work.

This is a difficult message for me. I am an optimist by temperament and theology, so it’s hard for me to talk about giving up. I’m an optimist by temperament because I inherited my mother’s sunny disposition. The glass is half full for me; I see problems as opportunities; I naturally hope for the best—that’s my temperament. I’m also an optimist by theology because I believe that God is good. He is more merciful, more patient, more loving than we can fathom. I believe that God is incredibly long-suffering and doesn’t withdraw from a relationship easily.

But I also believe that God has boundaries, and we should too. There seems to be times when God says “enough.” We’re going to look at some of those, and also consider when we need to say when.

Despite your best efforts, you may not be able to fix every relationship. Some people may refuse to repent, or refuse to change, or refuse to reconcile. Some relationships may be toxic or destructive, and you’ll need to withdraw for your own health and safety. How do you know when to do that, and how to do that? Here’s:

The Big Idea: There are some relationships that can’t be fixed now. You have to know when to say when.

Let’s start by looking at when God says when.


  1. When does God say when?

There are many places in the Bible where God says when. He ends a relationship or steps away from people for a time. Here are a few.


God said “when” to all mankind in Genesis 6 when he destroyed them with the flood. “Enough,” He said.

Genesis 6:5-7 The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. 6The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 7So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth…for I am grieved that I have made them.”

“Enough.” And He ended it.


God said “when” to Israel in Jeremiah 3 when He gave them a decree of divorce and sent them away into captivity.

Jeremiah 3:8 I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.

God did not abandon His people; they abandoned Him, and He merely acknowledged that with the divorce decree. God sent Israel into foreign captivity—their nation was no more. But there was still hope.

Jeremiah 3:12-14 Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will not be angry forever. 13Only acknowledge your guilt—you have rebelled against the Lord your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’” declares the Lord. 14“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband.

God them that he would receive them back when they repented and returned to Him. So God said when…but still held out hope if they repented.


God says “when” to those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit, or commit what is called the unforgivable sin.

Mark 3:28-29 I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. 29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.

What is this unforgivable sin? Theologians have debated it for centuries. I think that it is having a heart so hard that you can’t recognize God’s mercy and truth when it stares you in the face. The people to whom Jesus said this had just watched Him heal the sick, and then attributed it to the devil! Can you imagine being so hard-hearted that you could see Jesus work miracles and think He was evil? This is a heart so hard that it calls good evil and evil good. This is a heart so hard that it refuses God’s mercy and rejects God’s truth, even when it is standing in front of you. Even God can’t reach a person who refuses and rejects Him. It is not that God is unwilling to forgive, but that the person is unwilling to receive his forgiveness.

One more thing: occasionally people ask me if they have committed the unforgivable sin. If you are concerned about it, you haven’t! If your heart is soft enough to ask the question, it’s not hard enough to commit the sin. You can’t commit it accidentally or slip and commit it. It is a determined set of the will and heart against God.

But the point here is that Jesus gives a clear warning that you can walk away from God eternally. Jesus says “when”.


God says “when” to those who fall away in Hebrews 6 when He tells them that it is impossible to restore such a person to repentance.

Hebrews 6:4-6 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because b to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

Again, it’s not that God can’t restore such a person, but that they won’t be restored.

ILL: If I were to take you to my favorite restaurant and buy you the best items on the menu, and you found them disgusting, will you go back? No. In the same way, if someone has tasted God’s best and then walked away, will they go back? No.

It’s possible to fall away so thoroughly that you won’t ever come back. God says “when”.

God says “when” to the immoral in 1 Corinthians 5 when a Christian man was sleeping with his mother and the church was doing nothing about it. “Hand this man over to Satan,” Paul commanded, “so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” The man was to be confronted, and if he refused to repent, he was to be booted out of the church (handed over to Satan). Hopefully, this relational severance would be a wake-up call. 2 Corinthians 2 seems to indicate that it worked, that the man repented and was received back into the church.


God says “when” to the whole world in Revelation 20 at the final judgment. A day of reckoning is coming when we’ll stand before God and be judged. Some people will go to heaven to be with God forever; others will be go to hell and be eternally separated from God. This is the ultimate “when”.

Revelation 20:11-15 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

God says “when”—time’s up—time to answer for your life, and face the music.


God says “when.” There are times when God ends a relationship or other times when He steps away for a season. God says “when”, but when should I say “when”?


  1. When should I say when?

Let’s come at it from three angles: me, them and us.


  1. Me: when I have done all I can.

First, you may need to step away from another person when you have done all you can to reconcile without success.

Romans 12:18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

“As far as it depends upon you.” It takes two people to heal a broken relationship. You can do everything that depends on you, but the other person still has to respond. So Paul says, “as far as it depends on you.” In other words, you do all you can to make it work. Have you done all you can?

Romans 14:19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

“Make every effort.” Have you made every effort—have you done all you can do to make peace?

Hebrews 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy.

The author of Hebrews repeats this thought: make every effort to live in peace with everyone. Leave no stone unturned. Do whatever you can. Give it your best shot.

Obviously, we could always do more. I’m not thinking of doing more of the same, repeating what hasn’t worked. Someone said that insanity is doing the same things but expecting different results. But often, we can do something different.

ILL: When people tell me that they’ve done all they can, I ask them, “Have you done this? Or tried that?” And often, they haven’t. Too often, we try one thing, and when it doesn’t work, we give up. It usually takes more than one effort, which is why Paul says, “Make every effort.”

But there are times when you’ve done all you can reasonably do and it hasn’t worked. It may be time for a change. But we have to honestly ask ourselves if we have done everything we could, everything that is reasonable. Would an impartial jury say that you have given it your all?

Two weeks ago we read Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15-17. Jesus said that if a brother sins against us, we should go to him and show him his fault just between the two of us. If that doesn’t work, take a friend or two and try again. If that doesn’t work, take it to the church, that is, to a larger circle of Christian friends, like your Life Group. If that doesn’t work, treat him as an outsider, someone in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy. This is an example of doing all you can. In fact, one of the big lessons from this passage is that you keep trying. You don’t try just once, but repeatedly and in a variety of ways.

ILL: A couple years ago, a longtime owner here at Life Center left very hurt and upset with us. Several of us tried to contact her, but our phone calls went unanswered and our messages weren’t returned. We got no response to multiple attempts over several months. Could we have done more? Of course. But it was clear that she was not interested in talking with us now. So we decided we had done enough for now, turned it over to the Lord, and are praying for a future restoration. It was time to say when.

When should I say when? When you have done all you can. When you have made every effort. When you have given it your best shot and it hasn’t worked. It might be time to say when. But it doesn’t mean you give up forever; you may need to step away now, and just leave it with the Lord.


  1. Them: when the other person is unrepentant.

Second, you may need to step away from a relationship when the other person is unrepentant, unwilling to change or even acknowledge a need to change. If someone refuses to acknowledge his fault and persists in it, it may be time to say when.

Luke 17:3-4 “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

“If he repents, forgive him.” Our predisposition is always to forgive. We must be forgiving people, and be as generous and merciful with others as God has been with us. But if a person refuses to repent, even if we forgive, they won’t accept it and reconciliation may be impossible. Have you ever tried to forgive someone who won’t acknowledge his sin, doesn’t think he was wrong, or doesn’t care and isn’t the least bit sorry? Even if you forgive, you won’t be reconciled. “I don’t need to be forgiven! I don’t want to be forgiven! It’s your problem! Buzz off!” It may be time to step away for a while.

ILL: I was asked once to mediate between a father and his estranged adult sons. He wanted me to straighten them out and fix their broken relationship. But here’s the deal.

This guy was a pastor who had left his wife and family and ran off with another woman. One day, his wife woke up and he was gone—moved to California. No warning, no explanations—nothing—just gone. His family and church were blown away, and blown apart. His adult sons asked their father to repent. He refused, insisting he had done nothing wrong. Now, after several years of this standoff and broken relationships, he was asking me to mediate. We were all hopeful that his heart had softened and changed.

It hadn’t. He said that his sons were the problem, and needed to change, and still insisted that he had done nothing wrong. He left that meeting exactly as he came in: angry, blaming others, and alienated from his sons by his own pride.

It’s impossible to heal a broken relationship if the other person is unwilling. The best you can do is maintain an uneasy peace—but that’s different than true reconciliation.

When should you say when? When the other person is unwilling to repent or reconcile. It doesn’t mean you give up forever, but for now, it’s time to step away.


  1. Us: when the relationship is destructive or toxic.

Sometimes a relationship reaches a point where it becomes destructive or toxic or dangerous. Then it’s time to say when and get out.

I say this tenderly because I know that someone may use what I’m saying as an excuse to get out of a difficult marriage. All marriages are difficult! How many people are married? How many of your marriages are difficult? Marriage is a difficult thing—it’s not easy. But there is a huge difference between difficult and destructive. There is a huge difference between a tough relationship and a toxic one. There is a huge difference between being unhappy and being unhealthy. Millions of people bail out of marriages too soon and for the wrong reasons.

ILL: Timothy Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, writes:

All surveys tell us that the number of married people who say they are “very happy” in their marriages is high—about 61–62%—and there has been little decrease in this figure during the last decade. Most striking of all, longitudinal studies demonstrate that two-thirds of those unhappy marriages out there will become happy within five years if people stay married and do not get divorced. (pp. 17-18)

Don’t bail on a tough marriage—hang in there and it will probably get better. By the way, I told you last week that someone told me only 1 in 30,000 couples who pray together get divorced. I probably should have done some research before I repeated that statistic, because I couldn’t find any confirmation of it. However, I did find some small studies that indicate the divorce rate for those who pray together is significantly lower than 1% (1 divorce in 1152 couples, or .00086%). Some people challenge these statistics and say the sample size wasn’t large enough and the study wasn’t long enough. Entirely possible. But the limited data suggests that praying together strengthens your marriage—and I’m willing to bet money it does! So I stand by my premise: pray together! Make it a habit!

Back on subject. So I’m not saying that if you hurt or are unhappy, you should walk away. There are times in every relationship when you will hurt, and the deeper the relationship, the deeper the hurt. If we bailed every time we hurt, we would never have a lasting relationship. But when the relationship becomes so hurtful that it becomes destructive or toxic, then something must be done.

  • I don’t encourage someone with an alcoholic spouse to continue in an enabling role.
  • I don’t encourage a wife to stay with a husband to beats or abuses her or the children.
  • I don’t encourage a husband or wife to stay with a spouse who is repeatedly unfaithful.
  • I don’t encourage someone to stay in a friendship in which they are continually attacked and belittled.
  • I don’t encourage someone to stay in a church with sinful and destructive leadership.

When it’s toxic or destructive, get out! There is a time to say “when”. Enough!

Getting out doesn’t necessarily mean ending the relationship forever; it may mean making a major adjustment, such as a time of separation or withdrawal.

ILL: I did this once with a couple buddies who, when they got together, liked to make fun of me—but with an edge. I’m a fun guy and love a joke, but this got toxic, and I had enough. I called them both and told them that I wouldn’t hang out with the two of them together. I kind of threw down the gauntlet on our friendship. Happily, they owned up, apologized and things got way better.

You may have to throw down the gauntlet: this has to change or else. But don’t do that unless you are ready to follow through. And don’t make hasty decisions about saying when. I encourage you to pray a lot, and seek counsel from wise friends.

ILL: I have a friend who married young and for the wrong reasons. She was far from God, and was making lots of bad decisions. The man she married was only one of them. Over the next few years, she learned that he was dealing drugs. He was dishonest and unfaithful. He mismanaged their money so that they were always in trouble with creditors. He couldn’t hold a regular job. He was mean and abusive to her.

During this time, her lifeline was her dad. She called him almost every day. He tried to encourage and care for her without being an interfering father. But when she began to talk about suicide, he recommended she get out of the marriage. And she did. Her dad hates divorce, but he encouraged her to divorce her husband. She did and it was the right thing. Today, she’s happily married to a terrific Christian man.

It was a toxic and destructive relationship, and she couldn’t change it. She couldn’t change him. She had to get out, and she did.

I hope it’s clear that I am for marriage and against divorce, that we should be committed to our marriage and do everything we can to make it work. But there are times when it’s toxic or destructive, and we may need to say when. Sometimes that means a separation to get the other person’s attention. Sometimes, sadly, it means ending a toxic or destructive relationship. But we only do that when we have made every effort, when we have honestly given it our best shot.


  1. When I say when, what then?

Saying when doesn’t necessarily mean that you permanently give up on the other person. It may mean a season of separation or withdrawal, or some other adjustment in the relationship. I think the Bible teaches that if we repent, God will take us back. And if the other person genuinely changes, we need to make room for him or her in our lives again. I’ve seen broken relationships become whole again; I’ve seen toxic relationships become healthy. That’s why I said, “There are some relationships that can’t be fixed now.” The key word is now. Step away, give it to God and see what happens.

Don’t give up, give it up to God. Give it to God and tell Him that when He wants to resurrect it, you are available. Then leave it there. Pray and if He tells you to do something, obey. But otherwise, leave it in His hands. Don’t give up, give it up to God. I can tell you many stories of broken relationships healed. God loves to resurrect things! So don’t give up; give it up to God.