13 And it came to pass that the people hardened their hearts, and would not hearken unto their words; and the prophets mourned and withdrew from among the people.
There are times when we have to “mourn and withdraw.” As much as we might want to help another person avoid the consequences of incorrect decisions, there comes a time when it becomes clear that the other person is unwilling or unable to accept our help, and when we need to give them some space to make their own decisions.
A recurring theme in the Book of Ether is that God sends prophets to warn people when they are making unwise decisions. The people consistently reject these warnings, and the prophets respond to that rejection in various ways. (See Ether 7:23-24, Ether 9:28-29, Ether 11:1-2, 12-13, 20-22.) In some situations, a righteous king provides protection. In others, the prophets simply endure the persecution which follows. In the passage above, the prophets “mourned and withdrew from among the people.” These prophets stopped preaching the gospel for a time, in an acknowledgment that their message had been rejected.
It’s important to remember that respecting another person’s agency doesn’t mean disengaging entirely. Even though these prophets withdrew from teaching, they didn’t stop loving the people they had served. This incident reminds me of the following counsel to missionaries in Preach My Gospel:
Remember that people have agency to choose whether to accept your message. Your responsibility is to teach clearly and powerfully so they can make a correct choice. Some may not accept your message even when they have received a spiritual witness that it is true. You will be saddened because you love them and desire their salvation. You should not, however, become discouraged; discouragement will weaken your faith. If you lower your expectations, your effectiveness will decrease, your desire will weaken, and you will have greater difficulty following the Spirit (Preach My Gospel, Chapter 1: What Is My Purpose as a Missionary?).
Today, as I interact with the people around me, I will balance my desire to help them with my respect for their agency. I will do what I can to serve them, and I will recognize when they are not willing to accept my help. Even when their actions disappoint me, I will not allow their decisions to weaken my faith in Jesus Christ or my hope for their future happiness.