NO: The Liberating Power of a Two Letter Word


One word. Two letters.

So hard to master. So hard to say.

But why? 

Sinners, scarred from the Fall, fear disappointing man more than displeasing God.

So, I say yes when I really can’t. I say “I will do my best” when my “best” would be best spent doing something else.

I cave into the pressure. I over-commit. But the ironic problem of the chronic over-committer is that, if they are honest with themselves, they are perpetual under-deliverers. And they know it. And they hate it.

Put simply our desire for the approval of fellow sinners causes us to write checks with our “yesses” that our efforts and intentions can’t cash. We run out of time. Energy. Passion. Then the guilt comes. It’s a low-grade form sure, but it lingers. The sneaking suspicion that over-committers feel is that they have let most people down with their empty yesses. So, we trade the momentary let down of politely saying “no thanks” for the long term let down of telling everyone “yes” and never quite coming through.

The struggle is real brothers and sisters. Very real. Too real. I write this as someone who still struggles daily with this sin. Two years into planting a growing church I had almost “yessed” myself out of the ministry. I said yes to just about everything almost habitually. I mean how could effective ministry happen apart from my omnipresence? A certain level of delusion is required to think such thoughts. The cold, sad, sinful truth is that I was dependent on the sensation of being needed. My inability to say “no” due to fear of possibly disappointing others was slowly uncovering some very deep identity issues. Someone’s request of my services became a Christ-less pathway to personal validation. Someone needing me affirmed a lie I believed: Self, the world needs you.

Thankfully God had surrounded me with people that were willing to make me say “no” sometimes. Leaders: make sure you surround yourself with people who are so unimpressed by you that they will not hesitate to say “no” on your behalf.

One afternoon about a year ago, I was complaining about another 7-day workweek to a friend who serves as a pastor. I noted how exhausted I was: spiritually, emotionally, physically. Drained. Then he made a comment I doubt I’ll soon forget: “So when are you planning on giving up trying to be the Holy Spirit”? Ouch. He was right, though.

Saying “yes” to everything by default requires saying “no” to many of the best things.

I’m not God. I have limited time, energy, knowledge, capacity, talent. Limited everything actually. So embracing my creatureliness means I must embrace my limitations. My insatiable desire to say “yes” to everything and everyone was a subtle, but ultimately futile attempt at rejecting the reality of my own creatureliness.

When we say no to people pleasing we are saying there is something that matters more to us. Pleasing God. It pleases God when we acknowledge our inadequacies. It pleases God when we repentantly embrace the biblical truth that though we are made in the image of God, we are not God.

Sometimes it’s a fear of letting others down. Sometimes it’s a fear of confrontation. Either way, fear is reigning in the heart that can’t say no.

“Learn to say no, and it will be of more use to you than learning to speak Latin”. –  Spurgeon

Often I do not say “no” with my words, I just say “no” in my follow-through. You know that moment when someone asks’s you to do something and you know and they know you have no interest in actually doing?  Umm. Yeah. The truth is either we will learn to say “no” or we will learn the pain of a nice long life lived in pursuit of pleasing others that always comes up short of God’s best.

Saying “no” ultimately requires a ‘theology of time’. It’s short. Psalm 103:15 tells us in no uncertain terms that our “days are like grass”. This truth shouldn’t crush our spirits but lift them. To God, “a day is 1000 years and 1000 years is a day”, but for a creature like me “a day is a day and 1000 years is a 1000 years”. And one day I will stand and give an account for how I stewarded the most precious resource I was given: Time. How much of that time did I invest saying “yes” to God? How much did I waste saying “yes” to everyone else? Are my priorities in line with those outlined in Scripture and am I willing to say “no” to things that regularly conflict with those priorities?

I’ll close with a brief excerpt from an amazing book on this topic by Greg McKeown in his excellent book Essentialism 

“Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that matter.”


Chad Williams

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