Learning to be in the “No”

Written by Karen Ehman
Published on December 14, 2021

Every week, there are dozens of opportunities out there rapping on our doors, trying to get us to say yes to a request. 

It’s that co-worker who needs help with something—which is totally not in your area at work, but due to your friendship with them, you agree. 

It’s the relative who just purchased their very first home and has six rooms that need painting, and they’ve never painted before. But since they know that you are a pro at flinging a paintbrush, they wonder if you might make the half-hour drive to their house to help them bang out a room or two. 

It’s the committee at church that has a spot on it reserved for you, since you are so good at putting on events. Or your child’s teacher who wants help with the classroom project, or their coach, who needs someone to organize all the after-game snacks for the season or help the team with batting practice. Or it is the neighbor who wants you to feed their cats twice a day for the next week while they’re gone, also emptying out their litter box each day. 

And then there are the ones that garner your earnest sympathy. Your newly divorced friend who needs a sitter for eight hours on Saturday so she can attend a weekend course at the local community college in hopes to jump-start her education, so she can find a better-paying job. 

Another friend is organizing a meal train for someone who just had a death in the family. And then your sibling who is setting up a schedule of relatives who can stay overnight with grandpa so he can continue to live in his house rather than move to a senior-citizen apartment complex. 

Not only does agreeing to these requests send our stress level through the roof, it also wipes out any white space in our calendars we might have for more effectively living out our priorities—spending time with God, our families, or even pursuing a hobby or just getting some much-needed rest. 

A costly yes

Every time we say yes to something we shouldn’t, we are saying no to something important.   Pastor Louie Giglio offers some wise advice in this area, “Whenever you say yes to something, there is less of you for something else. Make sure your yes is worth the less.”  

When we make a poor decision—saying yes when we should say no—we must be honest about what our yeses have cost us. 

They cost us time. They cost us calmness of mind. They may cost us visits forfeited with those we love most. They sometimes cost us friendships that are true and genuine and replace them with false ones instead—friends who only seem to like us for what we can do for them. 

Mostly, these yeses cost us peace as we wrestle in our hearts with the regret of allowing other people to fill our time for us, rather than intentionally loading up our agendas with only what God wants us to do. 

Pleasing God is the greatest goal

It’s time we stopped permitting our overused vocabulary word of “yes” to rob us of precious time and cost us severely in relationships, and also in what God wants us to spend our time and energy on.   

While it is a noble gesture to want to be helpful, accommodating, and reliable, sometimes our being too nice—trying to make everyone happy—allows others to take advantage of us. 

It’s time we stood up for ourselves, not in a narcissistic way, but in a healthy way. One that puts pleasing God as our greatest goal and loving others secondary. 

I do this by reciting a little one-sentence sermon I often preach to myself.  Every need is not necessarily your call.  

A valuable no

Sometime a need is yours to meet, but not always. Does your friend have a need? Sure, they do. But that does not mean you have to be the one to help alleviate it. 

And, when you attempt to meet their need—when you don’t really feel called by God to do so—you are taking the blessing away from the person God meant to meet the need in the first place.  

We need to discover, through prayer, studying scripture, and relying on the wise counsel of mature Christians in our lives, exactly what needs are our calls and which ones are just supposed to be on our prayer lists. 

Reminding yourself that not every need is your particular call can serve as a powerful means of busting out of the prison of people-pleasing, balancing serving God with loving others and realizing everyone’s else’s happiness is not your assignment. 

As theologian Charles Haddon Spurgeon wisely urged, “Learn to say no; it will be of more use to you than to be able to read Latin.”

This article is adapted from Karen’s latest book, When Making Others Happy is Making You Miserable: How to Break the Pattern of People Pleasing and Confidently Live Your Life (Zondervan, August 2021).

Consider a few extra resources:

Pleasing God, not people

3 Keys to Unlocking Your Family’s Calling—And Your Own

When your calling is quiet: Serving others no matter your season of life

Live perfectly imperfect

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Karen Ehman

Karen Ehman is Proverbs 31 Ministries speaker and a New York Times bestselling author. Karen’s passion is to help women to live their priorities as they reflect the gospel to a watching world. www.KarenEhman.com

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