Learn to Say “No”

Sometimes you just have to say “No” to the many invitations and requests from people asking you to do things that they know you can do well. Oftentimes they mean well. They see something in you. They see that you have something significant to contribute that can be of help to others. You can be a great blessing to many people if you say “Yes” to their request. The problem is we don’t have the time and energy to do everything, especially if we have jobs and priorities of our own.

Invitations will always be there because there will always be a need sometime, somewhere, that others see you have the competence to fill. However, since you can’t do everything, it behooves you to choose and refuse. There will always be more good to be done than I have time and energy for. If I don’t muster the courage to say “No” to the many good things others ask me to do for them, I won’t be able to say “Yes” to the few best things that God has called me to do. Also, I run the danger of inviting unnecessary stress into my life. And that’s how burn-out happens, when we don’t know how to say “No.”

Interestingly, you can find an antidote to burn-out in a book by John Calvin entitled The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. In this book, Calvin reminds us that we ought to be faithful in our callings. Our callings serve as a fence to keep us from doing so many things which we were never called to do in the first place. “He who disregards his calling,” says Calvin, “will never keep the straight path in the duties of his work.” “Every individual’s sphere of life, therefore is a post assigned him by the Lord that he may not wander about in uncertainty all the days of his life.”

It’s possible, however, that some will consider this – concentrating on the duties of one’s calling – a selfish course of action. “Why deprive others of the blessing you can give them if only you do this or that? Why not sacrifice a bit? We need you!” This is the kind of plea that can undermine one’s determination to say “No” because the person to whom the plea is addressed might feel guilty about refusing. But guilt as one’s motivation for doing something is ultimately counter-productive, even destructive. A person who is prodded by guilt to give in to a plea to do something she doesn’t want to do (for one reason or another) becomes resentful. Rightly or wrongly, she will feel that she is being manipulated. What is worse, if one doesn’t know how to resolve the guilt such pleas generate, one will get caught in a vicious circle of guilt and resentment, each reinforcing the other until one simply explodes!

Fortunately, there’s the wisdom of the Puritans that can help us in this matter. Enter William Gurnall, a 17th century English pastor-theologian, who wrote a spiritual classic titled The Christian in Complete Armor. He wrote, “God will not thank you for doing that which He did not commission you to do.” That’s precisely what happened to King Saul when he decided to offer a burnt offering to the Lord because he couldn’t wait for the prophet Samuel to arrive (see 1 Samuel 13:8-15). Offering that sacrifice was Samuel’s job, not his. He paid a heavy price for that error: The Lord took away his kingdom and gave it to David.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that one should absolutely have nothing to do with anything that’s not related to one’s calling. There will be times when one will have to say “Yes.” Having said that, I still think that in the majority of instances “No” is the proper response. Gurnall made an obvious point when he said, “To be occupied with anything which is not your duty means you are neglecting that which is your task.” The lesson is clear: Be faithful to your own calling and learn to say “No!”