No. We use it often, of course, with children, pets, siblings, parents. It is very commonly a two-year-old’s favorite word, a word of rebellion, and the testing of independence. Why is it, then, that when we become adults, saying, “no,” becomes so hard when asked to do more in our work, in friendship, in church or in volunteer, fundraiser, and family requests? How does it shift from such assertion in childhood to such aversion in adulthood?
In my introduction blog a few weeks ago, I shared that for many years I equated the Christian life, professionalism, and being a good friend with always saying, “Yes.” We are to respond to God with a “yes” every time. To grow and gain recognition professionally, we are urged to take on numerous projects and add to our portfolio by responding positively to leadership opportunities.
I cannot speak to parenthood, but I know through patient care the vast number of activities children are pushed to do, and the countless hats parents take on in school volunteering or coaching. I know that teachers spend exhaustive time outside the classroom preparing, grading, planning, and meeting. In friendship, we want to be available for those we love, in support and camaraderie, in presence and words, in practical and spiritual support.
I have been working in health care for the last 24 years of my life. I was also on the service team in campus ministry while studying for my first degree. As a student in the Sports Medicine program, I always needed hours covering athletic events to rehabilitate athletes. I spent 6 days a week, 12 hours per day, in the training room for two and a half years. I was exhausted, by both service and my studies, but I thought I needed to do this for our athletes. During two of those years, I also served in the evenings and on some weekends, helping give youth retreats, attending formation classes, and delving into spiritual development.
I did not complete my certification in Athletic Training, as I was completely burned out by the program itself and the time spent. Instead, I jumped into the mission field, working more than 40 hours per week in a free clinic. When asked, I would always say yes to outside-of-work opportunities, because this is what the Christian life was about – sacrifice, fully devoted work, giving entirely of myself to the cause of enriching the lives of others.
For two years, I was a full-time (40 hours per week) volunteer in addition to working 40 hours. I had nothing left for myself as I gave and gave. I also invested countless hours in proving myself the best possible friend. This involved late-night conversations, pages-long emails of encouragement and errand-running, constantly providing refreshments and food when asked to join an event or party, and as a member of a leadership team at a girls’ camp every summer. I was the first one up and the last to go to bed.
I thought this is what God was asking of me and everyone – an endless yes, never a no. “No,” in my belief, went against God’s will and might provide a roadblock to His work in someone’s life. I held fast to the certainty that the harder I worked to build a welcoming, always available, approachable, and dependable existence, the better I would serve Him. I never wanted to disappoint, as I equated this with being a disappointment.
A roommate shared with me years ago a comment our pastor had made: that I was “so level-headed that someone could balance a laser beam from the top of my head.” I both thrived on and hugely resented this observation. I was thrilled that someone in authority thought this of me, but this was the complete opposite of how I felt. I so very badly wanted permission to completely fall apart and to know that this would still be ok! But I feared that showing any vulnerability, any crack or weakness, would be seen as a detriment in character and that others would no longer value me as a person to trust.
I believe that many of us carry this burden: there is a fear in saying that we cannot provide or do or attend or serve because this is somehow selfish and will cause another harm. “But what if she cannot find someone else to do this?” “This is making more work for another person.” “My pastor or boss will see me in a negative light if I recuse myself or remove myself from this role.” “People are depending on me.” “I don’t want to disappoint them.” “If I call in sick, this will hamper the team and its ability to complete the project/provide care/work efficiently.” “I don’t want to disappoint my children/spouse.” “God will be disappointed in me, in my weakness and incompetence.” “Somehow, I am not fulfilling my purpose if I don’t say yes to this one more thing.”
The voices are constant. I remember sharing with a friend nearly 20 years ago that I felt weak and exhausted, spiritually parched, and did not know how I would continue with the rigorous routine and list of commitments I had to fulfill. She listened gently, then informed me that what I was sharing sounded like the equivalent of emotional assault. “God does not want us to torture ourselves for the kingdom, Bridget!” She said. “This is not how He wants us to live!” I could not comprehend her meaning – what was Christian life, if not spending ourselves entirely for the service of others, giving to the point of collapse, and being available for the ever-present opportunity to participate in saving souls? Isn’t that the way it is supposed to be?
The answer, my sweet friends, is a resounding NO. Nowhere in the Bible or Christian teaching are we taught that torturing ourselves for the kingdom is asked of us. Instead, we learn that our body and soul are a reflection of God in this world and that we are temples of the Holy Spirit meant to share the Light within us. We do not need to broadcast it in neon letters or strobe lights, but to simply live in conformity to the call placed on our lives.
I met my uncle recently for dinner. We talked about my cousin, who is a brother with a religious order in Argentina. His vocation in the order is entirely in the background, to quietly help form and mentor the young men who join and discern the call on their hearts. His is a life of contemplation, prayer, and entirely hidden service. We often give others the benefit of our permission to live within their limitations or means: why do we not allow ourselves the same?
While I was recovering from illness and major surgery, I spent months within the lesson that my identity and worth was not dependent on what I actively did, how I could prove myself by working, or by any external demonstration. I wrestled with thoughts that I was selfish by not reaching out and serving others in my state of extreme weakness and pain. I fought the lies that I would no longer be of use to any of my friends, that my pastor or former colleagues would value me less because I was not answering their requests for commitments or opportunities to serve. Meanwhile, I was physically and spiritually empty, slowly starting to fill again, finding my footing and reflecting, listening in ways I had previously been unable to, learning what it was to “be” apart from “to do.”
I reflected on my knowledge of anatomy. In the human body, the first muscle filled with blood rich in oxygen (and that receives this blood before the remaining vessels and organs), is the heart. Think about that – the heart circulates to itself before it sends blood to the rest of the body! If the heart were to save itself for last in the flow of nutrients and crucial life-giving capacity, there would be nothing left to nourish it. Our relationship with God is an image of that. We must bask in the truth of who we are, the scripture and tradition we know, and absorb the richness offered to us. Based on that, and on the call or vocation in which we are present, we can discern the best ways to use our gifts.
The emphasis on the topics of faith and works is often disputed between denominations, and in Church history, there is controversy. In the past, I considered works as the way to earn a place in the kingdom of God and the kingdom on earth. Faith was thrown by the wayside, and works were the key to salvation. But yet again, friends, I had this wrong. Works are the active living out of the faith that has saved us and continues to save us. They are not separate from faith, but there is no amount of work that will earn us a spot in Heaven. We cannot overcome areas of sin by works, or prove that we are more of value to God by how hard we are working and spending ourselves. If we live in faith, the active demonstration of our faith will come as a natural course of action. It does not need to be forced or over-committed.
Our value to God is not in the tally of tasks we complete or the number of souls we convert. Our value to God is in the fact that He created each of us in His own likeness, and that He sees us as a reflection of Himself in the world. Our value is in the simplicity of realizing that we exist because He loves us and willed us into existence, that He knew of us before time began and created us to live in the exact period of time we are here. Our value is in the inherent virtues we possess, and in the way we pursue goodness and righteousness. Our value is that as temples of His love and care for the world, our unique gifting can be used by God in ways we cannot know.
We are limited resources, living imperfectly the perfect love given to us. We feel the need to justify ourselves each time we sense that we are not called, or we simply don’t want, to take on that one additional commitment. Self-doubt seeps in each time we are not able to attend a milestone event or take on a financial investment which will spread us a bit too thin. We feel guilty when we call in sick to work, and we tell ourselves we must rationalize our absence. We acutely feel the disappointment we may cause by passing on a project or declining a request. However, our “no” is enough, in and of itself. No is a complete sentence, requiring no explanation or justification. People want reasons, but they do not require reasons.
Take this to heart the next time you receive an invitation, request, or opportunity. Sometimes the answer is obvious. Sometimes, especially in this day and age, it is not! There is an internal struggle between our human “do it all” nature and our spiritual nature. Lean into that spiritual nature for a bit of time. Listen for the ways God is speaking to you and how you are speaking to yourself. Discern where your reaction is stemming from and what emotions this opportunity is stirring in you.
I am encouraged by the knowledge that if I make a decision in what I believe is the will of God in that moment, He will honor it.
I will not be punished or reprimanded if I choose what I believe is the best course of action based on my current state in life or circumstance. If there is a lesson I still need to learn, or if I was meant to pursue that opportunity, I will receive another chance to do so. That is the essence of being human and limited in my capacity to know, think, and be present.
Saying, “no,” does not devalue us or our purpose in any way. Quite the opposite: It gives us another moment to be present to ourselves, to take time and listen to our heart’s desire and to the One who placed it within us.