Sarah came to counseling astonished that it has taken her fifty years to finally learn how to say “No.” “I’ve always put everyone else first,” she said. “Now I see that I’ve only enabled my husband’s selfishness to flourish.”
One of my relatives recently shared a similar story. At 74 years old, she wired up her courage and said, “No” to her overbearing sister. “Stop telling me what to think or to do,” she said. “I am my own person and have my own thoughts and my own ways of doing things.”
One of the reasons that many of us find it so difficult to say no to people is that we genuinely don’t desire to hurt anyone’s feelings or have them upset with us. Therefore, we’ve learned to please, to placate, and to pretend so that we don’t make waves.
In addition, many of us have been taught that as Christians we should go the extra mile, do more, submit to authority, and always think of others before we think of ourselves. Therefore, whenever we do say no, we feel guilty.
Yet the Bible tells us stories of people who chose to say “No.” One of my favorites is Queen Vashti. If you don’t know her, she was Queen Esther’s predecessor. Queen Vashti refused to allow herself to be treated as a sexual object for her husband’s drunken friends to ogle. When her husband ordered her to parade herself before them, she said “No.” (See Esther 1 for the story.)
Abigail was another wife who did not go along with her husband’s foolish decision. Instead she overruled it, taking charge when her family faced the fiery wrath of David and his men (1 Samuel 25). Earlier in Jewish history we find two midwives who said “No.” They refused to obey the Pharaoh’s orders to murder Hebrew babies (Exodus 1:17).
Jesus himself said “No” when Peter asked him to return to his house and continue healing the sick who had camped out there overnight. Jesus told Peter he needed to move on to Jerusalem to preach. (Read Mark 1 for the story.)
Below are five very good reasons to say “No” when you need to.
- Saying “No” acknowledges both to you and to others that you are a finite, limited person. You cannot do two things at the same time or be in two places at once. Jesus couldn’t say “Yes” to Peter’s request and also preach in Jerusalem. He had to choose. All of us have limited resources of time, energy and money. If we say “Yes” to one thing, it means we are saying “No” to another. When we say yes because we’re afraid to say no, we often allow good things to take the place of God’s best.
- Saying “No” to others, especially early in a relationship, helps you discern fairly quickly whether the other person can be respectful of your time and needs. Try it. The next time you’re on the phone with someone and you’re busy, be honest. Tell him or her, “I can’t talk right now, I have to go.” Notice her response. Does she hear you or is she so focused on her own needs that she totally ignores what you said? Perhaps she may pressure you to stay on the phone longer or make you feel guilty for not having the time to talk right now. Paying attention to these particular patterns early on can help us weed out manipulative and toxic individuals before we get too close to them.
- Saying “No” to people, even those you dearly love, helps keep them from becoming overly dependent on you to meet needs that they should be capable of meeting on their own. When we do too much for people, they grow lazy, self-centered, and self-absorbed. They also begin to adopt an entitlement mindset rather than being grateful.
- Saying “No” to sin, injustice, and abuse, is not simply sticking up for yourself. It’s standing up for what’s good, right, and just. Jesus always stood for what was right and against what was wrong. He confronted the legalistic views of the Pharisee’s and healed on the Sabbath even when it angered the religious rule keepers. Jesus taught that the law of love always comes first.
- Saying “No” to foolishness can rescue a person from the error of his or her ways. Abigail not only saved her own life, she saved her entire family’s life. She also helped David come to his senses when she challenged his decision to repay Nabal’s foolishness. James reminds us “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19)
When have you been too afraid, too nice, or too passive to say “No”? What has it cost you or others?
Ask God to give you the courage to say “No” when necessary for your good, for another person’s good, or for His purposes and glory!