How Saying “No” Leaves Room for “Yes!”

It should have been a peaceful weekend. My overloaded brain and heart certainly could have used the downtime. Instead, I found myself stuck for two and a half hours in the car with three of my kids in standstill traffic—which is exactly as fun as it sounds—for an event I hadn’t been keen to attend in the first place.

I ended up being in a packed concrete building with foreigners staring at me and my children playing an instrument as sweat trickled between my shoulder blades.

As I reflected in my consternation and yes, weary tears, it occurred to me there was one reason I had ended up in that van and that building—not to mention coloring my kids’ experience performing on instruments I longed for them to enjoy.

I didn’t even think about saying no.

For many in my culture, when we’re asked “How’s life?”, a  frequent response is “Busy!” Maybe it’s just me—but I find that my spirituality has compounded that reluctance to say no.  After all, who wants to say no to something God might be putting in our paths?

That weekend’s little debacle, which left me exhausted and, well, resentful, had me mulling over the reasons I overcommit.


1. FOMO, meet FOHO

Heard of FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out? Well, I’ve got FOHO: Fear of Hurting Others. My inability to say no frequently stems from my fear. I fear others’ disapproval or hurting their feelings when I reject them. I fear not doing the right thing or missing an opportunity from God. I fear my life and contributions being insignificant.

There’s often a yawning gap between the person I want to be and the person I am actually capable of being. My dreams and desires often surpass my time, energy, abilities, and capacity. I end up saying “Yes” to too many people, not wanting to miss out on opportunities—but leaving me exhausted and angry (yep, even though I’m the one who got overinvolved).


2. I’m asking the wrong questions

Most of the time, whenever I’m asked to do something, I ask myself: “What if I don’t do this?” Maybe I should be asking, instead: “What might God do in the event I said no?” Thinking about “no” is just as essential as thinking about “yes”.

Recently, someone asked me to help take care of children at a young moms’ weekly Bible study. I’ve been an exhausted young mom before, and I know how critical this need is. But my husband pointed out that I’m also in the first, critical months of starting my own business as a Christian freelance writer. If I fail to gain momentum, I may not be able to work from home—something that allows me to spend more time with my children—and miss all the ministry opportunities that come with it.

So I actually said no. And though God doesn’t always tie up ends so neatly, this time He did: I got to use my writing business to assist a development organization in Afghanistan, as well as gain four ministry clients in need of a specific skill set.


So how then do we know when to say yes, and make choices we won’t regret? Here are some considerations that have helped me.

1. Choose quality over quantity; depth rather than breadth

Africa is kneading into me this idea that relationships and discipleship take time. Expecting them to stay within the bounds of a status update or a snug time slot is unrealistic.

A friend of mine has become more and more interested in Christianity as a result of her recent divorce. I understand that she needs lots of time to talk about her questions, along with support of Christians coming around her, as she sorts through her broken marriage and her new responsibilities as a single mom. She needs to study and understand the power of God’s Word as she applies its principles to her life. If all I’m investing in is a short few hours every few months, I could personally lose the opportunity to be there as she comes to faith—and her girls, and the generations after them.


2. Say no to keep ourselves in the best shape to love others well

“Making a mistake doesn’t mean you should keep doing the wrong thing.” This was a nugget from my husband as I battled exhaustion. Even if I’d said yes to too many people, I should try to gracefully back out or get help from others so my family and other people whom I care about don’t keep paying the price of my exhaustion, subsequent irritation, and my general lack of loving behavior.

Once, my husband said to me: “I want you to know that sometimes your over commitment affects how the gospel is played out in our home.” It still rings true for me. When I overcommit, I have less energy and patience to be kind. My kids don’t see Jesus in me like they would if I’d said no. Essentially, you love less well, and with less joy.

Author and preacher Christopher Ash reminds us in his book, Zeal Without Burnout, that it might sound heroic, even romantic to burn out for Jesus. But is that really what Jesus wants of our lives—a frazzled shell with a long spiritual resume and a soul of ashes?  Ash aptly writes: “Until God takes us home to be with Jesus, we are to offer ourselves as those who have a life to offer, rather than a burned-out wreck.”


Working for five and a half years in Africa, I realized that for any long-term ministry, I need to run as someone running a marathon—not a sprint. Any professional runner learns to deny himself—to say “no” to everything from the beer benders with friends and the bags of potato chips, to days playing video games and the comfort of sleeping in. He says “no” to the inessential to say “yes” to training at the gym . . . and its rewards.

The “No”s that we say are made for the sake of critical “Yes” we have to say. If I said “Yes” to all the opportunities in Africa, I would be saying a gigantic “No” to my family. I would be saying “No” to my sustainable presence in Uganda. I would be saying “No” to serving God with joy as His daughter.

What things can you say “No” to today?

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