The power of ‘no’: Finding the path to deeper faith
No is, by definition, a negative word. When we hear it, we conjure up images of rejection and denial. For years, I thought I couldn’t say “no” to anyone or anything. If anyone asked, I said yes. But before I knew what happened, I was spiritually, emotionally and physically exhausted. My expectations for myself and for my ministry were unrealistic.
And I know I’m not alone. The recent Barna group investigation on the welfare of pastors revealed that 42% are “seriously considering” leaving full-time ministry. The reasons vary, but at the top are the immense stress of work (56%) and the feeling of loneliness and isolation (43%). When William Howard Taft handed over the office of President of the United States to Woodrow Wilson, he warned, “This is the most isolated place in the world.
And it’s not just leaders who struggle with loneliness — we all are. A study of American Life Investigation Center found that a whopping 49% of those polled said they had fewer than three close friends – an increase almost double from 1990, when the number was 27%. Add to that the fact that 12% of respondents said they had no friends, four times more than 30 years ago.
Why am I sharing these statistics on loneliness? It might seem like the antidote to loneliness would be to say “yes” to more people – but that’s rarely the case. The sooner we can say “no” to the following three things, the sooner we will say “yes” to faith and friendship.
I love how the 2011 NIV translation seems to put a ceiling on our efforts in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all that by him who gives me strength” (italics mine). Other rendering offers everything Where all the things. Too many of us, when we read this type of passage, may think that as long as we stay focused on God, we can say “yes” to every good thing that comes our way. But we can’t, and when we try, sooner or later, we get exhausted. We burn bridges with our loved ones because we spend less time with them. We burn with creativity and joy as we live in the tyranny of the urgent. And we burn paths to unexpected Spirit-led encounters because we have no room to say yes to an urgent prompting of the Spirit.
2. Trying to fix people
If we are honest, many of us believe that we can fix people when they are hurting or doing wrong. We can spiritualize the language: “I come next to them/walk next to them.“But the bottom line is that, particularly as church leaders, we believe this is part of our job description. We are to be a place of healing and a place of unity, after all! Our intentions are good, but our abilities are limited. I have found, time and time again, that my ability to fix a leaky sink is far greater than my ability to change others. Surely God is calling us to do what we can to help people, but we have to know the limits of what we can and cannot do. God is almighty; we are not.
3. Compare yourself to others
Yes, church leaders need to hear this, especially in the age of social media when the highlights are going full blast. We are faced with the constant comparison of figures, buildings and budgets. But after COVID, there are new temptations to compare ourselves to others: how vibrant and innovative our digital footprint is or how broad our capacity to address the mental health crisis in our churches is, for example . A strong digital presence and healing ministries are wonderful, but only if they exist within the scope and capacity of what our church box do.
When I was a kid, I watched a lot of basketball on TV. After watching many games, I was going out to play. I soon realized, however, that I was not Michael Jordan. Neither, much to my chagrin, was I as good as other kids my age! I had to look squarely at how God created me, do the best I could with what he gave me, and then be okay with it. The burnout we see in pastors and church leaders often stems from our human tendency to compare ourselves to others. The apostle Paul said it well: “We dare not rank ourselves or compare ourselves with some who praise themselves. When they measure themselves and compare themselves to themselves, they are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12). When we say “no” to comparison, we are saying “yes” to see how we can engage with what God has put before us.
When we learn to pause and turn our default ‘yes’ into a few extra ‘no’s, we make room to hear God and respond to what he asks us to do. Every time we say “no” to try to fix everyone, we say “yes” to trusting that the boundaries we set will allow others to be part of someone’s healing journey. And every time we say “no” to compare ourselves to others, we say “yes” to fully embrace the fact that we are uniquely created in the image of God. We are not carbon copies of 100 others – God created us and those in our care for a purpose.
All of these ‘no’s add up to the ability to say ‘yes’ to enter into a deeper relationship with God and to spend more time with those with whom he has called us to serve in community. “No” is not a negative word. It is a neutral, and sometimes life-changing, decision to choose faith and friendship as our highest priorities.
Dr. Sean McGever is Area Director for Young Life and Adjunct Professor at Grand Canyon University.