Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “Every time we give in to selfishness and say “no” to God we spoil His loving plan for us.” Wise words indeed. But when we say “no” to someone in our community does that necessarily mean we are also saying “no” to God? This is a conundrum I think many earnest Christians grapple with, myself included. We try to banish the word “no” from our vocabulary. Or if we do say no, (SHOCKING!) we are racked with guilt. Is this healthy Christian thinking? And exactly how often are we required to say yes? Are there times when it is perfectly OK to say no? What’s at the source of this prejudice against no? Scripture has something to say about the concept of avoiding selfishness. Jesus has set the bar a teensy bit high.
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. —Philippians 2, 5-8
Then, He ratchets it up.
This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. —John 15, 12-13
It’s right there in black and white. He expects us to lay down our lives for our friends. With those seemingly incriminating scripture passages in mind, the panic sets in. As the thinking goes, if the Almighty wants us to be willing to martyr ourselves, what would He think of us saying “no” to helping out with some random Church ministry? It’s hard to even equate dying for someone, with contributing to the cleanup crew for a Lenten fish fry. Yet, this is the reality of the daily grind and if you’re human, which my husband regularly confirms I am, you have to say no occasionally, right? Before further investigation into the Land of NO, let’s consider its inverse territory, YES-ville.
When is a resounding “yes” a good thing? Let’s start with, the most undeniably impactful “yes” of all time: Mary’s “yes” to God, her beautiful fiat, in which she let go and put her life and future in God’s loving hands and became the Mother of Christ.
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. —Luke 1, 38
Had Mary NOT stepped up with that amazing yes, where would we be? It’s crucial to note that her yes was said with trust, humility and most importantly charity. I think charity, or Caritas, the Latin word for love of humankind, goes hand in hand with any yes. It is an integral component of the affirmative. Without that beautiful combo of deep love and the confident yes, we are falling short. Remember that New Testament reading from EVERY Christian wedding you’ve ever attended?
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. —Corinthians 13, 1-3
This Bible passage is so applicable to our every day lives, not just in seasons of syrupy-sweet romantic love. (My apologies to all you newlyweds!) When Mary said yes, it was a profound salvific gift only because it was coupled with a higher love of God. When I’ve said yes to things after some careful, prayerful discernment and with real profound love and no expectation of getting anything in return, the results are downright radiant.
But, have you ever said yes without that underlying love? How’d that work? I don’t know about you, but I’m usually left holding a big old bag of resentment. I’ve grudgingly said yes to things and the whole time the recipient of my “kindness” could feel my seething bitterness. AWKWARD! Consider that sometimes by saying yes, rather than no, we may actually be thwarting God’s loving plan.
I’ve come to realize that I say yes a lot, rather indiscriminately, in fact. And not purely for charitable reasons, but because of my sinful pride. By saying yes to a friend or even a random stranger, I reap the benefits of being seen as a good person. “Wow! Thank you so much! You are amazing! What would I have done without you?” See, I come off smelling like roses. Meanwhile, these extraneous demands can undermine my God-given vocation of wife and mother, where I am realistically less likely to receive the outward praise and affirmation. I heap more sin on by resenting my family for requiring so much of my time. “I’ll grocery shop and make dinner, but don’t’ expect me to be happy about it! I’m wiped out after a long day of being the hands and feet of Jesus!!” Huh?! This cannot be what God had in mind.
Is it possible then that a “no” is sometimes the best answer, even the most Holy and righteous answer? When we say no, we have to deal with disappointing another person. This is hard for me, a serial people pleaser. Saying no can have a humbling effect. It’s hard to admit you can’t do it all. It can sometimes feel so much nicer in the short term to say yes, swoop in like the superhero and brighten someone’s day. But is our answer pleasing to God? That is the million dollar question. In a world where we make ourselves crazy with busy-ness, it is infinitely more challenging, yet more admirable and ultimately rewarding to step off the conveyor belt and truly discern what God asks of each of us. He doesn’t want a pat yes or a pat no. That said, it’s ok to say no. It’s sometimes necessary to say no. It’s occasionally the most loving thing to say.
While Pope Francis is certainly right, we can’t oversimplify his words! A no to God is undoubtedly giving in to selfishness and will put us on the wrong path. But a no to one of God’s children isn’t always a no to God. Don’t think this is a free pass to deny a person in need. We all need to help, especially when it’s challenging. That’s sacrificial love. But if we’re free from mind clutter caused by spreading ourselves too thin, we can better discern real need and our own capabilities. We’re able to prioritize our lives according to His will, not our own, or that pushy neighbor who has us on speed dial. Avoid the knee-jerk response to please the world, especially if you know yourself to be prone to it. Most importantly, stay in communion with God through daily quiet prayer. We’ll make selfless decisions when consulting God. He promises to lead us in the right direction, whether that means exclaiming yes or asserting a big fat no. Either way, it will be according to His divine path for our lives.
Am I now currying favor with human beings or God? Or am I seeking to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ. —Galatians 1:10