Initially, I had planned to attend the meeting. After all, it had been dubbed “very important,” and I was urged to be present. But as the appointed day approached, I felt a distinct check in my spirit. I sensed the Lord communicating that though this meeting was important, it wasn’t important for me to be there. I felt Him reminding me to stay in my own lane and devote my time to other projects He has given me.
This meant I was going to have to say no…
As a recovering people pleaser, I couldn’t help feeling nervous. I hate letting people down, and I sometimes worry about what other people will think of me if I decline a request. When the time came to let the leader of the meeting know that I would not be there, old fears came swarming back: What if they think I don’t care about them? Or that I’m selfish? Or unspiritual?
But amid these worries, I stopped and reminded myself of an important truth: The ability to be selective regarding which requests I accept is essential to fulfilling my purpose. If I say yes to everything, I spread myself too thin, and nothing of importance gets done. However, if I can strategically say no to some things, I create space to say yes to the things that matter most—the things I know without a doubt that God wants me to focus on.
Loving Enough to Say No
While we tend to equate saying yes with being “loving” and saying no with being “unloving,” in actuality, declining a request is not necessarily unloving. In fact, when it paves the way for obedience and enables us to accomplish our individual callings, it can be the most loving and godly thing we can do.
Just look at Jesus. He was the most loving person to walk the planet, but He was not a people pleaser. He had a very clear understanding of His purpose, and He also understood that if He was going to accomplish His mission of redeeming humankind—the ultimate expression of love—He couldn’t be controlled by other people’s expectations. He was fully committed to following the leadership of His Father, and if anyone asked Him to do something that contradicted what His Father wanted Him to do, He simply opted not to.
Though choosing not to comply with the wishes of others can be stressful, reflecting on Jesus’ example never fails to give me the courage I need to be intentional with my yeses and nos.
How about you? Do you, too, find it hard to say no? Does the prospect of turning down an invitation make your stomach flip-flop like a fish caught on a line? If so, I encourage you to consider some of the biblical passages that highlight Jesus’ willingness to decline requests, even when it meant displeasing others.
There are many such passages in the Gospels, but here are three to get you started. I hope they encourage and inspire you too!
“As Jesus was speaking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. Someone told Jesus, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to speak to you.’ Jesus asked, ‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ Then he pointed to his disciples and said, ‘Look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (NLT)!
Here, we see Jesus’ mother and brothers make a request: Come outside and talk to us. But Jesus didn’t instantly jump up and run to His family. Instead, He continued doing what He knew He was supposed to be doing at that moment: teaching.
Now, it’s possible that He went to them shortly after making His “Who is my mother?” statement. But I suspect He didn’t because Mark reveals that not long before this incident, His family thought He was “out of his mind” (3:21, NLT) and had tried to take Him home. It’s possible that they were again trying to take Him away, and Jesus, knowing their intent, refused to cooperate. Whatever the case, it’s clear that He didn’t comply with their request immediately. His focus was unwavering, regardless of the interruptions that came His way.
This doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t care about His family. On the contrary, I’m sure He loved his family very much, and I imagine He spent time with them on many occasions. But at the time of this specific ask, His followers needed His attention, and even though His family may have seen His delay as an inconvenience, Jesus didn’t let their request pull Him away from His present priority.
Parents and siblings call for us too (or, more likely in our modern day, text us), and I know how hard it can be to not respond instantly. But sometimes, we do best to do what Jesus did: tend to what’s before us at the moment and follow up with our loved ones at a later time.
“A man named Lazarus was sick. He lived in Bethany with his sisters, Mary and Martha…The two sisters sent a message to Jesus telling him, ‘Lord, your dear friend is very sick.’ But when Jesus heard about it he said, ‘Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.’ So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days. Finally, he said to his disciples, ‘Let’s go back to Judea’”(NLT).
Here, Jesus received a message from His friends, Mary and Martha. While they didn’t outright ask Jesus to come, the request is implied in the statement they made: “Your dear friend is very sick.” They knew Jesus was the Healer, and they knew that if He came, Lazarus would recover. They probably thought Jesus would show up at their home shortly after receiving their message, and I imagine that doubts about His love started to creep in when He didn’t. We’re some of Jesus’ best friends—doesn’t that mean anything? Can’t He make an effort for us? Doesn’t He love us?
Jesus likely knew what Mary and Martha expected of Him, and He probably knew the questions His actions would inspire. Yet He didn’t let fear of what people might think of Him determine what He did. Jesus knew that God had something better in store, and He would rather risk being misunderstood than deviate from the directives of His Father.
How often do we comply with requests for fear of hurting someone’s feelings or for fear they will consider us “unloving”? Of course, I’m not suggesting we should ever intentionally hurt someone’s feelings, but, like Jesus, sometimes doing what will most honor God means that we must be willing to “say no,” even when it makes others uncomfortable or exposes us to criticism.
“One day the Pharisees and Sadducees came to test Jesus, demanding that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. He replied, ‘You know the saying, “Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.” You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times! Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah.’ Then Jesus left them and went away” (NLT).
In this episode, Jesus was confronted by religious leaders who doubted Him and “demanded” He show them a sign to prove Who He was. But Jesus didn’t feel the need to prove Himself, and He didn’t cave to social pressure. He easily said no to people-pleasing because He was confident in His identity and was committed to doing only what He saw His Father doing (John 5:19-20). And clearly, in this case, His Father was not directing Him to perform a sign. So after calling them evil and rejecting their demand, Jesus simply removed Himself from the situation—He “left them and went away” (v. 4). The Living Bible puts it this way: “Then Jesus walked out on them.”
That sounds…a little rude, doesn’t it? But remember, Jesus was love incarnate. And He knew that the most loving thing to do in that situation was to rebuff their request for proof and then move on to something else—something that would be a more fruitful use of His time.
It can be painful to admit, but sometimes our reasons for saying yes have more to do with our desire to be seen in a positive light than with a genuine desire to do good. But how much better for us to follow Jesus’ example by ignoring the goading of doubters and shifting our attention to more productive endeavors? Because when we know who God says we are, we don’t need anyone else’s approval. We have more important things to do than pander to the critics!
Remember that meeting I mentioned earlier? When I was composing the text to inform the leader that I wasn’t going to attend, I felt bad. But as soon I hit send, I felt a confirmation that I’d done the right thing. I felt relief. Yes, it was possible they felt let down when they read my message. It’s possible they thought I was being irresponsible or unspiritual. But the bottom line was I was doing my best to do what Jesus did: only what He saw His Father doing—nothing more, nothing less. And as nice as it is when people are happy with me, no amount of people-pleasing will ever be worth the cost of disappointing God. He’s the Person I want to please most.
Though saying no often comes at a price, in reality, it is a gift. Without the ability to communicate that we will not do something, our lives would be like a rudderless ship tossed to and fro by the whims of the people around us. But when done wisely, saying no enables us to steer the ship of our lives toward the goals and specific good work God has called each of us to do.
I pray that as you meditate on Jesus’ example, you find the strength to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading. Whether people applaud or disparage your choices, you can be sure you are pleasing your Heavenly Father!
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/ginosphotos
Carina Alanson is a former professional counselor turned writer and artist who is passionate about helping women live with purpose and grow in their relationship with God. She lives in the subarctic town of Fairbanks, Alaska, where she enjoys going on scenic drives with her husband, skiing, snowshoeing, and reading by the fire. Visit carinaalanson.com to connect with Carina and get her free journaling workbook, How Do I Know if a Desire is From God? 5 Questions to Help You Decide, plus other resources for purposeful living. You can also connect with her on Instagram @carinaalanson and on Facebook @carinaalanson.
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