It was March, and I had my regular sinus infection after returning from a Spring Break conference. Or so I thought. But the antibiotic didn’t make any difference at all. And then my symptoms seemed different from my usual sinus infections. I felt lightheaded a lot and, as a result, didn’t feel comfortable driving very far. And my energy level was at about 50% so I was cutting my working time in half.
You may have already guessed that it wasn’t a sinus infection. And it wasn’t allergies. No – my physical problems were God’s way of getting my attention to look at other things that were going on inside of me. Specifically my legalism, drivenness, and people-pleasing which all contributed to an inability to say, “No”.
The summer of 2008 was a summer of God healing me physically and also mentally, helping me grow in setting boundaries and becoming a healthier person. It was truly life-changing.
I think most women struggle with being able to say, “No.” There are so many reasons – we don’t want to disappoint people, we want people to like us, we want God to like us, we feel guilty if we say “no”, we want to make everyone happy.
But aren’t you glad Jesus said “no”? For example to Peter when he rebuked Jesus for saying He was going to be killed and be raised on the third day (Matthew 16:21-23). Or to all of the people at the foot of the cross saying to Jesus, “Save yourself!” He told them, “No.”
Henry Cloud says it best – “If Jesus had tried to make everyone happy, we would all be lost.” (Changes that Heal, page 123)
That’s a good reminder when I’m wearing myself out trying to make everyone happy.
I am indebted to Henry Cloud for much of what is to follow. If this is a big struggle for you, I highly recommend that you read his book Boundaries and consider doing the workbook with it as well. Here are a couple of Biblical principles for saying “no”.
1. Can I be a cheerful giver?
2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
I once attended a training session with Henry Cloud where he explained the words in this verse in a way that really made sense to me. “Grudgingly” means that we do something because of external pressure from others. “Compulsion” means that we do something because of internal pressure like our own little guilty voice in our head. But to do something because we have “purposed” to do it means that we made a free choice to do it – not because of pressure from without or within (Galatians 5:1).
When we do things because of pressure from others or from our own guilt inside, we rarely do them cheerfully. I know I usually end up doing them with a bad attitude, resentment, or even anger. It’s kind of funny when you think about it – to be mad at someone else because of a decision I chose to make! I need to take ownership for my “yes” and my “no”.
2. Am I giving from compassion or sacrifice?
In Matthew 9:13, Jesus says, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In Boundaries, Henry Cloud defines “compassion” as “being compliant from the inside out” and “sacrifice” as “being compliant on the outside and resentful on the inside”. Similar again to the idea of giving as you purposed or under compulsion or grudgingly.
To me “compassion” is saying “yes” because I want to do something or because I care and so have chosen to freely give of myself and my time. But “sacrifice” is doing something because something makes me feel like I “have to do it”. Martyrs often give from sacrifice and not from real compassion. And I know I have had a martyr complex more times than I care to admit!
Henry Cloud goes on in the book to talk about how giving grudgingly, under compulsion, or by sacrifice is all rooted in fear of something. Maybe it’s a fear of disappointing someone or losing a relationship or just of having to live with a guilty conscience. Saying “yes” out of some kind of fear is miserable. But the opposite is giving out of love and freedom.
These Biblical principles have helped me stop to evaluate my motivations before I give a “yes”. Am I doing it from fear? From guilt? From outside pressure? Can I say “yes” and follow through cheerfully or will I be angry and resentful about doing it (and I have done A LOT of things resentful and angry!)? If I know my answer is “yes” to any of the first three questions or if I know I will end up doing it angry or grumbling about it, then I say, “No”. I want to give a “compassionate yes” – not a “sacrificial” one.
Of course, this stuff isn’t easy. I still remember how scary it was when I had to practice putting up boundaries and saying “no” that summer. Henry Cloud says that you will learn which people in your life have healthy boundaries when you start telling them “no”, and that was certainly my experience. That summer, when I told my parents I couldn’t do something, they said, “OK.” My sister and closest friend were the same way. I feared telling them “no”, but then they just said “OK”. Telling a person with healthy boundaries “no” is NO BIG DEAL! Because they will respect your “no”. The hard thing is telling it to people with unhealthy boundaries. I still vividly remember that August telling a co-worker “no”. She just pushed and pushed against that boundary, trying to get me to say “yes”. It was hard, but I was determined to get better and to grow.
This fall is turning out to be a really busy one for me. But I realized the other day that I don’t feel angry or resentful about it, and I’m not complaining. Because all of my “yeses” were things I really wanted to do. Of course, it helps to be self-employed and not having someone else adding to my schedule. But I’m not doing things out of guilt or just to make someone happy. I’m doing them because I want to do them, and there is great joy and fun and freedom in that. Not that I have all of this down. By no means! In fact, when I told my husband I wanted to write on this topic, he questioned my qualifications! But I still thought I had good principles to share, ones rooted in Scripture, ones that had helped me live a little healthier life. Ones that I hope are helpful to those who read this.
Stay tuned for part 2 which will deal with knowing when to help others – a category where it can be hard to know when to “no”.