Learning to say No
by Ken Edgecombe
I remember as a child coming across a joke which went something like this: The definition of a sophisticated girl is one who knows how to say 'no' to a kiss without being deprived of it. It had overtones I never understood at the time and probably still don't, but even as a country youngster I could see something of its paradox. The sophisticated girl has, in fact, mastered the greatest challenge of the world: how to bend someone else to your will.
Christians are rightly cautious about this goal, even while being attracted to it. They perceive that Christ lived and taught so as to urge us to make our personal wills subservient to a greater good. Since we are the people who have to make the decisions about what actually is the greater good, many of us go through life succumbing to the wrong things. When may we, indeed when ought we, to tell someone else that we simply will not do what they want us to?
C H Spurgeon may be a more applicable guide to us than the legendary sophisticated girl. Admittedly, C H Spurgeon is not among those who wrote the New Testament, and not even thought to be a possibility for some part of it whose author is unknown, but he's held in high esteem nonetheless, as an evangelist who had an influence on many. He is on record as saying, "Learn to say no: it will be of more use to you than to be able to read Latin." Since I can't read Latin I may never know how valuable this advice is, but it looks good. What does it mean to say 'no' to someone who wants us to do something, and when is it justified?
There are many people, and they are not all sophisticated girls, who seem to have no problem in deciding what they are going to do at any particular moment. If they want to do it, they do. If they don't want to, they don't. It's a simple decision.
But it's not a Christian decision. Whatever the Christian is called to, it is a higher thing than what I happen to feel like at any particular time, and certainly higher than a rule of living based on whatever appeals to me in general. If it were not so, what answer would there be to temptation in all its forms?
But this whole business of saying no to things is a lot subtler than warding off temptation - difficult though that is to do, when it actually comes to it. What about all those occasions when someone asks us to do something that is demonstrably in a good cause, even a Christian cause, but it puts pressure on some agenda already in place? Saturday night is the one time in the week when I can talk to my wife about nothing in particular and someone asks me to talk to his or her youth group. What am I going to say? More usefully, what are the issues?
One of the issues is that there is no convenient rule available for me to hide behind. I won't always be guided by something outside myself, and I shall have to make a decision. When that occurs, I shall be glad to have some indication that it is right, because another issue here is that I am going to have to back my own judgement. Christians are often encouraged not to esteem their own selves, including their opinions, too highly.
The Argentine writer and preacher, Juan Carlos Ortiz, produced one approach to this dilemma some years ago during a visit to New Zealand. "I get all these invitations to speak all over the place", he said. "Which ones am I to accept? It's very easy to pick all the big, glamorous occasions, but they are obviously not the only places God might be glad to see me go. What should I do?"
He told us what he did. "I have put the whole issue back to God. I have told God, 'You guard my diary, and I will trust you to. If I am asked to speak anywhere, I will go there unless I have an actual engagement already made to prevent me. If you don't want me to go, and I am not already booked, then you stop them from inviting me.' Then I go where I get asked. It means that God gets to make the decisions."
There's something in that, but it does not address the saying of 'no'. It is, actually, a way of not saying it. What about those times when it simply looks as though God wants us to make our own decisions? I have a friend who said to me once, "I'm not terribly Calvinist, and I think we're faced with choices." I think he's right. Furthermore, I don't think all those choices necessarily include one endowed with that mysterious overtone we like to call the 'mind of God'. Mostly, it seems to me, if the mind of God is not clear on an issue, it may be fair to believe that he wants to see us apply our own minds: the human mind being one of God's better creations.
So we have to back our own judgement, and that's not always easy. People who vacillate drive us nuts, and people who know everything are simply arrogant. We have to drive a course somewhere between the extremes. Again.
Coming back to the choice between my wife and the youth group. Since God is fond of both wives and youth groups, there's no help there. Unless I have a clear and understood commitment to the one over the other for these particular circumstances, I have an on-balance decision to make. In such circumstances many of us will do what seems least likely to provoke an unpopular response.
This is natural enough, but it is hardly admirable. It means that my wife may wish to nag at me to get attention, or that the youth group may get no attention at all. It reinforces the notion that squeaky wheels will get the most oil, and it flies in the face of the notion that the meek should inherit the earth, or even an hour and a half of my precious time. Further, it is a decision that rests on a craven notion of the value of a quiet life. I don't recall Jesus preaching this value, but it dictates a lot of the decisions we make.
It may, of course, be a bit subtler than this. Say my wife and the youth group are equally matched for sweet tolerance, and both will - regretfully but charitably - forfeit my society in favour of the other, and I know they will. The chances are that I will do the youth group. There are some discernible reasons for this.
One is that I am more likely to be specifically asked to go to them, and will thus be required to actively say no if I am to stay at home. The second is that I may not want to turn down the chance to perform in a starring role: that I will, in fact, indulge my vanity more there than I would at home.
Another is that the youth group organisers might think I am obliging and encouraging people if I go there, and I want to be seen in this light. Many of us find it hard to decline favours for people because of this particular expression of pride. And of course it might simply be right to go there anyway, and make other arrangements for marital conversation.
But it is wise to think about the factors. We might want to ask ourselves a few things. Some years ago, and I cannot now remember where or I would acknowledge it, I found some penetrating questions that help us to give the right name to the behaviours we present. Run your eye over them, and imagine yourself finding answers before you agree to the next demand that someone makes of you.
1.Who am I really trying to please here?
The options will include yourself and the person who asks you to perform, and maybe others as well. There is nothing necessarily wrong with pleasing any or all of those people. But it is good to recognise what is going on.
2. What needs am I trying to meet?
My family's needs, the needs of the youth group . . . or the needs of my own ego, which can't allow something to happen in which I am not included?
3. With whom am I competing?
There is more often an element of competition than we realise - or care to admit. Shine a brilliant searchlight here.
4. What rewards am I seeking?
There is always a reward, of some kind. It may be as low key as avoiding giving offence by being unavailable, but it will be there. See if you can identify it, and then ask, "Is this reward sufficiently great for this expenditure?"
5. What guilt or shame am I covering?
It may be the shame of not producing on demand, or of being thought selfish, or unable, or something you find it hard to put a finger on. Search hard.
You may answer all these questions, and others, and carry right on agreeing with all the demands being placed on you. That's OK. The important thing is not to deceive yourself in the process. One form of deception is to believe that I am so indispensable that, if I don't do something, it can never be done - or, certainly, not nearly so well.
It was Charles de Gaulle who once remarked that the cemeteries are full of indispensable men. Someone else described a leader going under as a man carrying the whole world on his shoulders, but leaving one hand free to carry the can. And someone quite different again once impressed me by saying, "'This one thing I do.' Not, 'these 40 things I dabble in'."
We are all familiar with the realisation that we have one thing on too many just now, and we have to make the sacrifices until the situation resolves itself. Not only that, but our family also has to make the sacrifices until the situation resolves itself. That's fair.
But it is not fair if, when we get to the point of release, we put ourselves back into bondage again simply because we lack the moral courage to say 'no' to someone asking us to do something.
Some years ago, at a meeting in Australia, I heard a good suggestion from an industrial personnel manager. "Look through your diary", he said, "and decide when your day off is going to be. Then put a diagonal line through that page. Then, when someone asks you to do something on that day, you can say, 'I'm sorry, but there's something in my diary'." It's a device, of course, but it has the following merits:
Some people may find this device so artificial as to consider it tantamount to deceit. If that's so, don't use it. But do find another way of not being levered into doing what you shouldn't be doing. There are some meetings that I never take my diary to, so I don't feel obliged to give a commitment on the spot to something I might want to mull over for a little while. That way, I have to have a second conversation later, and the brooding time is often an assistance.
At the start of 1998, there was all sorts of brouhaha over the display at Te Papa of a couple of artefacts which many thought to be blasphemous, irreverent or simply horrible. People wrote articles and made statements and gave news releases, and some staged demonstrations and others mounted counter demonstrations. I spent a little bit of time trying to sort out what I thought about the exhibits, and came up with slightly different reactions to each of them. While I was making up my mind, I was variously asked to be part of a jointly-released news statement, to address a demonstration and to write an article.
I was rendered unable by circumstance to do one of those things, I did another of them, and I can't remember what happened about the third. But I do remember very vividly that there was hardly anyone around who seemed to see the situation exactly as I did, and that some of these people seeking a response from me would require me to compromise or they would be surprised by my wish not to. I was glad that I was able to avoid one of the requests by being away.
But, whatever the gimmicks or devices or delaying tactics open to us, there will still come the time when, without warning or excuse, you don't want to agree to something that someone - whose approval you covet - wants you to do. When that occurs, there are some things that will be indispensable.
One will be to know what you want most. Another is to be clear about why. Another is to understand that your right to an opinion is as good as anyone else's. Another will be to learn to say 'no' with a smile, so as to lessen the appearance of confrontation.
One crucial thing will certainly be to let the other person in the debate differ from you without letting it undermine your respect for them. Another thing might be to give your reasons if you are able to marshal them, and to feel free not to offer a reason when you choose not to.
Years ago, I watched a boss of mine make an unpopular announcement to 60 people whom he knew in advance would be angry about it. When we had talked about it the day before he'd said, "I'm not in a position to explain the reasons without compromising someone else. They'll just have to be angry if they choose to." They did choose to, and he did not tell them what they were not entitled to hear, and nor did he change his call in the face of their reaction. The ability to foresee it and make a deliberate choice based on that knowledge was an invaluable help to him to do what he had to do.
So - we do not have to agree with everyone just because we are Christians. In fact, being Christian is itself a guarantee that we shall have to cross people sometimes, and we should get used to it. We don't have to be pugnacious about it. Was anyone more gracious than Daniel when he declined to eat the king's meat?
Such gracious disagreement may take some skill, some practice and certainly some moral courage. We shall have to learn it. But it will be more useful than reading Latin, if one of our twentieth century Christian heroes is to be believed.
Ken Edgecombe is a part time teacher of Religious Education at Wellington's Queen Margaret College and editor of Treasury magazine (a magazine of Christian Brethren Assemblies in New Zealand).He is also a free lance editor and writer, and author of Will They or Won't They?, a book on teenage faith. A member of Titahi Bay Gospel Chapel, Ken is chairman of the Council of Wellington Churches and chairman of Scripture Union Pacific Region.