Just say “No”

Last summer I spent three months away from the church. I needed a break. The journey through the pandemic had left me feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. My capacity to be hopeful and joyous had become a strain; deep within I harbored feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction. I needed to step away from the activity of ministry to reconnect with the Lord. So, with the support of my parish, I disappeared for three months.

The time was relaxing and restorative. I prayed much, slept often, and waited for Jesus to teach me. Eventually, amid the many hours lying in the backyard hammock, a thought began to emerge deep within. It was a subtle nudge that would not be ignored. I needed to say “no” more often.

We view “no” as a negative word; it is a response of negation. To say no is to let someone down or fail to meet their expectations. But this leaves us with two uncomfortable scenarios: either we accept a burden Jesus doesn’t ask us to carry, or we feel condemned to a life of spiritual dissatisfaction.

Do you feel this way? Do you feel spiritually exhausted, lost even?  Do you feel that your activity doesn’t produce the spiritual vitality you long for?

If this is the case, where can you say no?

If you are like me, the mere suggestion that we might say no to a request, particularly in the church, raises all sorts of objections. “I can’t do that – people are counting on me”, we might say. Yet what if this is but a mask? What if our refusal to say no is keeping us from going deeper in our relationship with the Lord? Like Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet, what if Jesus wants us to say no to other demands? What if Jesus is calling people to count on him and not on us?

Our spiritual vitality is never to be lost amid the constant call of activity. There are times where Jesus calls us to step away from the demands hoisted upon us. We do this so that we might enjoy a deeper fellowship with him. There are times where we are called to stop giving, stop striving, stop moving, so that we can be still enough to receive the grace of our Lord. Without this, our spiritual lives can easily dry up, and we will be left feeling depleted and discouraged. This is not how Jesus wants us to live.

Thomas Kelly once wrote that the fully integrated spiritual life is one where we are free to say no as well as yes. There is a way of living, writes Kelly, where “the fretful calls of life are integrated, where No and as well as Yes can we said with confidence” Christ’s grace allows us to step away from that which feels overwhelming and taxing.

Here is what I do: When I feel that inward frustration of yet another demand falling on my shoulders, I picture Jesus calling the disciples to “come away with me to a quiet place and rest.” I imagine Jesus inviting me to walk with him. I take a breath, and then simply, and politely, say no to the request. There is no need to justify or explain the response: “No” is a complete sentence.

Even the smallest “no” can have a big impact. Since my sabbatical, I have found that saying no to certain activities has allowed me to respond more intentionally to the activity of God. I feel more at ease, and less burdened or frenetic. The result is that I feel more in tune with God’s purposes for me. Also, saying no has increased the joy I experience when I say yes.

Where might you say no, even for a short while? I’m willing to be you already know a place. Saying no may feel scary, particularly that first time, but it can be lifegiving. Saying no to that which does not spiritually fulfill us, as good the task or demand may be, is but a way to say a deeper yes to Jesus. And saying yes to Jesus is always the best response we can make.

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