I Love the Word “No”

My life contained a lot of unnecessary stress, anxiety, and resentment until I learned that God expected me to make much more use of the word No.

Shoulda said No example #1:

Early Monday morning, after watching the fifth yellow bus disgorge its load of loud, jostling, laughing students, I hurried inside to one of the school restrooms and threw up.

Four months earlier I had received an invitation to be the Week of Prayer speaker at the SDA school a couple of states away. I would be expected to give four talks a day, Monday through Friday. One presentation each for grades 1-4, 5-6, 7-8, and finally 9-12.

I knew the principal and felt obligated to help. He wasn’t above flattery, “Kim, everyone here thinks you would be the perfect person for our kids.” And I wasn’t above receiving it. I thought, “Man, I’m so new to pastoring and I’ve already hit the speaking circuit!”

As I walked out of the school restroom that first day, I berated myself, “Why on earth did I accept such a crazy assignment? I’m such a nut job.” I survived the week…barely. Surprisingly, it only took me fifteen therapy sessions to recover.

Shoulda said No example #2:

Whenever the church nominating committee calls you need to be on high alert. I had not learned that lesson well enough when they said, “Kim, we really need someone to lead out in youth Sabbath School. No one else is willing and everyone on the committee thinks you’d do a terrific job. The teens really need a spiritual person like you.”

“No one else is willing, you said?”

“Nope, it’s you or we’ll have to put them in with the Juniors.”

“Well, in that case, OK.”

After one month I was buying Pepto Bismol by the case.

At the end of that year the committee called again. “Kim, you’re doing such a great job, you need to continue. The kids love you.”

I hesitated, then gave an answer that sealed my fate, “Well, if you can’t find anyone else.”

Double the Pepto.

I could give at least a zillion more examples.

So why couldn’t I just say No? What was my problem? Where could I find answers?

My search for answers took me to the words of Jesus at the end of His earthly ministry, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which YOU have given Me to do” (John 17:3-4 NKJV, emphasis supplied).

Jesus didn’t finish the work the Pharisees gave Him to do. He didn’t finish the work the priests or the disciples or His family gave Him to do. He stayed focused on the Father’s To-Do List, period. In order to maintain laser focus, He must have said No a lot.

I learned that Steve Jobs, one of the most creative and productive people in modern times, famously commented: “Focus is about saying no.”[1] Jesus knew that truth two thousand years before the former head of Apple and practiced it from His earliest days.

I then bought a book that made a huge difference. It was titled When I Say No, I Feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith. My eyes were opened. Who knew there was an entire book about how and why to say “Nyet,” “Nein,” “Nej,” “Nie.”

Smith says that there are three ways that people try to manipulate us into saying Yes. They attempt to make us feel 1) ignorant, 2) anxious, or 3) guilty.[2]

Ignorant: “Kim, if you only understood the situation better, I’m sure you’d say yes.”

Anxious: “If you don’t volunteer, Kim, the situation is going to get a lot worse.”

Guilty: “We feel impressed that God is calling you to do this.”

After learning about this triad of approaches, I concluded that the Holy Spirit would never utilize such means. He never tries to twist arms or manipulate. Therefore, whenever I detect someone using any of those three, alarm bells start going off in my head. In such situations I usually say No. I don’t need to take time to agonize over whether God wants me to accept or not. Simple. Practical. That alone alleviates a ton of stress.

I also came to understand more fully that God wants me to take charge of my own well-being — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. With that in mind, I need to assess every request in relation to whether it will cause undue stress and strain. That has now become my first consideration, not the need itself. The first question I ask myself is, “How will it affect me?” That’s not being selfish. It’s simply being a wise steward.

I think that’s part of what Jesus meant when He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39 NIV). As one person has observed, “Our own love cup has to be full before it can spill over to help others.” Unlike what we may think, all true service begins with self-compassion and self-care. The more whole you are the better you can assist others. You have the right and the duty to use the word No. In fact, it is just as God-blessed to say No as it is to say Yes.

Pastors are particularly at risk of ignoring self-care. Without the ability to say No when appropriate, serving the Lord as a member of the clergy can suck the life out of you. Burnout looms and starts eating away at your happiness and satisfaction like an emotional cancer. Tracey Smith writes, “The depletion is profound, marked by exhaustion, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness and the development of a negative or hardened attitude towards work, life and other people. Church advisors Meryem and Greg Brown call it a ‘declaration of emotional bankruptcy.’”[3]

Ministers can be caught in the crossfire between the often conflicting expectations of God, self, family, congregation, and denomination. One U.S. study showed that the rate of PTSD among clergy in one denomination exceeded that of post deployment soldiers.[4]

I once heard a pastor say, “I never turn down a request to speak somewhere because I feel it must be from the Lord.” I don’t buy it. It sounds noble and altruistic. But I see it as an abdication of responsibility to guard our own health and well-being. It relegates issues of balance, boundaries, and priorities to the trash heap.

If we find ourselves saying Yes too often, we need to examine why we get hooked by other people’s requests in the first place. What is happening inside ourselves that we feel we cannot say No? Is there some insecurity, some fear of conflict, some concern about alienating the other person, some disquiet that our reputation as a wonderful, deeply caring person will suffer? Once we recognize the things inside us that give other people’s requests power over us, they can be factored into our decision making and hopefully, over time, be neutralized.

Next we need to think about HOW to say No. Here are a few points to consider:

1. Plan ahead of time how you will say No in certain situations before the issue comes up. It can be hard to say No in the pressure of the moment when your mind is struggling to respond well.[5]

2. When addressing the other person, actually say the word No out loud if that’s what you intend. Don’t equivocate or beat around the bush.[6]

3. You can soften your No by saying, “That sounds like a very worthwhile project, but I’ll have to say No.” Or, “I’m honored that you would think of me...” Or, “I wish I could but…” “I’m sorry but I won’t be able to do that…”[7]

4. Learn to become more assertive. Take charge of your life. It is not your responsibility to make the person who is asking happy.

5. Assess your priorities. Save your Yeses for high priority items in life and use Nos for things lower down the list. My list looks like this: God, self, family, work, friends, others.

6. Don’t flatter yourself that you are the only person they have asked. You could easily be number ten on the list.

7. Don’t give in to the temptation to give reasons why you have to say No. You do not need to give a report. Giving reasons just opens the door for them to counter and negotiate. For instance, you say, “My mornings are too busy with work at home.” They’ll come back with, “Well, how about the afternoon.” Kelly Corrigan comments,

“One friend told me her one big takeaway from three years and $11,000 of therapy was Learn to say no. And when you do, don't complain and don't explain. Every excuse you make is like an invitation to ask you again in a different way.”[8]

8. Don’t delay in giving a response if you already know you want to say No. If you reply, “Give me a couple of days to think about it,” in an attempt at avoidance, you are simply raising false hopes, which is not especially kind.

9. When appropriate, you can even say No at work by telling your boss, “I’d love to do that, but my plate is so full you’ll have to tell me what to give up in order to make time for it.”

10. If you can do so with comfort and sincerity, you might sometimes suggest alternatives. “I can’t do that, but I could do this.”[9]

From the prolific author Anonymous, “If you want more time, freedom, and energy, start saying no.”[10]

Notes & References:

Kim Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10181

Great article with lots of excellent suggestions on how to say no without guilt. I think a lot of us (whether pastors or not), have been in these situations far too many times, and agreed to something we really didn’t want to do, feel led to do, or even felt competent to do.

I had come to a lot of these conclusions and thoughts on my own in the last few years, but I wish I had known a lot of this years ago to deal with feelings of manipulation, pressure, or guilt (usually all three) that led me to agree to do things that I didn’t want to do at all. I know this will benefit a lot of people…especially women, IMO.

A much needed article! :slightly_smiling_face:


I think there is a perhaps deeper issue involved here-many of us were raised by well meaning parents who groomed us to never say no, and conflated “religious (un)reasoning” as the motivator. I sense many peoples fragile egos are unable to handle “no”-especially when directed at them by someone who “owes” them their very life!

To a child-who neither wants their parent guilting/shaming them, nor wants to displease neither his/her parents, or GASP, Jesus, these are powerful-and dishonest-motivators. Doing the right thing, for the wrong reasons is no less wrong than doing the wrong things. Parenting and religious inculcation should never be hip-joined…


Agreed, Timo.

I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household, so that wasn’t my situation, but I think coming into Adventism, I think I felt pressure to “perform”, so to speak. Especially since my spouse worked as a teacher in the SDA system. I felt more under the microscope than someone who was a member whose employment wasn’t tied to their situation. At least that’s how I felt. This was back in the 80’s and early 90’s. I seemed to have let go of a lot that later on. And now, it’s totally in the rear view mirror.

I was using inclusive speech, which I sensed did not describe your story personally.
I’ve tried to neither take, nor give, personal assumptions-and I know I sometimes slip. Thanks for your grace!~

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No, I didn’t necessarily think you were applying your comment to me personally, but more of a general situation which a lot of people have experienced, most especially in high demand religious groups. In my case, it didn’t take me long to feel that same pressure.


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