I didn’t want to say it.
“Tell her,” I said helpfully, “that we’re…that we have other plans. We can’t go because we have other plans.”
My husband eyed me. “What other plans?”
I scrutinized the calendar so as not to lie outright. “There’s a rib fest in the city that day. If we go and we get ribs for lunch we’ll technically be ‘at the rib fest’. So tell her we have plans to go to the rib fest.”
He looked skeptical. “She’ll know,” he said, “She always knows. Or she’ll ask to come along. You know how she is.”
“But we literally just saw her less than a week ago,” I said, pained. “For an all-day thing.” Laundry had stacked up to unmanageable heights. My husband had had over forty meetings in the past week. I was exhausted from a giant project at work. All we wanted—needed—was a weekend alone to recharge and re-calibrate.
This is normally where I’d start in about boundaries and people-pleasing and conflict avoidance—which, to be fair, are problems that I have and that I know many other people have. I’ve written before here about the art of saying no. It’s an important skill for believers to learn, one that I would argue can even be necessary to experience the richness of the Christian life.
Bur our problem wasn’t that we couldn’t say no. We did say no, and we had said no many times before.
The problem was that our friend refused to hear it.
In fact, we’ve learned that, when we say no to her, one of the following things always happens:
– She tries to talk us out of our no. (“You don’t really need a weekend to rest. You can rest Sunday! And anyway, the thing I have planned is restful!”)
– She pouts, cries, or otherwise expresses negative feelings about our no.
– She guilts and manipulates us into taking back our no. (“But I only feel comfortable doing this with you guys, and if you don’t come then I won’t get to go and that would be awful.”)
– She gets miffed, which is characterized by an abrupt end to phone conversations, a sudden refusal to call for several weeks, or passive-aggressive comments.
It’s exhausting. It’s emotionally wearying and time-consuming. And so the end-result is that we either find ways to say no without having to be punished for saying no, or we say “yes” more times than we want to and wind up exhausted and frustrated as a result.
Brothers and sisters: we have got to learn how to hear a no and handle it well. We shouldn’t make the price so high for being refused that we tempt people into lying to us, avoiding us, or severing friendships with us. We’ve got to learn to listen and accept refusals.
1) Stop assuming motive. A lot of times when we hear a no we make assumptions about the motive behind it. We think someone said no because they don’t like us, or they don’t like to spend time with us, or they hate the event or activity we invited them to, or because they’re turning away from God’s call to ministry, or because they’re snobbish or stubborn or mean. But that’s not always true. Sometimes people say no because they’re worn out. Or they really do have another conflict. Or because God is guiding them in that direction. Stop assuming “no” comes from selfish, malevolent, unkind, unfriendly motives.
2) Don’t punish people for their no. Punishing people for refusal is vindictive, and malicious, and profoundly un-Christlike. Being sarcastic, making passive-aggressive comments that have plausible deniability but are meant to hurt and sting, the silent treatment, curtness, outright displeasure: those are all ways of punishing people for saying no. Don’t do that. You are hurting people when you do that.
3) Don’t try to guilt or manipulate people into yes. No is no. It is not a path to yes. Do not view no as an obstacle to surpass or a wall to get around. Do you really want a yes that people were harassed and harangued into giving? That’s not a real yes: that’s resignation, surrender, and defeat. Do not ask people the same question over and over again. Do not talk about how much better everything would be if they assented. Do not tell them how awful everything is because they have refused. Let their no be no.
4) Depend on God to speak. It’s hard to hear a no when you believe God wants someone to say yes. Maybe it’s a perfect ministry opportunity or a chance for growth that someone is refusing, and you just know how much they need it. But here’s the thing: if they don’t know how much they need it, your insistence that you do isn’t going to make much of a difference. Sometimes, if we really believe a no ought to be a yes, we have to step back and let God work. Ask Him to move. See if His Spirit can create the change that we know we can’t.
5) Consider your part in the “no.” Do you receive a lot of no’s? If so, sometimes it’s worth asking why. It could be because you always ask the same people or group of people for something, and they’re tired or burnt out. It could be because you’re not expressing yourself clearly, or because you’re asking for too much. If we hear no over and over again, that ought to drive us to examine exactly what we’re asking for.
6) Offer, accept, and invite. I don’t know why we’re so bad at hearing no when we have Jesus for an example. God is so accepting of our no, deeply respectful of the freedom He’s given us—even if it means that we reject Him. If we say no to God, it sorrows Him yes, and grieves Him, and hurts Him, but he does not force it. God accepts our no, as sad as it is. He is willing to let us walk away. But He is also always willing to let us change our minds, and we can learn a lot from that example.
If you make an offer to someone or ask someone for something, and they say no, accept the no. But make sure that they know you always welcome them, yes or no or otherwise, and that they are free to change their mind. Some scripts:
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, but I understand. If you change your mind, you know where to reach me.”
“We’ll miss you! If you decide you do want to get involved, just give me a call.”
“That’s a shame—I really thought this might be a good ministry opportunity for you, but I hear you. You know you have until [insert date here] to decide if you do change your mind.”
And then go on loving them just like before. Go on treating them just like before. Go on living just like before.
Something I’ve learned through years of observing and helping with church ministry is this: those who are willing to hear and accept a no often end up hearing a lot of yes. When people don’t feel pressured, nagged, harangued, or guilted into doing something, they’re more apt to consider it. To listen carefully when you ask. And even if they do say no, you’ve kept communication open. You’ve shown respect, attentiveness, and the willingness to listen.
It’s funny—as I was writing this, I was thinking about “hearing no” in the context of church situations: people asking others to get involved in ministry, in activities, in small groups. But it occurs to me that a lot of this can apply to evangelism, too. We always hope for a yes when we invite people to church, or to learn about Christ. But we’re going to get a lot of no, too. And so much depends on our ability to accept that no while leaving the door open for a heart change, to depend on God to do the work, to remain welcoming and warm in the face of refusal.
Every believer needs to learn to say no. But we all need to learn how to hear it, too.