“As a rule, nos do not move you forward.”
Thus says Robert Smith in his new book 20,000 Days and Counting.
“It’s not always easy to say yes. Yes means taking chances, putting yourself out there, embracing the unknown. But when you open yourself up to yes, amazing opportunities, exciting possibilities, and good results come your way. Marvellous memories are created. You expand your territory and that of others” (ch 9)
Shortly after I read that passage, I experienced one of those moments of divine whimsy, when the hand of Providence served up this Tony Blair quote in my Twitter stream: “The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.”
So which is it: No or Yes?
The vast majority of us need to learn to say yes more often, starting with the little things. When we come home tired at the end of the day, and our child wants a story, we default to “No – not right now.” When we get that event invitation on Facebook, we mutter “Eh … I’ll think about it later.” When we’re feeling low energy and lethargic, we default to passively surfing the web or watching TV, not really saying yes to much of anything.
However for a person whose life is brimming over with activity, the need to say no is necessary. “The good is the enemy of the great” said Jim Collins. He suggests that highly productive people have a “stop doing” list. John Maeda teaches us that simplicity lies in cutting out all that is unnecessary.
And herein lies the connection. You cannot trim away what you haven’t first added. If we would grow, develop, and change, we must explore, experiment, and try. To say “no” to some things, we must first say “yes” to many.
A yes is not always a lifelong commitment. And when a yes is a lifelong commitment, it should be built on hundreds of lesser yesses. Before saying “yes” to a job offer, it had better be built on dozens of “yesses” to invitations to explore the company, to grow in that field, and to learn about that particular opportunity. Before saying “yes” to a marriage proposal, it had better be built on hundreds of “yesses” to invitations for shared activities, conversations about shared beliefs and values, and opportunities to learn from each other.
The value of Smith’s exhortation is in saying yes to all those small opportunities that come our way every day.
- Can we have lunch, I need to talk? YES
- Let’s play a game, daddy! YES
- Would you help me with this event? YES
- I have a book you might like. YES
- Would you come to this club meeting? YES
When we build a collection of small yesses, that helps us clarify who we are and what we’re about – so that we are more discerning in saying “no” to the things that we know are just not us.
What if someone asks for something, and you are genuinely unsure about the commitment? See if you can pare it down to a lesser commitment.
- You need to get on this committee! – Can you tell me about a single project where I can help?
- You ought to join this club! – How about we try a single event for right now?
- I’ve got this great idea! – Can you show me a prototype?
Saying “yes” to the small things helps us grow in the ability to negotiate requests to get to “yes”. Saying “yes” when there’s not a lot at stake grows within us the wisdom to say “no” when there is a lot at stake.
And I come to the end of this article and read back over it – I ask myself “Where is the Holy Spirit in this? Where is the grace? Where is the gospel?” These observations about “yes” and “no” are common grace applications that anyone can use. The Christian, however, should be growing in a ministry mindset – continually growing in discerning God’s vocation for his or her life. The opportunities for yes and no are God’s providential opportunities to discern that calling.
Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians, as he tries to explain to the Corinthian church why he didn’t pay a visit, even though he had earlier expressed his intent to: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us – by me, Silvanus, and Timothy – was not yes and now, but in Him was yes. For all the promises of God in Him are yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God, through us.” (2 Cor 1:19-20).
When it comes to ministry opportunities (as defined by the Bible, not the institutions), the default is yes. When you have the chance to give a cup of cold water, when you have the chance to encourage the fainthearted, to visit the lonely, to strengthen the weak, to instruct the foolish, to inspire the faltering, to comfort the afflicted, to point to Jesus in all that you do – when you have these opportunities, the default ought to be YES. As Jesus says, when someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks (Luke 6:29) Proverbs 3:27-28 exhorts us similarly “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor ‘Come back later, I’ll give it tomorrow’ when you have it with you now.”
Oh how convicting – I’ll wrap this up now. Because I have a few things to go say “yes” to. What about you? What are you saying “yes” to today?
Soli Deo Gloria