Chapter 1.
I Can't Say No!

Myth: If I turn you down you'll think I don't value you, or worse, you'll be disappointed in me.

I have a confession to make: I want you to like me. There, I said it. It's a confession, and a matter of fact. I care what you think of me. It's the way I'm wired.

Whether or not we would label ourselves "people pleasers" by nature, it is my experience that every one of us cares what other people—or at least certain other people—think of us. It might look different depending upon our individual circumstances and stages of life, but each of us is playing life to an audience: bosses, spouses, parents, children, friends, colleagues, church mates, classmates, and more.

I came face to face with this principle the other day. And, although I consider myself more immune than most to peer pressure, that day it got to me. The marketing director for a project I'd been working on had been pressuring me to blog. Okay, so that may not sound so bad; probably a good idea, actually. But all I could think of was the time required to get online every few minutes just to tell a faceless audience about each little breath I'd taken or was about to take. It seemed like a great big waste of time—talking about what I was doing rather than actually using my time to do it.

Then I hit on the idea that a blog for caregivers of aging relatives that directed them to God's Word for encouragement and refreshment, updated once a week, might have some real value. So I launched this blog, rather quietly, only letting a few of my closest compatriots know it was there—just in case it got too much to manage. As I got into it, I found myself enjoying the opportunity it provided to dig into the Word, find encouragement for myself, and then write about it for others to appreciate.

After several months of blogging, I decided to sheepishly email the marketing director and let her know she'd been right all along. (It's not easy for me to admit I've been ww-wr-wro-wron—WRONG!) But it was her reply that really got to me. I was waiting to hear how delightful the content was, how refreshing, how God centered. But her only comment was, You know, you really should be on Facebook, too. Talk about deflating! The effort I was making wasn't enough for her. She wanted more from me. Maybe she's right; maybe not. But the point is, if I'm only doing the blog to please her, I'm on the wrong track—she's not pleased, and I'm not fulfilling my best potential.

Playing to an audience is fine... to a point. The problem is that we tend to run into trouble when the different expectations and demands these audience members place upon us conflict. We often find ourselves pushed and pulled between the expectations of our families, our bosses or employees, our church—even our own bodies. Attempting to consolidate it all can be utterly dizzying and downright frustrating.

You and I aren't the only ones trying to balance external pressures as we make important choices. Several years ago I watched with interest a sequence of events surrounding former President George W. Bush. An avowed advocate of life, Mr. Bush was faced with a highly publicized decision regarding government policy on stem cell research. His closest advisors were bitterly divided. Media nail biting went on for days as the public debated and awaited the president's decision. Eventually Mr. Bush announced a decision to allow medical research on the limited number of existing stem cells only. The fallout of this decision? Pro-lifers were angry at the use of fetal cells for any purpose, and the medical establishment was angry at the stringent limitations the small number placed upon their research. The president succeeded in pleasing virtually no one in his middle-ground decision.

I can never please everyone with my choices in the area of how I spend the limited time I receive each day from the hand of God.

While the decisions we need to make from day to day may not take on the life-and-death magnitude of former President Bush's decision, we all can relate with the principle to some degree.

Prescription for Trouble

At this point you're probably wondering why I've chosen to begin our discussion of conquering that tyrant—time—by refuting the myth that it's our obligation to please everyone whose opinion matters to us. I do so because I have found one fact to be irrevocably true: I can never please everyone with my choices in the area of how I spend the limited time I receive each day from the hand of God. If I say yes to one opportunity, I'm obligated (for the sake of my health and sanity) to say no to dozens of other worthy and good ones. Then, for every one person temporarily pleased with me, dozens of others are at least temporarily disappointed with me.

This is true for my blog/Facebook example. If I commit to getting onto Facebook, it will slurp up an hourglass of time I could otherwise use to socialize with real-live people, face-to-face, in real time. So, for now, I've decided to disappoint my marketing director and say no to her latest request.

Because I'm a people pleaser, though, I had a hard time saying no to her—in fact, I never did quite say no. (Before you judge me for avoiding confrontation, the decision not to give a full explanation to her is consistent with the myth we'll discuss in the next chapter; and the fact that the decision isn't categorical means that just for this season of my life [see chapter eight] it's not the best use of my time.)

I used to act as if my body were constructed of the same indestructible material as a cartoon character. Bend me, I won't break; leave me dangling in midair without a safety net, and I'll sprout wings to fly myself to safety.

Back in the dark ages when I was a twenty-year-old graduate student, I felt invincible. Sleep? Proper nutrition at a sit-down meal? Who needed them? A catnap and an energy bar, and I was recharged. So many opportunities to gain experience in my career field surrounded me that I felt the need to grab every one of them.

At one point I was juggling a full-time class schedule, a supposedly part-time job that demanded a forty-hour-a-week commitment, writing duties at three magazines and a newspaper, choir and orchestra rehearsals at my church (thirty miles from campus) and a comfortably pleasant dating relationship. When my friends wanted a place to gather, I was the happy hostess. When my boyfriend offered tickets to a sold-out show in nearby Indianapolis, I was ready to go. When my boss needed me to teach her undergraduate classes while she was away, I was happy to oblige. When an editor called to offer a hot article tip, I followed up with gritty tenacity and submitted the article to her on time.

For one glittering moment, everyone was pleased with me. It was a heady, albeit short-lived, hurrah. However, it didn't take too many months of existing on this schedule for my body to rebel. My first moment of clarity amid the blur of people pleasing came when I found myself in the university hospital emergency room, where my alarmed friends brought me after a simple flu bug ran roughshod over my worn down body.

The insightful prescription of the on-duty resident? Go home and rest. No talking. No working. Just rest—for as long as it takes. I thank God for that resident. I'm quite sure he recognized exhaustion because he'd been there himself—many times.

Out of options, I rested. My boss was disappointed. My editors stopped calling. My professors weren't necessarily inclined to extend project due dates. The orchestra director couldn't understand why I resigned from the violin section. To his credit, my boyfriend was understanding. But most of the others who just days before had been singing my praises were scrambling to locate new and able victims—'er, volunteers.

The Right Questions

Through that painful experience of conquering the time factor I began to learn the truth: I'm not designed to please everyone. It's a realization that begs the question: If I'm not made to please everyone, what am I made to do? I realized that was the question I should have been asking all along.

As I do with all of the big questions of life, I turned to the Bible in search of answers. To my amazement, I found the Bible harbors distinct and powerful words on the subject. Specifically, I found Ephesians 2:10, where Paul writes: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

Each day God prepares a day's worth of work for me; likewise, each day He prepares me for the work. I'd always held to a nebulous notion that God has a plan for me; I'd assumed, though, that it would come to me in a one-time, life-encompassing revelation. However, as I read those words in Ephesians, I saw with newly enlightened eyes that not only does God have a big-picture dream for me, but He has mapped out work for me to do. Daily work. Or, more to the point, one-day-at-a-time work. Each day God prepares a day's worth of work for me; likewise, each day He prepares me for the work. It stands to reason, then, that for the follower of God the dilemma of which audience to please is moot. The only audience I need to please is the Creator who made me for the work and the work for me.

In my mind this raised the question of whether, when He created the plan, He would have taken into account my health concerns, my limitations as one time-bound human on this globe, my gifts and abilities and heart cries. Even as I tried to form the question of whether or not an all-powerful, supernatural God could ever relate to my frailty, I recalled these words, penned by another letter writer in the Bible:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Referred to in Hebrews as the "high priest," Jesus laid aside all of the privileges of deity in part so that we would know that He is able to "sympathize with our weaknesses." That word "our" means mine and yours. Several years ago, I heard author and songwriter Gloria Gaither explain it this way: "Jesus didn't come to Earth to find out what it was like to be one of us; He came to let us know that He has always known." I can still hear Gloria speak that phrase in an emphatic whisper: "He has always known." That precise truth has been a source of immeasurable comfort and encouragement to me through many of the inevitable difficult seasons of life.

Similarly, listen for the comforting words the prophet Isaiah records exactly as God spoke them:

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

As I stopped to process the implications of this truth, it finally jelled in my mind that the only one I need to worry about pleasing is the One who designed a specific, doable plan for each moment of my life, who has the idiosyncrasies of my specific makeup firmly in hand. He has an understanding no one else could approach. And when I'm about the business He has prepared for me, He will provide more than sufficient strength to accomplish the task.

Do you have any idea how freeing this principle was for a worn-out people pleaser like I was?

From Theory to Practice

As with all concepts drawn from the pages of Scripture, this principle of pleasing God and God alone with the choices I make in my daily life seemed at once simple and, at the same time, unattainable. It sounded great in theory—I mean, of course I'm willing to set aside the desires of everyone except God—but two problems began to surface as I tried to put the theory into practice.

Problem one came up when I tried to determine exactly which works God had created for me to accomplish each day. Unfortunately, in this time and place in history God seldom speaks as audibly and clearly as He did to Isaiah or Moses or Abraham or the disciples. So we are left to search His Bible for the big-picture answers and to listen for the still small voice of His Holy Spirit giving us subtle nudges through Scripture, through circumstances and through trusted advisors, pastors and teachers. It requires silence, attentiveness, teachability, a trained ear and a healthier dose of patience than I often have on hand.

That issue aside, though, problem two grows out of the solutions to problem one. Once we are convinced that God is leading us to say yes to this or that opportunity, or no to another, we have little hard evidence that would convince anyone else of the verity of our interpretation of God's direction. From a purely human standpoint, there are certain "others"—be they family, spouse or employer—whose demands upon us we cannot ignore. Likewise, if we do choose to set aside someone else's desires to follow God's direction, we take the real risk that we will alienate that person and therefore bear substantial consequences.

This too is a lesson I learned painfully. I am self-employed, and I work diligently to please my clients. Consulting, writing and editing fees pay my bills. It is in my best interest to keep serving my clients' whims and desires. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.

One day, one of my largest clients called with a lucrative offer of a large writing project. I compared the deadline to the others already on my job log and found that although it would be a tight squeeze, the job would be doable. Even as I agreed to meet with the client and other project team members, however, I began to feel an unnamed, nagging concern.

After the meeting I sought candid counsel with other knowledgeable players. As I prayed about my participation in the project, my internal alarms escalated in intensity. Soon I knew I was the wrong person to take on the project. I wondered whether I could be in my right mind to turn down such a lucrative offer, particularly from this client-one of my oldest and most consistent. Yet, despite my misgivings about the business sense of my decision, I recognized that I had to be true to what I knew to be God's leading.

So, I called the client, expressed my concerns and turned down the project. The client said he understood and actually validated my concerns. He said he'd keep me in mind for other projects. But it didn't work out quite that way. In fact, it was nearly a decade before I heard from this client again—and even then it came from one of his subordinates; I never learned whether he knew his staffer was going to contact me to do work for her.

Saying No with Confidence

When I said no, someone else said yes, and the proposal was no longer open to me. It didn't take me long to come to the conclusion that I'd be squandering resources if I were to obsess about whether or not I'd made the right call. Despite science fiction hypotheses to the contrary, part of being human means we do not have the ability to turn back time one year, one week, one hour, even one minute. A decision, once made, can seldom be revisited or changed. This leads me to another affirming, biblical concept: Yes means yes and no means no.

We'll get more into this principle in the next chapter, but for now, consider these words spoken by Jesus in His most famous sermon: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'" (Matthew 5:37). In other words, when I say yes, I commit to follow through, to throw all of my resources, energies and attention into a project. But when I say no, I'm not playing games. To me, "no" doesn't mean that I really want someone to beg me or massage my ego or guilt trip me into doing something. Instead, it means this is not right for me to do, even though it may indeed be a good thing for someone else. It may mean that it doesn't fit into my goals and objectives; or, it is not the right time for me to undertake it; or, it would siphon resources away from something that is higher on the list of priorities I've set prayerfully, with God's direction.

Whatever the reason, no means no.

I look to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus Christ as my life example. His Father set before Him the greatest task in all human history—the crucial purpose of saving us from our own sins and restoring our relationship with our Creator. Jesus ordered His limited years of walking this earth in such a way that when the shadow of the cross was looming largest on His horizon, He was able to say with confidence, "[Father,] I have finished the work which You have given Me to do" John 17:4, NKJV).

What a remarkable span of time. How I wish that in that same number of days I could accomplish something, anything that would last into eternity.

It intrigues me to note that although Jesus successfully and completely accomplished His calling by the conclusion of those time-limited days of earthly ministry—there is nothing we could add to or subtract from this finished work—He left the church with the ongoing task of ministry in the world. The whole church—using every moment of every day He waits before returning for us.

I look to the Apostle Paul's example. Look at how he used his years—sewing tents for earthly shelter while preaching the good news of salvation to the known world of Jews and Gentiles alike. And when the forces of the Roman empire and his own jealous countrymen conspired to keep him locked in a jail cell, he witnessed to his guards and wrote letters that have become the pattern governing Christian conduct and the church for nearly 2000 years.

Or how about the Apostle Peter—encouraging saints in word and deed until he was martyred? Writing words like:

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:2-8, NASB).

Or John—writing down the vision he experienced on the Isle of Patmos—not letting his exile stop the message or keep him from productive ministry?

Each of these early apostles had his task and his area of ministry—there was room for them all; in fact God had a special place for each of them. Their roles were necessary. As were those of the other disciples whose ministries are mentioned but briefly in the New Testament, even though they were preaching and teaching the same message at the same time as these more well-known apostles. We know they were subject to persecution (Acts 8:1), some were scattered and yet kept telling the good news of Jesus Christ wherever they went (Acts 11:19).

Like these early apostles and disciples, we are each responsible for the task He established for us. I for mine; you for yours. Together with His people of all generations, we will accomplish the task set before us—together, not a handful of us firing as loose cannons on our own.

Implied in the acknowledgment of this truth is the fact that I cannot please God while trying to coerce someone into taking on responsibilities He has designed for me; nor can I please Him by being vain enough to think I can shoulder someone else's portion of His work. We can cheer other believers on, but we can't do their work for them.

This principle has been especially helpful as I've sought to replace the income and rebuild my client base in the wake of turning down that project. Before making the business-impacting decision to turn down that project, I had taken time to gather the facts. I spoke to trusted advisors, I prayed, I did all I knew to do.

Not fully understanding the consequences, yet convinced of God's direction, I made the difficult choice to trust God's direction. I was helped by acknowledging that while He did not call me to this task, if He wanted it accomplished, He would call someone else. The accomplishment of the task was out of my hands—which is to say it was in God's hands, where it's always been. Overall, that's not a bad place to be.

Challenge of the Week

Read as much of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) as you can, looking for signs that point to the choices Jesus Christ made about how He spent His time on earth.

Note the amount of time He spent teaching His followers, healing hurting people and getting alone with His Father. Note His frustration with those whose priorities were not aligned with His Father's.

Record all of your observations in a journal or in the space below.