The Importance of Saying "No"

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, December 5, 2011

The Importance of Saying "No"

The always thought-provoking Seth Godin recently blogged about the importance of saying “no” in matters of marketing and business:

“No, we don’t take clients like that.”

“No, that’s not part of what we offer.”

“No, that market is too hard for us to service properly.”

“No, I won’t bend on this principle.”

“No, I’m sorry, I won’t be able to have lunch with you.”

“No, that’s not good enough.  Will you please do it again?”

“No, I’m not willing to lose my focus, and no, I’m not willing to compromise.”

Saying “no” isn’t just important for the marketplace.

It’s important for those who follow Christ, particularly those living in a post-Christian culture seeking to be salt and light.

That may seem counter-intuitive.  The current trend is to work harder than ever at finding ways to say “yes” to the world in order to gain a hearing. 

“Yes, we accept homosexuals relationally.” 

“Yes, we like U2.”

‘Yes, we sport tattoos.”

“Yes, we believe in justice issues.”

This is all well and good, but it lacks an equally compelling “no.”  As I’ve often tried to say in various forms, if we aren’t careful, we will be offering nothing to the world that it doesn’t already have.

And the main thing it doesn’t have is a “no.”

This was much of the appeal of Jesus.  Somehow he was able to stand for moral purity and absolute truth and still get invited to more than his fair share of parties.  Was the secret to His attraction the “yes” He gave to being a friend of sinners, or was it the truth He brought to bear on their life?

Here we can say “yes” and get the fullest sense of what Jesus modeled, because He brought both.

One of the more telling strains within the teaching of Jesus is the “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you” section of the Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long, ‘Do not murder’…But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Mt. 5:21-22, NIV).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery’…But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in heart” (Mt. 5:27-28, NIV).

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath’…But I tell you, Do not swear at all” (Mt. 5:33-34, NIV).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’…But I tell you, If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. 5:38-39, NIV).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’…But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:43-44, NIV).

In essence, Jesus took on the easy “yes” religion was giving to the culture of the day by offering a resounding “no” to its capitulation.  He didn’t loosen morality, He tightened it.  He didn’t offer acceptance on the grounds of permissiveness, He offered acceptance on the grounds of repentance.

It’s ironic that we feel we will lose the ear of the world if we stand up to it, when the truth is that we will lose the ear of the world if we mirror it.

So say “yes” to people relationally, and to culture aesthetically, in ways that build bridges of identification.

But then walk across that bridge with a clear sense of what you must say “no” to.

Because it is precisely in offering that “no” that you make it clear to the world what Jesus is asking it…

… to say “yes” to.

James Emery White


“No,” by Seth Godin. Read online.

Editor’s Note

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The Importance of Saying "No"